Bishnu Shumsher was born with the proverbial golden spoon in his mouth. The eldest son of Maharani Bal Kumari Devi, the second wife of Maharajah Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal, Vishnu was the first son born after Chandra inherited the post of Prime Minister of Nepal and Maharajah of Kaski and Lamjung in 1901 A.D. Chandra already had five sons from his first Rani but they had been born when Chandra was emerging as the pre-eminent force in Nepali Rana politics. Unfortunately, Rani Loke Bhakta Devi died in 1905 A.D. only 4 years after he ascended to the highest post in the land. It is said that the Rani had beseeched Chandra to re-marry as she had young children to be taken care of. Her youngest, Krishna, was only 5 years old. 

Major General Bishnu Shumsher J. B. Rana

Bishnu was born on 13th November 1906, an apple of his father’s eye. Early childhood was spent in the opulence of Singha Durbar, the palace his father built after coming to power, a veritable Versailles in Asia of the time. He had a strong personality and did not take “no” for an answer easily. He had a tendency of rebelling against the strict discipline that was instilled on the children by his austere father and mother and many times got into trouble for it. After his younger siblings Shanker and Madan were born, he was the leader of the pack.

Maharajah Chandra Shumsher Maharani Bal Kumari Devi with their sons Bishnu and Shanker

Chandra Shumsher had a long rule of 29 years, the longest serving prime minister of Nepal after his uncle Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana, the founder of the dynasty. He was an able administrator and brought Nepal recognition by the British Empire as an independent country when the rest of South Asia was firmly under British colonial rule. He participated in the First World War on the side of the British by sending almost 200,000 troops to fight as part of the British Indian Army. In 1917, the Mahindra Dal Battalion and the 1st Rifle Battalion were involved in the Waziristan War when the area was a New World Frontier of British India. Nepalese troops under his second son General Baber Shumsher also went to the aid of British troops in 1919 during the Afghanistan War. He invested in Indian companies and amassed a fortune which he liberally distributed to his sons and daughters. It is said that towards the end of his long tenure he bestowed on his 8 sons in cash and in kind an astronomical sum of 9 Crore Nepali Rupees each to insure them against the vagaries of time and fortune. Chandra had clearly observed how the descendants of Jung Bahadur had suffered an unimaginable fate that left them destitute. His own elder brothers Khadga and Dev had lost out on the race to power. 

Bishnu married Rani Urmilla Rajya Luxmi Devi in the early 1920’s. He was commissioned in the Nepal Army as Major General in 1924 A.D. He served in the Nepal Army and Administration in various capacities until the death of his father Maharajah Chandra. Chandra built for the 3 sons their opulent palaces in the Patan side of Kathmandu Valley, in Pulchowk area, Shri Mahal, Shri Durbar and Shankar Mahal. Things were rosy for the favorite son until his uncle Bhim Shumsher became prime minister following his father’s passing. 

Bishnu Shumsher and Rani Urmilla

Nepal’s elite hit the high note whenever they visited Calcutta, today’s Kolkata, as the city that had been the capital of the British Raj in India, was still a vibrant cosmopolitan city. That’s where they traveled for fun, for the movies, for the restaurants and bars, the photo studios, the race course, and medical treatment. It was during one of his forays there it is rumored that Bishnu, the bon vivant, ate beef at Firpo’s, a trendy Italian restaurant started by Angelo Firpo in 1917 A.D. This was totally unacceptable in the puritanical upper ruling classes of Ksatriyas and Brahmins of the time as it would besmirch the good family reputation. Somebody brought it to the notice of his uncle the prime minister. Maharajah Bhim was beside himself with fury at Bishnu’s transgression and promptly removed him from the Rana Roll of Succession and stripped him of his Army rank. Bishnu was a proud man and, not given to sycophancy, did not plead his case and decided to leave Nepal for good. The year was 1931 A.D.

Firpo’s Restaurant in Chowringhee, Calcutta circa 1950

Thus began a peripatetic journey for the young ‘maharajkumar’ or prince as his military title was snatched away. The journey would take him first to India, then to England and would end in the Bahamas when he was just 40 years old. It is a fascinating story that would read like a fairy tale if it was not true. The story began in a steamer that headed out from Calcutta to England via Aden and the Suez Canal. The steamer rocked and rolled across the turbulent seas presaging a roller coaster ride for passenger Bishnu’s life in exile. Bishnu took his wife with him and settled in the prestigious Berkeley Square in London. His only child Pitamber was born in Marylebone, London in August 1931.

