Enigma of Prithvi Narayan ShahThe uncertainty that the political interpretations have created about the king carries a burden of ambivalence.
The present coalition government led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, president of the CPN (Maoist Centre), decided to give a public holiday on the occasion of Prithvi Jayanti, which is observed on January 11. The pro-monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party that carries the value, if not the political structuration of the erstwhile Panchayat political ideology, led by a young politician named Rajendra Lingden from my region Limbuwan, had set this as a condition for giving a vote of confidence in favour of the Prachanda-led government. As the algorithm of the hung Parliament would have it, even the largest party in the House, the Nepali Congress, has voted in favour of the present coalition of parties despite the opposite views held by its general secretaries Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma and young intellectuals like Shankar Tiwari.
Now the largest party in Parliament, the Nepali Congress, the second largest party, the CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and the other parties that hold a significant number of seats all have come together to give the present coalition a vote of confidence. This convergence leaves no room for the opposition in Parliament. This strange covenant of heterogeneous groups looks like a unique collage, which is a technique in modernist painting. But this is a restive montage executed not on a longer lasting canvas but arranged as an installation art. It is for learned political scientists and historians to tell us about the significance and transient nature of political alliances. In the following lines, I would like to dwell on the enigmatic image of the king of Gorkha, Prithvi Narayanan Shah (1723-75), who is regarded as the builder of modern Nepal. New historicist interpretations of Prithvi Narayan Shah, his times and works could also be evoked.
Prithvi Narayan Shah's portraits and statues have some familiarised features. The iconicity of the king raising his index finger is the most eloquent feature in this regard. People have interpreted it variously, but the interpretation given by the textbooks and teachers is the most authentic. The iconic feature was created and familiarised by artist Amar Chitrakar (1920-99), who projected his vision by making Shah's statues and paintings. I would be thrilled every time Chitrakar quietly narrated how he consulted artists and historians several times before embarking on the project, especially while sculpting the statue installed in front of the huge secretariat named Singh Durbar and executing oil portraits of Prithvi Narayan Shah and other Shah kings.
He prominently mentioned his interactions with Bala Krishna Sama (1903-81), the doyen of Nepali drama and an artist, and historian Baburam Acharya (1888-1971) to form ideas about the features of Prithvi Narayan Shah's persona. The challenge was great for Amar Chitrakar. He said Sama's ideas about projecting Prithvi Narayan Shah's persona were helpful. But Amar Chitrakar quietly confessed he had some differences with Sama, though he did not elaborate what those differences were. When he got a commission to make a statute of Prithvi Narayan Shah to install at Prithvi Chowk, Pokhara, Chitrakar said he worked according to his plans and imagination. Chitrakar would have been heartbroken if he was alive to see the same statue vandalised by Young Communist League (YCL) cadres on May Day 2007.
We can imagine that Sama, as a poet, had formed some imaginary perceptions about Nepali nationalism, and the significance of the unification of Nepal must have differed from the quiet and realistic interpretation of Amar Chitrakar. However, their common consensus emerged on the iconicity of the index finger in both the sculpture and the painting. The symbolism of the index finger is unity or unified concept of a nation. The iconicity of the index finger represents a single nation formed through a merger of many units, a gestalt almost, which shows a singularity of purpose.
We can raise a series of questions like the following in this regard. What is the enigma of Prithvi Narayan Shah? Why do politicians bandy his image and name after every political change in the country? Why has it become a concern of royalists to uphold his image and not others? How did a consensus emerge to recognise this day for celebration? Is it a permanent perception or something that changes with the nature of the coalitions to form governments? All this shows a very uncertain misinterpretation of history. The uncertainty that the political interpretations have created about this king carries a burden of ambivalence. A number of questions remain unresolved about the Nepali nation and nationalism. Prithvi Narayan Shah remains at the centre of it; he has been called a great usurper of small principalities and nationalities, and is also remembered for some of his ruthless deeds. He is called a Nepali Otto von Bismarck, who achieved German unification in the 19th century. He is commonly called rashtranirmata or the maker of the Nepali state.
Prithvi Narayan Shah's other image is that of a teacher whose edicts, presented in aphoristic style, have gone down well in history. Not only that, Shah's strategic acumen has found admirers in recent times. Maoist leader Prachanda's admiration for Shah's guerrilla skills has added a new dimension to this line of thinking. Equally enigmatic are Prithvi Narayan Shah's geopolitical interpretations of Nepal. Modern-day political leaders suggest an alternative interpretation of the famous dictum of Prithvi Narayan Shah. I especially remember Baburam Bhattarai's alternate interpretation of Prithvi Narayan Shah's renowned observation about Nepal being sandwiched between two giant boulders. Bhattarai says this is a position of advantage in terms of extending Nepal's access to the big neighbours by utilising the geopolitical position for the expansion of trade and economic activities.
The enigma of Prithvi Narayan Shah remains there. As said earlier, this enigma is directly related to the geopolitical position of Nepal. But more importantly, Prithvi Narayan Shah's “unification of Nepal” has assumed greater meaning in the context of defining Nepal as an independent nation-state. This subject would also trigger new interpretations if the geopolitical metaphor of Prithvi Narayan Shah were viewed in the postcolonial context. This subject demands interpretation in terms of the geo-cultural and geo-political history of South Asia. Prithvi Narayan Shah occupies a position from where one can interpret the political conditionality of Nepal that covers the present political developments that saw the end of the rule of the House of Gorkha in 2008. The enigma becomes more prominent when we fail to clearly say whether Prithvi Narayan Shah evokes a spectre of feudal history or a rational interpretation of the features of the Nepali nation-state beginning with this obtrusive monarch of Gorkha.