The Early Kingdom of the Licchavis

Nepal Table of Contents

In the late fifth century, rulers calling themselves Licchavis began to record details on politics, society, and economy in Nepal. The Licchavis were known from early Buddhist legends as a ruling family during the Buddha's time in India, and the founder of the Gupta Dynasty claimed that he had married a Licchavi princess. Perhaps some members of this Licchavi family married members of a local royal family in the Kathmandu Valley, or perhaps the illustrious history of the name prompted early Nepalese notables to identify themselves with it. In any case, the Licchavis of Nepal were a strictly local dynasty based in the Kathmandu Valley and oversaw the growth of the first truly Nepalese state.

The earliest known Licchavi record, an inscription of Manadeva I, dates from 464, and mentions three preceding rulers, suggesting that the dynasty began in the late fourth century. The last Licchavi inscription was in A.D. 733. All of the Licchavi records are deeds reporting donations to religious foundations, predominantly Hindu temples. The language of the inscriptions is Sanskrit, the language of the court in north India, and the script is closely related to official Gupta scripts. There is little doubt that India exerted a powerful cultural influence, especially through the area called Mithila, the northern part of present-day Bihar State. Politically, however, India again was divided for most of the Licchavi period.

To the north, Tibet grew into an expansive military power through the seventh century, declining only by 843. Some early historians, such as the French scholar Sylvain LÚvi, thought that Nepal may have become subordinate to Tibet for some time, but more recent Nepalese historians, including Dilli Raman Regmi, deny this interpretation. In any case, from the seventh century onward a recurring pattern of foreign relations emerged for rulers in Nepal: more intensive cultural contacts with the south, potential political threats from both India and Tibet, and continuing trade contacts in both directions.

The Licchavi political system closely resembled that of northern India. At the top was the "great king" (maharaja), who in theory exercised absolute power but in reality interfered little in the social lives of his subjects. Their behavior was regulated in accordance with dharma through their own village and caste councils. The king was aided by royal officers led by a prime minister, who also served as a military commander. As the preserver of righteous moral order, the king had no set limit for his domain, whose borders were determined only by the power of his army and statecraft--an ideology that supported almost unceasing warfare throughout South Asia. In Nepal's case, the geographic realities of the hills limited the Licchavi kingdom to the Kathmandu Valley and neighboring valleys and to the more symbolic submission of less hierarchical societies to the east and west. Within the Licchavi system, there was ample room for powerful notables (samanta) to keep their own private armies, run their own landholdings, and influence the court. There was thus a variety of forces struggling for power. During the seventh century, a family known as the Abhira Guptas accumulated enough influence to take over the government. The prime minister, Amsuvarman, assumed the throne between approximately 605 and 641, after which the Licchavis regained power. The later history of Nepal offers similar examples, but behind these struggles was growing a long tradition of kingship.

The economy of the Kathmandu Valley already was based on agriculture during the Licchavi period. Artworks and place-names mentioned in inscriptions show that settlements had filled the entire valley and moved east toward Banepa, west toward Tisting, and northwest toward present-day Gorkha. Peasants lived in villages (grama) that were administratively grouped into larger units (dranga). They grew rice and other grains as staples on lands owned by the royal family, other major families, Buddhist monastic orders (sangha), or groups of Brahmans (agrahara). Land taxes due in theory to the king were often allocated to religious or charitable foundations, and additional labor dues (vishti) were required from the peasantry in order to keep up irrigation works, roads, and shrines. The village head (usually known as pradhan, meaning a leader in family or society) and leading families handled most local administrative issues, forming the village assembly of leaders (panchalika or grama pancha). This ancient history of localized decision making served as a model for late twentieth-century development efforts.

One of the most striking features of present-day Kathmandu Valley is its vibrant urbanism, notably at Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon (also called Bhaktapur), which apparently goes back to ancient times. During the Licchavi period, however, the settlement pattern seems to have been much more diffuse and sparse. In the present-day city of Kathmandu, there existed two early villages--Koligrama ("Village of the Kolis," or Yambu in Newari), and Dakshinakoligrama ("South Koli Village," or Yangala in Newari)--that grew up around the valley's main trade route. Bhadgaon was simply a small village then called Khoprn (Khoprngrama in Sanskrit) along the same trade route. The site of Patan was known as Yala ("Village of the Sacrificial Post," or Yupagrama in Sanskrit). In view of the four archaic stupas on its outskirts and its very old tradition of Buddhism, Patan probably can claim to be the oldest true center in the nation. Licchavi palaces or public buildings, however, have not survived. The truly important public sites in those days were religious foundations, including the original stupas at Svayambhunath, Bodhnath, and Chabahil, as well as the shrine of Shiva at Deopatan, and the shrine of Vishnu at Hadigaon.

There was a close relationship between the Licchavi settlements and trade. The Kolis of present-day Kathmandu and the Vrijis of present-day Hadigaon were known even in the Buddha's time as commercial and political confederations in north India. By the time of the Licchavi kingdom, trade had long been intimately connected with the spread of Buddhism and religious pilgrimage. One of the main contributions of Nepal during this period was the transmission of Buddhist culture to Tibet and all of central Asia, through merchants, pilgrims, and missionaries. In return, Nepal gained money from customs duties and goods that helped to support the Licchavi state, as well as the artistic heritage that made the valley famous.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress