Rain of Shadows
Accompanying Outside's behind-the-lines special report on Nepal's Maoist insurgents ("The Last Days of the Mountain Kingdom," by Patrick Symmes, September) is this haunting photograph by longtime Kathmandu photojournalist Thomas Laird. Here, in an exclusive account, Laird offers an equally haunting first-person look at the most extraordinary 24 hours in
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Kathmandu, NepalThe news came in an e-mail from America: “Nepal Royal Family Shot Dead.” Hoping it was just a strange Internet rumor, I searched the Web for confirmation, as sunlight filtered through morning glories just beyond the computer screen. It was June 2, ten hours after the massacre and the last sunny morning before monsoon. The bright sun somehow made the news impossibleeven when it stared at me from the front page of the New York Times Web site.
The monsoon, at least, has honest harbingers. The murders, in a country where information about the royal family consisted of tributes by court poets, struck like lightning from blue sky. After 30 years as a journalist in Nepal I knew that the fine morning weather would soon turn to something else. But there was no warning for the murders-not when every published word about the family for 30 years had been impossibly cheerful. The royal family was an icon of nationalism for a nation of peasantsnot some lurid headlineso I did the first thing that came to mind. I hopped on my scooter and headed straight for Narayanhiti Palace.
On my way to the Palace, a mad darting truck rushed down the middle of the road, horn blaring, shattering the Saturday calm. Royal Nepal Army troops swayed calmly too and fro in the rear. The red pom-poms on the tops of their hats were ridiculously cheerful, but their bewildered faces spoke of a night of horrors. At the palace, I saw that I was not alone in my impulse: Thousands of Nepalis had gathered outside.
The gates were locked and guarded as always. The guards, safe behind 30-foot-high fences, stared back at the growing crowds. Nothing of the rumors that gripped Kathmandu was visible inside the deserted grounds. The life-size silver gods embossed onto the 30-foot-high doors gleamed in the sun, standing silent guard as always. A flock of pigeons circled the modern building’s two fanciful cement “oriental” towers. The palace stood as ever: your typical 20-acre walled black box. It was so normal-in Kathmanduthat we drove by it every day without looking.
Within a week the commander-in-chief of the Royal Nepal Army, General Prajawalla, would tell the nation, as an aside, the essential facts about Narayanhiti Palace. Only the royal family was responsible for the 5,000 troops inside. Inside this black box, King Birendra put his son Crown Prince Dipendra in charge of security, making him responsible for a locker full of automatic weapons. The king and queen, like so many parents in the suburbs of the West, were ignorant of the fact that their beloved son was using drugs: Aides who should have reported the prince’s habit to their superiors never did. Now everyone was dead and no one knew why.
As the morning faded, the crowd at Narayanhiti Palace grew larger. Nepal’s state-owned radio and television outlets played somber music. No official news was available, even though CNN and the BBC were alive with anonymous reports from members of the royal family who had been present during the massacre.
Two local dailies printed those rumors. The palace crowd surrounded the paper-sellers that appeared, snatching newspapers from their hands and generating more rumors. Hundreds of bodies had been taken from the palace, it was said. The mood of stunned, sleepy disbelief began to change. Groups of young men in the crowd tried to block the roads. The police whirled their six-foot long canes-lathis-above their heads and raised their voices in a roar. They dashed toward the would-be street-blockers, beating anyone who did not run off. Some people laughed as they ran; older men stood back and watched the show.
As the people’s mood curdled from lack of news and turned to riot, the elite, who had heard the facts from eyewitnesses, gathered in a guarded compound. On the edge of town, the corpses of the royal family were on display inside Chauni Military Hospital. Members of government stared in disbelief and horror at the flies crawling across the face of their dead king and the impossible wreckage of the queen’s skull.
They decided that before the king’s death could be announced, a new king had to be proclaimed, and thus the royal council had to meetbut in the chaos that took time. To the people in the street, this delay reeked of disdain. News networks around the globe had been reporting the latest rumors from Nepal for eight hours, and Nepalis believed that the assistant prime minister had even sold such news to one of the wire services. People were angry and humiliated that the only word came came from foreign news networks. Finally, at ten o’clock on Saturday morning, the royal council was summoned to meet in the Bahadur Bhawan (“Abode of Bravery”), an 80-year-old palace just across the street from Narayanhiti Palace.
