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Long Lived The King

Nepal's last king relinquishes crown, embraces the life of a commoner

Long Lived The King
Long Lived The King

The Royal Fall

  • The former king has moved to a hunting complex on the outskirts
  • The complex has 10 cottages. Gyanendra will reside in Hemantabas.
  • He may turn to business, has investments worth Rs 620 million
  • Could enter politics or float a party
  • The queen mother Ratna and King Tribhuvan's mistress Sarala will remain in the palace complex


Elements vary, but the essence of the story goes thus. In the 18th century, Guru Gorakhnath—a namesake of the famous Bhakti saint (a reincarnation, in some versions)—visited the palace of Narbhupal Shah, the ruler of the small principality of Gorkha. The wandering ascetic is said to have offered the infant prince, Prithvinarayan, a bowl of curd. Displaying the petulance typical of children, Prithvinarayan threw the bowl to the ground, a portion of the curd spattering his feet. From this ostensibly commonplace occurrence Gorakhnath predicted the future: the curd at his feet suggested Prithvinarayan would conquer new territories and weld them into a kingdom bigger than his inheritance. But the Shah dynasty, Gorakhnath ominously said, was destined to rule this new kingdom only till the 12th generation. In 1768, after several military campaigns, Prithvinarayan indeed established the Hindu kingdom of Nepal and ascended the Serpent Throne.

Their new abode, a hunting lodge in the Nagarjun hills

It has taken all of 240 years for the Shah dynasty to keep its tryst with the inescapable destiny read off the dust by Gorakhnath. On June 11, as Kathmandu lay enveloped in darkness, King Gyanendra, the second ruler from the 12th generation of the Shahs, left Narayanhiti Palace to live as a common citizen in the hunting lodge built in the dense forest of the Nagarjun hills on the city outskirts. There was no farewell ceremony, no firing of cannons, no gun salute to beat the retreat for what had been one of the subcontinent's notable royal dynasties.

Yet in the moment of his downfall, Gyanendra displayed great equanimity, addressing the nation through a press conference, smiling at the throng of journalists. He said he had helped facilitate the decisions of the Constituent Assembly to abolish monarchy and have the palace evacuated. He said he was deeply hurt at the accusations that he had engineered the 2001 royal massacre. At that time, he had refrained from displaying sorrow, he pointed out, because of the royal tradition requiring him to not weep in public. He mentioned the massacre, analysts say, because it eroded the traditional reverence Nepalis had for the monarchy, culminating in its abolition.

The citizen’s new bedroom

Later, Gyanendra drove up the Nagarjun hills and into the darkness to live as a common citizen, arguably a devastating stretch in the journey of a man who had been crowned Nepal's king twice—first as a four-year-old boy who was inadvertently left behind by his grandfather, Tribhuvan, during his escape to India to obviate the evil machinations of his prime minister Mohan Sumsher Rana; and then in June 2001 following the massacre of his brother, King Birendra and his family. Gyanendra was never destined to permanently live in the Narayanhiti palace—the abode of five Nepali kings over 120 years—which will now become a museum, a reminder of the bygone era of kings and queens.

For some years though, two members of the former royalty will live in the palace precincts. Former queen mother Ratna Rajya Laxmi (80), Gyandendra's stepmother and widow of his father, the late king Mahendra, will continue to reside in Mahendra Manzil; another cottage—Tribhuvan Sadan—will house Sarala Gorkhali (92), the mistress of Mahendra's father, king Tribhuvan. Around the time Gyanendra was served his exit notice, he was aghast to find the family riven with dissension. Palace sources say his son Paras and nieces—Sitashma and Dilasha (daughters of his late younger brother Dhirendra)—refused to accommodate the two old ladies in Nirmal Niwas and Jeevan Kunj, the two properties outside Narayanhiti that are under their respective occupation. As the deadline to shift out of the palace drew closer, Gyanendra requested the government to allow the two old ladies to live as its 'guests' on the royal campus.

Royal Roulette: The late prince Dipendra (left) with uncle Gyanendra

Gyanendra's request turned the spotlight on former queen mother Ratna, a figure forgotten during Nepal's tumultuous decades. She is the younger sister of the late king Mahendra's first wife, Indra Rajya Laxmi (Gyanendra's mother), who died at the birth of her sixth child, Dhirendra. Ex-PM B.P. Koirala reveals in his autobiography that when Mahendra expressed his desire to marry Ratna, Tribhuvan was livid and even threatened to strike out his son's name from the order of succession. Mahendra is said to have been prepared to relinquish the throne. Then Koirala and others intervened, advising Tribhuvan against interfering in the personal life of his son. The marriage took place, but the relationship between Mahendra and Tribhuvan, who himself had at least a dozen of mistresses, remained strained. "What is Mahendra Manzil today was built by Hari Shumsher, father of Ratna, for his daughter and son-in-law," a relative of Ratna told Outlook.

