Because Nepal had some daring and legendary rulers, generals and foot-soldiers who could see what was going on in India and what would happen to the petty himalayan kingdoms when the British would reach Nepal eventually. They were courageous, persistent, doggedly anti-British and were not afraid to pay the ultimate sacrifice.
Below are some of their stories which went on to become legends for all time:
1) King Prithvi Narayan Shah, The Man who started it all
The founder of the state of Nepal. He foresaw that the British were on a mission to gobble up all the petty states of Indian subcontinent one by one. He ruled from his hilltop fort in the small kingdom of Gorkha (presently a neglected, remote and poor district of Nepal made (in)famous as the epicenter of the recent earthquake). He embarked on an ambitious project of consolidating land along the southern shadows of the entire length of the Himalayas so that it could offer some sort of resistance against the British juggernaut. Being far sighted he expelled all the Jesuit priests from Nepal thinking they could potentially be spies for the British. Then, with whatever meagre resources he had he proceeded over the better part of two decades to acquire half of what is today's Nepal from the Gandaki to the Koshi rivers. He died before he could consolidate his gains. He was the one who set in motion the conquest of territories that formed the basis of the modern day Nepal.
The Gorkha durbar, where king Prithvi Narayan Shah was born:
The Gorkha district (the approximate kingdom of Prithivi Narayan) of present day Nepal:
King Prithvi Narayan Shah was not just a successful conquerer, but was a farsighted and shrewd statesman for his time. He laid down the foundations of foreign policy and governance in his Divyo-Upadesh (Divine Advice) that ring true to this day:
- “When an old man dies, his words die with him, so they say. What you who are gathered here will hear from me, pass on to your children, and they to ours; and this kingdom will endure.”
- "This is not the nation gained by my trifle efforts, this is the garden of all kinds of flowers, and may all be aware of this."
- "Nepal is yam between two boulders (India and China). Maintain a treaty of friendship with the emperor of China. Keep also a treaty of friendship with the emperor of the southern sea (the Company). He has taken the plains. When they shall become masters of the whole of India, they will come for our forts (hills)"-The foreign policy of measured equidistance is still a feature of Nepal's foreign policy.
- "The Baadshah of the South (British Empire) is clever ("chatur") ....be aware of it/him ("ghaa rakhnu") "
- “He, with whom the people are pleased, he it is who is made Kazi (Prime Minister), so the shastras say"- Here he says that leaders need to have popular mandate.
- “Let the king see that great justice is done. Let there be no injustice in our country. Justice is crippled when bribes are given and when bribes are taken....whoever takes and received bribes are enemies of the state and people....there is no sin in confiscating all their property”
- “Do not let the merchants of Hinusthana (British- East India Company) come up from the border. If the merchants of India come to our country, they will make the people destitute. Forbid the use of cloth made in India. Show samples to those who know how to make our cloth. Teach them and begin to make clothing. If this is done, our money will not go abroad. Send our herbs to India and bring back money. When you acquire money, keep it. If the citizens are wealthy, the country is strong. The king's storehouse is his people. ” -Ironically during India's independence struggle Mahatma Gandhi employed the tactic of burning British cloth and spinning his own cloth as an act of defiance against the Economic Empire the British had set up which was the basis of their political empire in India.
- "With the bible comes the bayonet, with the merchant comes the musket"
- "Muglan (India) is near. In that place there are singers and dancers. In rooms lined with painting, they forget themselves in melodies woven on the drum and sitar. There is great pleasure in these melodies. But it drains your wealth and strength. They also take away the secrets of your country and deceive the poor. Let no one even practice the ragas. Let no one open the mountain trails for these clases of people. If they are needed for Holi, bring a few; but send them away quickly, and they will not discover your country's secrets."
- "Do not leave your stronghold and invade ("Jai katak nagarnu"), instead draw them into your area and then attack ("Jhiki katak garnu") "- Pragmatic realization of the absolute British technological and numerical superiority in warfare in the plains. Decades later this defensive holding tactic would be used by the hopelessly overstretched Gorkhali army in the Anglo-Nepal war along a frontier stretching from Sikkim in the East to Himachal in the West.
Approximate extent of the boundaries of Nepal after the death of King Prithvi Narayan Shah (marked with black perimeter)
Here is an excellent article on King Prithvi Narayan Shah
King Prithvi Narayan Shah's brilliance as a tactician, conquerer and a leader is further underscored by his victories against two external attacks by vastly superior forces. If Nepal had lost any one of these battles Nepal today would not exist.