King George V was reigning over the British Empire that still had its ‘Jewel in the Crown’ Indian colony and far-flung dominions so that the sun never set in the empire. England had recovered from the ravages of the First World War but the Great Depression had set in. Unemployment and poverty blighted the landscape. Enter Bishnu with his treasure chest believed to be in the vicinity of 3 million Pound Sterling! With his high flying social life he became a darling of the glitterati and the sensation-seeking media. Free-spending Bishnu started appearing in many a newspaper headline cavorting with starlets in clubs frequented by high society and even royalty of the time. It is said that many a time Bishnu was in circles the Prince of Wales frequented in the company of his lady love the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Enters Sandra Rambeau into this high society milieu! An American Hollywood starlet from Springfield, Missouri, she was a chorus girl in many a nightclub act from London to Monte Carlo. She was seen in the company of Duke of Kent frequently and even received some expensive piece of jewelry from him. Bishnu started dating this starlet in earnest to the extent that her family confidently announced that she was getting married to a ‘prince from Nepal’. She was madly in love with Bishnu! The news was picked up by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. Bishnu was very much with Rani Urmilla and their son Pitamber. Exasperated, Bishnu went public and denied this report which seems to have brought an end to this romance. Sandra Rambeau was rumored to be marrying the Marquis of Milford Haven, a cousin of King George V. Rebuffed again, finally she settled for someone much older in the 72-year old General Franz Xavier Ritter von Epp a military leader of Bavaria and Adolf Hitler’s longtime military mentor and president of Reich Colonial League. They were quietly married in Paris.

Sandra Rambeau

Bishnu was leading a princely life in expensive London. His cousin General Bahadur Shumsher was the first ambassador of Nepal to the Court of St. James’s. The ambassador’s wife died while he was in office and Bishnu had attended the funeral rites of his sister-in-law there in England. His elder half-brother General Krishna Shumsher Rana, the youngest son of Maharajah Chandra from his first wife went to London as the second Ambassador of Nepal. Then another half-brother General Singha Shumsher  became the ambassador there. It is interesting to note that he had cordial relationships with all of them. Unfortunately, I have not come across any photograph of the time showing Bishnu with his ambassadorial cousins in England. Another setback befell Bishnu as the local press reported that Sterling Pound ten thousand was stolen from his hotel room. Media scrutiny was intense and this must have made him seek quieter pasture. He decided to settle down in the Bahamas!

He left alone for the Bahamas in 1941. I am just surmising but was this decision taken in tandem with the British Government’s decision to make the Duke of Windsor, the ex-King Edward VIII, the Governor of the Bahamas in 1940? During the war years the Duke was the Governor there until 1945 ostensibly to diplomatically remove him from Continental Europe as his sympathies for Nazi Germany was said to be suspected by the British ruling classes. If Bishnu was in the company of the Prince of Wales earlier, would not this event drive his decision to reunite with the prince in the Bahamas once again? 

Bishnu Shumsher with Rani Urmilla clubbing

From this time on Bishnu started drinking heavily and needed constant medical attention. Dr. Hugh Quakenbush was his doctor at beck and call. Professional nurses were hired to take care of his needs. He put on a lot of weight and looked bloated. Unfortunately, media scrutiny seems to have followed him to the Bahamas too!  A young American woman named Fern Violet Kunz, a house guest in Nassau, died there due to trauma suffered after a boating accident and it became quite a scandal with the police probing the incident and media once again focusing on Bishnu and his activities.

Bishnu passed away in 1946 A.D. at a young age of just 40. His body was flown back in a coffin to Varanasi and cremated on the banks of the River Ganges as willed by his mother Maharani Bal Kumari who had left Nepal for good and resided in Varanasi. Bishnu’s son, now styled as R. K. Pitamber, returned to India and became an industrialist and rose to the rank of managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra India’s pre-eminent automotive manufacturing company. He was an avid golfer and became President of Indian Golfing Union 1974-76 and President of Bombay Chamber of Commerce 1997-98. 

Coffin that brought back body to Varanasi

Bishnu Shumsher was a rebel in the tradition-bound Rana rule but his rebellion was for no particular purpose. He neither started a social movement nor a political one to change the circumstances of the many Nepalese who were victims of an archaic system nobody dared to break. With his fortune and societal influence he could have made a difference. He did not care to. He was a rebel without a cause.

What Next?

Recent Articles