Bhimsen Thapa (Nepali: भीमसेन थापा; 1775 – July 28, 1839) was the Prime Minister of Nepal from 1806 to 1837. After his initial rise to power during the reign of Rana Bahadur, the immature age of Girvan Yuddha Shah and Rajendra Bikram Shah, coupled with the support from Rani Tripurasundari (the junior queen), who was also his niece, allowed him to continue to stay in power. During his prime ministership, the Gurkha empire had already reached its greatest expanse from Sutlej river in the west to the Teesta river in the east. Nepal entered into a disastrous Anglo-Nepalese War with the East India Company lasting from 1814–16, which was concluded with the Treaty of Sugauli, by which Nepal lost almost one-third of its land. The death of Queen Tripurasundari in 1832, his strongest supporter, and the adulthood of king Rajendra, weakened his hold on power. The conspiracies and infighting with rival courtiers finally led to his imprisonment and death by suicide.
Bhimsen Thapa was born in August 1775 at Pipal Thok to father Sardar Amar Singh Thapa (not to be confused with the commander of Gorkhali forces in the Gurkha War) and mother Satyarupa Maya. His grandfather was Bir Bhadra Thapa, a soldier in Prithvi Narayan Shah's army. Bhimsen Thapa had four brothers—Nain Singh, Bhaktawar Singh, Amrit Singh, and Ranbir Singh. From his step-mother, he had two brothers—Ranbam and Ranzawar. While it is not certain when Bhimsen got married, he had three wives with whom he begot one son, that died at an early age in 1796, and three daughters. Lack of a son caused him to adopt Sher Jung Thapa, one of the sons of his brother Nain Singh.
At the age of 11, Bhimsen Thapa came into contact with the Nepalese Royal Palace when his bratabandha ceremony was held together with the Crown Prince Rana Bahadur's in Gorkha. Thapa and the Crown Prince soon developed a friendship that would last their entire life. In 1798, his father Amar Singh took Bhimsen to Kathmandu and enrolled him as a bodyguard to the king Rana Bahadur. Bhimsen eventually served as king's personal secretary at the age of 22 in Varanasi, India.
The premature death of Pratap Singh Shah (reigned 1775–77), the eldest son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, left a huge power vacuum that remained unfilled for decades, seriously debilitating the emerging Nepalese state. Pratap Singh Shah's successor was his son, Rana Bahadur Shah (reigned 1777–99), aged two and one-half years at his accession. The acting regent until 1785 was Queen Rajendralakshmi, followed by Bahadur Shah (reigned 1785–94), the second son of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Court life was consumed by rivalry centered on alignments with these two regents rather than on issues of national administration. In 1794 the king came of age, and in 1797 he began to exercise power on his own. Upon coming to power, he ordered the imprisonment of Bahadur Shah in 1797 February 19. Rana Bahadur's youth had been spent in pampered luxury amid deadly intrigue and had made him incapable of running either his own life or the country. He became infatuated with a Maithili Brahman widow, Kantavati, and cleared the way to the throne for their illegitimate son, Girvan Yuddha Shah. Disconsolate after the death of his mistress in 1799, Rana Bahadur began to engage in many irrational behaviors such as the destruction of temples blaming god for her death, disposing the remains of dead animals in temples and giving extreme tortures to healers that lead the citizens to demand his abdication. He was forced to turn his throne over to Girvan Yuddha Shah, aged one and one-half years, and retired to Varanasi. As Rana Bahadur Shah's bodyguard and advisors, Bhimsen Thapa and Dalabhanjan Pandey also went to Varanasi with him.
In Varanasi, Bhimsen Thapa got an opportunity to study in depth, the Indian native states and the growing power of the East India Company and their motives. He grasped the idea of the British protectorate system that Lord Wellesley had carried out in India, and was alarmed that Nepal could share a similar fate. He vigorously pressed the ex-king Rana Bahadur to return to Nepal and reign the country himself.
Meanwhile, during the minority of the king Girvan, Damodar Pande, took over the administration as mukhtiyar, or prime minister (1799–1804), with complete control over administration and the power to conduct foreign affairs. He set a significant precedent for later Nepalese history, which has seen a recurring struggle for effective power between king and prime minister. The main policy of Damodar Pande was to protect the young king by keeping his unpredictable father in Banaras under British surveillance and to play off against each other the schemes of the retired king's wives. In 1801 he concluded a Treaty of friendship with the East India Company that allowed the establishment of the first British Resident, Captain Knox, which was very unpopular among the courtiers of Kathmandu Durbar. But by 1804 his policy had failed due to the active efforts of Rana Bahadur Shah's first queen Rajrajeshhwori. The former king engineered his return and took over as mukhtiyar. Damodar Pande was executed and replaced by Bhimsen Thapa as chief administrator (mul-kaji).
