From the top of a hill in Kirtipur Prithvi Narayan Shah had a last look at Kantipur, the city of his dreams. Monsoon had just ended, offering the valley with a cloudless blue sky and Kantipur sparkled like a jewel in the bright late afternoon sun. The walled city, framed by emerald green paddy fields and bordered by the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers still swollen by monsoon rainwater, stood separate and apart. Inside the walled city, the tall temple of Taleju dominating the skyline, and dwarfing the uniformly built two-storey houses with beautifully carved windows, lining both sides of the narrow streets, and an array of temples shone in the bright sun.
The 45-year old king adjusted his telescope to have a closer view of the city but much as he tried, he could not locate the chariot of the Kumari that was probably parked in front of the Kumari Ghar thus blocking his view from the southwestern side to the city. The Indra Jatra festivities were yet to begin and surprisingly there were not many people on the street. Next to Prithvi Narayan stood Kulanand Jaisi the Royal astrologer who had taken out the auspicious time of the attack. It was decided at 03: 00 am in the morning on Sunday, the full moon when the ascendant sign would be Leo under the constellation or Nakshatra Uttarbhadra. Camped in the hill were 1000 Gorkhali soldiers, the cream of his army, handpicked by his Kazis from the Anglo Gurkha war in Sindhuli. The Royal astrologer had also predicted that the king himself should lead the battle. The day was 27 September 1768.
Background Indra Jatra was the branded festival of Kantipur and her rivals Lalitpur and Bhaktapur celebrated their own Rato Macchendra Jatra and Biske Jatra respectively, with equal aplomb and excitement. The festival, involved in drawing of the chariot, with the Living Goddess Kumari seated in it, accompanied by Bhairav and Ganesh in separate chariots, left the Jatras of Lalitpur and Bhaktapur far behind in pomp and pageantry. Celebrated as per the Lunar calendar around September, a day before the full moon, this was the most colourful of all three. Feast, festivities, masked dancers kept the citizens of Kantipur busy for seven consecutive days. However, the year mentioned above brought no excitement among the citizens. The economic blockade was taking its toll and life was getting harder by the day for the ordinary subjects. An economic blockade of Kantipur by the Gorkhalis was in place for several years and while the Gorkhali checkpoints had no restrictions on locals working in the fields, they would not allow salt, cotton and trade goods to enter the city. The checkpoints were maintained by recruit soldiers, who lived in thatched huts, grew their food in the adjoining patch of ground and technically lived off the land.
The question now raised in the court of the Malla King was whether Indrajatra should be at all celebrated this year or not. The economic blockade had made life difficult for the subjects and dried up the royal coffers. While the courtiers were against any celebrations, King Jayaprakash Malla decided to go ahead with the festival reasoning that the Goddess Kumari herself would be able to thwart any attack with her divine power. It was a strange coincidence that Prithvi Narayan Shah always considered Indrajatra as his lucky day. He had earlier won a victory over Nuwakot and the fort of Naldum, bordering Sanga pass near Bhaktapur, opening the door to Sindhupalchok and Dolkha and ultimately Tibet on this day. It was not surprising that he would again opt for this day to attack Kantipur.
He had already planned the invasion a year back in September 1767. But the attack on Sindhuligarhi by the East India Company under Captain Kinlock took his time and had spread his army line thin. A surprise attack on Gorkha, which practically had very few soldiers, by Lamjung also took up his precious time. Both battles resulted in Gorkhali's victory but delayed his attack plans on Kantipur. Prithvi Narayan's earlier attempts on the valley had cost him dear. Kirtipur was won by sacrificing his most favourite and trusted Kazi Vamshidhar Pande aka Kalu Pande, who succumbed to an enemy arrow on the battlefield. His brother Sur Pratap Shah had also lost an eye. This time he did not want a repeat of the strategic mistakes of Kirtipur. On 14th September 1768, Prithvi Narayan Shah ordered the picket from Thambahil (now Thamel) area removed. The real reason being that the distance between Thambahil and Hanuman Dhoka was too long and the Gorkhali commanders felt that it would be risky for their soldiers. They wanted a surgical strike with minimum bloodshed.
