The Three Kingdoms

Nepal Table of Contents

After 1482, a crucial date in Nepalese history, the kingdom became divided. At first, the six sons of Yakshamalla attempted to reign collegially, in their grandfathers' pattern. Ratnamalla was the first to rebel against this system of joint rule, seizing Kathmandu in 1484 and ruling there alone until his death in 1520. Rayamalla, the eldest brother, ruled Bhadgaon with the other brothers until his death, when the crown there passed into the hands of his descendants. Banepa broke away under Ramamalla until its reincorporation into the Bhadgaon kingdom in 1649. Patan remained aloof, dominated by factions of its local nobility, until Sivasimhamalla, a descendant of Ratnamalla, conquered it in 1597 and united it with Kathmandu. On his death, however, Kathmandu and Patan were given to different grandsons and again separated. The center of Nepal thus remained split into three competing kingdoms, roughly based on Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. The influence of these petty kingdoms outside the valley varied over time. Bhadgaon extended its feeble power as far as the Dudh Kosi in the east, Kathmandu controlled areas to the north and as far west as Nuwakot, and Patan included territories to the south as far as Makwanpur. The relationships among the kingdoms within the valley became quite convoluted. Although all three ruling houses were related and periodically intermarried, their squabbles over miniscule territorial gains or ritual slights repeatedly led to warfare. The kings attended coronation rituals or marriages at each other's capitals and then plotted the downfalls of their relatives.

The period of the three kingdoms--the time of the later Mallas--lasted until the mid-eighteenth century. The complete flowering of the unique culture of the Kathmandu Valley occurred during this period, and it was also during this time that the old palace complexes in the three main towns achieved much of their present-day forms. The kings still based their legitimate rule on their role as protectors of dharma, and often they were devout donors to religious shrines. Kings built many of the older temples in the valley, gems of late medieval art and architecture, during this late Malla period. Buddhism remained a vital force for much of the population, especially in its old seat of Patan. Religious endowments called guthi arranged for long-term support of traditional forms of worship or ritual by allowing temple or vihara lands to pass down through generations of the same families; this support resulted in the preservation of a conservative art, architecture, and religious literature that had disappeared in other areas of South Asia. Newari was in regular use as a literary language by the fourteenth century and was the main language in urban areas and trading circles based in the Kathmandu Valley. Maithili, the language of the Tirhut area to the south, became a popular court language during the seventeenth century and still was spoken by many people in the Tarai in the late twentieth century. In the west, Khas bhasha, or the language of the Khasa, was slowly expanding, only later to evolve into present-day Nepali.

The final centuries of Malla rule were a time of great political change outside the Kathmandu Valley. In India overlordship in Delhi fell to the powerful Mughal Dynasty (1526-1858). Although the Mughals never exercised direct lordship over Nepal, their empire had a major indirect impact on its institutional life. During the sixteenth century, when the Mughals were spreading their rule over almost all of South Asia, many dispossessed princes from the plains of northern India found shelter in the hills to the north.

Legends indicated that many small principalities in western Nepal originated in migration and conquest by exiled warriors, who added to the slow spread of the Khasa language and culture in the west. Along with these exiles came Mughal military technology, including firearms and artillery, and administrative techniques based on land grants in return for military service. The influence of the Mughals is reflected in the weapons and dress of Malla rulers in contemporary paintings and in the adoption of Persian terminology for administrative offices and procedures throughout Nepal.

Meanwhile, in Tibet domestic struggles during the 1720s led to decisive intervention by the powerful Qing rulers of China (1644-1911). A Chinese force installed the sixth Dalai Lama (the highest ranking Tibetan religious leaders) in Lhasa in 1728, and thereafter the Chinese stationed military governors (amban) in Lhasa to monitor local events. In 1729 representatives of the three Nepalese kingdoms sent greetings and presents to the Chinese emperor in Beijing, after which the Qing viewed Nepal as an outlying tributary kingdom (a perception not shared within Nepal). The expansion of big empires in both the north and south thus took place during a time when Nepal was experiencing considerable weakness in its traditional center. The three kingdoms lived a charmed life--isolated, independent, and quarreling in their mountain valley--as the systems around them became larger and more centralized.

By the seventeenth century, the mountain areas to the north of the valley and the Kiranti region to the east were the only areas that maintained traditional tribal communal systems, influenced to various degrees by Hindu ideas and practices. In the west and the south of the three kingdoms, there were many petty states ruled by dynasties of warrior (Kshatriya) status, many claiming an origin among princely, or Rajput, dynasties to the south. In the near west, around the Narayani River system (the Narayani was one of the seven Gandak rivers), there was a loose confederation of principalities called the Chaubisi (the Twenty-four), including Makwanpur and Palpa. In the far west, around the Karnali River system, there was a separate confederation called the Baisi (the Twenty-two), headed by the raja of Jumla. The confederations were in constant conflict, and their member states were constantly quarreling with each other. The kingdoms of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon periodically allied themselves with princes among these confederations. All of these small, increasingly militarized states were operating individually at a higher level of centralized organization than ever before in the hills, but they were expending their resources in an almost anarchic struggle for survival. There was an awareness of the distinct culture of the Himalayan area but no real concept of Nepal as a nation.

The first contacts between the people of Nepal and Europeans also occurred during the period of the later Mallas. The Portuguese missionaries John Cabral and Stephen Cacella visited Lhasa in 1628, after which Cabral traveled to Nepal. The first Capuchin mission was founded in Kathmandu in 1715. These contacts, however, affected only a miniscule number of people. Of far greater importance was the growth of British power in India, notably in Bengal to the southeast of Nepal, during the eighteenth century. By 1764 the British East India Company, officially a private trading corporation with its own army, had obtained from a decaying Mughal Empire the right to govern all of Bengal, at that time one of the most prosperous areas in Asia. The company explored possibilities for expanding its trade or authority into Nepal, Bhutan, and toward Tibet, where the Nepalese had their own trading agencies in important settlements. The increasingly powerful company was emerging as a wild card that could in theory be played by one or more of the kingdoms in Nepal during local struggles, potentially opening the entire Himalayan region to British penetration.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress