Where Nepal’s banner once waved
Nepali Times reporter Alisha Sijapati spent a month earlier this year retracing the Gorkha expansion beyond the Mahakali River more than 200 years ago.
The Gorkha Empire was on a warpath, and the British East India Company saw it as a threat to its own expansionist ambitions.
This is the fourth in a five-part series that looks back at the bravery of the Gorkhali troops under its legendary generals to defend the newly-conquered territory, but also the historical memory among the local people of an oppressive rule.
The first, second and third episodes in this series are in the Nepali Times archives. The fifth part will appear on 30 October in this space.
The Anglo-Gorkha War officially began in November 1814 and came to a resounding close in March 1816 with the Treaty of Sugauli, the echoes of which are still heard across Nepal, India and Britain today.
In April 1815, the Gorkhali forces clashed with the East India Company army in what was to be the most brutal and decisive siege of the war, the Battle of Malaun, with its far-reaching consequences for the rest of the conflict and much later on the history of Britain-India-Nepal relations.
The Malaun Fort stands forlorn in what is now India’s Himachal Pradesh, upon craggy ridges overlooking the vast, green, tiered landscape below. Today, its long stone ramparts are narrow, jagged remains that crane towards the sky. Behind the walls, a red triangular flag (that predates Nepal’s national flag) flutters like a lonely feather caught in the billowing wind.
It is a ghostly ambience that greets visitors as they walk up the narrow and steep stone path to the fort. One can almost hear the battle drums from more than two centuries ago, the war cries of the attacking forces, and screams of the wounded. Although there is a small settlement in the village, for more than a century after the famous battle here the fort had been overtaken by vegetation with trees growing out of the ramparts.
Today, the vines from the tall kiara trees sway as the wind carries monsoon mist through them. Wild roses (called kunja by the locals) flash red, white and yellow from the bushes. Goats frolic upon the charcoal-grey rocks, while the distant tinkle of mule convoys carry up the ridge.
But through the hazy folds of this serene landscape one can almost hear the reports of cannon balls that once shook the slopes in April 1815, mingled with the furious battle cries of 17,000 Gorkhali fighters who clashed, khukris raised, against the deadly cannon fire of the invading East India Company force that was almost thrice as large.
The battle at Malaun lasted from 14 April to 15 May 1815 and was one of the bloodiest months of the Anglo-Gorkha war. The fort, as Jyoti Thapa Mani (herself the descendant of the original Gorkhali troops) writes in her book The Khukri Braves, was Amar Singh Thapa’s last stand, and with its surrender reversed the Gorkhali westward advance as well.
Face-to-face with the enemy
On 4 November 1814, Amar Singh Thapa moved to Ramshehar Fort from Arki (near Shimla) with 3,000 of his troops and supplementary forces from Bilaspur. General David Ochterlony, who was promoted to Major-Gen and the overall commander of the Anglo-Gorkha war following the death of Major-Gen Robert Rollo Gillepsie in Khalanga, Dehradun, had expected Amar Singh to put up maximum resistance at Nalagarh or Sirmour, but the Gorkhali commander was now coming to meet him head-on.
Nalagarh fell on 5 November and three weeks later, the British troops moved to Ramshehar Pass to break Amar Singh’s supply lines to and from Arki. The army engineer Lt Peter Lawtie spent a week surveying the fort and concluded that the walls were impenetrable, and any attack would be futile except from a small settlement towards the rear of the fort called Nauri.
Lawtie, a highland Scotsman only 24 at the time, was an eager engineer who led the previously impossible task of carving roads on mountain-sides at Nalagarh and Ramshehar. It was through his roads that the Company troops were able to climb the perilous slopes, and bring their heavy mountain cannons within range of the Gorkhali forts.
On 19 November, coolies and elephants pulled the British heavy artillery up the mountains to the Nauri plateau. In response, Amar Singh Thapa sent his troops to defend the approach with stockade and bulwark. The British guns could only get to 150m below the fort, which was too far and too low from the Gorkhali base, and were soon pulled back.
Then on 24 December, the Gorkhalis and the British began a fierce assault at Mangu, North-east of Nauri. Three hours later the Gorkhalis retreated up the ridge with 150 of their soldiers dead and 250 wounded.
Ochterlony wanted to push Amar Singh Thapa back further North to Bilaspur, a principality that was a strong Gorkha ally. Then in January, Amar Singh’s son Ramdas Thapa and the Gorkhali families at Ramshehar covertly relocated to Malaun Fort.