The first attack was by the Nawab of Bengal Mir Qasim who invaded the infant state of Nepal in 1763 with 2,500 troops under the command of the fierce worrier Gurain Khan. In the ensuing battle of Makawanpur Gadhi 400 Gorkhali troops under Sardar Nandu Shah routed the invading army and captured a large cache of arms and ammunitions which were used in later campaigns.
Battle of Makawanpur Gadhi against Mir Qasim's forces:
During the unification campaign of Nepal king Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha had laid seize to the rich petty kingdoms of Katmandu valley. King Jaya Prakash Malla of Kathmandu sent an SOS to the British in Calcutta. In 1767 the Company dispatched a force of 3,000 with cannons under Capt George Kinloch to break king Prithvi Narayan's siege and come to the the aid of the king of Kathmandu. But this attacking force of the British was repulsed by Gorkhalis lying in wait at the fort on Sindhuli Gadhi. The British fled, leaving behind a large cache of arms. The British were chastened by the defeat. They didn’t attack Nepal again util much later under the pretext of a border dispute at the onset of the Anglo-Nepal war (below).
Prithvi Narayan Shah was clever, far-sighted and seemed concerned about the welfare of the citizenry, as is evidenced by his edicts ("If the subjects are well off the rulers are well off"). But on many occasions he could also be extremely vindictive and cruel. After defeating the hill fortress town of Kirtipur, he cut off the noses of all the male inhabitants of the city as retribution for defeating his Gorkhali forces twice in two successive battles which had claimed the life of his prime minister Kalu Pande and his brother. Prithvi Narayan Shah himself had nearly escaped death in one of the battles.
Still overall, Prithvi Narayan Shah, for a man of a country still economically and culturally medieval, was a liberal king. He aware of the diversity of his subjects and was accommodating of other cultures ("Nepal is a flower of 36 ethnicities"). After conquering Kathmandu Valley he immediately touched the feet of the Kumari as a symbolic gesture that tradition of the Newar kings would continue. This continues to this day with heads of state of Nepal, kings or presidents, seeking the blessing of the Kumari each year. He shifted the capital to Kathmandu and did not rename the country as "Gorkha," keeping the old Newar name Nepal. He also allowed the Limbus and Rais of the East, who had most ferociously resisted the Gorkhalis, to continue with their own ways unmolested. Otherwise a country as incredibly diverse as Nepal would not have held on as a single entity for much long.
Illustration of the Prithvi Narayan Shah kneeling before the Kumari and being crowned immediately after the battle of Kathmandu:
Part of the reason the Gorkhalis lost the lands between the Mahakali river and Sutlej is because the descendants of Prithvi Narayan Shah did not rule the subjects there justly. The Kumaonis, Gharwalis and Himachalis had to live under an extremely cruel Gorkhali rule. They had to pay unjust taxes and many were sold into slavery. When the British invaded, the people there rebelled and simply sided with the British. Perhaps if the successors of Prithvi Narayan Shah had been more conscious of justice as well as congizent of diversity like him, then the Kumaonis, Gharwalis and Himachalis would have also been successfully integrated into a Nepali nationhood like other ethnicities of Nepal.
But I am getting head of myself here. More on this later.
2) Bahadur Shah, Son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, Regent of Nepal
The younger son of King Prithivi Narayan Shah was not the actual king, his elder brother was. When King Pratap Singh Shah died he was made the regent of his baby nephew who would grow up to become the actual king after he came of age. It is said that Bahadur Shah inherited his father Prithvi Narayan Shah's acumen for strategy and conquest. Under his leadership Nepal expanded from Gandaki to Kaali river (the Western boundary of today's Nepal), then from Kaali to Ganga then to Yamuna in Uttarakhand state of India:
But his miscalculations and overstretch in Tibet caused Nepal to face a massive Chinese invasion by the huge Qing Empire Led by the legendary Chinese general Fuk'anggan, the Chinese army had reached to within 30 kilometre of Kathmandu and posed a threat to the very existence of the nascent state of Nepal. Bahadur Shah had to sue for peace.
