Nepal and Kerala: So far yet so close

Nepal and Kerala: So far yet so close

The folklores relating to Ananthapadmanabhan of Thiruvananthapuram and Nepal's Pashupathinath, and Kerala's Marthanda Varma and Prithvi Narayan Shah of the Himalayan kingdom have some startling parallels. Monsoon has set in over Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, just like in Kerala as the 'Shraavana' month (July-August) follows 'Ashada' month (June-July) as per the Hindu calendar.

Every year, during the month of Chaitra (March-April), a 'rath yatra' (chariot procession) is conducted from one side of the Kathmandu valley to the city centre, where the Rato Machindranath (Red Matseyendranath) temple is situated. The procession is held to propitiate the rain god, and if something untoward happens to the chariot during the event it is considered as an ill omen for Nepal.

Saint and yogi Matseyendranath, referred to an abode of compassion, also has a Kerala connection. Based on two Tibetan works, Giuseppe Tucci, an authority in historical studies, states that Matseyendranath is an incarnation of 'Avalokitesvara' and was born as a fisherman at Kamarupa in Assam. The legend goes that Matseyendranath was gobbled up by a fish while he was fishing in Bay of Bengal and later was found by fisherfolk staying on the opposite side of the Trikkanad Tryambakeshwara temple in Kerala; a heart-warming history that reflects the unity of the country.

This is just one similarity between the southern state of Kerala, which is caressed by the Arabian Sea, and Nepal that is tucked away in the majestic Himalayas. Scholar T K Joseph has written in Kerala Society Journal of 1930s that the similitude between Nairs of Malabar and Newaris of Nepal can’t be found between India and any other country in the field of architecture or customs. He also pointed out that the birthplace of namboothiris, who migrated to Kerala, was Bareilly in Ramanagar district of UP, which was near the Nepal border.

More interesting similarities could be ferreted out while comparing the life stories of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the 18th-century ruler who was instrumental in uniting Nepal, and his contemporary Anizham Thirunal Mathanda Varma, the maker of modern Travancore.

Prithvi Narayan became the regent, along with his aunt, of the small Gorkha kingdom in 1739. After Prithvi Narayan was crowned king in 1742, he set out to conquer Kathmandu valley but the king faltered in his efforts to attack Nuwakot, a strategic point of the valley. History says that later Prithvi Narayan went on a pilgrimage to Varanasi after learning the lesson the hard way. The pilgrimage was also an opportunity for Prithvi Narayan to amass knowledge by interacting with other rulers.

After returning from Varanasi, Prithvi Narayan struck an accord with the neighbouring Lamjung, a small kingdom, and launched a vicious attack and conquered Nuwakot. Prithvi Narayan burnt alive the vanquished commander of army, Jayant Rana, and this inhuman act brought him disrepute.

After that, the Gorkha army entered the valley after a gap of 13 years. But conquering Kirtipur town, which was surrounded by bastions, was a tall order for Prithvi Narayan who lost his trusted army head and adviser Kalu Pande as he was killed in a pitched battle. Forced to withdraw, Prithvi Narayan turned his attention to Makwanpur and other smaller kingdoms. Bengal’s Nawab Mir Qasim and captain George Kinloch-led British force, which extended help to these provinces, faced the wrath of the Gorkha army and that brought more fame and recognition to the Gorkha soldiers.

Later, Prithvi Narayan again descended on the Kathmandu valley and conquered Kirtipur after toiling hard. But his cruelty towards the citizens of Kirtipur after the conquest was scorned upon by many. Subsequently, Prithvi Narayan captured three states in the valley with great ease.

The people of Kathmandu were busy celebrating the famous ‘Indrayatra’ festival on September 15, 1768, and that’s when the Gorkha force-marched into Kathmandu and conquered it within four hours. As per the custom, the king of Kathmandu has to ascend the throne on the festival day and the new king obliged too. In one year, two kingdoms in the valley went into the fold of Prithvi Narayan.

Twenty-five years after returning from Kashi, Prithvi Narayan was able to unify Nepal. Later, he shifted his focus to consolidate unified Nepal.