Waving my press credentials and shouting “foreign press!” in Nepali was enough to storm Bahadur Bhawan’s guarded gates. On a marble-floored portico, a group of 30 Nepali journalists waited at the open door of an air-conditioned room. The royal council sat inside, somber and silent. Grandiose portraits of 11 generations of Shah Dynasty kings glared down, as if imposing their own austere silence. On the porch, the journalists were not so quiet.
“They say Dipendra did it.”
“The royal council is waiting for the prime minister to arrive.”
“They are going to proclaim Gyanendra as king. But the people will never accept his son, Prince Paras, as crown princehe killed a man in a hit and run accident and was never tried.”
“King Birendra will not be cremated for at least four days; they have to give time for foreign heads of state to arrive.”
None of their predictions proved to be based in fact. We did wait for Prime Minister Koirala to arrive, true enough. He closeted himself in a back room with an inner circle; the royal council did meet in formal session to approve the back-room decision. Paras’s record did become a matter of national anger, making it impossible for him to be declared crown prince. But the news released from the royal council meeting was a surprise to everyone: King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya were officially proclaimed dead-with no explanations. Prince Dipendra was declared alive and named king. The council also decided that King Birendra’s cremation would take place that very day. Birendra’s brother, Prince Gyanendrawho had missed the tragic royal dinnerwas named regent. The first lesson that day was to believe no predictions.
When asked why Dipendra had been named king if he was a murderer, Nepal’s foreign minister brushed the question off. But foreign diplomats in Kathmandu were now quietly whispering. Nepal’s constitution provides no means to try a member of the royal family on any crime, including murder. Dipendra was alive and according to Nepal’s constitution would be king, unless someone could state facts of regicide. Only that might have barred him from assuming the throne. Half a dozen witnesses had watched Dipendra mow down his family, but they were not being allowed to speak to the press to utter those simple words. Something about Nepal was crystallizing that morning.
Thousands of Nepalis lined the street in front of Bahadur Bhawan. They craned and peered from every open window and lined the rooftops above. As the prime minister sped away in his massive, shiny, black Mercedes, the news-hungry crowd pressed forward, and a young man shouted a question toward the silent speeding car: “What has happened?”
Without thinking, I answered, “Dipendra is alive and has been named king. King Birendra and the queen are dead.”
Ripples of awareness spread around me. One person shouted the news to another. The news seized the crowd, and joy soon echoed behind it.
Those near me laughed and shouted, “What good news you have given us!”
Eager hands reached toward me. The horrified police stood back and watched as the crowd launched me up onto their shoulders, parading me above their heads as they shouted the news.
“Dipendra is alive! Dipendra is king!”
Mindful of the policemen’s lathis, I shouted and struggled to be set down. “Foreign press! I have to go now! Please put me down.”
Older men pulled me down from the young men’s shoulders and helped me back onto my scooter, which miraculously hadn’t been toppled by the crowd. As I beeped my horn and pressed through the crowd now choking the streets around the palace, the news flamed out, and groups of Nepalis erupted into wild cheering.
“Long live King Dipendra!”
The people seized upon this news as something to rejoice about. Officially, for more than a week no one would tell them that Dipendra was the murderer-and they would refuse to believe it even then. That first day, reeling with the unbelievable news that the entire royal family had been murdered, the people were joyful of any news. The rumors, the lack of news, had turned a murderer’s botched suicide into something about which Nepalis could rejoice.
“Dipendra is alive! Long live King Dipendra!”
I nearly cried as I heard the joy in their voices. How could a people so willing to believe be so easily betrayed by so many?
The route of King Birendra’s seven-kilometer-long funeral procession was announced at 1 P.M. The public was invited to pay its last respects as the king was marched to Pashupati Temple, where he was to be cremated. By two o’clock the entire city was camped along the procession route, and armed troops prevented those outside the city from entering. All life except the funeral procession came to a halt.
Three feet from the crowd, it was like approaching a roaring firetheir massed heat radiated outward. The beguiling summer sun of early morning had warmed into its true pre-monsoon self, and the crowd was baking. Pushing into the sweaty throng, jammed chest to back against one another, I chanted quietly in Nepali, “Foreign press. Let me through.”
The crowd laughingly parted and allowed me to stagger through and into the cleared road. In front of the palace there were two television crews, one from CNN and one from the BBC, setting up in the middle of the deserted street.
Half a million people lined either side of the road, and more continued to press forward. Women and children sat in the front, only until the pressure from the back became too great. Then surging knots of them quickly stumbled up to their feet, fearful of being trampled. The crowd writhed forward-held back, just barely, by the police-and the women and children sat down again, and in the intense heat, umbrellas flared open once again, before the next round of chaos. At 4:30, the cortege had still not left Chauni Military Hospital.