Bhimsen Thapa did not waste any time neutralizing anyone who could challenge his authority. He put the senior queen of Rana Bahadur Shah under house arrest, plucked out the eyes of 3 well known members of Shah family and confiscated their property, and blinded the nephew of Prithvi Narayan Shah, Kulchandra Shah, who was then 10 years old, by pouring poisoned milk in his eyes. In a bizarre turn of events on April 25, 1806, Rana Bahadur Shah quarreled in open court with his half-brother, Sher Bahadur. The latter drew his sword and killed Rana Bahadur Shah before being cut down by a nearby courtier, Bal Narsingh Kunwar, also an ally of Bhimsen Thapa. A great massacre ensued in Bhandarkhal and in Bishnumati in which Bhimsen Thapa liquidated ninety-three of his enemies. A few days before the massacre, upon insistence of Bhimsen Thapa, Rana Bahadur Shah, then 30 years old, had married a 16 year old girl named Tripurasundari. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Bhimsen Thapa became the prime minister (1806–37). The junior queen, Tripurasundari, was given the title Lalita Tripurasundari and declared regent and Queen Mother (1806–32) of Girvan Yuddha Shah, who was himself 9 years old. The junior queen was the daughter of Bhimsen Thapa's brother Kaji Nayan Singh Thapa. Immediately after obtaining prime ministership, Bhimsen Thapa disenfranchised the old courtiers from the central power by placing them as administrators of far flung provinces of the country. They were replaced by his close relatives, who were mere yes-men. The death of Girvan Yuddha Shah in 1816 and the accession of his infant son, Rajendra Bikram Shah, meant the retention of the regency.
By the time Bhimsen Thapa came to power, the territory of Nepal extended up to the border of Garhwal in the west. During the reign of Bahadur Shah, Nepal had concluded a treaty with Garhwal demanding that it pay NRs. 9,000 per year. Later Rana Bahadur Shah reduced it to NRs. 3,000. However, in 1804, Garhwal refused to pay the amount upon which Bhimsen Thapa sent an army under Commander Amar Singh Thapa (not to be confused with his father), Bhakti Thapa and Hastidal Shah to attack Garhwal. The army succeded in annexing Garhwal to Nepalese territory extending the territory of Nepal upto the Sutlej river in the west. After the annexation of Garhwal, the Nepalese army attacked the fort of Kangra but was defeated by the combined army of Sansarchand, the ruler of Kangra and that of the ruler of Punjab Ranjeet Singh. Other states like Salyan were also annexed to Nepal during his reign. Before the Anglo-Nepal war the territory of Nepal extended from Sutleej river in the west to Teesta river in the east. Most of this territory, however, was lost in the Anglo-Nepal war.
The Anglo–Nepalese War (1814–1816), sometimes called the Gorkha War, was fought between Nepal and the British East India Company as a result of border tensions and ambitious expansionism of both the belligerent parties. While the immediate reason for the war was the border dispute in the terai region, the war-like preliminary had been going on for more than a decade. Considering the many successes that the Gorkhali army had seen during the unification campaign of Nepal, Bhimsen Thapa was one of the main proponents of the war with the British, which was against the better advice of the likes of Kaji Amar Singh Thapa, who actually did the fighting and knew about the hardships of war. His attitude before the war is summarized in the following letter to the Raja of Nepal, where we can find a hint of superstition on Nepalese invincibility:
Through the influence of your good fortune, and that of your ancestors, no one has yet been able to cope with the state of Nipal. The Chinese once made war upon us, but were reduced to seek peace. How then will the English be able to penetrate into the hills? Under your auspices, we shall by our own exertions be able to oppose to them a force of fifty-two lakhs of men, with which we will expel them. The small fort of Bhurtpoor was the work of man, yet the English being worsted before it, desisted from the attempt to conquer it; our hills and fastnesses are formed by the hand of God, and are impregnable. I therefore recommend the prosecution of hostilities. We can make peace afterwards on such terms as may suit our convenience.
