March 17, 2008 / 12:15 AM / 10 years ago

Nepal's last king breeds contempt, and some nostalgia

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - It was perhaps the last public act of a jaded 240-year-old monarchy.

<p>Nepal's King Gyanendra gestures during a reception held to mark the third day of his birthday celebrations in Kathmandu, July 8, 2007. Traditionally regarded as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, King Gyanendra's days are numbered as Nepal prepares for April constituent assembly elections that will almost certainly abolish the monarchy, sealing a peace deal that ended a decade-long Maoist insurgency. REUTERS/Gopal Chitrakar</p>

King Gyanendra had appeared at a temple to worship the Hindu god of destruction. It was the kind of ritual that once had Nepalis in awe, but now the talking point from once reverential subjects was whether or not their monarch would be stoned.

The king strode through a crowd where only last year protesters had stoned his motorcade. He waved, police charged the crowd with batons and he escaped to his car, safe from any flying objects but not from a wave of anti-royalist feelings.

“He was God, but due to his actions he has turned into a ghost,” said Ram Prasad Neupane, a 30 year-old Hindu priest outside Pashupatinath temple, where smoke and ash from the wooden pyres of cremated Nepalis hung in the night air.

Traditionally regarded as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, King Gyanendra’s days are numbered as Nepal prepares for April constituent assembly elections that will almost certainly abolish the monarchy, sealing a peace deal that ended a decade-long Maoist insurgency.

Now confined to his last remaining palace, the 61-year-old king’s downfall highlights Nepal’s changes as it loses its status as the world’s last Hindu state.

Some 700 of his staff face transfer or removal by the government. An interim government has already withdrawn half of the 2,000 soldiers guarding his sprawling palace. Around 10 other palaces have been taken over by the government.

His annual $3.1 million state allowance was cut off. His queen has lost her beauticians. The king may even have to pay his palace’s $880,000 electricity bill.

On the one side, Nepalis are embracing political modernity. Maoist former rebels are in parliament. Major parties have promised a republic, seen as heresy only a few years ago. Mobile phone billboards have sprung up around a capital enjoying a building boom.

On the other hand, many Nepalis in one of the world’s poorest nations feel ambivalent about ending their monarchy, and some even warn of a political backlash by royalist forces unhappy at the looming end of the world’s last Hindu nation.

“The institution of the monarchy is still very important in the rituals of ordinary people.” said Sudhindra Sharma, director of Interdisciplinary Analysts, a respected polling company.

“There is lots of room for a backlash in Nepal.”

It is hard to find a supporter for the current king. A businessman with interests ranging from tea to tobacco and casinos, he is widely seen as a wealthy, out-of touch autocrat.

“He’s a desperate man,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times.

Gyanendra was propelled to the throne after the then crown prince in 2001 massacred nine members of the royal family in the palace after they spurned his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself.

That massacre tarnished the monarchy’s image and broke the institution’s sanctity. It suffered more when Gyanendra took absolute power in 2005 ostensibly to crush a Maoist insurgency -- a conflict that killed more than 13,000 people. Protests forced him to hand back power to political parties in 2006.

DECLINE AND FALL

For the king, it has been downhill ever since.

He lost control of the army. The “Royal” in Nepal Airlines was deleted. His image on some banknotes was replaced by Mount Everest. The government expunged the national anthem’s lyrics about him -- the words were seen as too “feudal.”

But colleagues say he putting up a brave fight.

“He is pokerfaced,” said Maj. Gen. Bharat Kesher Simha, honorary aide-de-camp to the king and head of the World Hindu Federation in Nepal. Faded black and white photos of royals hang from every nook of his Kathmandu home.

“It surprises me that he appears so unperturbed. Either he is a very good actor or he knows something we don’t know,” he said.

Like many critics, he says Nepal should hold a referendum on the monarchy’s future, rather than let political parties abolish it in what amounts to a back-room deal.

A national poll by Interdisciplinary Analysts showed that half of respondents still supported the monarchy, but did not support the king. Support rose five percentage points in the last year, and about 60 percent wanted Nepal to remain a Hindu state.

Older Nepali royalists still recount how they separated a piece of corn for the king before every meal. As head of the Hindu state, the king was a fixture of religious ceremonies. Hindu priests this year boycotted ceremonies when the new “secular” prime minister tried to take his place. “In Nepal, there are so many castes and creeds. The monarchy is the one symbol of unity,” said Sharma.

“People are not satisfied with the way parliament has declared a secular state and curbed the king’s power. They are bulldozing the thing. We are going to be like Russia.”

“If Maoists can raise arms, Hindus will do the same.”

Nepal is full of rumors the king and royalists, backed by Hindu nationalist groups in neighboring India pressing for a Hindu state in their backyard, are plotting to ruin the April election. It has already been delayed twice.

“This is the last stand for the monarchy, why would they go quietly?,” said a Western diplomat based in Kathmandu.

Nepali politicians, analysts and some diplomats say royalists and Hindu nationalists have united to foment protests in Nepal’s southern Terai region, a traditionally conservative region of large landowners that has long supported the monarchy.

Protests there by ethnic Madheshis for more autonomy have paralyzed much of Nepal over the last year- and they are seen as the main stumbling block for a credible election.

“The King and the Hindu right can use this tension for their benefit. Many people in the Terai think that secularism means cow slaughter,” said Prashant Jha, a specialist on the Terai.

Across this mountainous nation of 26 million people, many others think the monarch’s influence could still live on.

In Bhakundebesi valley, two hour’s drive from Kathmandu, Gayatri Khanal, a farmer, stood outside her mud brick home. This region is a Maoist heartland, but royalist nostalgia remains.

“I can’t think of a country without a king,” she said.

“But this king is not acceptable.”

Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin

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