The earthquake project is part of Whelpton’s ongoing research into Nepali history. But his own personal history is as fascinating: an English teacher who became one of Nepal’s most dedicated historians.
Whelpton signed up to be a VSO volunteer to teach English in South Asia, wanting to go to India but ended up by chance in Nepal in 1972. He took an 8-week course in Nepali, but realised it was of no use in Birganj where he was stationed — everyone spoke Hindi.
He hiked to Jomsom and Pokhara, and once walked into the main courtyard of Pashupati by mistake, almost getting beaten up by a drunken English-speaking devotee before he was rescued and sent on his way by a policeman.
By late 1970s, his Nepali was good enough to translate Jang Bahadur ko Belayat Yatra from Nepali into English. This first-time translation of the travelogue was published with commentary as Jang Bahadur in Europe: The First Nepalese Mission to the West. In its reprint it also contained a first-person account of the journey by Moti Lal Singh, who is considered the first Nepali to get to London and was befriended by Jung and employed as translator. The text of his account, discovered by earlier historians, was republished in full in English for the first time in Whelpton’s book.
Whelpton’s PhD led to another book on Jang Bahadur: Kings, Soldiers and Priests: Nepalese Politics and the Rise of Jang Bahadur Rana, which included previously unseen archival material. He then went back to his job as an English teacher in Hong Kong, and in his spare time wrote History of Nepal, and surveyed Christianity in Nepal.
Foreigners are not allowed access to Nepal’s Foreign Ministry archives which limited Whelpton, but then he had easy access to the British Library where missives sent by residents between 1830-1870 are stored. These records come with their own complications. “Nepali records are mostly official documents, but British documents contain policy debates. They discuss not just what happened but argue about what should be done,” says Whelpton. “So while they often give the bigger picture, there is more danger of bias colouring the information.”
After 1870, the British government in India stopped sending records to London, so Whelpton is currently researching in the Foreign Ministry archives in Delhi. Nepal-related documents were classified under the ‘Political’ section meant for internal affairs, until Chandra Shumsher specifically asked that Nepal be put under the ‘Foreign’ department.
Though Ranas are seen to be Anglophiles, Whelpton cites this and other examples to claim that they were actually quite patriotic. He adds: “What determines Kathmandu rulers’ attitude to outside powers is the strength of the outside powers. At any given time there is a balance between independence and keeping on the right side of powerful neighbours. For Jang Bahadur, China was becoming weaker, and it made sense to get closer to the British. Even Bhimsen Thapa, seen as a patriot who resisted the British, was swinging more towards the British in his last days.”
Despite a shift in academia towards anthropological history of the people rather than a list of rulers, Whelpton calls himself “an old fashioned political historian”, and says Nepal’s politics has become much more complicated, which is why he wants to research it as a historian.
A lot needs to be done before Nepal has a comprehensive and complete history, but Whelpton feels that every bit counts: “Scholarship in history can be compared to a cairn on a mountain pass which grows as each traveller throws another stone.”
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