The British launched two successive waves of invasion campaigns. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, which ceded around one-third of Nepal's territory to the British. Furthermore, according to the treaty, Nepal had to allow for the establishment of a permanent British resident in Kathmandu, and had to forgo all self-determination in foreign affairs.
On 20 Nov, 1816, King Girvan Yuddha died of small pox, aged twenty-one, and was succeeded by his only son, Rajendra Bikram Shah, an infant of two years old. Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, in collusion with the queen regent, Tripurasundari, remained in power despite the defeat of Nepal in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. After the war, he used all his influence in favor of peace with the British, "a Power," as he said, "that crushed thrones like potsherds." He faced constant opposition at court from factions centered around leading members of other families, notably the Pandes, who decried what they felt was his craven submission to the British. Bhimsen Thapa managed to keep his opposition under control by maintaining a large army and modernizing its equipment and by convincing the suspicious British that he had no intention of using the army. During the minority of King Rajendra Bikram Shah (reigned 1816–47), the prime minister kept the king in isolation—he did not even have the freedom to leave the palace without permission. Bhimsen Thapa appointed members of his own family to the highest positions at court and in the army, giving his brother, Ranbir Singh Thapa, control over the western provinces and his nephew, Mathbar Singh Thapa, control over the eastern provinces. The Pandes and other opponents were frozen out of power.
However Oldfield notes that:
The Nipal chiefs might, and may, quarrel among themselves for the possession of official dignities under the Crown, but there is not an instance on record of a Gorkha chief setting himself in open defiance of the Crown for the purpose of establishing independent authority. Nor is there an instance of a Nipal chief taking bribes from, or selling himself for money to, the British or any other foreign State. In 1801 Captain Knox wished to take Damudar Pandi and some of his colleagues into our pay; but they would not listen to the proposal. In 1816, as before in 1801, our Government offered pensions to certain Nipalese sirdars, but the Darbar had foresight enough to reject the offer.
Aside from the army and some attention to increasing trade, little effort could be expended on issues of national development.
The Gorkha aristocracy had led Nepal into disaster on the international front but preserved the political unity of the country, which at the end of the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1816 still was only about twenty-five years old as a unified nation. The success of the central government rested in part on its ability to appoint and control regional administrators, who also were high officers in the army. In theory these officials had great local powers; in practice they spent little energy on the daily affairs of their subjects, interfering only when communities could not cope with problems or conflicts. Another reason for Gorkha success in uniting the country was the willingness to placate local leaders by preserving areas where former kings and communal assemblies continued to rule under the loose supervision of Kathmandu, leaving substantial parts of the country out of the control of regional administrators. Even within the areas directly administered by the central government, agricultural lands were given away as jagir to the armed services and as birta to court favorites and retired servicemen. The holder of such grants in effect became the lord of the peasants working there, with little if any state interference. From the standpoint of the average cultivator, the government remained a distant force, and the main authority figure was the landlord, who took part of the harvest, or (especially in the Tarai) the tax collector, who was often a private individual contracted to extort money or crops in return for a share. For the leaders in the administration and the army, as military options became limited and alternative sources of employment grew very slowly, career advancement depended less on attention to local conditions than on loyalty to factions fighting at court.
Five leading families contended for power during this period—the Shahs, Choutariyas, Thapas, Basnyats, and Pandes. Working for these families and their factions were hill Brahmans, who acted as religious preceptors or astrologers, and Newars, who occupied secondary administrative positions. No one else in the country had any influence on the central government. When a family or faction achieved power, it killed, exiled, or demoted members of opposing alliances. Under these circumstances, there was little opportunity for either public political life or coordinated economic development.
The struggle for power at the court had unfortunate consequences for both foreign affairs and for internal administration. All parties tried to satisfy the army in order to avoid interference in court affairs by leading commanders, and the military was given a free hand to pursue ever larger conquests. As long as the Gorkhas were invading disunited hill states, this policy—or lack of policy—was adequate. Inevitably, continued aggression led Nepal into disastrous collisions with the Chinese and then with the British. At home, because power struggles centered on control of the king, there was little progress in sorting out procedures for sharing power or expanding representative institutions. A consultative body of nobles, a royal court called the Assembly of Lords (Bharadari Sabha), was in place after 1770 and it had substantial involvement in major policy issues. The assembly consisted of high government officials and leading courtiers, all heads of important Gorkha families. In the intense atmosphere surrounding the monarch, however, the Assembly of Lords broke into factions that fought for access to the prime minister or regent, and alliances developed around patron/client relationships.