When it did leave, at five, crowds immediately stoned Prime Minister Koirala’s car. Despite this minor riot, the procession moved on. It took the parade of Royal Nepalese Army troops, the marching band, the Royal Mounted Horse Guard, the dozen Brahmans carrying the king, and the dozen Brahmans carrying the queen in her massive silver wedding palanquin two hours to walk two kilometers.
Few people visibly mourned as they waited. The crowd joked and laughed as it fought for space. Young men rushed water bottles to the crowd. Babies squalled. One elderly woman in a sari sat quietly with incense in her hands, staring mournfully off into space. Youthful laughter broke out around her. Thousands of jeans-clad youth formed the majority of the crowdtwo-thirds of all Nepalis are under 30 years of age.
Trying to take pictures of the crowd, I had to chide them not to smile for the camera-“How would that look in the West? I know you are not happy the king is dead. Show me what you feel inside.” The chastened youths adjusted their expressions. The laughter was impossible for the BBC television reporter to understand. She stood in the space cleared by the police and scuffed her feet. She adjusted her expression, trying on one, and then another. Her Indian cameraman moved his angle, trying to find an appropriately grieving crowd shot. She tried again.
“Today on the streets of Kathmandu somber crowds lined…”
Again she shook her head, and her cameraman stopped taping. The crowd behind her continued to laugh and jostle as a distant sound of horns announced the cortege. She struggled for something to convey the feelings of the burgeoning crowd. Again, she signaled her cameraman to roll.
“Hundreds of thousands of somber Nepalese gathered today in Kathmandu…”
I pushed down the road from the Palace and into the edge of the old city, where the procession was about to emerge. The vanguard was composed of two horsemen, one on either side of the road, establishing the perimeter. The crowd surged back, some laughing, some shouting. Then two young men appeared in the middle of the empty road, alone, carrying hand-painted portraits of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya. Waves of applause erupted from the crowd.
In 1991, Nepalis angry about corruption and lack of democracy were shot at this very intersection as they marched on the palace shouting, “How is our queen? Cheaper than a whore!” in their outrage over allegations of her involvement in government corruption. Driven by their vision of what Nepalis ironically pronounce “democrazy,” street protesters in that year forced King Birendra to become a constitutional monarch. Nepalese politicians in a back-room deal let the king keep control over the army (and of course the troops in his palace), while the politicians gained control over the civil servants and the trappings of government. But the nation was hamstrung from the start.
After ten governments in ten years, the corruption of the elected politicians surpassed anything of the past, at least in the minds of the people. With few reliable internal news sources and no investigative journalism, suspected corruption-like the backroom deal that led to elections in 1991remains the subject of shadowy rumors. Ghosts guiding reality. By 2001 the corruption and blatant inefficiency had so tarnished democracy that the king and queen had never been so popular.
King Birendra was shot at a moment when Nepal teetered between left and right. As a Maoist revolt seized more than 20 percent of the countryside (see “The Last Days of the Mountain Kingdom,” in the September issue of Outside), people in Kathmandu wondered aloud if the army, kept in the barracks by squabbling political factions, was conspiring with the palace for the return of absolute monarchy. In the months before the massacre two questions hovered in the air. Who controls the army? Why hasn’t it been deployed against the Maoists?
As I ran down the cleared street past the people of Nepal into the old city, all of this history streamed past, rising out of blurred faces. The people were held back now by armed troops with fixed bayonets. Dark premonsoon clouds created an early twilight. In the tunnel-like alleys of Old Kathmandu it was near night, and no lights had been turned on. Black clouds in the charcoal sky glowed with pent-up rain. Running deeper into the steaming, dark human tunnel, I made out a knot of men, barefoot, naked to the waist, in startling white sarongs. The Brahmans held a white platform aloft on their shoulders. The king’s body lurched through the alleys of Kathmandu, buried under a rain of flowers and a continual wail.
When the Nepalese women saw the king at lastafter standing chest-to-back for four hourstheir voices rose in grief. One after another, the faces of 10,000 expectant women cracked. Gorgon faces and wailing voices tracked the movement of the king’s corpse. With each step of the cortege, the waiting ended. With each step, something cracked for yet another person. With each step, yet another women saw the corpse; yet another face shattered in grief; yet another voice rose to join the wail.
