Between fact and fictionExamples of flawed historical interpretations abound in our everyday affairs.
Like every year, this year’s Mha Puja too saw politicians of all varieties praising the legendary merchant Shankhadhar Sakhwa on the occasion of the new Nepal Sambat year 1142. The tokenism cannot be missed; Nepal Sambat (NS) is hailed as another example of our unique culture on this day, but is forgotten for the rest of the year except by heritage enthusiasts. Whether to adopt the calendar instead of the concurrent Vikram Sambat is another issue altogether; to me, it is the person of Sakhwa, and his association with indigenous Newar identity, that is more fascinating.
Let’s recount the legend of Sakhwa. A ninth-grade social studies textbook I possess says he was a businessman and "social worker", who repaid the debts of the people of Nepal Valley by distributing the Bishnumati River sand that had turned into gold. The Nepal Sambat calendar was "started in his honour" after the people of the valley became "extremely grateful" to him. Today, he is among the 17 national luminaries of Nepal, among others such as Prithvi Narayan Shah, Amar Singh Thapa, the Buddha, Arniko, Sita and her father King Janak.
It’s a curious list, one that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. For, apart from Sita and Janak, whose provenance can only be traced in the realm of mythology, there is little archaeological evidence that Sakhwa himself existed. As noted historian Kamal P Malla wrote in an email to a group campaigning for Nepal Sambat, "How did a retail trader make so much money so that he could cancel everyone's debts—the traditional story is not all too convincing." Rising ethno-nationalism and the success of identity politics in Nepal in post-1990 Nepal meant Sakhwa could be legitimately claimed as a Newar hero in 1999, when he was declared a national icon by a government led by Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai.
The legend of Sakhwa has now come to be accepted as a historical fact, further blurring the true origins of Nepal Sambat, which was founded in the reign of Raghava Deva on October 20, 879 CE. The reasons behind its adoption, however, are unclear; what we know is that it was originally simply called Sambat, or "era". "The first record of the term 'Nepal' linked to this era was 'Nepala-vatsara', as found in a manuscript dated 148 NS" (or 1028 CE), while the first historical record connecting Sakhwa to the calendar can only be found in 766 NS, or around 1645 CE.
The question here isn’t whether Nepal Sambat should be adopted—certainly as an intangible cultural heritage—but what Sakhwa’s inclusion in the national heroes list (and by extension, Sita and Janak’s), and the subsequent blurring of history and faith, tells us about how we perceive history in the country. While the choice of national icons itself can be debated upon, the fact that there are two women—one mythical, and the other the mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa—says volumes about our gender disparities. Similarly, nine out of the 17 clearly belong to Khas Bahun-Chhetri groups, of whom three are kings and two poets (one can ask what Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Chittadhar Hridaya, or Parijat need to do to belong to the list). The other four—Bhakti Thapa, Bhimsen Thapa, Amar Singh Thapa and Balbhadra Kunwar—are associated with the Anglo-Gorkha war, which lucidly explains the burden of a 200-year-old war on our national psyche.
That history is often intended to serve the ruling powers is not anything new. The ninth-grade textbook, for example, under the section "Our Past" devotes five chapters to Prithvi Narayan Shah’s "unification of Nepal", and three chapters to the Anglo-Gorkha war. Under the causes of the latter war is the much-peddled reason that the British wanted "to colonise Nepal" for its natural resources, and a more curious "natural cause" which was that the British, since they came from a cool place and found India to be "very hot", developed a "vested interest" to capture Nepal which was an "epitome of cool locations" (sic).
Whether the British found the Nepali climate to be cool enough for their imperialistic push into South Asia is best left to the imagination of the authors of this text, but such examples of flawed historical interpretations abound in our everyday affairs. One doesn’t need to look further than Oli’s "Ram was born in Nepal" statement to see how our politicians have twisted and turned faith and mythology into fact. That he was inspired by Narendra Modi, in whose regime a historical revisionism is underway declaring the Mughals as barbarian invaders who erased a great Hindu civilisation, couldn’t be clearer.
Historian Pratyoush Onta has shown how the quest for a common Nepali national identity was the primary driver of the school curriculum as devised by the 1954 National Education Planning Commission, the reason being that "[d]uring the last few centuries we have neglected these essential characteristics of all strong states—national pride, virility, individuality—because we have allowed ourselves to go into darkness. Education must restore these values to our country".
These values behind a purported "strong, virile and proud" Nepal allow us to gloss over inconvenient historical facts, and accept legend as fact. Our ethnonationalism in turn convinces us our ethnic identities are closely tied with our respective myths and legends—the legend of Sakhwa in the case of Newars—but in reality are used for political gains and not much more. For instance, cultural anthropologist Bal Gopal Shrestha writes, playwright Bal Krishna Sama declared he would "apply Nepal Sambat from tomorrow" at the first public celebration of the new year in 1954, but "this never happened". Then in 2007, then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala proclaimed, "The NS will be printed in my letter pad as well as in ministers’ letter pads," which obviously did not happen. Similarly, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai have all declared at different moments that NS would become Nepal’s official calendar. Today, apart from newspapers and the once-a-year speeches, it’s clear nobody expects NS to replace Vikram Sambat anytime soon. In hindsight, NS–and Sakhwa by extension–has become a political tool used to galvanise the Newar community’s support. This is to be expected as long as ethnicities regard such indigenous motifs as essential to their identities.
Mere tokenism does not suffice in the 21st century; representation is essential. But our desire towards asserting the superiority and indigeneity of our cultures means we are willing to overlook far more intricate historical truths—the migrations to and from Nepal Valley, for instance—that are equally a part of our identity, and remain satisfied with annual speeches that soothe the nationalist within us.