The power balance began to change after the king came of age and Queen Tripurasundari died in 1832. The prime minister lost his main support at a time when the young ruler was coming under greater influence from the Pande faction at court. Silently observing all this drama was the British Resident, who officially kept out of the internal politics of Nepal. However in 1833 Brian Hodgson became the British Resident Minister and began a more aggressive campaign to increase British influence and trading opportunities. Since Bhimsen Thapa opposed him, Hodgson openly favored Bhimsen Thapa's opponents, the Pandes. In 1837 the king announced his intention to rule independently, deprived both Bhimsen Thapa and Mathbar Singh of their military powers, and promoted some members of the Pande faction.
In July 1837, King Rajendra Bikram Shah's youngest son, Devendra Bikram Shah, an infant of one year, died suddenly. It was at once rumored that the child had died of poison intended for its mother the Maharani (senior queen) Samrajyalaxmi Devi, and given at the instigation of Bhimsen, or someone of his party. On this charge, Bhimsen, his brother Ranbir Singh, his nephew Mathbir Singh, their families, the court physician, Ekdev Baidhya, and his deputy, with a few more of the nearest relatives of the Thapas, were incarcerated, proclaimed outcasts, and their property confiscated. They were fearfully tortured to induce them to confess, but not a syllable to criminalize anyone was elicited.
Ranjang Pande, the youngest son of Damodar Pande, who was of unstable mind and who had vowed vengeance against the Thapas for what they had done to his family, was suddenly appointed as the Prime Minister. Fearful that this appointment would establish the Pandes in power, Fatte Jang Chautaria, Ranganath Pandit, and the junior Rani obtained from the king the liberation of Bhimsen, Mathabar, and the rest of the party. Pardon was given to Bhimsen, who fell on his face at the king's feet, in full Durbar. Their confiscated property was also returned. Ranjang, the leader of the powerful Pande party, was removed from the office of Prime Minister and Ranganath Pandit, who was favorably inclined towards the Thapas was elected Premier.
However, Ranganath Pandit, finding himself unsupported by the king, resigned the Premiership, which was conferred nominally on Chautariya Pushkar Shah, but actually upon his colleague, Ranjang Pande, in whom all real authority was vested. Fearing that catastrophe would come upon the Thapas, Mathabarsingh Thapa fled to India but Bhimsen Thapa still remained in his old home in Gorkha. The Pandes were now in full possession of power; they had gained over the king to their side by flattering his weaknesses. The Maharani had been a firm supporter of their party; and they endeavored to secure popularity in the army by promises of war and plunder.
At the beginning of 1839, Ranjang Pande was made the sole Prime Minister. The accusation of poisoning the young prince in 1837 was revived against Bhimsen Thapa and his party, and forged papers and evidence were produced professing to criminate him. Bhimsen, by then an old man, defended himself in open Durbar with great spirit, asking why, if this evidence were really true, it had not been produced in 1837; and denouncing the papers as forgeries, he demanded to be confronted with his accusers. His appeal was of no use; he was surrounded by enemies. The few chiefs who were in his favor, or convinced of his innocence, sat by in silence and in fear. The king denounced him as a traitor, and sent him back in chains to prison. Threats of every indignity to himself and the female members of his house were constantly made to him, with a view to induce him to commit suicide. The court physician, who attended the child (a Brahman, and whose life was sacred), was burnt on the forehead and cheeks till his brain and jaws were exposed. The under-physician, a Newar, was impaled alive, and his heart extracted while he was yet living. Still no evidence against Bhimsen or any of the accused could be extorted even by these horrible atrocities, which were perpetrated not only by the order, but in the presence of the king.
On the 20th of July 1839, driven to desperation, Bhimsen attempted suicide by cutting his throat with a khukuri, of which wound he died nine days afterwards. His enemies refused even the ordinary funeral rites to his corpse. It was dismembered and exposed about the city, and afterwards the mangled remains were thrown on the Bishnumati river-side as food for vultures and jackals. His very bones were not allowed to be removed that they might be buried. His family and relatives were imprisoned, and their property confiscated. A decree was also issued that none of the Thapa class should receive public employment for seven generations.
