Kirati King Yalambar illustration

Kirati King Yalambar illustration V. Hunjan, Believe Collective 2010
(with thanks to Biplove Bhattachan & Rebecca Van Ommen for background elements)

Long before the modern nation of Nepal came into being (see 1768 The Fall of Kathmandu in the Timeline), the mountain kingdom of Nepal occupied the region now known as the Kathmandu Valley. Between 800 BCE (Before the Common Era or BC) and 300 CE (Common Era or AD) it was the home of the Kiratis, the first recorded rulers of Nepal, who are thought to have migrated to Nepal from the East. They are the forebears of Nepal's Limbu, Rai, Sunuwar, Yakkha and other 'pahadi jaataru' (mountain tribes) – tribes whose destinies would later come to be interwined with Britain and the Gurkhas.

Very little is known about the early Kiratis and their way of life, as successive Nepali dynasties have eradicated most of the records and artefacts from this distant era of Nepal’s history. What is known is that the Kiratis were fearsome warriors who armed themselves with long knives; they were skilled hunters and able farmers. What is less appreciated is that they developed a civilised society with a sophisticated culture. The Kirati people were then, as many Kirati jaats still are today, animists: worshippers of nature and ancestors’ spirits - believers in shamanism and magic.

The Kiratis are mentioned in several ancient Hindu epics, including in the verses of the Mahabharata, one of ancient India’s most sacred texts. The Mahabharata relates how Yalambar, the first and most famous Kirati king of Nepal, went to witness the Battle of Kurukshetra, in which two mighty armies of gods and mortals fought against one another. It is said that Yalambar intended to support the losing side. The Mahabharata’s verses tell of how Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the Supreme Hindu God Vishnu, killed Yalambar by cutting off his head as he feared that if the Kirati army joined the opposing Kauravas, the already extended and bloody battle would be prolonged even further.

Despite Yalambar’s untimely death, the Kiratis remained rulers of Nepal for over a thousand years. During the reign of the 7th Kirati king, King Jitedasti, Gautam Buddha (see Buddha from Nepal on the Timeline) came to the Valley to preach and to visit a number of temples and holy sites. The Kiratis did not embrace Buddhism but they made the Buddha welcome and to this day Buddhism continues to flourish in Nepal.

The Kirati Dynasty came to an end around 300 CE when what began as a gradual migration of people from the south, from what is now India, became an invasion force that pushed the Kiratis out of the Kathmandu Valley and up into the harsh, mountainous regions of East Nepal. The incoming forces erased all but a few traces of the once mighty Kirati dynasty and to this day many Kiratis remain unaware of their rich and proud heritage.

1,500 years later the descendents of those early Kiratis, mainly Limbus, Rais and Sunuwars would be recruited by the British. They joined other Nepali mountain tribesmen, most notably the Magars and Gurungs of West Nepal, already serving in the (British) Indian Army. Together the men from these tribes came to form the core of the British Gurkhas. In recent years there has been a resurgence of Kirati culture and Kirati organisations have sprung up across the world.

