HISTORY OF THE NEPALESE ARMY
Nepal – The Land and the People
Nepal lies along the mountains of the central portion of the Himalayas. This rectangular piece of South Asia has acted as an important bridge linking two ancient civilizations of the Asian continent – China in the North and India in the South. The land slopes downwards from the almost impenetrable and mighty Himalayan wall of the North until it reaches the Southern fertile Tarai plains. The narrow track of Tarai plains was once covered by thick tropical forest known as the Char Kose Jhadi. This malarial curtain kept settlements out until recently when the forests started being cleared and people from all directions came to settle down, making it the fastest growing habitated area in the country. India lies to the South of the Tarai. The river Mechi flowing from North to South is the Eastern border and the river Mahakali makes up the Western border of Nepal. Nepal was once much more extensive and included the present-day Indian Kumaun and Gadhwal and all the hill country West to the river Sutlej.
Between the Himalayas and the Tarai plains lie two mountain ranges running from West to East broken only by streams and rivers that run from North to South. These natural furrows have acted as natural barriers against the movement of people from one part of the country to the other which meant that the isolated communities could enjoy their own unique lifestyles without hindrance from others. The Mahabharat range reaching up to 10,000 ft in height takes up the largest area of the country and most of the Nepalese live on the slopes and valleys of this range. The Chure or Siwalik range, a single file of sandstone hills running from the East to the West, not exceeding 300 to 600 feet from the base, is the outer border of the mountainous ranges. The Tarai lies to the South of Chure and serves as the rice bowl of Nepal today.
The Nepal Himalayas consist of four major massifs making the formidable Northern wall throughout the length of the country-Nanda Devi (25,700 feet); Dhaulagiri (26,826 feet); Gosainthan (26,305); and Kanchanjunga (28,156 feet). The 29,028 feet Mount Everest lies roughly midway and gives off no main ridges.
The climate of Nepal varies according to the landscape. Farther North, between the Great Himalaya and the Tibetan marginal mountains, lie the Bhot valleys, which resemble in almost every respect the Tibetan landscape. The Bhot valleys offer a typically tundra climate, with cool summers and very cold winters. The Southern Tarai and inner valleys have a hot, humid, tropical climate. The centrally located mountain and hilly areas offer conditions between these two extremes. In spite of the great variations available, the climate can generally be described as temperate.
The mountains stop the monsoon winds blowing from the Southeast providing the country with plenty of rains from June to September. However, the winds get drier as they flow West making the Eastern parts wetter than the West. Small amounts of winter rain are also brought by winds from the Arabian Sea. Due to the influence of topography, great variations in the amount of rainfall are found even in rather small localities. The rain shadow areas of the Tibetan plateau, which contain the Northernmost parts of Nepal, get very little rain, some years not at all. Given the narrowness of the rectangle, as the breadth of Nepal does not cover more than five degrees in latitude in any part, the range in climate is striking. The climatic variations offer a sanctuary for a wide variety of plant and animal species. The biodiversity is one of the richest even though the area of the land mass is small.
This diversity in climate, plants and animals is matched only by the diversity of people and their individual lifestyles. Within such a small geographical area many different ethnic groups have settled on the slopes of separate mountains and in valleys. Throughout the ages, people from North, South, East and West settled in these parts bringing in their influences to create a unique culture. Records show that some 93 different languages are spoken in Nepal, besides the Nepali language itself. These people have lived in the difficult terrain for centuries toiling hard for a simple lifestyle. Their hospitality and honesty have been highly regarded throughout the world. They have learned to use the mountains not only for their livelihood and lifestyle but for their security as well. The harsh conditions and independent mindset nurtured the strong martial spirit of the Nepalese people, which has been well known throughout history. Ancient scriptures reflect that Nepalese forces had fought even during the Mahabharat war.
The rugged landscape offers some passes, albeit for only hardened human beings, to traverse. These breaks or passes have served as strategic points for contacts between the Northern and Southern civilizations since time immemorial. There are more than half a dozen passes through the Nepal Himalayas leading to the Tibetan plateau that have been regularly used to this day.
Apart from the numerous streams which originate in the mountainous country before furrowing their way to the South, three main rivers provide some basin landscapes in Nepal. The snow fed rivers rise in the Himalayas and provide a perennial source of water for irrigation, transportation and the like. They are: the Western basin of the Karnali, Central basin of the Gandaki and the Eastern basin of the Koshi.
The Origin of History
Recorded history of Nepal begins after 350 BC. Documented evidences, apart from the scriptures, are not available for periods before that. Different kings of different dynasties like Gopal, Mahishpal, Kirat and Lichchabi had ruled over this country during the Pauranic (ancient) Age. Capturing other principalities and invading territories through armed might was common practice. Records show that the institution of the army was initiated just after 350 AD. In those days, the neighboring countries, including China, Tibet and Southern states, known as India today, had armies of their own. Nepal had also maintained her military strength according to documents of the reigns of prominent Lichchavi kings, including Mandev, Shiva Dev, Narendra Dev and Anshuvarma. King Narendra Dev’s Nepal had extended the cooperation of 7,000 cavalry and 3,500 infantry troops in the year 647 AD at the request of China to attack a Southern kingdom.
The armed forces used to be centrally located during the ancient times, whereas, in the middle age, they were deployed in vital locations like fortresses in strategically important places of the country. The commander of the fortress was called "Kwantha Nayak" and they were very powerful. The Malla dynasties ruled Nepal in the middle age. Newar Malla kings ruled over Kathmandu valley and the surrounding areas while the Karnali region was ruled by Khas Malla kings, who had maintained powerful armies. King Jitari Malla had attacked Kathmandu valley but the Khas Malla forces were ignobly defeated by the Newari Malla soldiers.
During this period, Nepal was divided into fifty different principalities which meant that military strength remained dispersed. Soldiers were maintained by the kings, princes, chiefs of army, mulmi, kwantha nayaks and umraos. These traditional ranks were prestigious positions in the army. Since some of the principalities were stronger than the others, there were continuous clashes. In Kathmandu valley, and also in Doti, it is now known that Indian mercenaries had also been used. The significance of military might derived from the Pauranic Age was well understood and used liberally.
The 1700s was a century of uncertainty throughout the world. Rivalry among states was not confined to this part of the planet. The world military powers like Britain, France and Portugal were busy creating colonies in different parts. Clashes in their interests resulted in wars in different countries. Britain and France were also moving towards South and Southeast Asia. This threatened Nepal as well.
The British East India Company had already captured major parts of India and was moving forward towards the Northeast and approaching Nepal. Nepal was divided into many principalities during this period. It was at this time that King Prithvi Narayan Shah, hailing from one of the principalities called Gorkha, decided to unify Nepal. He was the architect of modern Nepal. Although, Gorkha was small and economically weak, King Prithvi Narayan Shah astounded the world by carrying out such a challenging task under such difficult circumstances. The Unification Campaign was initiated in 1740 AD at which time the British had already started colonizing the Indian provinces.
This was a turning point in the history of the Nepalese army (NA). Since unification was not possible without a strong army, the management of the armed forces had to be exceptional. Apart from the standard army being organized in Gorkha, technicians and experts had to be brought in from abroad to manufacture war materials. After the Gorkhali troops finally captured Kathmandu (then known as Nepal), the Gorkhali armed forces came to be known as the Nepalese Army.
Their gallantry, sincerity and simplicity impressed even the enemy, so much so, that the British East- India Company started recruiting Nepalese into their forces. Since the British had fought against the Nepalese Army, which was till that time, still colloquially known as "Army of Gorkha" or "Gorkhali" army, the British took to calling their new soldiers "Gurkhas". Hence, in essence, the “Gorkha” heritage belongs, first and foremost, to the Nepalese Army.
There is still some misunderstanding that the Nepalese Army is a part of the British and Indian Armies. The Gurkha Rifles existing in India and Britain are part of foreign military organizations where Nepalese are recruited. The NA rightfully is the proud national army of sovereign and independent Nepal with an unbroken history since the year 1744. The fact that Nepal and the Nepalese people have never been subjugated by any colonial power is a significant achievement of the Nepalese Army. King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great was the founder of the Nepalese Army.
The Unification Battles
Nuwakot, a strategic area in the Northwest of Kathmandu valley, belonged to the kingdom of Kathmandu. King Narabhupal Shah, the father of Prithvi Narayan Shah had tried to annex Nuwakot into Gorkha. But his attempt had failed. The first attempt by King Prithvi Narayan also failed. So, this was really the third attempt by the Gorkha King.
Kazi Kalu Pande, the Gorkhali commander, chalked out a strategy to mount a sudden attack against the defenders from an unexpected direction without giving the enemy opportunity for counterattack. When Kazi Kalu Pande began to climb up from the North, it was dawn of the 26th of September 1744. The defenders of Nuwakot were still sleeping. The Gorkhali forces reached Mahamandal, a tactical outpost in Nuwakot, and mounted a surprise attack there. Shankha Mani, the commander of the defenders, began to encourage his panic-stricken soldiers to stand up and fight against the Gorkhalis, but to no avail. He himself took a sword, charged forward and wounded a few Gorkhali soldiers. He had already sustained injuries. He advanced towards Dal Mardan Shah, brother of Prithvi Narayan Shah, and challenged him. Dal Mardan Shah was just 13 years old. Dal Mardan Shah answered the challenge and with a swift strike on Shankha Mani’s head, killed him on the spot. Kalu Pande’s plans had proved successful.
