Marching to the tune of historyOn Wednesday, a day before Ghatasthapana kicked off the annual festive season, members of the Shardul Jung Gulma—the 165-member company of the Nepali Army garrisoned at the Kathmandu Durbar Square—were busy scrubbing and polishing the Dashain Ghar at the palace.
On Wednesday, a day before Ghatasthapana kicked off the annual festive season, members of the Shardul Jung Gulma—the 165-member company of the Nepali Army garrisoned at the Kathmandu Durbar Square—were busy scrubbing and polishing the Dashain Ghar at the palace. Wearing regular shorts and T-shirts as they set about their chores before the big festival, the soldiers easily mistaken for regular cadets of the army. But the Shardul Jung Company is not just any other company. With a layered history that goes back some 300 years, this select regiment is not only responsible for the security and upkeep of the UNESCO heritage site of Basantapur and its countless artefacts of cultural and historical importance, but because they are party to all major festivals and jatras of the Valley, they are also one of the most visually distinguishable members of the Nepali Army.
Shardul Jung Gulma originally were a band of soldiers who marched with Prithvi Narayan Shah during his unification drive out of Gorkha. Then, after playing a crucial role in the conquest of the Valley in 1768, they were assigned to the Basantapur Durbar Square—the seat of power. Eighty years later, in 1848, following the Bhandarkhal Massacre, the company was reassigned to guard Pandit Vijaya Raj Pandey—a co-conspirator of Jung Bahadur Rana. When the priest was given the title of Bada Gurujyu (Head Priest), the company too came to be known as Gurujyu Paltan. A name they still carry today.
Major Narayan Prasad Mainali, who was recently appointed the commander of the company, dressed in an immaculate white jama, points to the gold chandtoda (a pendant) on his hat, as he describes how the Gurujyu Paltan is different from the rest of the army’s companies. “Because, we dress up in our black daura surwals, white leather belts and contrasting bright yellow socks, people immediately recognise the Gurujyu Paltan at festivals. But even within the company, subtle differences in uniform distinguish internal hierarchies,” he says. The white jama and the gold chandtoda are exclusive to the commander, while the rest of the company—and their rank—can be distinguished by the shape and metallurgy of the pendants on their hats.
Along with their distinct uniform that hearken back to the unification, the company also carry the aging Bharuwa Bandooks—Flintlock Muskets that have been passed on for at least 250 years. “The guns are also an important part of the company’s history and heritage,” says Mainali, “These guns are no longer commercially manufactured and the Shardul Jung Company are the only company that still carry it. The gunpowder needed to reload the weapons is also produced exclusively by the Nepali Army.”
Ram Chandra Pandit, a Jamadar who has been with the Gurujyu Paltan for the past 16 years, is quick to reiterate that beyond just guarding the Basantapur Durbar Square, the company is also tied to the Valley’s numerous jatras. “Our uniforms and duties set us apart, but we are also given extensive trainings in traditional musical instruments like the madal, flute, dhol, tambar and jhyampta,” he says, “Between 30-60 members of the company lead processions during 55 different jatras throughout the year—from the Fulpati to the two Macchindranath jatras; processions will not begin until the Gurujyu Paltan’s muskets ring out into the city.”
Gautam Shakya, a member of the Indra Jatra Management Committee, agrees that the Gurujyu Paltan have now become as important fixtures of the jatras as the chariots. “What is interesting is that when Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Valley, the soldiers were no doubt a source of intimidation and fear for the Valley’s residents,” he says, “The fact that over time they too have been absorbed into Kathmandu’s festivities speaks volumes of how the city truly is melting pot, of how the Valley’s culture has been built, layer upon layer, by the various forces and cultures that have come and gone over millennia.”