The Fall of Kathmandu montage showing Prithvi Narayan Shah and the siege of Kathmandu by the Gorkhali army

The Fall of Kathmandu montage showing Prithvi Narayan Shah and the siege of Kathmandu by the Gorkhali army
V. Hunjan & R. Rai, Believe Collective 2010 (with thanks to Rebecca Van Ommen & Peter Mutuc)

Nepal's Shah Dynasty began in 1768 with the Fall of Kathmandu - the conquest of the three Malla kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the raja (king) of the western province of Gorkha. After more than 25 years of laying siege to the Valley, Prithvi Narayan Shah realised his long-held ambition of uniting the provinces and peoples of the Himalayan region. He created what has become modern Nepal and made Kathmandu its capital. The kings of the Shah Dynasty were the monarchs of Nepal for 240 years, although the Ranas ruled over them for almost half that time. After restoration of democracy at the end of the decade-long Nepali Civil War (or 'People's War) between 1996 and 2006, Nepal's monarchy was abolished in 2008.

Background

Like the Mallas and Lichhavis before them, the Shahs claimed Rajput (Indian aristocratic) descent, having migrated from India when their lands were threatened by invasion by Muslim armies from the West. In 1559 the Shahs established themselves as the rulers of the small hill kingdom which they named Gorkha - from where they slowly expanded their territories by conquering neighbouring provinces and forming strategic alliances. The Shahs' Gorkhali army (named, like their state, after the warrior-saint and Shiva devotee, Guru Gorakhnath) was unlike other armies in the region in several key respects: it was made up of men from different castes and tribes, the majority being Magars and Gurungs; it was well-armed with modern weapons that Prithvi Narayan Shah had brought from India to the south and, perhaps most importantly, it had a system of 'jagir' (land grants) by which all soldiers were rewarded with land in proportion to their rank and service. The jagir system kept soldiers motivated and loyal, but it also fuelled the need to constantly conquer new territories.

The Gorkha Raj

After conquering Kathmandu, the Shahs continued their military campaigns, further expanding their 'Gorkha Raj' (Gorkha Empire). By 1790 they had triumphed over the now impoverished, but still formidable, Kirati tribes - the Limbus, Rais, Yakkhas and other Kirat jaats who had settled in the mountainous regions to the north-east of Kathmandu - and they conquered lands as far east as Sikkim (now in north-east India) and as far west as Kumaon (in north-west India), creating what has come to be known as 'Greater Nepal'.

The continuing expansion of Nepal's 'Gorkha Raj’, powered by its seemingly invincible army of Gorkhali soldiers, would eventually bring it into conflict with a much older and more powerful empire that had taken control of the lands to the south: the British.

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