Queen mother Ratna Rajya Laxmi and Gyanendra

The current arrangement consequently will split the royal family into three units—Gyanendra and wife Komal in the hunting lodge; the two old ladies at Narayanhiti; and son Paras, his wife Himani and their three children—Purnika, Hridayendra and Anushka—in Nirmal Niwas. The separation will inevitably loosen the knots of kinship. Gyanendra is said to be extremely attached to Hridayendra. "He used to spend time with the queen mother and the little prince separately everyday," a palace official told Outlook. Gyanendra has had a bitter relationship with Paras, who is notorious for his wayward lifestyle. It took a turn for the worse after the political class, including outgoing PM G.P. Koirala, suggested that Gyanendra and Paras abdicate in favour of Hridayendra to save the dynasty. Perhaps Paras expected his father to oppose such suggestions more robustly.

As Gyanendra presided over the dismantling of the dynasty during his last days, accepting the birth of a republican Nepal, there was speculation that he was reluctant to hand over the jewel-studded crown and royal sceptre to the government. But Phani Pathak, press secretary of the erstwhile palace secretariat, told Outlook, "All that he was saying was that since the crown and sceptre are the legacy of his ancestors, he expected some kind of undertaking from the government about who will be the custodian of these objects."

Ironically, it was in his last days as king that Gyanendra—till then reviled for his vaulting ambition and disdain for democracy—managed to muster respect and generate some sympathy for himself. For instance, he displayed foresight in lowering the royal standard at the Narayanhiti Palace within 15 minutes of the Constituent Assembly passing the resolution abolishing monarchy. And he displayed ample grace at the press meet before evacuating the palace. There was sympathy in some quarters for the shabby treatment the government meted to him. For instance, two ministers, K.P. Sitaula and K.B. Mahara, inspected the Nagarjun hunting lodge before certifying it wasn't as luxurious an accommodation as speculated. What irked particularly was the permission granted to journalists to cover the inspection tour and publish pictures of what will now be Gyanendra's bedroom. "These are perhaps indications that he will be hounded and humiliated by the government in the days to come," a retired army official who served under Gyanendra said, adding, "he has decided to live in this country and face everything that comes his way".

File photo of King Tribhuvan with his three sons

Nagarjun is expected to be only temporary quarters before Gyanendra finds private accommodation suitable to his needs. Built in 1883 as a winter resort and hunting reserve, the Nagarjun complex has 10 cottages—six for residential purposes, four for staff. Each of the six cottages are named after seasons of the year—Hemantabas is where Gyanendra will be. This complex and seven other palaces were nationalised last year. "The government has made arrangements for him on humanitarian grounds. The same consideration was applied for Ratna and Sarala," said home minister K.P. Sitaula.

Kathmandu continues to witness an intense debate about Gyanendra's future plans. Though deprived of royal privileges and revenues, he has ample assets and was considered an astute businessman before he ascended the throne. He has shares in the five-star Soaltee Hotel, Surya Tobacco, a subsidiary of itc, Himalaya Goodrich tea company and some hydro projects—his total investments are worth Rs 620 million. Perhaps he will turn to business which, analysts say, could even suffer a setback because of his feud with his son. It's also believed he could enter politics, even float a political party in the event of the new republic failing to revive the floundering economy and meeting the aspirations of the people.

Should Gyanendra cast his eyes over his strange and complex past from the Nagarjun complex, he is likely to wonder where he went wrong or why fate chose him to preside over the end of his dynasty. Perhaps the dice was loaded against him. His succession followed the royal massacre, sparking rumours about his role in it. His accession to the throne consequently failed to acquire legitimacy. Worse, his brother Birendra's popularity only grew after the massacre, and it was impossible for Gyanendra to match it. Add to these his hubris in dealing with the political class and subversion of democracy. "The royal massacre, his own arrogance and political machinations... these were the biggest reasons for the dawn of the Republic of Nepal," says Bibek Shah, former military secretary to both Birendra and Gyanendra. Fittingly for such a deeply traditional society, the modernist turn was encoded in an 18th-century ascetic's prediction.

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