The Great Defender Of Nepal: Bhakti Thapa

Sino-Nepal War

Bhakti Thapa joined the unification campaign in 1789 at a time when further advance of the Nepalese force to the west was completely blocked for more than two years by the then powerful kingdom of Jumla. It is said that Jumla had collected an army of twenty-two thousand men to face the Gorkhalis, a force far superior to anything the Gorkhalis could put in the field at that time In the first major military operation itself Bhakti Thapa had demonstrated his exceptionally brilliant skill in launching a very successful operation under the most adverse condition that was sure to astonish anyone. He changed the strategy of the predecessors and led an attack on Jumla from the difficult north route. The result was a swift victory and the lives of many people were also saved.

Within a very short period of just two years from 1789 to 1791 the western boundary of the Great Nepal had extended nearly as far as the Sutlez River (now India). Bhakti Thapa had played a crucial role in such rapid expansion of the Great Nepal. At that very time Nepal was attacked by China from the north. During that period China was ruled by the most powerful Emperor Chiang Lung of the Manchu Dynasty.

Among the Manchu emperors Kang Hu Shi and Chiang Lung are considered to be the most influential. Emperor Kang Hu Shi ruled China from 1661 to 1722. He was contemporary with the Louis XIV of France, Peter the Great of Russia and Aurangazeb of India. Similarly, Emperor Chiang Lung ruled from 1736 to 1796. During his reign countries like Burma, Korea were under the influence of China.

Nepal in Great Danger

The Chinese invasion was directed straight towards Kathmandu. The main attack was centered on Kyrung which is almost to the north of the Kathmandu valley The Chinese attack was anticipated well in advance. As a result, Nepal had withdrawn most of its troops and commanders from the west to defend the capital Kathmandu against the Chinese invasion. It was the most critical period in the history of the newly born Great Nepal.

The existence of the Great Nepal was in great danger. The country was under the threat of falling apart. In many areas the rulers of the old regimes, who were disgruntled at the creation of the Great Nepal, had begun to stir up unrest. According to sainikitihas of Nepal Bhakti Thapa stationed in Kumaun virtually single handedly succeeded in quelling the unrest fomented by the rulers of the old regime in the vast western regions which were very recently merged into the Great Nepal despite the fact that he was made supreme commander and administrator of the vast territory stretching from Chepe-Marshyangdi to almost Sutlez River only in 1794. The sainikitihas describes that Bhakti Thapa was constantly on a move from one end of this vast region to the other end to prevent the Great Nepal from falling apart.

Nepal and China realized that it would not be in the interest of either of the countries to prolong the war. A compromise solution was found to resolve the disputes that led to outbreak of the war. The fighting ended. According to L. Stiller there was no real winner. Immediately after the signing of peace treaty with China, Bhakti Thapa headquartered in Kumaun (now India) became the governor and chief commander of the whole region from the Chepe-Marshyangdi to almost the Sutlez River (in India).

Britain Suspicious About Nepal ‘s Motives

The Chinese invasion must have come as a terrible shock to newly emerged Great Nepal. Government in Kathmandu must have got into a panic. At that time Nepal prayed to British India for help to mediate between Nepal and China. But Britain virtually turned a deaf ear.

The process of expansion of the Great Nepal was too rapid. It was natural for the British Government to be greatly alarmed. So British rulers might not have in reality any intention of helping Nepal. We can draw such a conclusion from the circumstances surrounding the visit of Captain Kirkpatrick to Kathmandu in 1793. The British governor general in India had agreed to send Kirkpatrick to mediate in Nepal- China dispute. Kirkpatrick did not even set out for Nepal until after the war had been successfully terminated by the Nepal-China agreement. The governor general was requested not to send Kirkpatrick since the war had been amicably concluded. Surprisingly the governor general was adamant on sending a man to Kathmandu. So Kirkpatrick visited Kathmandu for no specific official purpose. The intention of Kirkpatrick’s visit could hardly be anything else but to watch closely Nepal’s speedy preparation for the next phase of the unification campaign that had officially led to the emergence of Bhakti Thapa as its head.

During the visit Kirkpatrick found that Nepal was trying to reinvigorate the attack in the west. The circumstances under which the visit of Kirkpatrick to Kathmandu took place clearly shows that the British rulers in India were all the time watching Nepal with great suspicion. At that time British rulers in India were adopting every possible method to enlarge the territory under their control. The way new territories were brought under the British control and ruled had provoked even the British public. British Parliament had gone completely against it.

Anglo-Nepal War

The process of expansion of the Great Nepal had spread like wild fire across the Himalayan region. So it was natural for the British to be greatly alarmed. The Great Nepal was seen all along as a threat to British rule in India till the end of the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16.