Another group of Gorkhali soldiers led by Chautaria Mahadam Kirti Shah, another brother of Prithvi Narayan Shah, crossed Dharampani but met with strong resistance. The battle continued for a while and ultimately the Gorkhali forces prevailed. Many defenders died and the remaining fled.
The third group, led by King Prithvi Narayan Shah himself, began to advance swiftly towards Nuwakot Gadhi (fort) after receiving news of the capture of Mahamandal. The death of Shankha Mani had taken the wind out of the defenders’ sail. They began to flee towards Belkot instead of fighting. Kazi Kalu Pande reached Nuwakot with a small contingent of forces. Mahodam Kirti Shah also arrived. King Prithvi Narayan Shah entered the Nuwakot Gadhi fortress. Nuwakot was annexed to the Gorkha State. The first foothold in the process of unification of Nepal had been secured.
The Battel for Kirtipur
Over the next few years, this success was followed by a deliberate and practical strategy to lay general siege on the Kathmandu Valley from all directions. Another important step in the initial unification campaign was the conquering of Kirtipur, the fortress in the southern part of Kathmandu valley. Gorkhali troops had failed twice to secure Kirtipur. King Prithvi Narayan Shah changed his plan and encircled and blockaded the whole fort. A six-month long siege by the Gorkhali forces created panic among its inhabitants. The Kirtipur Commander, on 12th March, 1766, opened the gates of the fort at mid-night and surrendered to the Gorkhali forces. Kirtipur was annexed to Gorkha without any battle.
Similar blockade tactics also helped secure Makawanpur, south of Kathmandu Valley. Well known names like Mohaddam Kirti Shah, Surpratap Shah, Dalamardan Shah, Rana Rudra Shah, Nandu Shah, Kaji Bamsa Raj Pandey, Kaji Kehar Singh Basnyat, Kaji Nahar Singh Basnyat and Kaji Abhiman singh Basnyat were dispatched with about 1,100 fighting troops to encircle the Makawanpur fortress by the dawn of 20th August 1762.
King Digbardhan Sen and his minister Kanak Singh Baniya had already sent their families to safer grounds before the encirclement of their fortress. The Gorkhalis launched an attack on 21st August 1762. The battle lasted for eight hours. King Digbardhan and his minister Kanak Singh escaped to Hariharpur Gadhi. Makawanpur was thus annexed to Nepal.
After occupying the Makawanpur Gadhi fort, the Gorkhali forces started planning for an attack on Hariharpur Gadhi, a strategic fort on a mountain ridge of the Mahabharat range, also south of Kathmandu. It controlled the route to the Kathmandu valley. At the dusk of 4th October, 1762, the Gorkhalis launched the attack. The soldiers at Hariharpur Gadhi fought valiantly against the Gorkha forces, but were ultimately forced to vacate the Gadhi after mid-night. About 500 soldiers of Hariharpur died in the battle.
The unification process by Prithvi Narayan Shah continued after this death in 1775. The Kangra fort, now part of Himachal Pradesh of India, was kept under encirclement for three years during the unification battles by the Nepalese Army under the command of Bada Kazi Amar Singh Thapa. In the years that followed the death of King Pritvi Narayan Shah, his younger son Regent Bahadur Shah and others had succeeded in extending Nepal to the Sutlej river (now in India) and beyond in the West and Sikkim and Bhutan to the East. The Kangra fort, situated on top of a hill about 64 Kilometers from the Vyas river, was considered impregnable and had a great strategic and military importance.
Sansar Chand, the king of Kangra, was unpopular even amongst his countrymen. Amar Singh Thapa camped his forces at Jwalamukhi, from where a contingent of Nepali forces laid seige to the Kangra fort. Sansar Chand sent a message to Amar singh Thapa saying he intended to give up control of the Kangra fort and Tara Gadh and hand them over to him. He asked for a period of ten days to do so. Amar Singh Thapa withdrew his forces from the gates of Ganesh valley. But Sansar Chand was just buying time and secretly approaching Ranjit Singh of Punjab for help. Ranjit Singh along with his 1,500 Sikh soldiers reached the Kangra fort, dodging the Nepalese. He launched a multipronged attack against the Nepali forces. The first battle was fought at Ganesh valley, the second at Gorkha Tila and the last at Malkan da. A fierce fight raged in the Ganesh valley, where both sides suffered heavy casualties. The Sikhs made a retreat but again attacked in the evening. The Nepali forces had to give up some positions in the battle. Ultimately, a peace treaty was signed between the opposite camps. The Nepali forces had to fall back to Sutlej river on 24th August, 1809. The battle of Kangra was the last of the unification battles, except for the annexation of Palpa which was accomplished after the death of Regent Prince Bahadur Shah.