Published in The Record on 29 November 2019

“Reason, incident and consequence; these are the primary bases of history” – Baburam Acharya

“Acharya ji, Namaste! I’m Uttam Kunwar.”
“Oh, babu! Please come. I was sad to hear that Rup Rekha did not receive financial support. You have been doing good work; do not discontinue. There will be obstacles here and there…You are a Gulmi Kunwar, aren’t you? Dhananjaya clan…I had the entire genealogy but it’s buried somewhere because no one reads it anymore.”

“I also have Kiran Kharel ji with me.”

“Which Kiran Kharel? The one who writes songs for the radio?…I know about him, Shree Prasad Kharel’s grandson! I know him very well…”

This was my first meeting and it was Kiran ji’s as well. But if someone had witnessed this scene or is reading this, they will certainly assume that we have known Baburam ji for a long time. A strong memory and an ample sense of familiarity are some of his many specialities.

“Acharya ji, I came here today to talk to you about yourself. I hope you won’t have a problem with that?”

“That’s alright. Please sit. It hasn’t been very long since I arrived from the office. I was just changing my clothes.”

Acharya ji was in fact in the middle of changing. He had taken off his daura and was only wearing a pair of suruwal. Right then, his wife came over, covered him with a shawl, and left. Dusk had fallen. After stepping out of a bus in Gaushala, we had taken an alley into Battisputali and arrived at Acharya ji’s house after asking around. The corn leaves swaying in the evening breeze were producing soft sounds. In addition, because of the buzzing mosquitoes and cicadas, it felt as if a musical ambience was being created, a nice occasion. But because of the intermittent mosquito bites, it also felt like there was an attempt to ruin the occasion.

We sat next to Acharya ji, our legs folded. His wife brought a lit lantern. Choosing a proper moment, I asked, “So you just arrived, Acharya ji?”

“That’s right, babu.”

“What do you do all day? Busy with recording, I hear?”

“No, I stopped it. That gets a bit cumbersome. So I went back to dictating.”

“What are you dictating?”

“Prithvi Narayan Shah! Everything written about him to this day is baseless. That’s why I am in the process of writing a historical account about him based on proven facts.”

“But since you don’t reveal your sources in your books, readers like us still get confused. What do we do?”

“In this case, I will provide copious notes…although it’s looking like the notes will be longer than the primary material.”

“When do you think it’ll be ready?”

“It might take another two to four months before its release.”

“Since you have a day job at the Hiti palace, I’m guessing that you no longer have a problem making ends meet?”

“It’s not like before. I get Rs 500 every month from there and then an additional stipend of Rs 150. That takes care of my expenses. Whatever I had during my youth was spent on historical research. I was about to be homeless but these days I am in the process of paying back old loans and can also manage two meals every day.”

This is the condition of a pre eminent historian in Nepal: having to worry about meals. During his youth, he spent close to Rs 70,000 while conducting historical research. Because of this research, he also lost his eyesight. His dedication got him employed as a high-level officer at the palace, but he was later let go. Acharya ji had to face the consequences for being too dedicated because of the particularities of that time period.

“For the Prithvi Narayan Shah book you are working on, is your writing based on previously collected facts or have you come across new information as well?”

“It’ll be a mixture of the old and the new. After the Crown Prince ordered the unlocking of the Jaisi room, a lot of new facts have been revealed. There were details leading up to the rule of Rana Bahadur Shah; quite a lot of what had been written up to that time period has been proven to be false. Based on the recently discovered notes, records and paperwork, what has been proven is that almost everything accepted as truth was untrue, apart from the dates of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s birth and death. And let’s not even get into the stuff before Ram Shah’s time. But how can we even blame those who wrote history in a false way? If the country’s social, economic, political and educational history and their foundations were strong, then the country’s general history would be documented properly. The groundwork around these started to flourish only during the time of Jung Bahadur. Whatever history was written was based on the two genealogies published by Wright and Buddhiman (which in themselves were inaccurate); that’s why it was natural that the history was made up. Reason, incident and consequence; these are the primary bases of history. But in the case of our country’s history, out of these three factors, one or two are usually messed up.”

“It’s probably easy for you to prepare history since you are so knowledgeable about engravings on stone, copper, etc.”

“No way! How can one prepare a true historical account just based on those? Let me provide some perspective on this matter; we don’t have to go too far. Juddha Shumsher had handed one lakh rupees to Sharada Shumsher and appointed him as a manager to promote Nepal’s cottage industries. Since Sharada Shumsher spent all that money for the cause, he was removed from the position and replaced by someone else. An additional one lakh rupees was allocated for the same project. Since the new manager was clever, he channeled part of the budget back to Juddha Shumsher and the rest remained unspent. In this way, his managerial position remained stable. On the other hand, it was noted in the paperwork and the stone engravings that Juddha Shumsher had invested a certain amount of money for development. The point of this account is that what was publicized was different from what was actually done. I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t limited to Juddha Shumsher; it was probably common during the rule of other kings as well. That’s why we cannot trust paperwork at face value.”

“So what can be considered as proof when it comes to the old days?”

“I’m not trying to say that I don’t accept any of it. One can accept some of it as long as one does not believe it as the entire truth. A comparative study needs to be undertaken in order to prove anything and even the proofs ought to be compared with various other facts. For instance, I came across something extremely important today but I am still studying it in order to determine how true it is.”

“What could be so important?”

..Historical inquiry demands the reference of different objects and incidents for a comparative study.

“A Jumla king had written a book in Surkshetra and titled it after the place. Even Rahul Sankrityayan had written about seeing that book in Lhasa. That’s about it. Now let’s interpret this. If a king from Jumla had stayed in Surkshetra, one can infer that Surkshetra must have been a prosperous and developed place. Since a book cannot be written in a rush, one can also infer that Surkshetra must have been under the king’s control. Now comes a contentious point: kshetra means a field, so Surkshetra could be Surkhet. This area was once developed and also prosperous and since it wasn’t convenient to live in Jumla during the winter, the Jumla king probably moved to Surkhet during the winter months. The other thing is that there is apparently ruins of a temple in Surkhet which was twenty times as big as Patan’s Krishna Mandir. Some archaeological findings have conjectured that both of these temples were constructed around the same time. And since that book was discovered in Lhasa, it complements the hypothesis that Tibet and the Surkhet associated Jumla had an amicable relationship, maintained trade and two way migration. The point of this long winded example is that historical inquiry demands the reference of different objects and incidents for a comparative study.”

After listening to all this, I asked, “You consider the Golden Age of Nepal to be the fifty year period after Prithvi Narayan Shah, right?”

“Yes. The fifty years between Prithvi Narayan Shah and Bahadur Shah was Nepal’s Golden Age.”

“Acharya ji, you once relayed an anecdote to Gorkhapatra’s Bhairab Aryal ji about how you came across an issue of Prachin Lekhmala (distributed from Calcutta) in Arrah during a trip you took with your father’s ashes. After reading Jaidev’s stone engraving, you planned to investigate it more and gradually became interested in history. Was that really how you changed your field of study?”

“You can say that that is how it started. In any case, I was already 32 years old when I realized my concern for history. At one point, since it was suspected that I might have tuberculosis, I went to Calcutta for a medical consultation. A few historical books inside a doctor’s waiting room inspired me to imagine books on Nepal’s history. When I discovered Swayambhu’s stone engraving, I found out, for the first time ever, that Nepal had once been attacked by Muslims. But I wasn’t able to publish that. Jaiswal published the same thing later and became a big-time historian. There were Rana constraints around publication but I kept getting intermittent inspirations and gradually became immersed in history; ultimately, this became my life.”

One might as well declare that ‘history’ is Baburam Acharya ji’s other name. At the age of 32, he began to delve into history by ignoring everything else. His eyesight, which had started weakening in 1942, dimmed completely around 1952. But he is blessed with a strong memory, as if to make up for the eyes. Despite some contested issues, he knows the major historical dates, events and results by heart and once he learns something, he is able to repeat it after several years without any mistakes. This sort of divine talent is rare. Encouraged by him, quite a few have started investigating Nepal’s history. Nepal is fortunate to have someone like him.

Nudging the historian towards literature (although this was similar to history), I asked, “Acharya ji, when was the beginning of Nepali language?”

