The Struggle for Power
The premature death of Pratap Singh Shah (reigned 1775-77), the eldest son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, left a huge power vacuum that remained unfilled for decades, seriously debilitating the emerging Nepalese state. Pratap Singh Shah's successor was his son, Rana Bahadur Shah (reigned 1777-99), aged two and one-half years at his accession. The acting regent until 1785 was Queen Rajendralakshmi, followed by Bahadur Shah (reigned 1785-94), the second son of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Court life was consumed by rivalry centered on alignments with these two regents rather than on issues of national administration. In 1794 the king came of age, and in 1797 he began to exercise power on his own. Rana Bahadur's youth had been spent in pampered luxury amid deadly intrigue and had made him incapable of running either his own life or the country. He became infatuated with a Maithili Brahman widow, Kantavati, and cleared the way to the throne for their illegitimate son, Girvan Yuddha Shah. Disconsolate after the death of his mistress in 1799, Rana Bahadur began to engage in such irrational behavior that leading citizens demanded his abdication. He was forced to turn his throne over to Girvan Yuddha Shah, aged one and one-half years, and retired to Banaras.
During the minority of the king, Damodar Pande took over the administration as mukhtiyar, or prime minister (1799-1804), with complete control over administration and the power to conduct foreign affairs. He set a significant precedent for later Nepalese history, which has seen a recurring struggle for effective power between king and prime minister. The main policy of Damodar Pande was to protect the young king by keeping his unpredictable father in Banaras and to play off against each other the schemes of the retired king's wives. By 1804 this policy had failed. The former king engineered his return and took over as mukhtiyar. Damodar Pande was executed and replaced by Bhimsen Thapa as chief administrator (kaji). In a bizarre turn of events on April 25, 1806, Rana Bahadur Shah quarreled in open court with his half-brother, Sher Bahadur. The latter drew his sword and killed Rana Bahadur Shah before being cut down by a nearby courtier. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Bhimsen Thapa became prime minister (1806-37), and the junior queen, Tripurasundari, became regent (1806-32). They cooperated to liquidate ninety-three of their enemies. The death of Girvan Yuddha Shah in 1816 and the accession of his infant son meant the retention of the regency.
The struggle for power at the court had unfortunate consequences for both foreign affairs and for internal administration. All parties tried to satisfy the army in order to avoid interference in court affairs by leading commanders, and the military was given a free hand to pursue ever larger conquests. As long as the Gorkhas were invading disunited hill states, this policy--or lack of policy--was adequate. Inevitably, continued aggression led Nepal into disastrous collisions with the Chinese and then with the British. At home, because power struggles centered on control of the king, there was little progress in sorting out procedures for sharing power or expanding representative institutions. A consultative body of nobles, a royal court called the Assembly of Lords (Bharadari Sabha), was in place after 1770 and it had substantial involvement in mayor policy issues. The assembly consisted of high government officials and leading courtiers, all heads of important Gorkha families. In the intense atmosphere surrounding the monarch, however, the Assembly of Lords broke into factions that fought for access to the prime minister or regent, and alliances developed around patron/client relationships.
Five leading families contended for power during this period--the Shahs, Choutariyas, Thapas, Basnyats, and Pandes. Working for these families and their factions were hill Brahmans, who acted as religious preceptors or astrologers, and Newars, who occupied secondary administrative positions. No one else in the country had any influence on the central government. When a family or faction achieved power, it killed, exiled, or demoted members of opposing alliances. Under these circumstances, there was little opportunity for either public political life or coordinated economic development.
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