Spotlight on Nepal: The end of the line

Even Shakespeare would have been hard-pressed to imagine a royal tragedy of this scale: ten members of the Nepalese royal family killed, including the king and queen, at a dinner party over a petty argument. The killer was not an aspiring dictator or a slighted nobody-it was the crown prince. As horrific as this scene is to imagine, it is by no means particularly remarkable in a country with problems as big as its postcard mountains.

There was the bloody decade-long civil war, which ended in 2006; the reigning king’s rule by martial law the year before that; the thousands of Maoist rebels held at UN camps around the country; and let’s not forget the mass strikes that frequently bring the country to a halt (the most recent on Feb. 19th in Kathmandu, the capital).

But come this April-if everything goes right-Nepal may get a do-over. That’s when the 260-year-old ruling monarchy is scheduled to be abolished and replaced by a government elected by the people. The national elections could solve many of the problems that strikes, rebellions, and attempted coups have not. At the same time, it marks the end of a historic institution and a king who many still believe to be a reincarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god. This will no doubt be a watershed year.

King Gyanendra will be easing into private life or perhaps playing some figurehead role in the new government. He is an absolutely fascinating character, not the least because of his relentless hunger for power, which creates the perfect tension with his position as the last king of Nepal. What does a Nepalese king do exactly? How is he spending his last days? What are his plans? What makes him tick? This situation reminds me a lot of the last emperor of China, who, as the Japanese was closing in, spent his days aimlessly riding his bicycle in the empty Forbidden City .

Also of interest is the monarchy as a cultural institution, which is unique for being the only remaining Hindu governing system. There are some twenty royal palaces scattered throughout , many in the Kathmandu valley: Hanumandhoka, Bhaktapur, Patan. Each holds religious and cultural significance beyond that of a lavish playground for Gyanendra. The most significant is Narayanhity Durbar, the main residence of ‘s kings for more than 200 years and the site of the 2001 massacre.

This year may very well define Nepal’s political futureshed. Will the Maoists rebels help rebuild the country once Gyanendra cedes his power? Could ethnic rivalries actually worsen now that there is no consolidated power base? Or will Gyandendra derail the democratic process, as he has done several times before?