The results of the war with the Chinese were thus:
Before, Nepalese coins circulated in Tibet and was the de facto currency of exchange there. After the Defeat to China, Nepal would have to forgo all ambitions in Tibet, accept Chinese control over Tibet, and (in principle) accept Qing suzerainty over Nepal as well. It would be more than half a century later (see below) when Nepal again invaded Tibet, effectively marking the end of Chinese control over Tibet. Then again, it would take the Chinese another century until the 1950s when they invaded, annexed and sealed off Tibet, this time completely ending two millennia of contacts between Nepal and Tibet for good.
A Chinese artist's depiction of the Sino-Nepalese war, in what is known in Chinese history as the "1st and 2nd pacification of the Gorkhas"
Eventually Bahadur Shah's nephew would come of age and became king. He accused Bahadur Shah of being the cause of defeat against the Chinese and embezzling state funds. Bahadur Shah was also accused of being far too friendly to the British because he had allowed a British Resident in Kathamandu as well as signed a treaty of Commerce with the British, two things that inevitably proceeded a full scale British invasion of the princely states of India. Bahadur Shah, chose not to follow the dictums of maintaining normal but distant relationship with the British given by his father Prithvi Narayan Shah. That would prove to be his downfall in the anti-British durbar of Nepal.
Bahadur Shah was imprisoned and brutally killed. Bahadur Shah would be the first in line of a long list of Nepal's aristocracy that would meet a tragic death either from factional infighting or at the hands of the enemy in the battlefield. Despite his other failings, Bahadur Shah was perhaps the second most important figure behind his father king Prithvi Narayan Shah in the expansion of the boundaries of Nepal and its survival against the British.
The expansionist tendencies of the Gorkhali empire would inevitably put it in direct conflict with the other expansionist empire at that time-- the British Empire. The map beloww shows how things stood at that time in the subcontinent on the eve of the Anglo-Nepal war.
Nepal stretched from Bhutan to Himachal. British Possessions in India at that time were: The Gangetic plains (UP, Bihar, Bengal, parts of Madhya Pradesh), down to the lands along the eastern coasts (Carnatic) of India and extending to the western coast of Malabar surrounding that other enemy state of the British- Mysore. States like Awadh (Oudh) in the north, Nizam of Hyderabad in the south and several smaller states were British protectorates.
Strategically, the Nepalese were clearly at a massive disadvantage. Nepal was smaller, poorer, landlocked and without a single ally. The Himalayas were impregnable and therefore the Gorkhalis would be fighting with their backs against the wall (Himalayas) without an option for retreat, resupply or respite.
Previously, calls had been made from the Gorkhali durbar to the the Marathas and the Sikhs for making a common cause against the British. However, each state had its own imperial aspirations and suspicions of the other. The Nepalese calls went unheeded. One could say that each state waited for a moment of Schadenfreude when the other would be defeated at the hands of the British. This was perhaps a major reason why the British were able to gain possession of the whole of India easily by picking off one kingdom after another.
Unlike the Nepalese, the British were able to draw on almost unlimited resources and manpower from its Indian possessions, its protectorates, as well as from its global empire. They also had a technologically superior army and protectorate states like Awadh, Hyderabad willing finance it's war efforts against Nepal.
The British invaded along five fronts along a frontier that stretched from Sutlej in Himachal to Tista river in Sikkim. The Nepalese were hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered at all fronts throughout the war.
At the end of the war, the British forces has prevailed decisively all along the far-Western fronts: Himachal, Gharwal and Kumaon. However, a staus-quo-ante-bellum had prevailed along the remaining three fronts that comprises todays Nepal with neither side gaining a decisive win.
If the Gorkhalis had also lost in the remaining three fronts, then like the countless kingdoms of India, like Marathas, Awadh, Hyderabad, Bengal, Punjab etc, that went on to become part of the British empire and eventually the Indian Union after the British left, Nepal too would become annexed to the British Empire and would not exist as an independent country today.
Still, in the end Nepal managed to retain her independence but had to cede territories along the fronts where there British had prevailed.
Now we go back to some of the other legendary heroes of Nepal during the war with the British because of whom Nepal escaped colonization.
3) Amar Singh Thapa, General and "Living Lion" of Nepal
Amar Singh Thapa further expanded the territories of Nepal all the way to Kangra in Himachal Pradesh (Today's India) from Kumaon and Gharwal:
He established the temple of Gangotri in Uttarakhand which is now one of the Char-Dhams (four religious places) for Hindus.