Tracing the march of the Gorkhalis, Jyoti Thapa remarks that they were now again returning via the route they had taken when they first came from Arki to Ramshehar. Malaun, which lies between the two places and closer to Bilaspur, was meant to be a refuge from the battle which Amar Singh wanted to contain in the Ramshehar, Taragarh and Chamba forts across the River Gambar, and prevent the British from encroaching into Gorkhali territory any further.
But Gen Ochterlony had other plans. With spies planted along Amar Singh’s routes of communication, a letter was intercepted. Gen Ochterlony discovered the Gorkhali tactics and ordered Lt Lawtie to begin building roads to the fort, while he would send reinforcements to Bilaspur. He expected Amar Singh to soon leave for Malaun or Bilaspur and was not taking any chances.
Malaun Fort was not supposed to be a battlefield. Ever the devout and a loyal family man, he promptly hurried towards the fort from Mangu, leaving about 100 men to guard Ramshehar, which ultimately proved insufficient when the British took the fort on 16 February.
By this time, Ochterlony’s emissary to Bilaspur, Colonel Arnold, had forced Bilaspur to give up supporting the Gorkhalis. This new and unprecedented development was a severe blow to Amar Singh Thapa. On top of that, Ramshehar Fort had now fallen and the troops he had left there to defend it came to Malaun.
Amar Singh Thapa was furious, writes Jyoti Thapa Mani, about the campaign in her book. He compared the situation with Khalanga, where the other Gorkhali general Balbhadra Kunwar, despite three assaults, no water, no resource and the fort practically reduced to rubble, had not surrendered.
The royal court in Kathmandu, torn by family feuds and clan infighting, was not helpful either. It had already in December 1814 agreed to sign a treaty with the Company, news that had greatly demoralised the Gorkhali soldiers on the western front.
The British were spreading propaganda of their own that the war was over, to try to stop Amar Singh Thapa’s soldiers from continuing to fight. And it was working: soldiers were gradually defecting to the British side, especially the non-Nepali ‘Gorkhali sena’ recruited locally from Garhwal and Kumaon.
On 2 March 1815, Amar Singh wrote to King Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah asking the court not to surrender, but the letter never reached Kathmandu. By 16 March, the forts at Taragarh and Chamba also fell. The British closed in, and now Ochterlony looked to exploit the cornered Amar Singh Thapa’s dedication to his family and civilians at Malaun.
It was ruthlessness like this that has made Gen Ochterlony a celebrated warrior in British history books, but not in the eyes of Nepali historian Dinesh Raj Panta who says the colonial accounts of the battle airbrushed his brutality.
“Malaun was a refuge for children and women, not a place to wage war,” Panta told Nepali Times in Kathmandu. “Amar Singh Thapa was a spiritual man, very devout, and Ochterlony exploited this and his need to protect civilians inside Malaun Fort to his advantage. It was actually a sign of the British general’s poor leadership.”
Poor leadership or not, this was the same tactic that had previously been used by Sansar Chand II to ultimately defeat the Gorkhalis and lead to the loss of Kangra Fort. (See second part of this series.)
Malaun Fort sits atop the northern end of the narrow parabolic range, described by Jyoti Thapa Mani in The Khukri Braves. The long fort hides behind the front wall, which is on a different level than the rest of the structure, when seen from below. There is a watch tower on the eastern side while the north face looms over steep cliffs. The main entry is from the south which opens to a wide courtyard. There is also a temple of Malaun Devi in the fort, facing West.
The Malaun Devi Temple.
Surajgarh Fort is the nearest fort on the Malaun Range, about 7km away, where the 74 year-old Bhakti Thapa made his base. In between the two forts stands the Raila Peak, with Deothal Peak with its sharp crags near Malaun Fort. The British had to occupy Raila and Deothal to isolate Malaun from Surajgarh.
On 14 April, Lt Flemming and Lt Lawtie reached Raila Peak with 1,100 men and 300 Nusseerees, made up of recent defectors from the Gorkhali Army. They were joined by Major Innes who led the Grenadier Battalion with two 6-pounder cannons. Major Laurie led 400 Hinduris and Patiala Sikhs to Deothal where he was joined by Colonel Thompson with 1,300 regular, 300 supplementary troops and more 6-pounders.
