Of Palaces, Prophecies and Star-Crossed Lovers

My head is too full of stories. Where to begin?

This is Kathmandu, you see. A place where goddesses meet kings; a place of legend and gossips; a place for conspiring and for trading scandals.

For centuries, this country of Nepal has been ruled by two noble families, the Shahs and the Ranas, who have feuded as fiercely as the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it was only six years back on 1st June 2001 that an almost incredible tale of star-crossed lovers was played out to its tragic end. Frustrated that the King and Queen would not approve his choice of bride, high on drink and drugs, the Crown Prince Dipendra took a couple of machine guns and mowed down not only his parents but also all of his immediate royal family.

Mind you, this being Kathmandu, if you talk about the massacre to people you meet in taxis, over dinner, or especially after a drink, you will find that many of them believe it wasn’t the Prince but his Uncle Gyanendra that arranged the murders. They believe that, in keeping with a tradition of bloody coups in Nepal, the Uncle did it in order to take over the throne – frustrated that his gentlemanly brother, King Birendra, was being too soft on the Maoist rebels, who were winning more territory, if not most of the political arguments, and were closing in on the capital.

But people here also look up to the stars for explanations of such happenings – and they also look back to ancient prophecies.

In the garden of the hotel where I am staying, Kathmandu’s famous Yak and Yeti, by a secluded pool there is small shrine to the goddess Kumari….

But before I get into the story of Kumari, let me tell you something about the hotel itself. Because it has quite a history as well as many interesting contemporary features, more than you might expect of a five star hotel: bedrooms with delicately carved wooden fittings, a mysterious giant-sized footprint on a rock, banqueting halls, a casino, nightclub and, after all that, a fitness centre.

The majestic classic part of the hotel is a palace – the Lal Durbar or Red Palace – that was built by one of the Ranas with a typically majestic name – Maharaja Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. And the hundred-year-old shrine of Kumari in the garden is where members of the Rana family still worship. When I took a walk there this morning after an early breakfast, I found fresh offerings of lotus flowers on the red tika-stained temple stones.

So – the story of Kumari. It is told very graphically in a book I have been reading about the royal murder – Love and Death in Kathmandu by two Australian journalists, Amy Willesee and Mark Whittaker.

They tell how in the early eighteenth century the goddess Taleju and the then King of Kathmandu, Jaya Prakesh Malla, used frequently to meet to play dice. But when the King eventually made advances the goddess got angry. She informed the king that she wouldn’t meet with him any more – except in the new form of a young virgin girl that he could worship.

Since that time, the virgin Kumari (selected as a five-year-old and reigning only till puberty) has always been an important goddess for the kings to have on their side. When Prithvi Narayan Shah, ruler of the neighbouring Gorkha kingom, took tika (the red mark on the forehead) from the Kumari, she presented him with a lotus flower and promised Kathmandu to the Shah dynasty. So, for two hundred years, the Shahs have ruled the united kingdom of Nepal.

But, now, King Gyanendra sits in his palace, awaiting his people’s decision on his future. Two weeks ago – on 25th September – the Prime Minister and not the King went to the Kumari for her annual blessing. The following day’s newspaper, The Himalayan, said that this was breaking a tradition that has been crucial for the survival of the monarchy.

In two day’s time, after another postponement of elections for a Constitutional Assembly, the Parliament may vote in line with a demand put by the Maoist Party – that Nepal should immediately be declared a republic. What we don’t know is whether it was the King’s own choice not to take the blessing from the Kumari this year.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

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