An Englishman in the court of Nepal


By Rana Subodh.


The old Englishman was very fond of Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana. He reminisced about how the brash youngster attached to the retinue of Crown Prince Surendra had performed impossible feats the feckless prince commanded of him. He had heard that Jung jumped from the Trishuli bridge on a horse into the raging river below. At another time the prince had demanded that Jung jump into a deep well. The most fabled feat was the daredevil jump from the Dharahara tower built by Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa to commemorate Nepal’s Pyrrhic victory over East India Company a decade earlier. Jung performed his jump harnessed to two huge umbrellas. Jung had escaped unscathed. Hodgson pondered whether these stories were factually true.

British Residency in Nepal

Unfortunately he, Hodgson, had played a hand in the downfall of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa and the eclipse of his family including his grand-nephew Jung Bahadur, now Nepal’s strongman. Politics was dirty. Since the opening of the residency in 1816 A.D. a year after the Treaty of Sugauly ended the Anglo-Nepal war, it fell on the British Resident to make sure Nepal was pliable and another misfortune would not occur that could bring renewed clash as some segment of the Nepalese court was still smarting from the bitter defeat. There were those clamoring for revenge. As Assistant Resident to Gardner since 1924 and Resident in Nepal since 1833 A.D. Brian Hodgson had received strict orders from his superiors to make sure the “right” side won in Nepal’s fluid politics.

Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa was an old man and had held sway over much of Nepalese politics through four decades of some of the most tumultuous period in its history: from the downfall of Damodar Pandey and incarceration of Queen Subarna Prabha to the Regency of Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari and coming of age of King Rajendra Bikram Shah. Smack in between was the disastrous war the expanding Gorkha state fought with the British East India Company. Bhimsen somehow survived this debacle and continued to rule. Hodgson and his masters in Calcutta including Governor-General Auckland were already getting weary of Bhimsen who was still the head of a very large standing army.

Brian Houghton Hodgson was born in 1801, second of seven siblings, and lived in England 18 years of his life before arriving in India employed by the East India Company. He learned Persian to make himself useful to his employers as it was the lingua franca among the rulers of the indigenous Indian states then. After postings from Calcutta to Kumaon and Garhwal, erstwhile Nepalese provinces ceded after the Treaty of Sugauly to British India, Hodgson first arrived in Nepal to take up the post of post-master and then got promoted as assistant resident in Kathmandu. Under the treaty of Sugauly following the Anglo-Nepalese War Nepal was obliged to open a British Residency in Kathmandu. Hodgson felt like he was more of a prisoner than an emissary as he was confined to live in the residency and his every move carefully monitored by Bhimsen. He had to take a special permission to visit Kakani or Godavari in the valley foothills in pursuit of his hobby of documenting the many ethnic groups of Nepal and studying its flora and fauna. He decided to learn how to read and write Nepali and speak Newari too, the tongue of the indigenous people of Kathmandu valley.

King Rajendra Bikram Shah came of age in 1832 A.D. the same year his step grandmother Regent Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari passed away. He was seen as a friend of British India and always maintained a cordial relationship with Resident Brian Hodgson. By 1837 he had consolidated power and stripped Bhimsen Thapa and his nephew Mathabir Singh Thapa of their military command. This was what the East India Company wanted as threat to armed conflict was ever present under those leaders. Shortly thereafter the youngest baby of senior queen Samrajya Luxmi died and Bhimsen was falsely implicated in poisoning the prince. He was imprisoned and had to undergo untold of humiliation and privations. Mathabir exiled himself to the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh of the Punjab. His entire family was in disarray now including the fortunes of those dependent on him such as his grand-nephew Jung Bahadur Rana. Bhimsen had finally committed suicide in prison.

Lord Auckland

Reflecting on those tumultuous years at the court in Kathmandu Hodgson now regretted that he had not stepped in to save Bhimsen Thapa. He had received smuggled letters from Bhimsen himself from prison to help him by proclaiming his innocence to King Rajendra but Hodgson had not acted upon them. One of the reasons was that by 1840 A.D. Lord Auckland had asked him to stay clear of the internal politics of Nepal as he believed that as long as the military forces of East India Company were superior, the British need not fear Nepal. Notwithstanding this edict Hodgson had sent his superiors request to intercede on behalf of Bhimsen but it was too late now. When the news of Bhimsen’s suicide was delivered to the residency, Hodgson’s eyes had welled up with tears of sympathy for the innocent, unfortunate man.

All that was behind Hodgson now. He had been removed from his post in Kathmandu by the new Governor-General Lord Ellenborough over his unfortunate decision to delay delivery of a letter from Calcutta to the king as he felt it would weaken the British position. It had come at a most inappropriate time too when his Kashmiri wife Meharunnisha was giving birth to their third child. The Raki Bazaar in Asantole in Kathmandu sells bangles and other ornaments and Kashmiri Muslims were the vendors there from the time of the Malla kings. He had fallen in love with a young girl from this community and taken her as his bride. Piqued, he had resigned from Company employment and headed back home to England in 1844 A.D.

Lord Ellenborough

After a year of rest and family visits Hodgson returned to India. As the government did not allow him to set foot in Nepal even in a private capacity, he decided to retire in Darjeeling to pursue his interests in the Himalayas. It was here that news travelled to Hodgson on the Kot Massacre of 1846 A.D. and emergence of General Jung Bahadur Rana as the new strongman. When leaving Nepal Hodgson had sensed that something cataclysmic would happen there soon with a power struggle taking place among the ineffectual king, an ambitious junior queen Rajya Luxmi Devi, an excessively reckless Crown Prince Surendra and their scheming courtiers.

Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana needed someone he could count on to advocate on his behalf with British India. He did not know the new Resident Henry Lawrence well enough. Hodgson was the person Jung could rely on due to his in-depth knowledge of Nepal. Hodgson was now living in Darjeeling and pursuing his study on Himalayan anthropology, ethnology and natural history as a serious scholar, far away from the vicissitudes of Kathmandu politics. Hodgson congratulated Jung and promised assistance. Jung was delighted. His first gesture of friendship was to include the son of Hodgson in his retinue during his epochal visit to England at the invitation of Queen Victoria in 1850 A.D. He personally presented Henry to the queen for which Hodgson was forever grateful.

Hodgson’s bust in Asiatic Society,


Thereafter the bond between the Englishman and Nepal’s ruler was firmly cemented. Hodgson looked after Jung’s daughter Badan Kumari and his son-in-law Gajraj Singh Thapa when they went to study tea gardening. They were the pioneers of the tea industry in Nepal. During the Indian Mutiny it was Hodgson who impressed upon the hard-pressed yet unsure Governor-General Lord Canning to accept Nepal’s aid in fighting the mutineers in Lucknow. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur wanted to show gratitude to Britain for its friendship and good behaviour shown towards Nepal. Jung Bahadur personally led a troop of 9,000 Gurkha soldiers to the door of Lucknow. Shortly thereafter Hodgson decided to return to England as his newly married English wife Anne Scott was of poor health and could not take to the Indian climate. Even from faraway England Hodgson kept in touch with Jung Bahadur and gave him advice when solicited. Brian Hodsgon outlived his protege and passed away in 1894 A.D. in London.



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