During the Anglo-Nepal war the British tried to bribe him by offering him to make the king of Kumaon, Gharwal and Himachal if he deserted to the British side. He responded by saying, "Bagh ko damaru hu, sino khane kukur nasamjha!" (I am a tiger, Dont take me for a dog that feeds on a dead carcass!). His dedication to the cause was total and his integrity unshakable.
He was unhappy with what he saw as Nepal's surrender of vast territories west of the MahaKali river: Kumaon-Gharwal-Himachal, for which he had campaigned tirelessly. So he left the Kathmandu court, became some sort of a sage and died in Gosaikunda in the Himalayas a broken man.
4) Captain Bal-Bhadra Kunwar
Before war with the British commenced, the British General Gillespie sent a letter to him at midnight at his fort in Khalanga, near Dehradoon (Uttarakhand in today's India) demanding that the Gorkhalis surrender. Balabhadra tore the letter saying, " it was not customary to receive or answer letters at such unreasonable hours." He further added that he would visit the English "sirdar" in his own camp and for now he only sends the English "sirdar" his "salaam". But that meeting was not to be as Rollo Gillespie was killed on first British advance towards the fort by a sniper as he was attempting to climb the walls of Nalapani Fort through a breach to rally his men.
During the war with the British Balbhadra and his men numbering 600 (including women and children) fought for weeks at Nalapani Fort outside Dehradoon against 4-5,000 British attackers and successfully held the fort. When the British realized they could not defeat the Gorkhalis in fair combat they simply cut off the water supply to the fort to force the Gorkhalis into submission. The 60 or so remaining Gorkhalis, hungry and thirsty for days, surrounded on all sides by 5,000 or so British soldiers and their reinforcements were faced with the hopelessness and inevitability of their situation. Finally Balabhadra with his remaining Gorkhalis simply opened the gates and then in the midst of the hail of cannon and musket fire fought their way out of the seize. Balabhadra roared to the British "You could have never won the battle but now I myself voluntarily abandon this fort. There is nothing inside the fort other than dead corpses of the children and women." The British gave chase but Balabhadra and the Gorkhalis disappeared into the nearly hills like ghosts.
When the British troops entered the fort, it was found, as Prinsep an accompanying British officer writes, in a "shocking state, full of the remains of men and women killed by the shot shells of our batteries; a number of wounded were likewise lying about, and the stench was intolerable."
Fraser recorded the situation in the following terms:
The determined resolution of the small party which held this small post for more than a month, against so comparatively large a force, must surely wring admiration from every voice, especially when the horrors of the latter portion of this time are considered; the dismal spectacle of their slaughtered comrades, the sufferings of their women and children thus immured with themselves, and the hopelessness of relief, which destroyed any other motive for their obstinate defence they made, than that resulting from a high sense of duty, supported by unsubdued courage. This, and a generous spirit of courtesy towards their enemy, certainly marked the character of the garrison of Kalunga, during the period of its siege.
Whatever the nature of the Ghorkhas may have been found in other quarters, there was here no cruelty to wounded or to prisoners; no poisoned arrows were used; no wells or waters were poisoned; no rancorous spirit of revenge seemed to animate them: they fought us in fair conflict, like men; and, in intervals of actual combat, showed us a liberal courtesy worthy of a more enlightened people.
So far from insulting the bodies of the dead and wounded, they permitted them to lie untouched, till carried away; and none were stripped, as is too universally the case.
After being thus rattled by the Gorkhalis led by Balbhadra, the British constructed a memorial to him ("Bulbudder") and the Gorkhalis at Nalapani remembering the gallantry of Balabhadra and his men. This is truly a unique in the annals of military history where commemoration columns extolling the enemy's bravery have been erected by the victorious side.
Rollo Gillespie, the British General slain at the battle of Nalapani had remarked: "Opinion is everything in such a country as India: and whenever the natives shall begin to lose their reverence for the English arms, our superiority in other respects will quickly sink into contempt."
In light of this kind of condescending British attitude towards the "natives," this commemorative structure is even more amazing.
"....as a tribute of respect for our gallant adversary Bulbudder Commander of the fort and his brave Gorkhas....."