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Comments (5)
  • JP Tumsing Magar  |  'Kingdom of MAGURALI (MAGAR, GURUNG, RAI AND LIMBU)'
    How can we trace back to our history and make a MAGURALI kingdom once again.
  • Gyan Tamla Rai
    Excellent work. More collections required, web creator should be congratulated.
  • Gurkha  |  'Life of Lord Buddha during Kirat Period'
    563 BCE: Many people in the world consider Siddhartha Gautama as the greatest Guru in the world. Siddhartha Gautama before he became "Buddha" or the enlightened one was born in about 563 BCE in Lumbini, Nepal. He was born into King Suddhodana Gautama and his queen Mayadevi, rulers of the Shakya tribe of Kapilavastu region near Lumbini. The fact was that the life of Buddha was not a myth but reality comes from one of the inscriptions in the pillar erected by Indian King Asoka in 239 BCE. The inscriptions read "Here was the Enlightened One born". Today the UNESCO has declared Kapilavastu, and Lumbini, as a World Heritage site. It is told that before Siddhartha Gautama was born, queen Maya had dreamt that a white elephant with six tusks carrying a lotus flower entered her womb. As was the Shakya tradition, when his mother Queen Maya became pregnant, she left Kapilvastu for her father's kingdom to give birth. However, she gave birth on the way, at Lumbini, in a garden beneath a sal tree. On this journey, Queen Maya realized the birth was imminent, halted at Lumbini Park, lay down beneath a sandalwood tree and gave a birth. The child was given a name of Siddhartha, meaning "he who has achieved his goal" According to astrologer's prediction, Siddhartha would grow up to be either a great emperor, or that he would turn his back on privilege and power to become a great spiritual leader. Queen Maya died a week later and the tasked of looking after Siddhartha was given to Prajapati, sister of Maya. Because of the latter predicament, King Suddhodana grew troubled. One of the wise man had told King Suddhodana that "if the prince were to see four signs- a sick man, an old man, a corpse and an ascetic- then he would renounce the materialistic world. Therefore to protect his son from ever coming into contact with four signs, young Siddhartha grew up within the palace walls, having no contact with the outside world. He learns the skills and engaged in the pastimes of princes. King Suddhodana wishing for Siddhartha to be a great king shielded his son from religious teachings or knowledge of human suffering. At the age of about eight, Siddhartha Gautama started receiving his education. Thus at around this age, the young prince curiosity in life began to arouse. This was clearly mentioned by the fact that in some of his field trip to the countryside, he pondered about some question. He noted in the fields how all things live to feed another, how creatures are born only to nourish other orders of beings, how the peasant sweated in the fields and so on. The growing discontent in his life was further fuel one day when he ventured out with his charioteer Channa after finally persuading his father to let him go outside the palace walls to see the city. Though King Suddhodana had ordered the city streets cleared of anyone of human misery, Siddhartha met a dying old man at the side of the road. This was the first of four signs the young prince was destined to meet. He journeyed out into the city several times after his first sight and came across a sick man and a dead man. On his fourth and final sight, Siddhartha encountered a sage that would have the biggest influence on his life. "He is poor, for only rags cover him, and he is old and thin, like the other aged man we came across, yet there is no pain, no suffering in his face". Though the sage appearance was in dire condition physically, but within him, the sage seems to have found the peace and purpose in life. This was the final convictions that Siddhartha Gautama led to his renunciation of his princely life and began his ascetic life seeking truth about life. While wandering throughout the northern India, seeking to understand the misery and sufferings of the human world, Siddhartha Gautama was joined by five other ascetics. One was Kondanna, the youngest of eight astrologers and fortune-tellers whom King Suddhodana had consulted when Prince Siddhartha was born. The place where Siddhartha Gautama got enlightenment or nirvana was in a village call Uruvela, in the state of Bihar, India. This place is now better known as Bodh-Gaya. It is believed that Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha mediating under the pipal tree. "Because it was under this tree that he was to find enlightenment, it is called the Bodhi-tree (Tree of Enlightenment) and is revered by Buddhists everywhere. Upon reaching nirvana, that is the state of being free from suffering, Siddhartha Guatama is now known as "Buddha" or the awaken one. Still others call him Shakyamuni ("sage of the Shakyas"). It is said that Buddha rested under the Bodhi-tree for seven days after reaching the Enlightenment. After he reached the nirvana or becoming Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama and his five disciples traveled around different Kingdoms in northern India teaching the doctrine of Buddhism. When Lord Buddha and his disciples came to the Kathmandu valley King Jitedasti, 7th King of Kirat dynasty was ruling Nepal. Though Kirats refused to follow his doctrine but still welcomed Lord Buddha and his disciples. Historical record and closely studied on city and town planning, layout and old buildings in the Kathmandu valley showed that Kirat were civilized people of ancient Nepal. Kirati people used brick-stone-metal-wood to build unique architectures like "Kailaskut Bhawan". Kirat have 18 unique skills like brick, wood, metal, textile, farming, bamboo, building builder, livestock, fish farming, homeopathy, medicine, weaponry, pottery, carving, paper producing etc. that helped to build Nepal in early period. This was all discovered after extensive research and excavation of ancient sites and historical landmarks in Kathmandu valley by various scholars and historians. Sudarshan Raj Tiwari (The brick and the bull: an account of Handigaun, the ancient capital of Nepal, 2002) wrote that Kirati people used to have Law and Order, rules and regulation, government and justice systems. Tiwari and various scholars, historians and archeologist who studied on ancient Nepal concluded that the Kirat had the knowledge of 18 building trade groups, among these the art of brick building, water tanks, drainage system etc. that help to spur Kathmandu ahead. 239 BCE: In around 239 BCE the Indian King Ashoka followed the footsteps of Lord Buddha and came to the Lumbini. He ordered the pillar to be built to commemorate his visit. King Ashoka then also came to the Kathmandu Valley with his daughter princess Charumati. At this time, King Sthunko was at the throne. He was the 14th King of Kirat dynasty. During his stay in the valley, King Ashok had built four stupas in four directions and one in the centre of Patan. He had arranged his daughter Charumati's marriage with a local young prince named Devpal. This is one of the reasons on why Buddhism existed and flourished in Nepal though by 12th-13th century, Buddhism had ceased to exist almost completely in India, the very place where Lord Buddha gaining enlightenment had preached his doctrines before he died. On the other hand Kirat king were very tolerant of the new teaching s that was developing though Kiratis had their own indigenous religion (worshiping of Mother Nature, land and ancestors). In his teachings, the Buddha retained many elements of the vedic religious teachings of India of his time, including the concepts of samsara and karma. However, the Buddhist differed from the vedic teachings in a sense that Buddha opposed the animal sacrifices. In addition the Buddha taught that anyone regardless of caste who followed the Eightfold Path could achieve nirvana. And yes Buddha was not Hindu nor was he Brahmins. He was born into Shakya family, whom are Mongoloid in race. But because the Brahmins realize that Buddha would become major obstacles in spreading Hinduism, the Brahmins cleverly wrote that Buddha was incarnation of Hindu God, Vishnu. Remember how the Brahmins also spread the fictitious myth that the former Shah King of Nepal was incarnation of Vishnu. During his lifetime, the Buddha institutionalized his teachings by forming the sangha. It is written that the Buddha lived till nearly eighty years and died under the sal tree in Vaishali. It is also believed that the Lord Buddha died at the same day he was born. The last sermon before he died was quoted "decay is inherent in all component things; work out your salvation with diligence!"
  • prakash rai
    for centuries and generations we kirat's have sffered because of migration from the south , cos of them our ancestors had to flee to the foot of the himalayas,become a second class citizen, kill or get killed for a foreign people in a distant land ,................... time has come to kick them back to where they came from. Lets all kirats unite and bring back our lost glory.
  • Nitesh Rai  |  'Is it true'
    Is it true that Lord Buddha was our 7th king of kiratis
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