31 December, 2015

The far-sighted Divine Advice of Prithivi Narayan Shah

On Sunday, January 21, 2014, the letter section of the Kantipur newspaper carried this small comment from one Taranath Gautam of Kalanki:

“Prithivi Narayan Shah, who did not let firangis come near him, has been portrayed in history by foreign writers like Angelo, Guiseppe, Kirkpatrick, Hamilton, Wright, Oldfield, Vensitart and others.” Then he went on to say (I am paraphrasing here, since I can’t remember his exact words): These writers have come to portray as fact that “all males lost their noses in Kirtipur”, and this has been passed down as history. But we should examine more critically how Prithivi Narayan Shah, who wouldn’t let a firangi come near him, may have been viewed by these writers.

Now this little letter, written in Nepali, was a shock of cold air. Reading the line again in Nepali, I realized that “all males lost their noses” is a colloquial way of saying “all men were humiliated.” But like all the other Western educated people like me, I’d assumed that it was a literal fact, and that Prithivi Narayan Shah had physically mutilated the Kirtipurians. But for someone who was looking to unite, rather than divide, why would he alienate this one town for no reason? 

For the highly educated English, Italian and lord knows which other gentlemen of which nationalities passing through to capture Nepal’s history, this line apparently came to mean “all men literally lost their noses.”

In other words, folks, this appears to be a great historical fallacy of rather grave proportions that has remained uncorrected and passed down as fact, a fallacy that has been bolstered by the unquestioned supremacy of Western epistemology.

But if you repeat that sentence in Nepali, you will immediately realize that it is likely a simple misunderstanding of a linguistic metaphor, written down as fact by someone who didn’t speak the language too well (or perhaps not at all).

Secondly, it seems Prithivi Narayan Shah may have been rather justified in his advice (which can be seen to be xenophobic, but in fact history has provide him to be right): firangis who don’t understand your language can distort the meaning of words, and end up writing “history” that will cause strife and bitterness for generations afterwards. I've met Newars who thought that Prithivi Narayan Shah committed a war crime of grave proportions in Kirtipur--when in fact history seems to suggest he went around his conquest with the minimal amount of harm to human lives. Why else would he choose a day when all the Newar population was lying drunk on Indra Jatra for his Kathmandu takeover? 

In other words, stay away from firangis sounds like rather Divine Advice, with the benefit of hindsight, almost two centuries after the grand old man’s demise.

The unbelievable number of firangis that have come through and denigrated Prithivi Narayan Shah and his Gorkhali empire, from academic institutions from Nowhere, USA to bright young sparks from India with great ambitions to rule present day Nepal, all seem to prove one thing: that man forged a nation of such unbelievable flexibility and loyalties no firangi’s going to break up this one.

You gotta give to PNS—whatever he was thinking in the 1700s, this one was unbelievably farsighted man who saw the implications of his work centuries and centuries later. The flower garden stays strong and it keeps flowering, despite (or perhaps because of) all attempts to break it up.

A hundred bouquets of flowers and a garland of flowers followed, but note Bairagi Kaila, even in a Republican mood, has paid homage to the flower garden.

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