In much the same way as in Sikkim, before alleging the Gorkhas as expansionist, it is imperative to assess the over all situation, on the Western border of Nepal. It is only after making a thorough study on the subject is one entitled, or qualified to pass comments over the historical development of the era.
To go by the concentrated record of history, in around 1740s, the land locked state of Gorkha, comprising roughly about 970 square miles was neither powerful nor affluent. Enveloped within its limited resources and no scope to establish and exploit the region for a viable trade, for the Gorkhas the prospect looked bleak and desolate. Despite its topographical drawbacks, it was consistently on the look out for a possible outlet to trade with Tibet and the Northern plains of India.
Comparatively, its neighbor Kumaon with an extensive area of about 8000 square miles, looked resourceful, vibrant and prosperous. Much to the advantage of its geographical proximity, its Northern front shared border with Tibet. On its Southern flank lay the fertile Terai, with Mahakali on the East and Garhwal on the West. Despite sharing a common divide of advantage and disadvantage, the political difference between the two kingdoms were more apparent. The Gorkha kingdom with its successive lineage to the throne was resolute and stable. In comparison, the affairs in the kingdom of Kumoun were marred with low-level manipulation, intrigue and ruthless political assassination. The outcome, often led the kingdom to linger into perpetual uncertainty.
‘There was a marked contrast in the policies of these two states of the Himalayan regions. The state of Gorkha founded in 1559 by Drabya Shah a prince of the ruling house of the adjoining state of Lamjung, enjoyed greater stability than the State of Kumaun. Its royal succession was strictly by primogeniture. Kumaon on the other hand, had a monarchy, but no royal dynasty. Its political scene was marked by a series of usurpations, assassinations and incessant conflict between powerful factions, who on more then one occasion, installed their puppets on the throne without any care for dynastic succession’. Imperial Gorkha, Mahesh C Regmi
In the prevailing atmosphere, no ruler worth the salt would have overlooked the fragile and wayward functioning of a neighboring state. In this regard, the Gorkhas were no exception. They did exactly what the situation warranted. Had they remained a mute spectator, sooner than latter, the cycle of intrigue, conspiracy and political assassination, was bound to vitiate the stable atmosphere of the Gorkha state. In the event, the negative influence would inevitably erode the cohesive Gorkha state into one of chaos and disorder. Moreover, the State of Kumaun was not a holy angel. By no means was its reign determined as the principal of peaceful coexistence. It was constantly in conflict with its neighbors like Doti and Garhwal, on its eastern and western borders. For sure, its relations with the rohilla Muslims in the south were equally at its worst. In fact way back in 1743-44, the Rohilla Muslims had invaded Kumaun and had occupied Almora for about seven months. Quoting a British source, Mahesh C Regmi, thus supplements.
‘They destroyed all the temples of Kumaun, and defiled them by the slaughter of cows, sprinkling the blood on the alter. Moreover, they melted all the gold and silver idols and their ornaments, Imperial Gorkha
After drawing an over all assessment of the situation, the Gorkhas strongly sensed, that if they failed to act and consolidate the surrounding region, their fate too would be similar to that of the Kumauns. Moreover, their suspicion over a possible Muslim threat was reinforced by the previous accounts of marauding Pathans, followed by the adventures of the Mughols. Thus, taking initiative in the right perspective, the Gorkhas invaded Kumaun in 1791. At the time of the Gorkha invasion, the throne of Kumaun, was under the occupation of Mahendra Chand, the heir in succession of Mohan Chand. At the outset of Gorkha invasion, seeking asylum, Mahendra Chand fled into the territory of the Nawab of Awadh. Kumaun thus became an integral part of the Gorkhali Empire.
Marching further west, the Gorkhas were resisted by the state of Garhwal. Much to their advantage, the Garwalis were well entrenched at fort Langurgarh. Its strategic importance was that the fort was located enroute to Srinagar. In the hope of receiving reinforcements from Kathmandu, the Gorkha troops prolonged the battle. In the process, it took them almost a year to siege the fort. In the meanwhile, Nepal was embroiled in a conflict with China. In the new development, the Gorkhali commanders were summoned forthwith to Kathmandu. Little aware of the ensuing development on Nepal’s Northern border, the Garwali ruler Pradyama Shah, in a bid to save his kingdom had signed a treaty with Nepal. Under the treaty, Garhwal as vassal state was to pay an annual tribute of Rs 3000 to Nepal.
The background of Nepal – China war is co-related with the earlier event that had led to a war between Nepal and Tibet. In 1788, when the Gorkhas were on conquest of the Baisi states, in the North, they had crossed over to the Tibetan frontier. Once into the Tibetan plateau, they had over run the territories under Kuti-Kerung pass area. The places to come under the area were Nyanang, Ranghar, Kyirong and Dzongka. Unable to withstand the invading Gorkhas, Tibet was helpless. Finding no other remedy, Tibet formulated a peace proposal. At her behest, a treaty was signed on 2nd June 1789. Under the treaty, Kathmandu would withdraw Gorkha troops from Tibetan area. In reciprocation, Tibet would pay an annual tribute to Nepal. However, after paying the first annual installment, Tibet flouted the agreement and refused to pay the balance of the tribute. Consequently, Nepal once more resorted to invasion tactics.
‘In August 1791, therefore, the Gorkhalis again invaded Tibet seizing the trade center at Kuti and advancing rapidly along the main trade route to Shigatse’. Kings and Political Leaders of the Gorkhali Empire 1768-1814, by Mahesh C Regmi.
During the course of Tibet’s invasion Nepal had marshaled a strong contingent of 18,000 troops. General Damodhar Pande headed the military expedition. On reaching Shigatse, the invading Gorkha force plundered the Tashi Lhunpo monastery. The Tibetans along with Teshu Lama had fled to Lhasa. In order to recover the lost ground, Lhasa at once sought Chinese intervention. In reciprocation, China had sent its official from Lhasa to settle the dispute. Least convinced, the Gorkhas held the Chinese official hostage and took him away to Kathmandu. Far from amused, China immediately sent forth its government representative to Kathmandu. With Nepal taking an obstinate stand, the matter was far from resolved.
While displaying an adamant posture, Kathmandu was clueless about the Chinese background in Tibet. For instance, when the VIth Dalai Lama was murdered through the Mongol Chinese clique; as replacement, China had backed the candidature of a twenty five year old monk. The Tibetans out rightly rejected the Chinese proposal. Instead, they installed a new incarnation from Litang in Eastern Tibet. Both Tibet and Mongolia instantly approved the incarnation. Sensing a possible Mongol-Tibetan alliance, in 1718 the Manchu Emperor Kang Hsi had dispatched the Chinese Imperial Army into Tibet.
Again, in 1749, rebellion brews up on the Tibetan soil. The Chinese Amban (Manchu Political commissioner) was involved in the murder of a Gyalpo. Raising objection from every nook and corner, the Tibetans protested against the Amban’s high handedness. Giving fillip to the movement, the Tibetans in unison had resented the presence of Chinese in Lhasa. When the revolt took to the street, the mob got unruly. As a result, innocent Chinese were massacred. To quell the uprising, the Imperial Army was at once sent forth to Lhasa.
The dual events of history had made China richer in experience. Much to their advantage, the Chinese military gained knowledge of Tibetan terrain, topography and the means to acclimatize in one of the world’s harshest climates. The Nepalese on the contrary were oblivious of the Chinese advantage.
Moreover, China had deployed a massive force of 70,000 troops. The imperial force was under the command of General Sand Fo. In comparison, the Gorkhas had just 18,000 troops. The difference in ratio was colossal. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Gorkhas gladly accepted the challenge. ‘- - - - a force of no less than seventy thousand Chinese was led in two columns by General Sand Fo - - - -. Their artillery consisted of light field guns made of leather, which fired a few rounds and then burst. The Gorkhas had no guns - - --. Seventy thousand Chinese had marched across the most difficult mountain districts in the world for 800 miles - - - . Practically they were without artillery, an they had in front of them the most tenacious and most valiant force that ever stood up to fight in Asia - - - - . The Chinese wavered. They who were between them and Kathmandu, and they were terribly spent with the length and trials of that long march in the thin atmosphere of the Tibetan Highlands. There seemed a chance that the attack would fail at the critical moment. It is under such circumstances as these that great generals prove their right and title to the confidence, which their country has bestowed upon them. Sand Fo was a great general and he rose to the occasion. He turned his leather guns on to the rear of his own wavering troops, and drove them and the Gorkhas in front of them in one comprehensive sweep into the river.’ ‘Tibet the Mysterious’ by Thomas H Holdich.
As far as the battle scene of the riverbank is concerned, Brig Khanduri in the course of his research had trekked up to Betrawati, to survey the area. Therefore, his description of the action is more vivid and comprehensive.
It was here that the Chinese made their blunder. On 20th August as Betrawati was furious in floods, Fu captured the bridge (then just a hanging rope bridge) and pushed a battalion plus one of his infantry to capture and hold the Dudiya Thunka. In his subsequent move, he had planned to capture the Gorkha ridge and expand his offensive into Nuwakot and Trisuli bazaar. While the plea was generally favourable, the reaction of the Gorkhas surprised the chinks. As the Chinese infantry clambered up the slope in daylight, the Goirkha reserve counter attacked them with the ferocity of a hurricane. With their khukris in hands they attacked the attacking Chinese from the rear and flanks and engaged them in a close quarter battle. The attrition was so overwhelming and large that the Chinese broke their attack and took to flight. The turning point of the battle and the war came here and the insistence earlier by the Chinese to negotiate only after Nuwakot fell was dropped. Betrawati became the saving defence line of Nepal from the North.’ According to Khanduri’s ‘A Re-Discovered History of Gorkhas.’
The outcome of this war was that Nepal relinquished its claim based on the treaty of 1789. On 30th September 1792, she entered into a truce with China. Accordingly, Nepal was to take tribute to the Chinese Emperor after every five years. As otherwise, Nepal had to neither suffer the humiliation nor surrender her territories to China.
‘Beyond interrupting the campaign of territorial expansion in the West, the war with Tibet and China had little impact on the Gorkhali state. As one study has noted, peace was established ‘on terms that were neither humiliating nor catastrophic’ for the Gorkhalis, and in the final analysis, the war had little permanent impact on the country or on its military capacity. More important, Kathmandu’s territorial acquisitions in the east, south and west remained unaffected’. ‘ Kings and Political Leaders of the Gorhali Empire 1768-1814.’ Mahesh C. Regmi
Following 1797, Nepal under went a period of inner turmoil. The country witnessed unusual presidium. King Ran Bahadur Shah, with a questionable morality, had married Kantavati. As his third queen, she hailed from a humble Brahmin family of Terai region. In the respective order, the first and second queens were Rajrajeshwari and Subarnaprabha. Through the second queen, he had a son, Ran Udyot Shah. Yet he chose to designate Kantavati as his Chief Queen. By all accounts, he was head over hills in love with Kantavati. In March 1799, when Kantavati, a victim of small pox, was on the verge of death, Ran Bahadur abdicated the throne and placed her son, Girban Yuddha Bir bikram Shah as the rightful heir. Ultimately, her death in October 1799 had a negative impact in his wholesome attitude. Taking the most outrageous step, he had let loose the reign of terror. The first casualties were the Brahmin priests, who were responsible for conducting the rituals for the Queen’s recovery. Consequently, they were soon to be the victims of ruthless suppression.
Mahesh C. Regmi, quotes a British source: ‘He cut off the noses and ears of many of the Brahmins who officiated at the temples were prayers have been offered for recovery of the Ranee; he deprived others of their cast[e] by forcing the flesh of dogs a hogs into their mouths. He caused the golden idol from the venerated temple of Bhawanee to be ground to dust with the most abominable filth ; he directed the temple itself to be demolished, and the three companies of sepoys, to whom he gave the orders, demurring at the sacrilege, he commanded scalding oil to be poured upon their naked bodies, feasting his eyes upon the sight of their sufferings. The first members of the administration were not exempt from his ferocity. Some were publicly scoured, others drawn up by the heels to the branch of a tree------------’
In the ongoing turmoil, even the Gorkha nobility were split into two groups. While the conservative remained loyal to Ran Bahadur Shah in Patan, the rebel faction supported King Girban in Nuwakot. With suspicion all around, the atmosphere was tense and fluid. Fearing a possible reprisal, which would lead to civil war, Ran Bahadur had fled over to Banaras. Until then Banaras was the territory of the British East India Company. Once there, he sought British help to crush the revolt at home. British East India was in no way, in position to interfere in the internal feud of Nepal. However, in 1802, Queen Rajeshwari returned to Kathmandu. As a symbol of authority, she assumed the regency. Once internal strife was settled and stability restored, Ran Bahadur returned to Kathmandu in 1804.
No sooner had he returned, Nepal was once more on the course of territorial expansion. While initiating such a move, Palpa was integrated into the Gorkhali Empire. The next in the line was Butwal, the area fell under a technical snag. The ruler of Palpa had acquired Butwal on lease from the Nawab of Awadh. Despite the lease being in vogue, in 1801 the Nawab had ceded the same to the East India Company. ‘The Terai territory of Butwal, which the ruler of Palpa had obtained on lease from the Nawab of Awadh and which the Nawab had ceded to the East India Company in 1801, also came under Gorkhali control’, according to ‘ A collection of treaties Engagements and Sunnds 1863 Vol 2’, by C V Aitchison.
Further, west, the Gorkhas invaded Garhwal in October 1804. The treaty of subsidiary signed earlier in 1792 was annulled. In the process, Garhwal was incorporated into the Gorkhali Empire.
‘In 1803 a well equipped army under the leadership of Amar Sing Thapa, Hastidal Chautariya and Bam Shah Chautariya invaded Garhwal. The Raja and his family were closely pursued by the Gorkhas, but he successfully escaped to Derha Dun. Amar Sing Thapa and his son, Rajnor Thapa, assumed the charge of the administration of Kumaun and Garhwal’. ‘The Northern Frontiers of India, General and Western Sector,’ S C Bajpai
Furthermore, in the quest for the westward expansion, the Gorkhas had annexed the minor principalities like, Sirmur, Hundur and Besahar, without much resistance. Far from being flabbergasted, the Gorkha intrusions of the minor principalities were a welcome relief. For reasons leading to frequent intimidation and domination, the chiefs of several principalities in the trans-Satlej region had a bone to pick with Sansar Chand. Sansar Chand was the ruler of the principality of Kotoch. Therefore, it was only after occupying the fort of Kangra in 1788; Sansar Chand wielded power and influence over the region for two decades. In fact, the success of the Gorkhali Military operation was a blessing in disguise for the rulers of the Trans-Satlej region. Thus, encouraged and driven by the vision to build a formidable empire, the Gorkhas pushed further west to capture the Kangra fort in 1805-1809.
Aggrieved and crest fallen, Sansar Chand had sent an emissary to seek Maharaj Rajit Sing’s help. The Sikh ruler had no particular fondness for Sansar Chand. Nonetheless, he was quick to discover that the Gorkhas were in fact in posession of the hilly tract between Jammu and Sutlej. As an experienced campaigner and astute strategist, Ranjit Sing could foresee a bitter reality. Once the Gorkhas fortified its hold over Kangra, the strategic advantage could post a permanent threat to the plains of Punjab. Given the inevitable reality, when the Gorkha General Amar Singh Thapa, had proposed an alternative solution, the Sikh ruler had out rightly rejected the proposal. Instead, the Gorkhas were asked to withdraw from Kangra fort.
The Gorkhas were under no obligation to appease the Sikh ruler. Yet, undermining their martial character, they withdrew from the fort without a showdown. The Gorkha withdrawal is inter-related to certain factual circumstances. Kushwant Singh, a veteran journalist, writer and one of the exponents on the subject has best summed up. ‘The Gorkhas, who had been fighting for many weeks, were suffering from the ill effects of heat and epidemic of cholera that has broken out in their ranks. Fatigue and disease left them with no stomach to face the Punjab army and they retired to Mandi swearing vengeance on Ranjit Singh’, ‘The History of the Sikh.’
With exception to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there were virtually no other powers to thwart the Gorkha onslaught. By the early 19th century, the Mughol Empire was fast declining. Sensing the all withering vitality of the once mighty empire, the Nawabs of Bengal and Oudh, followed by the Nijam of Hyderabad, were all set to assert the independence of their respective States. Until then, British hold within parts of Indian Sub-Continent was confined to commercial interest. The East India Company functioned more as a commercial establishment. Subject to rich dividends, the Company shareholders in London were least interested in the venture of territorial expansion.
Moreover, both Russia and France had deeply abhorred the presence of British in India. More so, the booming British trade in the subcontinent had become an eye sore for the two aspiring European powers. They were ever determined to jeopardize the British monopoly. In the course of events, they were eager to invade India. Once their supremacy over the British was confirmed, they would be blessed with the advantage to divide, exploit and plunder the Indian peninsula.
Their combined effort to invade India had first, been envisaged by Russian Empress Catherine the Great. It was later to be followed by her successor Tsar Paul I.
‘Napolean had far from abandoned his dream of driving the British out of India and building a great French empire in the East - - - - - - - - - - - - - - . Before embarking on these, however, he was to receive a startling proposition from St Petersburg. It came early in 1801 from Tsar Paul I, Catherine the Great’s successor and offered him the opportunity to avenge himself on the British and further his ambition, in the East. Paul who shared his dislike of the British had decided to revive the plan, which Catherine had turned down a decade earlier, for an invasion of India’. ‘The Great Game,’ Peter Hopkirk.
For the larger British interest, the Franco-Russo design proved to be diabolic. It had given many a sleepless night to both London and Calcutta. It was for the betterment of Britain, history on its course did the summersault. With it, the friends of yester years were to face each other as arch adversaries. Therefore, it was the case between France and Russia. In the over all drastic development that was to follow; Napoleon’s invasion of Russia proved to be a historic blunder. As the war progressed, in no time, the massive French Army of 4,00,000 was reduced to a meager 9,000. Most died through frostbite, sickness and starvation. The French defeat however, wouldn’t result into a permanent peace and tranquility. The situation in Northern India, was bound to invite a clash of interest.
(to be concluded...)