THE RANI FROM RUKUM

Rukum is a scenic hill district of western Nepal where one of the Chaubisi Rajyas or 24 small fiefdoms held sway before unification. Ruled by the Thakuris or the heads of the local clans it was finally absorbed into unified Nepal sometime during the rule of Regent Bahadur Shah. Since then it has been a common practice in the Shah and Rana courts bringing the Thakuri girls from faraway places such as Rukum for an upbringing in the royal households, educating them in palace etiquette, teaching them the culinary arts and instilling in them the love of music and poetry for the purpose of eventually marrying them to the young princes of the house. The girls left their homes and their parents early and made a new life among their peers and minders in the Durbars of Kathmandu. This was the tradition of Dola Palne.

Thapathai Durbar of Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana circa 1852 A.D.

This young girl of six or seven from Rukum who was brought to Kathmandu was taken to the Thapathali Durbar of Jung Bahadur Rana, prime minister and paramount ruler of Nepal then. It was a great privilege for the parents of the little girl to have their offspring selected as one of the Dola to be given in matrimony to her future prince charming. Her future would be bright now as her life in poor hilly Rukum would have meant lack of opportunity and eventual drudgery, even in the higher strata of local society. Her good karma or fate had been sealed and she was named Karma Kumari. 


Jung Bahadur Kunwar Ranaji and his seven brothers were ruling the roost then. He as prime minister and his younger brothers headed in various capacities both the military and civil administration of the land. His youngest brother Dhir Shumsher Rana was Jung’s favorite and he used to call him sano nani with affection. Jung had taken state power in a coup de’tat under the blessing of the Junior Queen of Nepal, Rajya Luxmi Devi in 1846 A.D. in the now infamous Kot Parba. Jung and his brothers amassed a fortune subsequently in land revenues, Gurkha repatriation from the British Raj in India and his clever policy of ingratiating himself with the British rulers that reached its zenith in the Lucknow loot. However, Dhir Shumsher as the youngest brother did not have much wealth when he started raising his very large family. Dhir’s first wedded wife had died at childbirth leaving him a healthy baby boy and his eldest brother Jung had taken pity and Jung’s favorite mistress Putali Maharani had adopted him and raised him as her own. The baby was named Narbir Jung. The baby would grow up to become famous in Nepalese history as Bir Shumsher, Maharajah and Prime Minister of Nepal 1886 – 1901 A.D.

Dhir remarried and started to raise a family. The girl from Rukum Karma was raised in Dhir’s household in the Thapathali Durbar Complex. Roll of the cosmic dice would make her a future spouse of Dhir’s second boy Dev Shumsher.  Born in 1862 A.D. Dev was adopted by his rich uncle General Krishna Bahadur Kunwar Ranaji. After he came of age Dev married Karma Kumari Devi the dola and childhood friend around 1875 A.D. Dev and Karma both led a very charmed and luxurious life far removed from the penury of his own siblings as his biological father Dhir was still struggling to make ends meet. Karma Kumari was kind-hearted and generous. He raised her own family in Thapathali Durbar and took care of them well as her husband was busy doing military duty in different parts of the country. A few years later Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana passed away and the prime minister’s post went to his 5th surviving brother Ranoddip Singh Ranaji.

Dev Shumsher with Karma Kumari and family

The fissures in the Rana family started to grow. On the one hand were the powerful scions of Maharajah Jung’s family, with untold wealth and Royal connections through marriage. On the other was the family of General Dhir Shumsher, Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese army and the confident strongman fortressing the reticent nature of his brother the prime minister Ranoddip. Dev and Karma Kumari were caught in between the proverbial rock and hard place. Dev belonged to Dhir’s family but was closer to Jung’s due to his adoption. At this time Dhir Shumsher passed away leaving behind his vulnerable family to the scheming of the Jung family and, worse still, with a few of his sons at a very young age. His youngest wife was Rani Juhar Kumari and from her a son Juddha was born. Karma worried about his plight and what would happen to him in the absence of his father and in the care of a young widow without much means. She decided to look after Juddha and her mother. Karma knew how her husband had the good fortune of being cared for by the Rani of Krishna Bahadur Ranaji and Dev’s elder half-brother Bir Shumsher by Putali Maharani of Maharajah Jung Bahadur. This was her chance to pay back to the Gods for the benevolence shown to her dear husband.

Rani Karma Kumari

Karma Kumari was convinced that more political space needed to be given to the common people. In Japan the Meiji Restoration had stripped the ruling Shoguns of power and the Emperor was restored to rule. In India following political dissent the British were on the verge of allowing the registration of the Indian National Congress Party which was eventually founded in 1885 A.D. Serfdom had been abolished in Russia by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 A.D. Karma Kumari had her ears close to the ground as she dealt with people from many walks of life that her husband was not privy to. She used to openly discuss the issues of bonded labour and free education to the masses with her husband and try to convince him to help bring about political reforms by talking to his cousins, sons of Jung Bahadur Rana. From her own resources she provided shelter and drinking water to weary travellers on the Thangkot to Amlekhganj trail. Karma was compassionate and Dev a bon vivant and his motto was ‘Live and Let Live’. They were a good match.

There is a universal truism about the good being the first to go. Nepal in the 1880’s was still a backward place in terms of medical care and there were any number of diseases that swiftly brought about the one inescapable fate – death. Karma Kumari passed away in her early twenties in 1886 A.D. leaving behind two young sons. Dev soon remarried and his second wife Krishna Kumari was the daughter of King Surendra Bir Bikram Shah, the king of Nepal from his youngest wife Maharani Punya Kumari Devi, the daughter of General Krishna Bahadur Ranaji, Dev’ adoptive father. Life has got a habit of coming full circle! Karma Kumari would not know the joy of being the Maharani after Dev was crowned the Maharajah of Kaski and Lamjung and Prime Minister in 1901 A.D. nor would she know the heartache of witnessing her husband removed from power after just three months of rule!

Coronation Ceremony portrait of Maharajah Dev Shumsher with H.M. King Prithivi Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal (center) 

Epilogue

Ex-maharajah Dev Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana lived in exile in Jharipani, Mussoorie which was once part of Nepali Gahrwal in what is today the Indian state of Uttarakhand and died there. His children were not allowed to return to Nepal by his brothers Chandra Shumsher and Bhim Shumsher who had exiled him due to his bold moves to bring in a more liberal political dispensation. It was Maharajah Juddha Shumsher who rehabilitated the descendants of his brother Dev and restored their properties and military careers. He was eternally grateful to his foster mother Rani Karma Kumari Devi for looking after him in his hour of need!   

Statue of Rani Karma Kumari commissioned by Maharajah Juddha and cast by Domenico Tonelli in London

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