The king’s song

The military tune that became the anthem.

Nepal did not have a national anthem as such till about 100 years ago. The Rana government of the day, it seems, made do with whatever melody came in handy for official events and celebrations. Local folk tunes, popular melodies and sometimes even a likeness of God Save the Queen would be played by the military band as the occasion demanded.

Sometime during his reign (1895 to 1901) as hereditary prime minister and de facto ruler, Bir Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana, was advised that a salaami dhun ('salutation melody') each should be composed for the king and the prime minister. The military band was handed the task of composing a suitable tune, and it did so under the supervision of the bandmaster at the time, Director of Music, Nepal, Dr AM Pathan. The Shree Teenko Salaami, meant for the Rana prime minister, and the Shree Paanchko Salaami were pressed into service in 1899. (The three – 'teen' – 'shrees' referred to the Rana prime ministers, while the five – 'paanch' – 'shrees' refer to the Shah kings of Nepal. 'Shree panch' may be translated as 'his majesty'.)

This is how Purana Samjhana by Ram Mani Acharya Dikshit, advisor to Chandra Shumshere, reports the provenance of the tune of Shreeman Gambhir, the national anthem of Nepal. But it is a disputed legacy. The other claimant to the dhun is Bakhatbir Budhapirthi, who was a member of the band that Pathan headed. Officially, however, the tune remains ownerless, with the matter not decided either way.

Chandra Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana succeeded Bir Shumshere. His long reign (1901-1929) is often considered the peak period of achievement for the Rana autocracy, which held power from 1846-1950, a period when the Shah kings ('maharajdhiraj') were only titular heads. As the graduate among the Ranas, having studied in Calcutta and travelled to England, Chandra Shumshere understood the modern-day needs of pomp and ceremony. On ascending to office, 'Maharaja' Chandra Shumshere ordered his advisor to insert words into the two tunes.

Ram Mani, as the superintendent of the Gorkha Bhasha Prakashini Samiti (the Nepali Language Publications Committee), a government-appointed watchdog body, was a natural choice for the responsibility. He turned to his assistant, the prominent poet Pandit Chakrapani Chalise, who fit lyrics into both salaami dhuns.

With the overthrow of the Ranas in 1950, the melody glorifying the prime minister went the way of the autocracy; King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah Dev returned from a brief exile in Delhi to retake power in agreement with democratic forces led by Bishweswor Prasad Koirala's Nepali Congress. Expectedly, the Shree Paanchko Salaami came to be used routinely for state ceremonies.

Over the years, the song underwent some change as the definition of what Nepal was, and who all should be included in its signature musical identity, expanded. The original wording was:

Shreeman Gambhira Gorkhali prachanda pratapi bhupati
Shree-paanch sarkar maharajadhirajako sada rahos unnati
Rakhun chirayu eeshale praja phailiyos pakaraun jaya premale
Hami Gorkhali bhai sarale

Bairi saru haraun, shanta hun sabai brighna byatha
Gaun sara duniyale saharsha nathako sukriti katha
Rakhaun kaman, bhari biratale Nepalimathi sadhai nathako
Shri hos thulo hami Gorkhali ko

The first alteration to the song was the dropping of 'Gorkhali', which was supplanted by 'Nepali' in 1951. Gorkhali was by then seen as a limiting denomination referring only to the principality from where the ancestors of the Shah kings fanned out in conquest in the mid-18th century. Also, the term was by now closely associated with the Gurkha regiments of foreign (British and Indian) armies. Meanwhile, the name 'Nepal', which was inherited from the ancient Kathmandu valley, had come to denote the country as its borders stand today.

The 1962 constitution, handed down by King Mahendra after wresting power from the elected government of BP Koirala in 1960, officially declared the Shree Paanchko Salaami as the national anthem. That is when it became the rastriya gaan, the national song. In it, the second stanza was excluded. Also dropped was the male-only reference implied by "bhai" (brother), apparently to make the anthem more gender-sensitive.

Actually, the wording of the king's anthem had nothing remarkable in it, and compared to the prime minister's anthem it was quite bland. It was certainly more melodious than the marching tune that was the king's anthem. And Chakrapani Chalise also added sweeter lyrics, including pleasant Sanskrit phraseology that worked for the music, such as the phrase, "…himashila mandita suhindu sashrita…" But being the king's anthem, it was Shreeman Gambhira whose star rose with that of the Shahs.

The second stanza in Shreeman Gambhira had some 'meat' in it, with messages and benedictions such as "…let the enemies vanish, let all obstacles and pestilence be calmed…" The words also exhort the Nepali people to be brave and loyal. But as we have it today, the national anthem simply extols the majesty of the king. It wishes him a long life, all success, and the spread of his subject population – something that has come to pass with population explosion and the migration of Nepalis to faraway lands in search of survival. Shreeman Gambhira has the people praying for the monarch's continuous triumph and wellbeing.

Debating the anthem

Time and again, voices have been raised for changing the national anthem. There is particular dissatisfaction that it is exclusively a paean to the incumbent on the throne. In fact, a number of patriotic songs have been nominated as its replacement, songs whose music is inspired by folk traditions rather than the imagination of a Pathan military bandmaster. Also the fact of retroactive fitting of words into an existing tune is clear in the awkward rendering of the song, required to be sung with a stop-go gusto that is not there in the average Nepali language poetry that has been put to song.

Interestingly, this awkwardness was only augmented when the ending phrase at the end 'hami Nepali daju bhai saraley' ('all us Nepali brothers') had to be replaced by merely 'saraley' ('by all'). This meant lengthening the one word and breaking it into seven syllables to force it into the tune at hand. This is why the end of the Nepali national anthem has always been a difficult campaign of open mouths and throats trying to get around a particularly difficult bend at the finish.

For these reasons, many songs have been proposed as alternatives. Among the numbers vying for the top spot is one penned by the firebrand 1940s poet and political activist, Gopal Prasad Rimal, and put to music by singer-composer Ambar Gurung. The song glorifies the Nepali flag: "Rato ra chandra soorya, jangi nishan hamro…" ('In red, with the sun and the moon emblazoned, our martial standard…') A more recent aspirant has been a long-forgotten song by one of the first successful poets of Nepali and a prolific writer, Shambhu Prasad Dhungel. Dhungel was given the title of 'aashu kavi' by Chandra Shumshere, who was impressed by the poet's natural ability to simply churn out verse. The song, long forgotten, was resurrected by the singer and musician Deep Shrestha recently. It refers to the Nepali's need for respect, which has a certain resonance today when the country is dealing with a serious problem of image: "Har bakhat harek kura ma, mana hos Nepalako, jaha jaha jaun hami, shaana hos Nepalako." (All the time, and in every sphere, let Nepal be honoured; wherever we go, may we find Nepal perceived in glory.)

Some would say that the anthems that have been proposed and which seem to be popular have their own problems. The first is the image of Nepal that they project – of a conquering nation, replete with references to the khukuri, the besting of 'enemy' empires, and the territory that Nepal was forced to cede to the British after the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-1816. Similarly, the references are also to Nepal as a country of the midhills, with little reference to the country and population as it has evolved, including the 'trans-Himalayan' fold and the Madhes plains region that now houses more than 50 percent of Nepali citizens.

Perhaps an ideal national anthem could still be written for Nepal, and it could be done through a national competition of the kind that the Sri Lankans had in 1951 and the Thais are experimenting with now. And perhaps the ideal national anthem would be one that extols and glorifies exclusively the diversity that makes up the nation-state of Nepal – certainly the geographic and climatic differences between tarai, hill, mountain and trans-Himalaya, but even more importantly the diversity in the population. A lyric incorporating such a subject, and put to 'good' edifying music, would perhaps be able to add just a bit to the sense of unity of purpose that seems to be missing in the present-day political landscape.

But there is always the counterpoint that suggests let sleeping rastriya gaans lie. A country's glory and its image can hardly ever be measured through its national anthem, and there is an innumerable number of national anthems that perhaps do not reflect the aspirations and feelings of the people.

All said and done, for the moment, Nepalis may be glad that at the very least they have a national anthem today to sing, howsoever out of tune and awkwardly, at celebrations national or local. And for this, we have to thank a Rana prime minister, a Pathan bandmaster and a Kathmandu pandit, all long deceased.

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Himal Southasian