At first, the Gorkhalis were able to hold their defence and keep the British from climbing up the ridge. Between the khukris and the bayonets, it was a landscape still largely unfamiliar to the British and they were no match for the lithe Gorkhalis, who were most at-home with the hills, the cliffs and the elevation, instinctively creating paths in those uncharted terrain with only their hands and feet.
But soon, under Lt Lawtie, the British began carving makeshift roads, bringing with them elephants and the power to blast the ramparts with cannon balls. Amar Singh was worried. The Gorkhalis’ familiarity with the terrain did not mean much once the terrain was changed to the liking of the British.
Before, their guns were too far below to do any real damage, but now they were within range and had started finding their mark. The fate of the fort hung in the balance unless the relentless British cannon fire was knocked out of Deothal.
In the meantime, Bhakti Thapa decided it was time for him to abandon Surajgarh Fort and head to Malaun. Born in 1741 in Lamjung, he had fought alongside Amar Singh Thapa almost 50 years ago under King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the battles for the unification of Nepal. More recently, during the 1804-1809 battle at Kangra, he had chased Raja Sansar Chand II from Mahal Morian all the way to Kangra Fort.
Amar Singh Thapa and Bhakti Thapa were trusted friends, who had deep respect and admiration for each other. When he arrived at Malaun Fort, they sat in Malaun Devi Temple and discussed for hours what their next step should be.
Bhakti Thapa felt leaving Malaun and taking the battle elsewhere would be a better option, but Amar Singh did not think that would be feasible or wise. In the end, it was decided that Bhakti Thapa would lead 2,000 of his best warriors to Deothal and dispose of the British 6-pounders which were firing at the fort even at night. There was no other option.
And so, on 15 April 1815, the septuagenarian Bhakti Thapa led the Gorkhalis to what was to be the Anglo-Gorkha war’s bloodiest hand-to-hand combat.
Fight to the last gasp
Author Jyoti Thapa Mani gives a vivid image of the Gorkhali’s preparation for battle on the night of 15 April. ‘Bhakti Thapa and his men took an oath invoking Goddess Kali as their witness, and tied vermillion coloured cloths around their waist,’ she writes: Then Bhakti Thapa placed his minor son in Amar Singh’s arms and told his two wives to prepare for sati and sacrifice themselves on his funeral pyre should he fall.
They crept out of the fort and moved towards Deothal where they hid behind rocks and trees before leaping out. The darkness was quickly overrun by the shrill cries of “Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali” amidst trumpeting from the fort as the Gorkhalis headed straight for the 6-pounder cannons to disable them. Many were instantaneously blown to bits. The night was drowned in the cacophony of gunfire and the acrid smell of exploding powder, as the fierce Gorkhalis kept up the attack.
Perhaps one of the earliest accounts of the ferocity of this battle at Deothal comes from a letter Lt Ross wrote to Captain Birch (who was later to be Gen Octerlony’s assistant) dated 20 April 1815:
‘ … [the battle] lasted nearly two hours, and during which they sustained the hardest fire of grape and musquetry I have ever heard. They returned there several times to the charge with most unparalleled intrepidity and endeavoured sword in hand to cut in upon our guns, during which attempt as fast as one set of men were knocked down others springing up from behind rocks rushed forward to supply their places.’
As dawn silhouetted the eastern hills, the Gorkhalis stopped fighting but were soon chased away by the Hinduris who massacred many of them. Similar to Jaithak, even today a passer-by may stumble upon 200 year-old archaeological remnants of rusted knives and shrapnel on the slopes.
By daybreak it was clear that although the Gorkhalis had fought bravely to destroy the cannons, the battle was lost. Among the mangled remains on the slopes was the body of Bhakti Thapa, bearing deep gashes. Local legend has it that when he was disembowelled during the battle, Bhakti Thapa tucked his guts back into his abdomen, tied a turban tightly around his midriff, and proceeded to decapitate many enemy soldiers before he fell under the canopy of pine trees. And when he died, so did any hopes of Amar Singh Thapa to save Malaun Fort.
Although he was their adversary, the British were so impressed by Bhakti Thapa’s bravery that they wrapped his body in a fine shawl and with full military honours, returned it to the Gorkhali side. The Gorkhalis suffered 500 casualties that fateful night, and the British lost only 2 officers and 59 men, with 5 officers and 289 men wounded.