Prithvi Narayan died in Nuwakot on January 10, 1775. The words of wisdom that he gave to his descendants have been compiled, titled ‘Divyopadesh’. The most important piece of advice given by the monarch is that Nepal is like a yam between two boulders and the kingdom should not cross swords with the British who ruled over land and water.

Here it is pertinent to point out the striking similarity between the advice of Prithvi Narayan and the last pearls of wisdom of Marthanda Varma. The advice Marthanda Varma gave to his nephew and successor Balarama Varma was also one and the same - never be on the wrong side of the British.

Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma was born in 1706, a few years before Prithvi Narayan was born, and had to face many challenges right from childhood. But Prithvi Narayan’s childhood and adolescent years were pretty smooth. Marthanda Varma, who ascended the throne in 1729 and Prithvi Narayan, who became the regent in 1739, had one similar trait - both brushed aside resistance and hostility.

If Marthanda Varma had shown the door to his family members and ‘Ettuveettil Pillamar’ (the nobles of eight houses) for standing in his way, Prithvi Narayan had no mercy for the army chief who fought against him at Nuwakot and the residents of Kirtipur, which the Nepal monarch had annexed.

When Prithvi Narayan started the Nepal unification process by conquering Nuwakot in 1744, Marthanda Varma too began consolidation and expansion of Travancore. Marthanda Varma first defeated his relative and Kollam king and later annexed Thekkumkur, Vadakkumkur and Kayamkulam. When the Gorkha force wielded kukri, a traditional machete of Nepal, to march ahead, Marthanda Varma used guerilla warfare tactics to overcome adversaries in war. While Marthanda Varma had Ramayyan Dalawa as his man Friday, Kaji Kalu Pande was the right-hand man of Prithvi Narayan.

Marthanda Varma got the better of the Dutch naval force under de Lannoy in 1741 and in the process Marthanda Varma proved that foreign forces can bite the dust at the hands of the local people. Prithvi Narayan also proved the same thing by defeating Britisher Kinloch. Just like Marthanda Varma made de Lannoy the commander of Travancore Army, Prithvi Narayan recruited three Muslim soldiers who came from Lucknow to train his troops.

Marthanda Varma had surrendered his kingdom, wealth, and powers to the deity Sree Padmanabha through a ceremony called ‘Thripadidanam’. But there is no similar references relating to Prithvi Narayan though the Shah royal family had a spiritual connection with the Pashupathinath temple in Kathmandu. It may be noted that the ‘Anantha shayana’ idol was made of 12,008 ‘salagrama’ stones, which were brought from the banks of Gandaki River in Nepal.

As per the legend, these stones were transported to Thiruvananthapuram after offering prayers at the Pashupathinath temple. Another connection between the Pashupathinath temple and south India is that the temple’s main priest is selected from among the Goud Saraswat Brahmins of Udupi in Karnataka. This tradition is being followed, it is believed, in the wake of the advice given by Adi Shankaracharya, who travelled from Kalady in Kerala to Kathmandu.

The royal family established by Marthanda Varma in 1729 ruled Travancore for 220 years. And the royal family formed by Prithvi Narayan in 1769 reigned over Nepal for close to 240 years. But there is a stark difference that is quite evident. The fag end of the monarchy in Travancore was a step towards realizing Marthanda Varma’s dream of a united Kerala.

Sree Chithira Thirunal, the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore, got the opportunity to continue as the ‘Rajapramuk’ (equivalent to Governor) of Travancore-Cochin union for seven more years.

But the monarchy in Nepal has a different story to tell. The curtain came down on the Nepal monarchy as the royal family was ridiculed and shown the door. The people of Nepal rejected Gyanendra Shah Naryanhiti, the last king, and he had to leave the palace as a commoner.

And what about the chariot procession in Nepal? The event could not be conducted due to the COVID-19 pandemic but it would be held in the coming days. Some are wondering whether the setback in Nepal politics is due to the delay in conducting the 'rath yatra'.

(The author was the head of Kerala Police and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and has also worked in Nepal.)

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