Book Review: Massacre at the Palace

Massacre at the Palace: The Doomed Royal Dynasty of Nepal by Jonathan Gregson, Miramax Books, 255 pages

In 1846, Queen Rajya Laxmi of Nepal had an illicit relationship with Gagan Singh Bhandari, the minister in charge of civil affairs. When this news came out in the open, someone shot dead Gagan Singh wile he was at prayer on the roof of his home. When the Queen heard about this, she sent orders summoning all senior officers to the assembly ground known as Kot. From the balcony, she demanded the identity of the murder of her lover. When no one answered, she accused one person and rushed towards him with a sword in her hand.
She was restrained, but rival officers had taken positions around the Kot. Soon there was gunfire all around and within minutes thirty members of Nepal’s aristocracy including three ministers were dead. The nobility who were not killed in the Kot massacre were later hunted down. Later her minister turned against her and put her under house arrest and later exiled to Benares in India.
In 2001 , when Prince Dipendra gunned down members of his family, he was just following the tradition of the Nepali Royal family. Prithvi Narayan Shah, ruler of a small kingdom conquered all the others, even more powerful ones and formed the present day Nepal in the 17th century. He set the condition that the eldest son of the King should succeed him. This caused some problems when the King had many wives and each Queen wanted her son to be the King. Some Kings, to make their position secure would have the closest relatives jailed or exiled.
The man who became King in 1775 was Pratap Singh who had two wives. The first Queen, when she came to know that her rival Queen was pregnant, wanted to secure the position for her son. King Pratap Singh died when he was twenty five and immediately Queen Rajendra Laxmi’s two-year old son was declared the King. The Queen became the regent with tremendous powers. She allowed the second Queen to have her son, and immediately after that forced her to perform sati even though a month had passed since the king’s cremation.
After presenting the history of Nepal and the court dramas, the book leads to what the title says, the Royal Massacre of 2001. Thus we get introduced to Crown Prince Dipendra, and come to know that he loved playing the guitar and the traditional Nepali drum and he volunteered for tough infantry training and parachute courses. He sat on meetings with his father, King Birendra on key policy issues, thus preparing to be the king, later. He was also fond of drugs (hashish and marijuana), guns (M-16, 9mm Heckler and Koch MP5K) and women (Supriya Shah, Devyani Rana).
His mother Queen Aishwarya was not fond of Devyani Rana whom Dipendra wanted to marry, since Devyani was related to the Scindias of India and they considered the Nepali Royal family below them. The relationships soured in the palace over the marriage question and many discussions were done over this and sharp words were exchanged. Finally the Queen threated that if he married Devyani, his title would be stripped and financial allowance restricted.
After this there is a detailed description of what happened on the evening of June 1, 2001 whe Prince Dipendra opened fire killing his parents, siblings and close relatives and later killing himself. Jonathan Gregson provided a minute by minute update on that fateful evening when Nepal plunged into a deep crisis.
I knew very little about Nepal’s history and this book provided a short but wonderful introduction to Nepal and the build up to the events of 2001. The book is big on people and we meet not just the Royal Family of Nepal, but also the Prime Ministers, their families and their power struggle. The book is very focussed on the title and does not deviate with other side stories unless they have a direct bearing on the kingdom, such as India’s intervention in the 1950s to restore the monarchy.
This book does not provide any references or footnotes and so when the author makes statements like the tiff between Queen Aishwarya and Sonia Gandhi strengthened Rajiv Gandhi’s determination to impose an economic blockade of Nepal, we have to be skeptical. The cover of the book says that the author had exclusive interviews with the late King Birendra and surviving members of the Shah family, but no credits are provided. The book has no index either which I think is a must for any non-fiction book.
This is a very readable book, for the tragic human story told.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Massacre at the Palace

  1. Atul, Thanks, interesting to read my statement in Hindi. Even though I learned Hindi for 10 odd years, it is difficult to read it now due to lack of practice. I had to parse the Hindi statement three times 🙂

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