An Empire Falls back
Immediately following the battle at Deothal Peak, Gen Ochterlony brought in more artillery and surrounded Malaun. The Gorkhalis were tired, their food supply was running low, and Bhakti Thapa’s death demoralised their sagging spirit.
Meanwhile, in Jaithak 92km away, Amar Singh Thapa’s son Ranjore Singh was holding back another relentless British assault with dwindling resources. Amar Singh Thapa is now increasingly under pressure from other battles raging nearby to surrender.
On 27 April 1815, Bam Shah, the Gorkhali Governor of Kumaon handed over the region to Lt Colonel William Linnaeus Gardner, and also wrote to Amar Singh Thapa from Almora advising surrender. The British, on the other hand, were circulating rumours that Amar Singh Thapa had already given up and signed a treaty.
But Amar Singh Thapa did not want to give up so quickly. He hoped the coming monsoon would affect the mobility of the British, especially to bring their deadly cannons up the mountains. But Gen Ochterlony brought more elephants and several 12- and 18-pounder guns, and began to fire at the fort. The hills thundered with the sound of explosions as the ramparts were blasted. Amar Singh Thapa was finally forced to concede that the British just had more firepower.
In an excerpt from the Gurkhas (Handbooks for the Indian Army), compiled by Lt Colonel Eden Vansittart, Gen Ochterlony is said to have been so impressed by the gallant defence of the fort by the Gorkhalis that he allowed Amar Singh Thapa and his troops to march out with their arms accoutrements, colours, two guns and all their personal property.
The same honourable terms were also granted to his son, Ranjore Singh in the unconquered Jaithak where he had managed to hold defence against General Martindell for five months.
Amar Singh Thapa and Gen Ochterlony were on opposite sides in the war, but they admired each other as soldiers. Both wanted to end the bloodshed and work out a General Peace Treaty between Nepal and the Company. And so it happened: on 15 May 1815, the treaty was signed -- not between the King of Nepal and the British Governor-General, but between two frenemies. The Gorkha territory west of the Mahakali River was ceded to the British and all forts surrendered.
Perhaps the most pertinent article in the treaty between Amar Singh and Octerlony was Article 5, which stated: ‘All the troops in the service of Nepal, with the exception of those granted to the personal honour of the Kajis Amar Singh and Ranjore Singh, will be at liberty to enter into the service of the British Government, if it is agreeable to themselves and the British Government choose to accept their services, and those who are not employed will be maintained on a specific allowance by the British Government till peace is concluded between the two States.’
Thus began the two-century history of the recruitment of Nepalis into the British (and eventually Indian) Army that continues to this day. Ochterlony started enlisting Gorkhali soldiers from Nepal in the British Indian Army’s Nusseeree Battalion, the first-ever Gorkha Rifles. The negotiations were done professionally by two military men, and that Gorkha soldiers joining Ochterlony’s forces would be granted full freedom to adhere and maintain their own Gorkhali culture, heritage and traditions.
As for Gen Amar Singh Thapa, he left with his sons and troops on the month-long journey back to Kathmandu, 1,500 km away across high mountains and deep valleys. It was a humiliation for the brave general, who was returning to Kathmandu’s brutal court politics and the eventual signing of the Treaty of Sugauli (2 December 1815) and its ratification in 1816.
Some of the guns still remain in Malaun and its surroundings, 200 years later. In 1995, two battle-scarred guns weighing 4.2 tonnes each were removed from the battlefield for safekeeping at a museum in the Subathu Regimental Centre.
“The guns had been abandoned and rusting on the ridge and the villagers did not know of their historical significance,” recalls Maj Vijay Singh Mankotia, who himself was an officer in the Indian Army’s Gorkha regiments.
Some villagers in Malaun want the guns back because they were a tourist attraction. Yet the fort today is in ruins, visited only by history buffs and picnickers. It will slowly crumble away unless the governments of Nepal and India do something to preserve a part of the shared history of the two countries.
Local resident Arvind Bisht looks at the fort framed by the Raila and Deothal peaks from his home, and says he is lucky to live in such a sacred historical place because of his father’s connection to the Gorkha regiment. Although now settled in Dharamshala, Bisht returns to Malaun every once in a while.
Chatting outside his home, with the fort in the distance, Arvind Bisht tells a visitor from Nepal: “We know my ancestors were Gorkhalis, but not much more than that. We just know that our language and culture is close to Nepali.”