When writing my recent posts on the expansion of the Gorkha Empire of Nepal, I was frustrated by the lack of maps on the topic. Although Wikipedia articles on such subjects are usually richly illustrated with maps, that is not the case regarding the history of Nepal. Other go-to cartographic resources also came up empty. Then I turned to YouTube and discovered the little-known but very impressive Linn Atlas. This historical map animation site focusses on Southeast Asia and environs, but goes as far afield as the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great. Although one could criticize the Linn maps of South and Southeast Asia for portraying historical polities as neatly bounded unitary states, when they were usually somewhat spatially vague “mandalas,” with power dissipating with distance from the core, such an objection would miss the essential point: it is extremely difficult and often impossible to map such fluid political constructs. What the Linn Atlas does is done magnificently, with even microstates and their changing geographical expressions mapped at a level of detail that I would have thought unattainable.
I have extracted 2 frames from the Linn Atlas animation of the expansion of the Gorkha Empire to illustrate my point. The first shows the Gorkha polity when it was a tiny statelet, one of many ruled by the Khas people in what is now central Nepal. The second shows the situation when the expanding Gorkha Kingdom had completely surrounded the densely populated and pivotal Kathmandu Valley, then governed by three small Newar states. I have also used the Linn Nepal sequence to create my own map, which shows the expansion of the Gorkha Empire from 1743 to the time of its greatest territorial extent in 1814.
The initial frames of the Linn’s Nepal animation show the Limbuwan country as belonging to a kingdom called Vijayapur. (By 1771, however, this relatively sizable state is shown as having broken apart, its northern areas coming under the rule of an unspecified number of tiny Limbu kingdoms.) As “Vijayapur” is a Sanskrit term, one might assume that this state was ruled not by the Limbu people but rather by Hindus coming from outside the region. Professor Raja Ram Subedi, who taught at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, explained this complex situation in a brief undated article called “Historical Entity of Vijayapur State.”
As Subedi noted, the Limbu and related Kirati peoples could defend their own tiny states: “The chieftains and people of Dasa Kirata were expert in archery, physical activities, military organization, building forts and agricultural works.” But they nonetheless came under the rule of a Hindu dynasty, the leaders of which were connected with the small state of Palpa located in what is now south-central Nepal. But as Subedi further explained, this did not entail the subjugation of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples:
Raja Vijaya Narayan Roy was an amicable as well as diplomatic ruler. He established cordial relations with the Kirata subjects… . He made an alliance with Morey Hang, a chieftain of the Kirata, and appointed him as the minister (Dewan). With the help of the Kiratas, Vijaya Narayan Roy was able to repair the old fort of Bhatabhunge Gadhi and shifted his capital from Baratappa to that fort.
Subedi also noted that the Gorkha conquest did not initially change this situation:
After [the Gorkha ruler] King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Vijayapur, the separate entity of that state ended. But the privileges given to the Kirata chieftains tended to continue even after it was annexed to Nepal. Kiratas constituted majority in Vijayapur state. They set up local government. Only the sovereign power was vested in the center. Even after the unification of Nepal, local government tended to exist.
But as we saw in the previous post, local autonomy began to be whittled away in the mid nineteenth century and was eventually eliminated altogether, politically marginalizing the Limbu and other Kirati peoples.
Does Nepal’s historical origin as a conquest empire contribute to its modern political instability? That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.