Royal Tragedy - Kathmandu, Nepal (all photos are taken by myself unless otherwise noted)

It is a nation stunned and shocked, overwhelmed with grief and sorrow. But an anger is slowly simmering below the surface, bubbling over in some places, and ready to explode in a revolution of the people’s frustration with the leaders who do not lead. Nepal, cradled by the mighty Himalayas, has lost it’s first family in an bloody massacre cloaked in very mysterious circumstances. How to make sense of the senseless? How to explain the inexplicable?

7:00 am, Saturday, June 2nd

All Nepal woke on Saturday morning to find that something terrible had happened, but with no information forthcoming, confusion reigned and rumors flew.

I had come downstairs on this Saturday morning, ready to put in an extra day at ACP, the organization where I was volunteering. They had decided to open to make up for the devastating loss in productivity from the recent three-day strike. But the entire front of the building was shuttered. I asked NawaRaj if another strike had been called. He looked grief-stricken and stunned. As he was mumbling no, I heard the puttering of motorbikes outside, a sure sign that there wasn't a strike. I mentioned to NawaRaj that I was heading to work today, even though it was a holiday. He regained his composure and said that the office was sure to be closed. I tried to explain that he misunderstood and that the office was open indeed. Then he mumbled some words about the King. I immediately thought that it must be the King's birthday or something like that, but how odd that ACP wouldn't know that. Then it finally came out..."they are all dead, all of them..."

Crown Prince Dipendra, King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, Prince Nirajan, Prince Gyanendra (now current King) and Princess Shruti - Kathmandu Post

With all local news and TV showing a montage of temple pictures accompanied by mournful music, people turned to international news agencies for any information. It wasn’t good. The entire family of His Royal Highness King Birendra was gunned down during a family get-together at the Royal Palace in Kathmandu. BBC and CNN reported that nine members of the Royal Family including King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, their children, Prince Nirajan and Princess Shruti, youngest brother of the King, Prince Dhirendra, two sisters of the King, Princess Jayanti and Sharada, and both their husbands had been massacred, allegedly by the King’s oldest son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who lay in a coma in Chaunni Military Hospital, after turning on the gun on himself in an apparent murder-suicide. The reason given? Over a dispute about the Crown Prince’s choice of a wife.

I rushed to the room and turned on the TV, but information was sketchy and sparse. To my horror, all other stations had been blacked out. There was only CNN, BBC, StarTV (Indian) and the state-run NepaliTV, whereas there had been a plethora of 25 channels before. We had nothing to do but sit and anxiously wait for any news, given in tiny bits at the top of every hour on the BBC and CNN. After some-time, we were thrust into even more chaos when state media also cut news channels leaving only blackness and  funereal music echoing through the building and out on the streets.

11:00 am, Saturday, June 2nd, Durber Marg

But Nepal refused to believe. That their King was dead and the Crown Prince responsible. Throngs of people filled the streets of central Kathmandu looking for any answers. People made their way to the gates of the Narayanthity Palace and the nearby office of the Raj Parishad, (Privy Council) where they learned that an emergency meeting had been called to name the next monarch of Nepal. With state-run media offering no official statement, rumors were rampant and speculation flew about the King’s second brother, Prince Gyanendra, who was luckily or conveniently away from the Palace that night. And people wanted answers.

People gathering outside the Raj Parishad on Kantipath Street

I found myself also wandering the streets looking for answers. Durber Marg was filled with people, some starting to chant slogans, demanding information. Police gathered and momentum built for the inevitable confrontation. It came soon enough, as I found myself in a human stampede of people running right towards me. From a safe location, I watched as a row of riot police advanced on demonstrators, lathi-charging (long wooden sticks) them. The crowd continually surged back and forth at the onslaught of the police, shouting pro-monarchy slogans and demanding information about their beloved King. It was only finally dispersed with the aid of tear gas and a long awaited announcement that came over state media stating that there would be an official announcement at 2:00pm.

People running from the Royal Palace intersection near Thamel after clashing with police

2:00 pm, Saturday, June 2nd, Office of the Raj Parishad

The announcement came over Nepal TV and Radio Nepal. “The King and Queen and many family members had passed away in an unanticipated event at the Royal Palace the night before.” Crown Prince Dipendra was now named the new monarch of Nepal, even though he lay in a coma, caused by injuries suffered in the same unanticipated event, and in spite of the fact that he was seemingly the gunman. No answers were given and more questions raised. Due to his Royal Highness King Dipendra’s incapacitated state, Prince Gyanendra was named Regent to carry out the formal responsibilities. And more shockingly, it was further announced that the King, Queen and family members would be cremated at Pashupati’s Aryaghat that very evening, with the funeral procession beginning at 4:00 from the Chaunni Military Hospital and winding through the city. As soon as the route was announced, people began gathering to say farewell to their beloved King.