Baburam Acharya on a 1973 stamp issues by the government
Acharya on a 1973 stamp issues by the government. Photo credit: istampgallery

“At the beginning, it wasn’t Nepali language. It used to be Khas language and it emerged in Jumla. From there, it spread out. They have discovered the first copper engraving written in this language during the time of Punya Malla. They have also discovered some folk songs from the fourteenth century. And Krishna Charitra is probably the oldest book. We have to rely entirely on Ishwar Baral when it comes to this topic because he has thoroughly studied our ancient letters and manuscripts at the British Museum. Some of this can be picked up from Bal Krishna Pokhrel’s Paanch Saya Barsha. Pokhrel ji has been working hard to trace the history of language.”

With a gesture of agreement, I resumed my questioning, “How did the Khas language spread from Jumla?”

The simplicity and sweetness of the Khas language revealed its potential. From Jumla, it advanced towards Gorkha and during the time of Ram Shah, entered the Kathmandu Valley. In Kathmandu, Pratap Malla used the Khas language abundantly during his practices. Jaya Prakash used the Khas language while writing to Kalu Pandey. The treaty between Jaya Prakash and Prithvi Narayan Shah is also written in the Khas language. And during Prithvi Narayan Shah’s reign, even poems started to get written in Khas; it’s indicated in Buingal that Shuva Nanda Das was the one who started it. The main reason why Khas language received publicity was because it was never targeted by a particular sect; rather, it got equally accepted by different sects which contributed to its development. Long before Prithvi Narayan Shah politically unified Nepal, the Khas language had threaded the country…and to think that the literature of a language like that has come to this…”

“What do you mean, Acharya ji? What has happened?”

“What else? European literature started to influence before the foundation of our literature was stable. It could neither rise up to the level of European literature, nor could it mature its essence; it’s been dangling in the middle. One can stand steadily and strongly if one has a vigorous native literary background. One’s essence cannot get lost despite external influences. But what can I say? And the new movies have ruined literature. Folk songs, traditions, everything is in decline to have to witness all this at my old age!”

“Acharya ji, people have complaints against you as well. They say that you went against Bhimsen Thapa because your ancestral land was snatched.”

“It’s not that. Bhimsen Thapa’s land reclamation was a timely project. After losing the Kumaon war, there was less land but the population remained the same. He had to feed the army and his employees so there was no other option other than reclaiming land that had been given away as birta. He cannot be blamed for this.”

“Then why are you so against him?”

“He was unjust; he killed many.”

“Well, everyone kills their opposers. Even these days in several countries, the rulers have been murdering dissenters; the only difference is the way the incidents are presented, isn’t it?”

“That’s true, but still…”

“Was Bhimsen Thapa full of weaknesses then? Didn’t he have saving graces?”

“He did. He was a devoted patriot. Agricultural development in Nepal took place during his reign. And he rewarded those in the Terai who engaged in landscape gardening…”

“It was enough for me when you mentioned that Bhimsen Thapa was a devoted patriot. Although he did make another important contribution, he prioritized Nepali as an official language and mandated its use within the state boundaries. But let’s drop these; I just have one request when do you think our history will be ready in its entirety?”

“It can not be completely ready for the next 25 years. The task demands a lot but the means are dismal. Actually, if all the zonal heads were interested in their country’s history and delivered appropriate paperwork to the right spot, it could take less time.”

In any case, 25 years is not a lot for a country; time passes by just like that. But we should still be ashamed if it indeed takes twenty five years at this day and age to prepare a complete history. Acharya ji gave a limit of 25 years with the constraint that all the zonal heads and intellectuals should collaborate. But will that be possible? Have Nepalis developed a habit of helping each other for the greater good? This needs pondering.

The other thing is that Baburam Acharya ji’s health is already fragile. His heart is weak. If anything bad happens to him, it will not affect only his family; it will adversely affect Nepal’s historical landscape. That’s why we all need to contribute to the project of preparing our country’s complete history in a timely manner. There’s no point regretting the passing of time; otherwise, the world will look at us regretfully.

Sep 10, 1966

Baburam Acharya was a scholar and a researcher. He is credited for pioneering the writing of Nepali history based on indigenous sources. Best known for his four part biography of Prithvi Narayan Shah, he is fondly referred to as ‘the gem among historians’. Baburam Acharya passed away in 1972 at the age of 85. Most of his books and papers were published posthumously. This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of an article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature), published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Award Fund.