Tara Nath Sharma
A famous poet wrote the poem “Ours is a country of rumors!” and it became so popular that everyone in the educated Nepali circle began to refer to it day in day out. Today when I look at it with a cool mind I feel that there is indeed a great deal of truth in the expression that the Nepali people are completely given to rumors. There are ample instances to prove this fact even from a cursory review of some of our current happenings and we can dig the past as well. Rumors are never true nor can they be supported on any emotional or national grounds. Yet all the people from the so-called democratic leaders to the common citizens run their daily activities and shape their thought patterns on silly rumors all the time.
As recently as a year or so ago, a crazy beggar spread a cruel rumor saying that the whole of South Asia starting from Myanmar and covering Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Pakistan would envelop our Motherland under a terrible natural disaster of earthquake followed by epidemics, famine and untold human misery. The beggar for an easy acquisition of alms for him and his wife and children wore a fanciful hairy hat stuck in and around with tridents as he went around the town of Kathmandu. As we know the trident is a sacred weapon held by Shiva, one of the Hindu Three Forms of God, the cheat had in mind that the people would easily offer him food, clothes and other necessities of life if he wore the symbols of Shiva on his head. This rumor-monger thought of a plan to get more well-known through gimmicks to increase his income and, therefore, he devised a rumor of natural disaster and distributed pamphlets to the effect. He predicted the disaster to overwhelm the South Asian people on June 22, 2007, which didn't happen as predicted.
Political maneuverings currently going on in Nepal follow the same kind of strategy. Like the trident holder's prediction fiasco, there are a few interesting instances from the pages of history but because of the rumors originating in remote past they are still held to be true superstitiously by the general public. One such fallacious belief belongs to the time when Prithvi Narayan Shah attacked Kirtipur in the Kathmandu valley. The valiant people of Kirtipur naturally gave a stiff resistance to the well-trained army of the Gorkha king proving the invader's fallacious belief that he would easily run over any small kingdom like Kirtipur as he did Nuwakot, Tanahun and others.
As he attacked Kathmandu during the festival of Indra Jatra when the local people were merrily engaged in religious and social festivities, the people of Kirtipur drove the attackers back many times over. This enhanced their prestige but the Kirtipur people could not hold longer in the face of the Gorkha soldiers who were more numerous and more experienced. Kirtipur fell and came under the dominance of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Before the conquest of the whole valley by the Gorkha army a Christian mission was working in Lalitpur. The mission had to quit after the unification of Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah.
One of the members of the mission knowingly or unknowingly interpreted a Nepali idiom the wrong way when the local people expressed their dissatisfaction at the defeat of the Kirtipur people saying that “they let their noses cut” which in Nepali means “they lost their prestige” or “they couldn't maintain their dignity” by letting the Gorkha fighters overrun them. Neither had Prithvi Narayan Shah ordered his men to cut the noses, nor the ears of the fighters of Kirtipur, he would never do that as there is no other historical instance that he ever did that kind of heinous thing with the people he defeated. It was the Christian missionary who being angry to be sent away either without understanding the implication of the special Nepali idiom or by following the habit of the British Empire's usual policy of “Divide and rule” left behind an account of the Kirtipur defeat. And this rumor has stayed on to create an unnecessary animosity among the ethnic communities of our nation.
Another very interesting historical blunder has defied all logic and the so-called nationalists have become a total slave to this rumor. It concerns with the currency of the Nepal Era. The era began when the number 8 from the Shak era was dropped as inauspicious when the Shak era of 801 and 802 brought untold human misery to the people of the Kathmandu Valley with a devastating earthquake followed by terrible famine due to lack of rain and dreadful diseases. That was the time when a later Licchavi king named Raghav Dev ruled the valley. When the king asked the people to drop the number 8 and only take the numbers 1, 2, 3 and so on the new system was named the Pashupati Bhattarak era to make it auspicious by naming it after the God Pashupati or Shiva (the Pashupatinath Temple is the seat of the national deity of Nepal). This name continued for almost half a century. Slowly because of its long name the people called it just the Pashupati era which later began to be popularly known as the Nepal era.
But most people today think and strongly believe that the Nepal era was started by a civilian named Shankhadhar Sakhwa and the man has achieved a great legendary fame. The belief has no historical basis whatsoever.
The name of Shankhadhar Sakhwa began to appear only as late as when a representative of the British Empire began to be deputed to Kathmandu. One of such British officials, Daniel Wright, has for the first time referred to Shankhadhar Sakhwa as the founder of the Nepal Samvat (era) in his History of Nepal. He says that the source he quoted was the Gopal Chronology, a native document, but the imaginary story was asked by Wright to his two local assistants to include (to interpolate?) in the chronology.
A fairy tale type of episode has been found in the reference of Shankhadhar Sakhwa which no scientific explanation can uphold. It is described that an expert astrologer after calculating the exact movements of the stars and planets predicted that the sand collected at a particular point in time would turn into gold. He hired some workers and sent them to the bank near the confluence of the Bagmati and Vishnumati rivers to the south of Kathmandu in order to collect and bring some sacks of sand on an exact time. The generous Shankhadhar Sakhwa then distributed the gold to those who were in debt to repay their loans. To commemorate the unusual event, the rumor continues, he started the new era calling it the Nepal Samvat or the Nepal Era.
The fairy tales of any country would be filled indeed with such interesting events but such occurrences have never been seen in reality anywhere and there is no scientific reason why it should in Kathmandu. But the rumor has persisted so much so that the legendary generous Shankhadhar Sakhwa has been declared a National Hero.
As for the inauspicious nature of the number 8, Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the valley and unified the country exactly in 888 Nepal era! Isn't that historically interesting?
(The writer is a visiting professor of Michigan State University)