A young King Birendra - Kantipur photo college

Queen Aishwarya with the Crown Prince Dipendra and on her wedding day - Kantipur photo

The marriage of Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and Aishwarya Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah - File photo

They came to say goodbye to their beloved King and Queen the royal family. They came armed with flowers and katas (prayer scarfs) lining up shoulder to shoulder, both sides of the entire route, and waiting sadly for the procession to arrive. My room happened to be on the route and I sat there, alternately scanning the TV for any sign of  news, and looking out the first floor window, waiting, waiting. At 4:00 exactly, NepalTV flickered to life and I was greeted with the shocking image of King Birendra

4:00 Saturday, June 2nd: Chaunni Military Hospital to Pashupatinath 

Nepal TV began televising the state farewell at the hospital, with dignitaries and statesmen, laying flowers atop the king, queen and their two children. Their faces were clearly visible, their violent death etched in the twisted features of their once regal faces. The procession began with full state and military honors. First came the military band, followed by entire regiments of Royal Nepal Army troops. 




Then came the Calvary and various other units, all wearing their full dress. Leading statesmen, politicians and army generals followed on foot and in Mercedes vehicles. Finally, the stark simple white dress of the Brahmin Priests could be seen, along with their shaved, tonsured heads. 




Carried on their shoulders, in a humble bamboo cot, was the King, draped in the Nepal flag and covered with flowers and prayer scarfs. He was wrapped in a yellow cloth and his face was red with tika powder. The flowers rained down from every window. People wailed in grief, tossed bouquets, and said their final farewells, still stunned with shock at the turn of events, at the speed of which they were occurring. People shouted, “Long live the King” and “Our King and Our Country are dearer than our lives.”

Following the King, in a regal Gold chariot carried on the shoulder of Brahmin priests, came the Queen, reminiscent of her wedding day, in which she was sheltered in the same carriage for her arrival.

They were so close to me, from my vantage point. Raised high on the priests shoulders, I found myself face to face with death. I cried. The wailing on the street below filled my ears. The overwhelming sadness of the moment, the stark realization of the fragility of life, and the terrible waste of it all. I tossed my own simple bouquet and said prayers for their departed souls as the flowers continued to rain down around me.

Then came the Prince Nirijan, still so handsome even in death; his youth and his potential cut short at the age of 23. He was followed by the sweet Princess Shruti, a favorite of the people, lover of the arts and patroness of social welfare groups. She has left us and her two young daughter at the age of 25. 

Princess Shruti, only daughter of the King

This very public farewell was disconcerting. Death so openly on display. Grief so overwhelming. After Princess Jayanti, passed, the crowds surged after the procession, intent on walking these last steps of the King, alongside him.

Princess Jayanti, second cousin to the King

Caught up in the wave of emotion, I hurried out of my room after the procession had passed to pay my respects to a King, who in his final years, worked tirelessly for the upliftment of the Nepalese people. We slowly moved passed the Royal Palace, where the procession paused for a moment in respect and then proceeded. Slowly, the sadness turned to anger, and the rage simmering below the surface raised its ugly head. The slogans changed from pro-monarchy to angry recriminations. Conspiracy theories abounded and people shouted death for the murderers. And politics made an ugly showing, as people even denounced the already beleaguered Prime Minister as guilty in some way of these horrific events. The streets narrowed, and the procession was becoming dangerously crowded. Police managed to keep control only on the front portion, while the tail of people joining was long and very near a stampede. Fearing for my safety, I finally turned back near the temple, sure that I would not be able to see witness anything anyway. Once back at the hotel, I watched the sad last rites of the Royal Family on Nepali TV.

First the King, then the Queen and followed by Nirajan, Shruti and Jayanti. Each one was carried three times around the flower draped wooden pyres and then laid to rest atop. As Brahmin priests recited the holy Vedic rituals, a distant Brahmin relative of each lit the pyre and laid fire to their mortal remains. As the flames began to engulf the bodies, the Army gave a 56 gun salute, statesmen stood at attention and paid their last respects, the military band played the Nepal national anthem and an overwhelming crowd was beat back as they surged forward. It began to drizzle, the drops falling on Bagmati River and a commentator on TV mentioned that even the Gods were crying. The fires leapt higher and higher and then died down to embers and then the Royal Family was no more.