Flowers showered down from the multitudes leaning from every window, standing on every wall, climbing every gutter pipe. In the near night, the falling flowers became a rain of shadows from a black sky. The wailing voices and the raining flowers fluttered into a dark pit. The king’s corpse lurched through the bottom of this pit, borne aloft by the expressionless Brahmans. His mouth was open to the black sky, his teeth glinting; his nose pointed skyward. Generals surrounded the Brahmans, and the king’s surviving brother, Prince Gyanendra, walked behind the bier. The gold-trimmed hats and dress uniforms of the generals were incongruously covered with flowers and the red dust lofted at the king by the crowd. The king’s corpse was nearly invisible; at some moments only his teeth in his gaping mouth stood out. There, at the dead eye of the dark storm, the Brahmans who bore the king and the generals who surrounded him yielded to the crowd’s rolling wave of grief. They walked forward 20 steps and stopped. And then 20 steps again. Around them the people wailed and shadows fell in a constant hail. They must carry through this. Twenty steps more. And stop.
Walking that dark crack in the mind of a nation, I wondered if perhaps the Shah dynasty itself had been cut down. The Shahs have led Nepal since they unified dozens of petty Nepalese principalities in the 1760s. For 233 years the eldest male in the house of Shah has stood as father to generations of Nepalese peasants-all of whom were farmers, and many of whom viewed the king as a living incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. That whole feudal order, with its strengths and weaknesses, has cracked during the last 30 years as the population of Nepal surged from seven million to 24 million, and more worked for money instead of planting rice. Women with cell phones hardly think of King Birendra as an incarnation of Vishnu, and the old social order has been slow to face this new reality. Nearly every Nepali, except the Maoists in the hills, will still swearwhether left or right in the political spectrumthat Nepal cannot survive without a Shah king. Like the grief of the laughing crowds, that devotion to the crown is often invisible to the average visitor. The king’s funeral exposed its roots.
No one can say whether Gyanendra can tap the popular need and rule Nepal as the Nepalis wish him to. What was visible there in that dark crack, watching the king’s corpse pass the people, is something far more primal than political history or analysis.
I saw a man dressed like any office worker in New York crumble in the street. He fell to his knees and then wobbled back and forth. He wavered there in a wide, clear space as the cortege passed, and then he fell. His arms and legs sprawled, exposing his belly to the sky. His face cracked as his body writhed in despair, twisting slowly with the fury of the whole grieving land. Like a broken child. Or a woman in labor. His pain made you want to turn away.
A woman in a pink sari peered intently over the crowd. She shoved forward, stepping on anyone in her way. Upon seeing the king, her face shattered like all others, and her voice cracked too. Losing her will to shove, she was swept back into the crowd. No longer desperate to see outward, she fell into an inner world of despair.
Shoving through the crowd myself, I followed the body along its route. For hours I stayed with the breaking wave of women as they strained to see the king’s face, followed that wave of recognition as it broke through the massed humanity. Then in a narrowing alley I was pushed back as 10,000 people surged out of the night and chaos erupted. The cortege swept on, I fell into its wake, and the wails turned to something else.
In the rear of the cortege mourners were turning away from Pashupati, heading back into the city. Tens of thousands, some with iron rods clenched in their upright fists, shouted “Dace chore!“-Get out of the country!-as they made their way back into Kathmandu. The king was sent on alone to the temple, but the people returned to Kathmandu shouting about the future. One man said the roaring crowd spoke to Prime Minister Koirala. To me it seemed it might be ten years of democracy itself being spurned. Maybe the guilt of having tried to overthrow their own slain father. Or maybe it was a glimpse of the future, beyond failed democracy, toward the growing strength of the Maoists, that fueled the rumbling of the people’s voice. But there in the wake of the slain king some fissure opened up, and I watched as it spread into the past and into the future. No one could foresee where this funeral cortege, headed into the dark streets of Kathmandu, had come from, or even where it would go. But wherever it was headed, it surged toward a new Nepal.
In the days after the murders, all Nepalis had one unified reaction. Nepal kutam huncha: Nepal is finished. Nepal is destroyed. That feeling faded slowly. Dipendra died a few days after his father. Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra, was crowned King the next day.
