Was Buddha Born in Nepal?
A controversial question here in Nepal. Or rather, the answer is controversial: Was Buddha born in Nepal?
Some time last year, I had the pleasure of participating in an online debate about the subject, and I had the honour of being banned from the discussion because I pointed out that Nepal didn’t exist at the time of Buddha’s birth. And now again, the question has flared up here. Last week, there were street demonstrations because the newest Bollywood hit-movie, “Chandni Chowk to China”, had the nerve of narrating something like “India, the birthplace of Buddha”.
I heard about the demonstrations here in Kathmandu, but thought it would be too silly to go and cover the event. In stead, I’ve jotted down this brief outline of Nepal’s history. I don’t claim to be a historic scholar when it comes to Nepal, but I have read a few books about the country – and lived here for a number of years now. I think it would be a healthy exercise for some Nepalese to learn their countries history. Not the self-glorifying stuff they learn in school and which is probably the basis of the recent demonstration, perhaps also of other misconceptions such as “Nepal belongs mostly to the Brahman cast, who have build Nepal, secured it’s integrity and founded it’s culture for centuries, if not millennia.”
So ok, here it comes :
A Very Brief Outline of Nepal’s History
Focusing on the birth of Buddha and of the nation
The first sign of life in what is now Nepal was some pre-human figure living in the area more than 100.000 years ago. Ancient tools has also been found in the Kathmandu Valley, dating back 30.000 years. Many Nepalese, it would seem, would like to trace their history back to this time.
That would be an act of fantasy more than anything else.
The first sort of civilizations settling in the area were probably the Kirati/Kirantis. About 9-8-700 years BC, this Mongolian race of people somehow drifted into the area, most likely from the East somewhere. The Indo-Aryan race were already in place, down in present-day India, where they have settled perhaps some 500 years earlier. It was later in this epoch that Buddha was born in what is now Lumbini, Nepal, but at that time were an independent sort of “kingdom” in which his father allegedly played a leading role, perhaps even was King. But this “kingdom” wasn’t called “Nepal”, rather, it was the “kingdom of the Shakyas” or perhaps referred to by the name of it’s capital, Kapilvastu. The Shakyas (the clan to whom the Buddha belonged) must have been an Indo-Aryan tribe, the name “Shakya” being of Sanskrit origin rather than from the Tibeto-Burman language group, used by the Kirantis.
So ok, Buddha wasn’t born in Nepal. Simply due to the fact that Nepal didn’t exist at the time of his birth. But when did Nepal come into existence? Well, this is a can of worms, but actually, I’d like to open it!
There is some speculation that the word “Nepal”, is derived from Kiranti times, those people allegedly also referred to as the Nep people… But I’m not sure about it and I don’t think anybody really knows where the word comes from. I would have thought it had some etymological link to “Pali”, the language spoken at that time. Perhaps “New Pali” could have become “Ne-Pali”… But that’s my own hypothesis, and I haven’t seen anything to back it up. The first written reference I’ve heard of is a Chinese document from much later, 7th century, referring to “Ni Po Lo”… The funny thing though is that the word “Nepal” was just used to refer to the Kathmandu Valley, not the country, until the 1930’s! So clearly, the country Nepal is older than that. It was for instance recognized as an independent country by the British in 1816 in the Treaty of Sagauli, following a Nepalese defeat to the East Indian Company. But clearly, we can’t establish the birth-year of Nepal by ways of finding the origin of it’s name.
So getting back to the historical account, Buddhism survived for some hundreds of years and then, during the great Indian king Ashoka (~250 BC) spread far and wide, including to Nepal.
Certain monuments in Kathmandu are accredited to his name, including the Charumati stupa, named after his daughter, a few minutes walk from where I’m presently sitting. His empire spanned much of present day India, Pakistan and supposedly also Nepal. While it was probably not a state by modern definitions, his religious teachings must have affected the Kirantis in the Valley, who now started to practice Buddhism. Buddhism lived on in Nepal until the 13th century, but around the beginning of the first millennium, Hinduism started to spread into Nepal. Eventually the old Buddhist traditions faded away and today, Buddhism in Nepal is of the imported Tibetan variety.