It is believed that he killed himself when he was told that his wife would be dragged through the streets naked.
The fall of Bhimsen Thapa did nothing to solve the factional fighting at court. The Pandes were dismissed, and Fateh Jang Chautaria was appointed prime minister in November 1840. His ministry was unable to control renewed competition between a resurgent Thapa coalition and the disgraced Pandes, who preferred the abdication of the king in favor of the heir apparent. The king became increasingly attentive to the advice of his wives. Under intense pressure from the aristocracy, the king decreed in January 1843 that he would rule the country only with advice and agreement of his junior queen, Lakshmidevi, and commanded his subjects to obey her even over his own son, Surendra. The queen, seeking support of her own son's claims to the throne over those of Surendra Bikram Shah, invited back from exile Mathabarsingh Thapa, who was popular in army circles. Upon his arrival in Kathmandu, an investigation of his uncle's death took place, and a number of his Pande enemies were executed. By December 1843, Mathbar Singh was appointed prime minister, but he proved no more capable of extinguishing court intrigues than had his predecessors. Against the wishes of the queen, he supported heir apparent Surendra. Once Mathbar Singh had alienated the person who officially wielded state authority, his days were numbered. On May 17, 1845, he was killed, most likely on the queen's orders. The assassin apparently was Jang Bahadur, his nephew, then a minor but rising star in court politics.
The death of Mathabar Singh set the stage for one of the crucial sequences of events in modern Nepalese history—the destruction of the old aristocracy in an event known as Kot massacre and the establishment of Rana Dynasty, a dictatorship of the prime minister. These events provided the long period of stability the country needed but at the cost of political and economic development.
Thapa served for 31 years under three kings. Support from Queen Tripurasundari as well as the long minority of the successive kings allowed him to stay in power for a long time. He appealed all South Asian states to fight collectively against the British and declared war on the English East India Company in 1816 as the commander of the army and as the Prime Minister. However due to the ill preparation, long standing internal unification campaign, lack of foreign assistance, as well as previous military confrontation with China, Nepal lost the war which precipitated his downfall. However it was his skill as a diplomat that saved Nepal from complete annexation by the British. Despite the defeat in Anglo-Nepalese war, he continued to rule for another 13 years whence he brought about several military, judicial, social and economic reforms in Nepal. The army was modernized in European style. He arranged facilities for guns and other explosives for the army. He also gave the army of Nepal more salary and training. His view was that the stronger the army of a country, the stronger will be the country. Several ill social practices were abolished, unused land were brought under cultivation and the administration was updated. The Dharahara and Sundhara of Kathmandu, the Bagdurbar and Teku bridge were constructed by him.
King Rana Bahadur Shah said of him "If I die the nation will not die, but if Bhimsen Thapa dies the nation will collapse". Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab said of him "If I had Bhimsen on my service, I know what many things I would have achieved". Karl Marx praised Bhimsen Thapa by referring him as the only man in Asia who braved to protest submission to the colonists.
General Bhimsen Thapa brought various reforms in the country with the consent of Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari:
a) He fixed the market rate of food grains and other commodities, he made the measurement of mana, pathi etc. He established many selling depos for the sale of timber.
b) He tried to develop trade and industry, so he passed different kinds of law for the development of trade and industry. He tried to develop new towns in different parts of the country.
c) He developed the postal services.
d) He made public parks, garden, roads, bridges and golden and silver doors in the temple of Pashupatinath. He built the temple of Satyaswor Mahadev in Ridi.
e) In the Judiciary, he set up law courts in different parts of the country. He did a land survey and divided the kingdom into several districts and appointed new officers for the administration.
f) He had controlled the system of selling children in Magar tribe. He tried to abolish slavery as well.
g) Bhimsen Thapa built two Dharaharas and the Sundhara. (Note : One of the Dharahara was destroyed in the earthquake of 1890.)
h) He built a canal in Kirtipur, Raniban from the pond present there, and created facilities for irrigation.
i) Bhimsen Thapa re-organized the Nepalese Army on modern line. He established cantonments, army barracks and gave military training to the troops. He introduced new uniform which were designed for the army.
j) In Nepal, there were certain systems which allowed one to marry one's sister-in law and among the Limbus, one to marry one's mother-in-law. Bhimsen Thapa passed laws forbidding such systems.
k) He stopped the system to take more interest from the debtors. He was successful to circulate the Nepalese coin in Tibet.
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