The Attack Around 9 pm, the Gorkhali soldiers left their camp in Kirtipur. Marching in a single file in their black uniform, they looked like creatures from another world. It was a moonlit night making torches unnecessary. In utter silence, they took up their positions at pre-decided attack points. In the meanwhile, Indra Jatra celebrations continued in Kantipur. Those days the chariot of Kumari, Bhairav and Ganesh were drawn in the afternoon through Jhochen and returned to Basantpur in the wee hours of the morning via Jaisideval taking a full circle.
As customary, the Malla King himself would be present in the chariot of Kumari. The wives of The Malla aristocracy decked in their ornaments and finery stood in front of their houses on the street. The chariot halted in front of each of their houses and the women folk performed an elaborate worshipping ceremony that took most of the time. As the night deepened, Kantipur became quiet as people went home to bed. The masked dancers including Lakhe, Sawa Bhakku, Pulukishi and other dance troupes, rested after a tiring day and only the journey of the chariot and the ritual worshipping by the Malla aristocracy continued in the dead of the night.
At the auspicious hour of 3 am, the Gorkhali soldiers attacked from three different directions. One team from the side of present-day Dharahara led by one of the King's brothers; another team from Bhimsenthan led by Bansaraj and Tula Ram Pande and Prithvi Narayan himself leading the attack from Nardevi. The agile Gorkhali soldiers attacked the wooden gates with axes and the attack was so sudden and intense that the few Nagarkoti soldiers manning the gates ran to save their lives. A few soldiers ran to inform Jayaprakash Malla who had reached Kohity. Upon hearing the news of the Gorkhali attack he along with his 300 Nagarkoti bodyguards escaped to Patan crossing the wooden bridge near Pachali Bhairav, leaving the Goddess Kumari and her consorts alone in their chariot.
The only firm resistance the Malla soldiers gave was at Hanuman Dhoka Palace where about 25 soldiers from both sides were wounded and killed. The resistance also failed and the contingent under Tularam Pande entered the Palace. After the Palace came under his control, Prithvi Narayan Shah then went and sat on the throne of the Malla king placed in front of the Kumari temple. He then ordered his soldiers and brothers to go and pull the chariot back to Basantpur from Kohity.
After the chariot arrived, Prithvi Narayan Shah fulfilled the ritual of accompanying the Goddess to the Kumari Ghar as the Malla tradition dictated and then worshipping her as per the tantric ritual with help of Newar priests. The Gorkhali king touched her feet with his forehead and she, in turn, applied the tika on his forehead as a symbol of divine blessing, declaring him as the undisputed King of Kantipur. The escaped Malla soldiers had spread gun-powder on the floor of Taleju Chowk, which went unnoticed by Tularam Pande and his troops. When the Gorkhali soldiers in front of Kumari temple fired a volley in the honour of the New King of Kantipur, Tularam Pande's team also fired a volley of salutation from the Taleju Chowk. A spark from the gun fell on the gun-powder resulting in an explosion that took the life of brave Kazi Tularam Pande. Prithvi Narayan Shah spent the night in the huge hall of Kumari temple that existed then, located next to her temple. He moved to Hanuman Dhoka Palace the next day after a thorough search of the premises.
Aftermath A new day arrived and the citizens woke up to find a new ruler. The news of the King's worship of Kumari was taken as a divine acceptance and the citizens of Kantipur accepted this with grace. In the afternoon, a royal proclamation was read out on every corner of the town accompanied by a drum-beat. It assured the citizens that they would retain all rights to their property, freedom of worship and following of traditions. The economic embargo was also lifted and Kantipur citizens were once again free to follow their trade and profession. For the public only the ruler changed and nothing else. Kantipur also changed her name. She became Kathmandu which was the name used by Gorkhalis. The conquest of Kantipur, the first part of the valley, was complete.
Lalitpur would fall on 15 February 1769 and Bhaktapur on 12 November 1769. Betrayed by the Pradhans of Lalitpur, Jayaprakash Malla escaped to Bhaktapur with Tej Narsingh Malla. In Bhaktapur, he along with Tej Narsingh and Ranjit Malla would take a last stand against the Gorkhali forces commanded by Sur Pratap Shah, when a stray bullet would enter his leg and he would later succumb to this wound. The unification of Nepal would continue even after the death of Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1775.
(A travel trade entrepreneur, Banerjee has a keen interest in Nepal's history)