Gyanendra Shah Biography

King of Nepal

Born Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, July 7, 1947, in Kathmandu, Nepal; son of Mahendra (a king) and Indra Rajya Laxmi Devi; married Komal Rajya Laxmi Devi, 1970; children: Paras (a son), one daughter. Education: Earned degree from Tribhuvan University, 1969.

Addresses: Home —Narayanhity Royal Palace, Kathmandu, Nepal. Office —c/o The Royal Nepalese Embassy, 2131 Leroy Place, NW Washington, DC 20008.


Owner of a hotel, tea plantation, and cigarette factory; chair of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, 1982-2001; became king of Nepal, June 4, 2001; also supreme commander of the Royal Nepalese Army.


Nepal's King Gyanendra came to the throne in 2001 after a notorious palace bloodbath that killed ten members of the royal family. An entrepreneur who had played little role in Nepali politics since the world's only Hindu kingdom became a parliamentary democracy in 1990, Gyanendra found himself next in line for the throne in the aftermath of the tragedy that robbed Nepal of its beloved King Birendra, his brother. In the years that followed, Gyanendra enacted tough measures to quell a vicious internal war that has pitted a communist insurgency against the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA).

"It's not a question of winning or not winning," Gyanendra told Time International correspondent Alex Perry in April of 2005. "No law-abiding citizen should feel pain. Those who do not abide by the law will feel pain."

The thirteenth king of Nepal was born Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev on July 7, 1947. His family, the Shahs, had ruled the remote kingdom since 1768, when their ancestor, a legendary warrior named Prithwi Narayan Shah, completed his conquest of several smaller kingdoms and a section of northern India, and then united the lands into a single entity called Nepal. Nestled in the Himalaya mountain range, the nation shares borders with China and India, and is the home of the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, as well as the ancient birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha. In the eighteenth century, the kingdom was considered so impenetrable that the British East India Company chose to leave it be, despite having established lucrative trading posts— often by force—across much of the Indian subcontinent.

The 2001 bloodbath was not the first royal massacre in Nepal's history. The Shahs had been forced to cede a share of their power in 1846 after the infamous Kot Massacre; a competing dynasty, the Ranas, then became hereditary prime ministers of the country. The Ranas claimed to be descended from royal blood, in this case from an princely Indian family of the 1300s. Over subsequent generations, the two families forged a cooperative truce and ties between the two were cemented by inter-marriage.

Nepal was closed off to the rest of the world until a series of events in the early 1950s served to disrupt Shah rule. When Gyanendra was three years old, tensions between his family and the Ranas reached a crisis point yet again, thanks to a liberal democratic movement that arose in response to dissatisfaction with conservative Rana policies. Gyanendra's grandfather, King Tribhuvan, supported the people's wish for less authoritarian rule. Both Tribhuvan and the Shah monarchy had enjoyed British protection over the years, but when Britain pulled out of India in 1947 at that country's bid for independence, the Shahs were left to fend for themselves. The ensuing crisis forced the Shahs to flee to India in late 1950, and Gyanendra, the son of Crown Prince Mahendra, was left behind. Three years old at the time, he was second in line to the throne, and was briefly proclaimed king by the Ranas. Nepal erupted in mass protests over this, and international pressure forced the Ranas to allow the Shah family safe passage back into Nepal.

Gyanendra's grandfather Tribhuvan was restored to his throne in 1951. The Rana rule came to an end, some democratic reforms took place, and Tribhuvan opened Nepal's borders to the outside world. Tribhuvan died in 1955, and was succeeded by Gyanendra's father, Mahendra, as king. During these years, Gyanendra was sent to a British-run boarding school in Darjeeling, India, and after that went on to Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital. In 1970, a year after earning his degree, he wed Komal Rajya Laxmi Devi, daughter of a Rana military officer, and the couple became parents to a son and daughter. When Mahendra died in 1972, Gyanendra's older brother, Birendra, became king, and proved to be a popular, well-liked monarch in the years to come. Like his father, Birendra enjoyed absolute power, but would eventually heed the growing call for democratic reform.

Gyanendra served as an advisor to his brother for several years, though his main activities were business-related. He owned a hotel in Kathmandu, a cigarette factory, and a tea plantation. When Britain's Prince Charles visited Nepal in December of 1980, Gyanendra served as the unofficial royal host to the future King of England, who reportedly had come to Nepal in order to consider his future and the possibility of becoming engaged to the young woman he was dating, Lady Diana Spencer. Gyanendra took Charles on a royal trek near the peak of Machhapuchhre.

Gyanendra and his brother had a falling-out in 1990, when Birendra lifted a ban on Nepal's political opposition parties. Parliamentary democracy came to Nepal's 27 million citizens that same year, but the popularly elected governments were torn apart by internal disagreements, and rarely lasted more than a year. The standard of living remained the same— abysmal—for most Nepali as before the new political era, but corruption was said to be rampant among the newly created political elite, and resentment grew for the new mansions that sprang up around Kathmandu.

Kathmandu had been a tourist destination since the 1960s, as was Mount Everest, but the rest of Nepal remained dreadfully poor. Most villagers live without electricity or telephones, and some places were entirely inaccessible by road. The country's per-capita income was just $240, meaning that many Nepali subsisted on less than seventy cents a day. In such conditions a leftist insurgency easily gained ground, and a civil war began in 1996. The unrest was fomented by a Maoist group, the Communist Party of Nepal, who demanded a new elected assembly to draft a new constitution—one that would create a republic of Nepal and end the monarchy for good. The Maoists' guerrilla army, one of the last active ones in the world, grew to 10,000, and the RNA fought back fiercely.

Gyanendra and his family were not immune from accusations of misconduct, and his son, Paras, was one of the most disliked royals in Nepali history. In 2000, Paras was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of a popular Nepali singer, and alcohol was reportedly a factor in the crash. Showing their displeasure with the leadership, some 500,000 Nepalis signed a petition urging Paras' prosecution, but members of the royal family are immune from prosecution unless the king gives permission, and Birendra did not.

Birendra's own son, the 29-year-old Crown Prince Dipendra, was also proving difficult. On the night of June 1, 2001, when the Shahs were gathered for a weekly family dinner gathering at Kathmandu's Narayanhity Royal Palace, Dipendra was reportedly drinking heavily. The prince was said to have been upset because of his mother's disapproval of his choice of wife, Devyani Rana. She came from the same Rana family who had once served as Nepal's prime ministers, but was from an immensely wealthy Indian branch of the family. She and the Crown Prince had been dating openly in Kathmandu, which was a daring breach of etiquette in Nepali royal society, where marriages are arranged by families and social interactions among young people are severely restricted.

On that June night, Dipendra left the table and stalked off to his quarters at the palace, and returned to the dining room dressed in combat fatigues and carrying a pistol, assault rifle, and submachine gun. He opened fire on his family, and then shot himself. The casualties included his father, King Birendra; his mother, Queen Aishwarya; his brother, Prince Nirajan; and his sister, Princess Shruti. Also killed were the king's other brother, who had renounced his claim to the throne; the king's cousin, Princess Jayanti; two other princesses, Shanti and Sharada, who were Birendra's sisters; and one of their husbands.

Gyanendra was not in attendance at the family gathering that evening, having gone to spend the weekend at another royal property in the resort town of Pokhara. His wife Komal, however, was present and caught in the line of fire; she lost a lung but survived. Their son Paras and his sister were there, however, and were unharmed after reportedly pleading with Dipendra for their lives. Dipendra shot himself shortly after killing his mother.

Notified of the emergency, Gyanendra was flown in by helicopter back to Kathmandu. As the Crown Prince, Dipendra was named king while he lay in a coma, with Gyanendra appointed to serve as his regent, but Dipendra never regained consciousness. Gyanendra quickly issued an official statement claiming that the massacre had been the result of an automatic weapon accidentally misfiring, which was greeted with widespread disbelief once the news of the palace massacre began to spread. When Dipendra died on June 4, Gyanendra was named king, and for the second time in his life crowds rioted in Kathmandu that night in response.

Some Nepalis believed that Gyanendra or Paras may have played a role in massacre, because the two were almost the only male royal family members to survive. A few months later, in a climate of deep unease, the Maoist insurgency intensified, and the countryside became a bloody battleground. International human-rights observers accused both sides of committing atrocities, with the rebel army torching entire villages and carrying out public executions of local officials; one politician was reportedly skinned alive. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the RNA for abuses that included the torture and murder of suspected Maoist guerrillas.

In October of 2002, Gyanendra dismissed Nepal's elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and named his own government. His decision provoked widespread anger that he had ignored the constitution, and popular sentiment against him deepened. He was forced to reappoint Deuba, but dismissed him once again in February of 2005. On that day, Deuba and other senior government officials were placed under house arrest, and mass arrests of journalists, dissidents, student protesters, and even human-rights workers took place throughout the country. Nepal's mobile phone networks and Internet traffic were closed down, and RNA soldiers were stationed at newspaper offices and television stations to ensure the press did not incite the people further. Gyanendra claimed that the Deuba government had failed to quell the Maoist insurgency, and had not arranged for new parliamentary elections as ordered. The Maoists, however, had promised a bloodbath if elections were announced.

Gyanendra appeared on television the next morning, telling the nation that he had declared a state of emergency. "Nepal's bitter experiences over the past few years tend to show that democracy and progress contradict one another," he asserted on the broadcast, according to Perry in Time International. "In pursuit of liberalism, we should never overlook an important aspect of our conduct, namely discipline." The clampdown embarrassed the governments of Britain, the United States, and India, which had provided military aid to the RNA for its struggle against the Maoists. The insurgency was considered a threat to neighboring countries, for if Nepal fell to the communist guerrillas, which some international observers believed was a strong possibility, the nearby kingdom of Bhutan between India and China might also fall, and the Nepali Maoists were known to have ties to left-wing guerrillas in India and could jointly establish a buffer zone with them, thus endangering India's democracy.

Gyanendra was formerly one of the country's most ardent conservationists, heading the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation after 1982, and has published his own poetry. He promised to restore democracy in Nepal once the rebel war is subdued, and defended his suspension of the constitution in the interview with Perry in Time International. He asserted that he is merely acting on behalf of a beleaguered Nepali citizenry weary of the horrendous civil war. "The monarchy is not going to allow anyone to usurp the fundamental rights of the people," he said. The embattled king rarely leaves his palace because of the danger of assassination. "It is lonely," he told Perry. "I miss my brothers and sisters. I am a human being after all."



Global Agenda, February 4, 2005.

Independent (London, England), February 5, 2005, p. 42.

New Yorker, July 30, 2001, p. 42.

Time International (Asia Edition), February 2, 2004, p. 14; February 14, 2005, p. 26; April 25, 2005, p. 20, p. 25.


"His Majesty King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev," Official Site of the Royal Court of Nepal, king.htm (August 17, 2005).

Carol Brennan

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