10:00 am, Sunday, June 3rd

Nepal awoke to a new reality. With a complete lack of information, I heard the many theories. First and foremost, the theory broadcast so prominently by the foreign media that the now King Dipendra was responsible. As the story goes, Dipendra was nearing his 30th birthday and still not married, quite unprecedented and some cause for concern among Palace insiders. Dipendra himself was taken with one young Nepali women who he met in England while he was studying at Eton. She was also studying in England, but came from a very wealthy family with ties to Indian government and even some Indian blood. As family pressure was mounting to marry, he chose this girl, but his mother objected, worried that a women was not suitable for the future monarch of Nepal, especially given the nationalistic sentiments of Nepalis and their underlying contempt for any and all things Indian. On the night in question, the family was gathering for their weekly Friday night dinner, but this one with special overtones, to announce the engagement of Dipendra. An argument ensued, and at one point, Dipendra, drunk and in rage left the room. He went to his room, changed into military fatigues and returned with a sub-machine gun and massacred his entire family. Then turned the gun on himself. The Nepalese people, already suspicious of foreign intervention, are angry that foreign news media jumped to conclusions and broadcast such accusations against their Crown Prince without confirmation or supporting information.  

Matters were not helped when in his first public proclamation, Regent Prince Gyanendra announced on Sunday that the incident at the Palace had been a tragic accident in which a machine gun has accidentally discharged. The Nepalese were not so stupid as to believe that a gun could accidentally ‘target’ and kill nine people and injure many others. In doing so, the already unpopular Gyanendra, lost all credibility. The news media was no help either. In following these events, I am completely baffled at the lack of details and the superficial and univestigative manner of TV and news media. The papers are uninformative and distinctly obtuse in reporting anything inflammatory or anti-monarchy. In fact, the theory broadcast by foreign news media was not even mentioned in any of the papers. Instead, there were pages and pages of condolence messages on the “untimely demise of the Royal Family in an unanticipated event.” I am certain that the Nepalese people are not interested in reading a laundry list of foreign dignitaries that sent their condolences, so much as who was there at the palace, who was injured, where were security personnel, why were the bodies cremated so quickly, what are the results of the post-mortem reports…

The streets felt shell-shocked. Similar to a strike with many offices and stores shuttered, but different with many people venturing out to discuss and vent and share their grief. Transportation was running, but greatly diminished. Many didn't venture out on motorbikes or taxis in fear that violence could break out at any time. And there was a run on newspapers. Anyone with a paper had a huge crowd gathered around, trying to read with him. Every newspaper vendor sat before an empty ground waiting for the next delivery which would promptly sell out in five minutes. People were slightly injured in various locations around Kathmandu, in a rush to get a paper.

8:00am, Monday, June 4th

Again, Nepal awoke to a new reality. News media announced that His Royal Highness King Dipendra had succumbed to his injuries Sunday night. Nepal had lost another King and the Raj Parishad was annoucing the next. Three kings in three days. It was announced that Regent Prince Gyanendra was to be Nepal’s new monarch. Already an unpopular figure, Gyanendra was a businessman with suspicious ties and thought to be very corrupt. In addition, Gyanendra’s only son Paras, was hated by the public as he was a loose cannon; wild and uncontrollable. Already having killed three people while driving drunk, the last straw came when he, last year, mowed down a very popular singer in his SUV. The thought of Gyanendra as the new King and Para being named the Crown Prince was too unbearable for many Nepalis. Immediately after the rushed swearing-in ceremony which was strictly controlled and secured by the army, Nepali took again to the streets to protest the new king and to demand answers. Crowds gathered on the major arteries of the city. And the demonstrations turned violent. Attempting to disperse the crowds, police lathi-charged and tear-gassed the angry mobs. The streets of the capital looked like a battlefield with burning tires, stones, uprooted trees, and overturned cars blocking the way. Dozens were injured when police fired bullets to disperse crowds. And finally a curfew was announced with order to shoot anyone who defied it.