None of that future was alive that night as the corpses of King Birendra and his family were carried toward the burning ghats at Pashupati. In the distance, as I followed the dead king through dark streets, I could hear the multitude’s receding voices as they returned to the city. They carried something with them, something the king had given them, though none could name it. Perhaps it was simply my imagination, after living so many years in Nepal, that wealthy hands were already reaching out, like ghosts, to mold this popular discontent. In fact it was just the corpse of a murdered man that was burned at Pashupati. Birendra, his wife, his sons, his daughter, his sisterseach was laid upon a four-foot-high pile of logs and set alight. In a day in which every fact was hidden, there at the end of it, when the fires were lit, all was naked and clear.
For a long time the fires burned. They cast shadows all around the ghats, and the ancient temples wavered in their orange light. Priests poured gallons of clarified butter on the fires when they ebbed. When the muscles in King Birendra’s left arm shoved his flaming hand out of the fire, a Brahman took up a long bamboo poleone pulled from the bier they had borne him onand delicately shoved the burning flesh back into the fire. Streaks of sparks flurried up into the sky.
Young soldiers from the palace’s royal marching band slept as the fires burned low. After being woken in the middle of the previous night by the sound of gunfire, after marching across the city in the procession, after standing at attention for hours as the pyres snappedat last they lay down their trumpets and trombones, their clarinets and drums, and slept. It was past two in the morning, with the troops collapsed in slumbering huddles near temples and along stone steps, that the Brahmans tending the pyres began to pour water onto the coals. Nothing human remained. All was left to ash.
Only then did the monsoon, which had threatened all day, arrive. Only then did the rain come down from the black sky. The first fat drops of the monsoon spit and hissed as they fell onto the king’s pyre, just as it dwindled to nothing. Just in time to help the Brahmans wash the ashes into the river.
Kathmandu, July 30, 2001: In the aftermath of the massacre, as waves of Maoist terror expanded in the hills, expatriates at monsoon parties in Kathmandu started talking about where they would move if things got much worse. News reports of the murders, Maoists, riots, and curfews finally took the toll on tourism that had long been predicted. Yearly tourist arrivals fell by a thunderous 56 percent from June 2000 to June 2001. Airlines started cutting back their flight schedules.
During the second week of July the Maoists seemed unaware that terrorism was backfiring. In a spate of grisly attacks that marked the deadliest week of the People’s War, they murdered nearly 100 police officers in remote outposts, and kidnapped 71.
None of this changed the facts. The Maoist party has 15,000 armed cadres and 1.5 million supporters, at best, according to senior communist leaders in Nepal. Twenty-three million Nepalis support a dozen other parties, and the Royal Nepal Army is 50,000 strong. The Maoists would not be a serious threat if only the elected government was functioning. But at this nadir for the nation Prime Minister Koirala’s listless government did nothing.
Then, on July 13, for the first time, the Royal Nepalese Army went into action. No one could say who made the decision. The king? The prime minister? It was unclear. In the cascade of events after Birendra’s death, the country seemed to be slipping toward civil war.
On July 19 Prime Minister Koirala resigned. But why at that moment, just after the army was deployed? Political observers in Kathmandu speculate that the real reason for his resignation was his inability to influence King Gyanendra’s control over the army. Though the constitution of 1991 says that the prime minister ultimately controls the army, struggles behind the scenes seem to point in other directions. The secret agreement of 1991which apparently left the king in sole command of the army, no matter what was in the constitutionwas haunting the nation. Once again the palace had become a black box.
Despite confusion about why Koirala resigned, his resignation was a good thing. The Maoists said that his departure was a precondition for any peace talks. On July 22 Sher Bahadur Deuba, from Koirala’s own ruling party, was named prime minister. The very next day a cease-fire was announced, only hours after the Maoists, in what may have been a warning to Deuba, butchered 17 police officers in a burst of terrorism.
But for now, as we head into the black heart of the monsoon, charcoal clouds hover low on the lush green mountainsides. The rice has been planted, and the peasants wait to see what crop nature will give them. There is little more that they can dothey are dependent on the rains. Will there be enough rain?
As Nepal waits out the summer monsoon it also waits, with the same fatalism, to see if there is anything for Deuba and the Maoists to talk about. If one listens to Maoist spokesman Baburam Bhattarai when he says that the Maoists want nothing less than the end of monarchy and “total state power for the oppressed masses,” it is difficult see the cease-fire as anything but a lull before battle. But if one listens to Bhattarai, in the past few days, saying that the Maoists do not insist on a one-party dictatorship, then perhaps the arrival of Deuba spells the beginning of the end of the Maoist war. There is widespread hope that some uniquely Nepalese accommodation will be found to maintain the cease-firelong enough for the nation, and tourism, to begin to recover from the blows that have fallen in the last two months.