The Khalanga fort, outside of Dehradoon where the battle of Nalapani took place:
Later at the war's conclusion Balabhadra was disillusioned with the Nepali court's signing of the Sugauli treaty and loss of about 40% of Nepal's land. He enlisted in the army of Punjab king Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who he saw as being the next person who had the capability to resist the British. He died fighting in the Punjab army against the Afghans around today's Pashtun areas of Pakistan's Peshawar.
5) Bhakti Thapa
One of the generals of the Gorkhali army. He handed over his grandson to Amar Singh Thapa (above) before heading out into the battle at Malaun fort. He was 74 when he died at the battle of Deothal at Malaun (Solan, Himachal Pradesh) charging at a British cannon. Even lying on the ground bleeding he still fought till his last breath. Impressed with the old man's bravery, the British returned his bullet ridden corpse to the Gorkhali camp with full honors.
The British soldier-poet, John Ship, had written during the war about the Gorkhas:
“I never saw more steadinesses or bravery exhibited in my life. Run they would not and of death they seemed to have no fear though their comrades were falling thick around them...”
Old Man Bhakti Thapa charging at a British cannon before his death. He was shot through the heart at point blank range, instantly killing him:
Here is a somewhat of a comical take on Bhakti Thapa which though is historically accurate is comical nonetheless.
Even after the war with the British, Nepal sovereignty rested precariously. Britain could have again invaded any time. It was the guile and courage of one man- Jung Bahadur Rana- that Nepal survived as an independent state when the British had completely consolidated their rule from Khaybar pass to Bengal and Kashmir to Kanyakumari, through the entire length and breath of India.
6) Jung Bahadur Rana, Prime Minister of the Rana Dynasty
The founder of the autocratic Rana dynasty who helped the British suppress the Indian mutiny, thereby causing the British to recognize Nepal's de-facto independence in return. Jung had always been viscerally anti-British and a secret proponent of gaining back the lands lost to the British in the Ango-Nepal War. The opportune time came when the British sought assistance from Nepal during their bleakest time in Indian Mutiny of 1857. Jung personally rode at the front of a 9,000 strong force and went about subduing the mutineersthroughout North India.
In return for helping the British he managed to regain for Nepal some of the territories lost to the British during the war. These lands today form the four low lying Western districts of Nepal (Banke, Bardiya, Kailai, Kanchanpur):
Jung Bahadur also beat the Tibetans shaking off the Chinese suzerainty over Nepal. As an outcome of this war, duty free access to Nepalese goods in Tibet as well as unrestricted rights of Nepalese to trade and free movement of Nepalese people in Tibet was again secured. However, the use of Nepalese coins as in the previous centuries could not be achieved. This arrangement would last until a century later when the Chinese People's liberation army invaded Tibet in 1951.
Jung had previously travelled to Europe, meet Queen Victoria, and then straight after with Emperor Napoleon of France, imperial Britain's bitter arch-rivals at that time, further asserting Nepal's independence with the British. After his tour of Britain, Jung was ever more cognizant of the British imperial might and the need to tread carefully in Nepal's relationship with the British. His decision to aid the British against the mutineers in 1857, with whom Jung as well as the Kathmandu durbar had much sympathy, was borne out of this practical realization.
Jung also erected border pillars all along the borders with the British to clearly delineate the boundary between Nepal and British-India. Overlapping claims in Oudh was the raison d'etre that the British had declared war on Nepal. Jung wanted clearly demarcated borders in order to avoid a similar confrontation in the future. A border dotted by these pillars served as further assertion of the independence of Nepal.
These "Junge pillars" still exist today and continue to serve as boundary demarcation at the Indo-Nepal Border:
However, before becoming the absolute ruler of Nepal Jung had carried out the Kot Massacre eliminating almost all of Nepal's ruling aristocrats. His rule ushered in 100 years of Rana oligarchy which reduced the kings to figureheads and stagnated development and social progress in Nepal (Others blame his brothers, the Shamshers).
Of course there are also many, many other legendary personalities (Damodar Pande, Kalu Pande, Ranjor Singh, Gambhir Singh Rayamajhi, Bakthawar Singh etc) besides the above because of whom Nepal remaining uncolonized, but I shall not mention them in this post because they are too numerous to cover.
Hindustan also had courageous leaders like the Maratha Peshwas, Ranjit Singh of Punjab etc who heroically opposed the British. Still there are many factors which caused India to be colonized and not Nepal (it was not for a lack of heroic warriors):