Hearing the call for a curfew to start shortly, I decided it was time to leave the Valley and head for the peace and security of my family in Pokhara. Devi and I headed out by  motorbike, our only option given that many buses were not running and those that were, were dangerously crowded. A light rain greeted us at the start of the journey, and quickly became a downpour through which we drove on, oblivious. We stopped in Malekhu, about two hours outside of Kathmandu. There we rehashed all the events of the previous days with Mama and Maiju, Devi's uncle and auntie, who owned one of the many dhal bhattis, that line the tiny bazaar town to serve the trucking trade. They knew even less out here. With no TV, they had only heard what Nepali government wanted them to hear.

Amidst all this rioting and the declaration of curfew, the state funeral of late King Dipendra was to take place that very evening, with no one allowed to turn out to say farewell. Despite this, thousands defied the curfew and surrounded Chaunni Hospital to block the procession from making it’s way to Pashupati. People demanded answers and a impartial post-mortem before Dipendra’s mortal remains were given to flames, but they were valiantly overcome by the army and over 500 were arrested in the course of the protests.

King Dipendra laid in state. The caption reads 'Only the Young Die Good' - Space Time Today photo

We listened to Dipendra's procession beginning over the radio. Outside, trucks lined up and parked, resigned to waiting in Malekhu with all entrance and exits from the Valley sealed. Not heeding their requests to stay, we got on the motorbike, adjusted the trash bag I was using as a jacket and we continued on to Pokhara, trying to beat the setting sun and the worsening conditions.

Dipendra rode to Pashupati via a deserted Ring Road aboard the open platform of a semi-truck. That night, he was consigned to the flames amidst full state honors, much like his father two nights before.

We had a blowout halfway between Dumre and Damauli. Exactly halfway. We pulled the bike over to a nearby house and Devi asked them where the nearest place to get it fixed. They pointed in both directions and Devi went out to the road and waited for anyone come in either direction. The roads were deserted and the few vehicles that did come by, ignored him in the newly tense atmosphere of Nepal. Finally, a truck pulled over and gave him a lift too Dumre. Meanwhile, I sat with the family of the house where the bike was parked. We talked about the King and they were eager for any information. Villagers came from all around to hear what I had to say. As we sat talking, a fistfight broke out in the crowd and the nice family ushered me into the house and closed the door to keep me safe. Devi finally came back as night settled over Nepal. It took a half hour to get the wheel back on the bike and the brakes and gears adjusted. It was dark and we did it by flashlight with the help of the boys of the house. Then we left, their address tucked in my pocket. So much for the beating the darkness...  

Tuesday, June 5th & Wednesday, June 6th

The government’s crude attempts to control and suppress the truth surrounding the incident has become clearer with each passing day. First, all TV channels were blacked out, but after some time, CNN, BCC and some Indian News channles were allowed back on. This was followed by cutting phone service from the capital to the rest of the country as Kathmandu in a feeble attempt to block news of the unrest and riots. But still, they spontaneously sprang up in all parts of the country, and phone service was soon restored. Then, after some Indian news media began to mention the idea of a conspiracy, these channels were blacked out again. Then three publishers of a leading newspaper were arrested and charged with sedition for publishing an opinion article hinting at a conspiracy behind the murders.

Sarita came to me and showed me an article in the Nepali paper Kantipur. She was amazed at the words in the article written by Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, leader and mouthpiece of the Maoists. Here he was writing what everyone was thinking. What everyone wanted to believe. A big lie that was easier to swallow than a small and painful truth.  

With the lack of information, this conspiracy theory was already gathering strength in the minds of  people. But it lays out a plot so deep and so machiavellian as to shake the very foundation of Nepal. While there is no denying that the Crown Prince was having a family disagreement about his upcoming marriage, this was a convenient excuse to cover up something far more sinister. A bit of background is necessary to understand the current situation. Prior to 1990, Nepal was an absolute monarchy cloaked in a partyless ‘pancyhat’ system of governance, rife with corruption, and ruled absolutely by the King himself. But the frustrations and aspirations of the people led to the popular 1990 Jana Andolan democratic uprising, in which King Birendra bowed to the people’s wishes and established a multi-party parliamentary system and constitutional monarchy, where he was reduced to a ceremonial figurehead. Today, King Birendra is loved and remembered so fondly be the Nepalese people for what is considered his commitment to the wishes of the people. After 1990, even as the many political parties of Nepal seemed to make a mockery of democracy by institutionalizing corruption, King Birendra seemed to be the only true person committed to the constitution and to govern wisely and for the betterment of the people, even within his limited capacity. It is within this framework that the events should be viewed.

The King’s brother Gyanendra, was widely known for his anti-democratic beliefs and his desire to return to an absolute monarchy. Recently, the army chiefs had caused some alarm with some statements that seemed to indicate that the army was controlled by the King and not by the elected government, and the dispute had not been resolved. All parties of the government have recently been rocked by corruption scandal, and the main opposition party, the Communists had disrupted the last session of parliament to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. With the government in disarray, democracy is at it’s most vulnerable. Many believe Gyanendra to have orchestrated the turn of events to grab power for himself and with the backing of the army, to throw out democracy and return to an autocratic rule. There certainly seems to be many factors supporting this. First, for Gyanendra to ascend the throne of Nepal, King Birendra, Crown Prince Dipendra and Prince Nirajan would all have to die before the line of succession would turn to him. Second, all of Gyanendra’s family was present, except for Gyanendra himself, at the Palace that evening, and none were killed. As if to squash such rumors, palce officials have reported that they sustained non-serious injuries and are recovering nicely, even though no photos or other information has been supplied. The British Ambassador to Nepal’s residence is next to the Royal Palace, and on the night in question, he reported hearing over forty minutes of sporadic gunfire from the Palace. He reported this to officials and news media and was dismissed, however, it was later reported in the London Times. An unconfirmed report has that two army vehicles were seen leaving the Palace and heading for Gorkha, where the army is deployed to fight the Maoist insurgency. The theory being that numerous army people were killed that night and their bodies are being taken to an area of fighting only to say later that they were killed in duty, fighting the Maoists. Everyone killed that night was cremated within a day of their death, and no reports of the post-mortems have released. That everyone injured and killed in the incident were taken to a military hospital even though there are better-equipped and advanced hospitals in Kathmandu, let alone internationally. That everyone gathered that evening was to celebrate the engagement of Dipendra and his own uncle was conveniently away. Another unconfirmed report that Dipendra died of injuries sustained from a bullet wound to the back. And finally, the complete lack of information on the whereabouts of Paras, who is widely believed to have had carreid out the actual murders.

People again took to the streets. I escaped Kathmandu for the relative calm of Pokhara, and to share in the sorrow of my Nepalese family. But even Pokhara was not immune. As all the stores and shops were closed due to state mourning for eight days, Devi and I went to Lakeside to find an open cyber café. There, we ran into our friend Narayan who was demonstrating with a large crowd. They were standing outside the Royal Retreat in Lakeside, yelling Paras Chor (loosely translated as Paras Thief but a very slang term with very ugly overtones) They believed that Paras was in town and hiding out inside the building. I left to do my business and then went to visit a friend in nearby Damside. Tika and Shova have a small six-month-old baby girl and as I approached their building, I heard the most pained wailing. Rastra Chowk, the intersection near their building had just been the scene of a clash between the demonstrators on the move and police. Tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd and it seeped into all the nearby buildings. Poor Sanu had it in her eyes and she could do nothing but cry and cry. Tika was still fanning the air as we sat and talked. As the demonstrations spread across Pokhara, Devi decided we should return home.

As we passed  Mahendra Pol, the main shopping bazaar, I saw tires burning, and rocks littering the streets. As people ran by, we heard from the crowd that they moving against the Army Barracks just east of the bazaar. Seems they were now convinced that Paras was holed up in there after an army vehicle was seen leaving the Royal Retreat for the Barracks. Then I felt the sting of tear gas in my eyes and nose. Like pepper but a hundred times worse. I shut my eyes and clamped my fingers on my nose, but the gas just burned my throat. Mahendra Pol looked like a war zone. Police in riot gear advancing on stone throwing youth. We raced for home and there, aama made us eat onions to take away the burn.

Incidents were reported in all major towns of Nepal. Matters have died down, but the feelings of frustration linger on. A semblance of normalcy is slowly returning, but things will never be the same. As Nepal suffers setback after setback in its struggle to develop, I am a witness to the strength and tenacity of a people that persevere despite all odds. In perhaps one bittersweet show of unity, almost all men in Nepal have shaved their heads in mourning, a sign of grief and respect for the dead usually reserved for when one’s own parents have died. In this way, all Nepalis have been orphaned. In a country where there are over two hundred ethnic groups, over sixty languages, large refugee populations from Tibet and Bhutan, a raging insurgency, a corrupt government prone to divisiveness and an insidious caste system that serves only to create social division, the King was perhaps the last unifying factor to bring people together. Whether this tragedy serves to unify the people for the difficult road ahead or bring Nepal to the brink of the abyss, no one knows. I hope it will not be shown in the future to have been the last straw.

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