The British actively began preparation for the war from the time when F.R. Hastings – Earl of Moira landed in India as Governor General and Commander-in-Chief in 1813. The actual declaration of war against Nepal is recorded as 1 November, 1814, though the war began from middle of October. The decision to declare war had been made six months earlier so the territorial dispute appears to be only a pretext. British forces had marched into Nepal across a frontier of more than 1500 km to attack at several points at the same time The eastern British flank was moving north from the Teesta area whereas the farthermost western flank came from the Sutlej river area. It was virtually a modern type warfare extended over a period of three calendar years and necessitating to protect the entire region bordering the enemy held territory. The British invasion force, in comparison with Nepalese, had absolute superiority in cavalry, pioneers, and at least the superiority of 10 times in infantry and 100 times in artillery. They also had the advantage of maneuverability in movement.

In the early months of the war the initial British invasion was completely beaten off. The British offensive ended in complete failure. Nepalese force stationed within the shelter of the fortress were not only able to defend their position against an invading enemy many times superior in strength but they even shocked them by their dreadful counteroffensive that used to be accompanied by big losses on British side. The British rule in India was at a risk of falling apart. Unfortunately at that time the Sikhs and Marathas did not join Nepal in liberating the whole of the South Asian Continent from the grip of the European domination.

After the initial defeats the British changed their strategy to avoid their casualties. They started to deploy long range guns to level our fortifications. This strategy paid off. The British were able to advance quickly into the territory under our control. They even used elephants to carry heavy guns across the mountains So the ability of the Nepalese force to defend the territory under their control was steadily declining. They were forced to pull back. There was a breakdown in the control and command system.

Towards the middle of the 1815 Amar Singh Thapa, chief of the Nepalese force fighting in the western front was confined within a small area of the Malaun fort. The fate of Nepal was going to be in the hand of the Governor General Lord Hastings, unashamedly imperialistic and who became famous for having established the British Empire in India more firmly than before. At that time there could not be any room for doubt in his intention either to eliminate Nepal completely and bring it under British rule or to turn it into a vassal state like so many other states under that category in British India. He could be forced not to take any such decision detrimental to the honour of Nepal only if he perceived that such action could pose serious threat to the continuance of British rule in India. The Deothal Battle could not be anything else but a clear message of threat on behalf of Nepalese people to the British warning them not to take lightly the determination of Nepalese people to protect the honour of their country.

Prelude to Deothal Battle

Towards the sunset of the April 15th evening Bhakti Thapa and the army units under him arrived at the Malaun fort from their station at Surajgarh without being noticed by the British army units scattered around the Malaun fortress. The subsequent events help to explain that he might have come to persuade Amar Singh Thapa on behalf of all the brave commanders prepared to sacrifice their life for the country to pursue more aggressive methods to deter the enemy from overrunning the motherland. He might have even advised him to pull back from the Maluan to regroup the army units spread all across the Garwal and Kumaun to go to a completely new type of offensive.

The Battle

The following day in the morning Bhakti Thapa at the age of 74 led a most daring counterattack against the British force entrenched at Deothal. Historians have presented the description of this battle at great length. It was 3.15 a.m. when a force of just about 400 under Bhakti Thapa marched out of the Malaun fort, to a slow but steady beat of a drum. The British column under Thompson had taken position at Deothal on reverse slopes. The cannons of 6 pounders were properly concealed. There were two Indian battalions, the Grenadiers companies of the Light Battalions and some 1000 Irregulars. The British strength was up to about 3,500 troops and weapons.

Bhakti Thapa and his followers in the counterattack appeared to have vowed to fight to the death. Bhakti Thapa had even handed his infant grandson in the custody of the Amar Singh Thapa just before going to the battlefield. Bhakti Thapa laid down his life in the battlefield. Every one who fought from the Nepalese side was either killed or wounded.

Needless to say that the British commanders were thoroughly shaken by the bravery of Bhakti Thapa in the Deothal Battle. Bhakti Thapa became a legend even in the eyes of British historians. One of the historians CB Khanduri writes quoting various contemporary British historians “The euphemism of the BRAVEST OF THE BRAVES had been used by Napoleon for Marshal Ney, whose bravery during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 was one of the highest. BRAVE LES BRAVE, said Napoleon of him. The British then used this citation for the Gurkhas during and after the Anglo-Nepal War. Such was the bravery shown by Bhakti Thapa that the next legend of the Bravest of the Braves had been created on the day – 16 April, 1815 at Deothal.”

The Great Defender of Nepal

“Until there was life in the body of Bhakti Thapa Nepal’s territory was in a state of great expansion. Soon after his death the Great Nepal crumbled.” This is an excerpt from the sainikitihas which is based on the book ” Vikramjit Hasrat, History of Nepal (Punjab: V. V. Research Institute, 1970)”.

(Thapa writes on History)

Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start hammering away on the keyboard.

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