The Kirantis eventually drew back, out of Kathmandu, towards the north-east, but the present day Newar community are probably some of their descendents, speaking a Tibeto-Burman language completely unrelated to Nepali. Other descendents are the Rai and Limbu casts. The Newars of today practice a religion that some of them regard as Buddhism, others as Hinduism.
The 3rd and 4th century saw a new wave of influence spread into Nepal, when the India-based Licchavis came up from the South and took power of the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. It was a Hindu culture and they ruled the place until about the 8th century.
So can this be said to be the birth of Nepal? Clearly, their Shiva-centric form of Hinduism dominates up till present day. But many other kingdoms existed on what is today Nepalese territory, the Licchavis sticking mainly to the Kathmandu / Nepal Valley. And as we shall see later, it wasn’t their line of heritage that eventually survived to become modern Nepal. Their influence faded away after the 8th century and the more indigenous Newars eventually took control of the Valley around year 1200.
The new Newar rulers took the name “Malla”, started an urbanized civilization and founded and built some of the famous landmarks of the Nepal tri-city area, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur (a.k.a. Kasthamandap, Lalitpur and Bhadgaon). Outside the Valley, a migration of “Khasa” people were slowly moving in from the west, perhaps of Eurasian decent. Although they also assumed the “Malla” name, their empire was quite different. They spoke a different language and were Indo-Aryans, as opposed to the Newar’s Mongolian roots. The Malla period saw great cultural developments, and they instituted the divine rule, where the King was regarded as a reincarnation of Vishnu. This divine rule continued, somewhat interrupted, until King Gyanendra was ousted by “the people’s movement” in 2006. But even the Mallas had their problem securing their conquests. By now Muslims had invaded parts of India and they were also conducting raids on the Valley - as were the “other Mallas” (the Khasas). A third flow of people were now also starting to settle in the hills, namely the Indian Rajputs, fleeing the Muslim invaders in Rajasthan (present day India).
But eventually, both the Newar Mallas’ and the Khasa Mallas’ kingdoms fell from power and it was one of the Rajput refugee families who eventually conquered Nepal Valley and other territories.
Conquest or “Unification”?
In 1768, the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah, a 9th generation Rajput refugee, conquered Kathmandu, the rest of Nepal Valley and many other weaker kingdoms in what is present day Nepalese territory. This is something, by the way, that Nepalese school children learn as “the great unification of Nepal”. And of course the word “unification” implies that, somehow, Nepal already existed, although in a shattered form. But honestly, there is not much to support such a claim and it must be seen as an attempt to glorify nationalistic sentiments, more than based on historical facts. The Gorkhali conquerors brought with them the Nepali language from their Khasa allies, today known as chhetris, and the defeated Newari Mallas could do nothing but to accept loosing their throne.
At this point in history, I would say, Nepal is starting to emerge as a proper country. But it wasn’t known as “Nepal” at that time, but rather as “Gorkha”! I don’t think many young Nepalese people are aware of this fact.
But to conclude this little history lesson quickly, the Shah kings (and queens) continued to rule for some 70 years. As Manjushree Thapa puts it in her book, “they were either underage, inept, insane or all three”. On average, each of them ruled for 6-7 years before being de-throne’d in some palace intrigue. Enter the Rana’s – a powerful family who decided to take charge. They lasted about a hundred years until the King made an exile-comeback trick in 1951. Then follows 55 years of Monarchy-versus-Democracy until the King scored an own goal and got tentatively sacked in 2006 - and permanently sacked last year, in 2008.
So Nepal is still “a work in progress”. Currently, the rulers’d’jour are supposedly putting together a constitution for what they call “New Nepal”. They talk a lot about their independence and sovereignty, but they conveniently forget that they are totally dependent on foreign aid, their currency is locked to the ups and downs of the Indian rupee, the integrity of their border is fairly loose, there isn’t really law and order in the country, and most people aren’t taxed. It’s interesting, because these things are normally things considered the bricks of a independent nation.
So in strict sense, I suppose, “Nepal” is still not even one year old!
Well, ok, perhaps that’s going a step too far, just like to be a little controversial tonight!
If you haven’t had enough yet, here’s some books I’ve enjoyed reading. Click to have a look: