Nepal – Tibet Wars

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Nepal – Tibet Wars

Tibet was a good market for Nepalese traders since ancient times and Nepal had always maintained good relations with Tibet. King Ansubarma gave his daughter Bhrikuti in marriage to King Tsrangchongyampo. Many Nepalese merchants and officials also married Tibetan girls. For Nepal, the relationship was profitable. Tibet herself had no mint and Nepalese silver coins were the currency of Tibet as well.

First Nepal – Tibet War – 1788 AD

The relations started turning sour after the Malla rulers started to mint impure silver coins just before their downfall. The Tibetans demanded that the coins be replaced by pure silver ones. When Prithvi Narayan Shah took over, he found that it would be a great loss to him if he conceded to the Tibetan demands. The case remained unsolved due to his untimely demise. Queen Mother Rajendra Laxmi, the Regent of minor King Rana Bahadur Shah, inherited the coinage problem which reached the culminating point in 1788 AD. Another sore point in Nepal-Tibet relations was Nepal’s decision to provide refuge to Syamarpa Lama with his 14 Tibetan followers. He had fled from Tibet to Nepal on religious and political grounds. Yet another cause for conflict was the low-quality salt being provided by Tibetans to Nepal. All salt came from Tibet in those days. Tibet ignored the Nepalese ultimatums and that prompted the preparations for war. Nepal was soon preparing to launch multi-directional attacks.

1. Kerung Axis: Kaji Balbhadra Shah was the main Commander of the offensive attack from Kerung axis. Kaji Kirtimansingh Basnyat, Sardar Amarsingh Thapa and Bhotu Pandey were the subordinate commanders under him. Approximately 6,000 troops and 3,200 porters were despatched for this operation. Their main objective was to capture Dirgacha through Kerung. The march of the troops was delayed because Balbhadra Shah became seriously ill. They crossed Kerung on 20th July, 1788 and captured Jhunga on the 3rd of August 1788. Bhotu Pandey was captured by the Tibetans. The Nepalese troops were reinforced with 2,000 more troops and Bhotu Pandey was freed from the Tibetans on 14th October, 1788.

2. Kuti Axis(I) : Shree Krishna Shah was the Commander and Kaji Ranajit Pandey, Sardar Parath Bhandari, Captain Harsa Panta, Captain Naharsingh Basnyat and Captain Shiva Narayan Khatri were the subordinate commanders under him. About 5,800 soldiers and 3,000 porters were allotted for the offensive operation. Later on, Kaji Abhimansingh Basnyat and Ranajit Kunwar also joined this offensive. The Dalai Lama was taken by surprise and to protect his sovereignty, he initiated a parallel approach whereby he asked military help from Sovan Shahi, the King of Jumla in West Nepal, and requested him to launch guerrilla activities and revolt against the Nepalese Army in and around Jumla. Sovan Shahi did revolt at Humla and captured some fortresses. The Dalai Lama also asked for military help from the Chinese Emperor. Additionally, he himself and Panchen Lama of Dirgacha wrote a secret letter to the East India Company seeking military assistance.

The Tibetans also initiated propaganda about having constructed a new road through the Tigri valley and establishing a post at the front. They also rumoured that they had assembled an Army of 1,25,000 men. But the Tibetans could get nothing from Jumla, China or the East India Company.

3. Kuti Axis (II):Kaji Damodar Pandey was leading his troops with subordinate commanders Bom Shah, Dev Dutta Thapa and others. He was given about 4,000 troops and his objective was to capture Dirgacha via the Kuti axis.

4. The Battles Nepalese troops, having crossed the Himalayas captured Chhochyang and Kuti in June 1788 and Sikarjong on 3rd August, 1788, in spite of many difficult logistic limitations. Later, Bahadur Shah was able to provide some reinforcements and improve some logistics arrangements. Still that was not enough and progress was slow. When the Nepalese were about to capture Dirgacha via both Kuti and Kerung, the Tibetans started to make compromises with Nepalese commanders. Bahadur Shah started negotiations, ultimately arriving at a solution. Prisoners were handed back to the Tibetans. Tibet was ready to pay tributes to the tune of Rs. 50,000 in silver coins per annum to Nepal and a treaty was signed on 2nd June 1789 in Kerung. The treaty is called the ‘Treaty of Kerung’ by historians.

Rasuwa Gadhi and Timure were the firm bases in the first Nepal-Tibet war. Syabru Besi and Rasuwa Gadhi were Strategic points in this war. Likewise, Listi and Duguna villages were the main bases for offensive operations against Tibet. They were the forward most dumping places of the Nepalese Army. Although Rasuwa Gadhi and Duguna Gadhi Fortresses were not constructed at the time, the places themselves were important because of their military significance.

Second Nepal – Tibet War – 1792 AD

The Tibetans had signed the Kerung treaty because they had no other option then. The Dalai Lama had not been able to get timely help, so he was, for the moment, ready to pay the Rs 50,000 per year tribute to come out of his difficulties. The amount was paid that year but not the next year. Nepal took it as an insult. Bahadur Shah started preparing for the next battle with Tibet.

1. Kerung Axis:Kaji Abhimansingh Basnyat was appointed the Commander of Kerung front and Captain Kalu Pandey, Sardar Jasawanta Bhandari and Sardar Ranajit Kunwar were his subordinate commanders. Their tasks were to capture Jhunga initially and link up with Kaji Damodar Pandey to capture Dirgacha.

2. Kuti Axis:Kaji Damodar Pandey was the Commander of this axis. Kaji Davdutta Thapa, Captain Bom shah, Kaji Jaharsingh Basnyat, Sardar Pratiman Rana Magar, Taksari Narsingh Gurung were initially his subordinate commanders. Their task was to capture the Kuti area and join Kaji Abhimansingh Basnyat to capture Dirgacha.

3. Kharta Axis: Kaji Kirtimansingh Basnyat was the overall Commander and Subba Puran Shahi, Subba Padamsingh Basnyat and Subba Madho Shahi were his subordinate commanders. They were supposed to capture Kharta initially and link up with Damodar Pandey in Kuti to capture Dirgacha. His troops were to advance via Chainpur, now in Sankhuwasabha district.

4. The Battle: Rasuwa Gadhi and Timure were vital for reinforcement and logistic support. A fortress was there since the Malla period. Similarly, Listi and Duguna villages were the nearest points for logistic back-up. Nepalese troops would later resist the Sino-Tibetan offensive from here as it was useful for defensive battles.

All the commanders succeded in their missions in general. Dirgacha fell and the Lamas retreated. Nepalese commanders demanded 50 dharni (120 Kg) of gold and 100 thousand rupees from the Tibetan authority in Dirgacha. The Lamas refused to pay leading the Nepalese troops to plunder Dirgacha. After the Nepalese troops returned to Nepal, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Ambans forwarded a complaint to the Chinese Emperor about the Nepalese invasion, seeking military help from China.

The Nepalese were rejoicing at the conclusion of this successful offensive against Tibet. Bahadur Shah became even more popular in Nepal and he was hailed as a worthy son of a worthy father. The honeymoon ended with news that a vast Chinese Army had reached Lhasa to help Tibet against Nepal on 8th March 1792. Nepal was finding that it was using up a lot of the scarce national resources on military campaigns- the unification battles, the earlier Nepal – Tibet war and against the impending war against Sino-Tibetan joint forces.

Fukagn An, alias Thung Thang Chan Chun, was the main Commander of the Sino-Tibetan joint forces. One report suggests that he was leading approximately 11,000 Chinese plus 3,000 Tibetan troops. They had 3,000 troops in reserve. By that time, Tibet had also prepared 10,000 local troops under Kalong Hor Khang. So, the total strength of the enemy was approximately 17,000. Another report said that the invading joint forces including irregulars totaled 60,000 to 70,000.

The Chinese troops were deployed along three different axes to launch their attack against Nepal. The first would advance through Kuti, i.e. Lhasa–Kuti–Duguna–Listi–Jalbire–Chautara– Indrawoti River– Devpur–Naladum and Kathmandu. The second would advance through Lhasa– Kerung–Rasuwa Gadhi– Betrawoti– Nuwakot and Kathmandu. The third would take the route from Lhasa through Kharta–Chainpur–Kathmandu.

The third advance through Kharta consisted of a small group of about 3000 soldiers. But they had trouble arranging logistic support from Tibet and knew that the local Kirants of Chainpur area would not support them. So, they withdrew their troops prematurely.

Consequently, the Chinese commander decided to launch his attacks from the two main axes: Kuti axis under the command of Cheng-Tse and Kerung Axis. The Kerung axis was divided into two parts one headed by Fukang-An and the other by Kalong Horkand. For the Nepalese, the plan had to be like trying to plug a dam that had burst from a considerable height. Some Nepalese troops were already positioned in different fortresses of Tibet under Tula Ram Pandey, Shatru Bhanjan Malla. Uddav Khawas etc. Damodar Pandey was appointed the Overall Commander against the Chinese offensive.

The joint enemy force attacked Nepal at a difficult time. Most of the Nepalese troops were engaged in the Western unification campaigns. On top of that, they were busy crushing revolts launched in Achham, Doti and Jumla. Only a limited number of surplus soldiers were available to fight against the Chinese invaders. Nonetheless, Betrawoti-Nuwakot was fixed as the last line of defense and the major defensive battle would be fought from that position. Troops and commanders were called in from Kumaun and Gadhwal to fight against the Sino-Tibetan forces. Some troops were sent to take up defensive positions in Kirat and Morang areas.

The battle in Kuti and Khasa started with small confrontations. The Nepalese had good defensive positions in Duguna and Listi areas. The Chinese Army entered the Kerung front, defended by Satru Bhanjan Malla, Subedar Talaram and Udhaun Khawas with a small number of troops. Tula Ram Pandey was shot dead at the gate of the exterior fortress and Satrubhanjan was badly wounded. The battle ensued for five days and all the fortresses of Kerung were lost to the Chinese. In the initial battle on the Kerung front, about 400 Chinese soldiers and 200 Nepalese lost their lives.

The Nepalese army retreated to Rasuwa Gadhi from the Kerung front for delaying action. The tactic was to hold the enemy’s heavy thrust for a few hours and retreat. Syabru Besi was the next delaying position after Rasuwa Gadhi. Bhaskar Rana Magar and Subedar Agbal joined the Srinath Battalion in Syabru Besi and they were also reinforced from Kathmandu. The Nepalese troops held its place for about 18 hours. They then successfully broke contact and retreated to Ramche. By this time hundreds from both sides had lost their lives.

A small battle took place in Ramche from where Kaji Damodar Pandey took over. The Nepalese again fell back to Gunche but it was too narrow a place to come into contact with the enemy forcing the Nepalese to retreat to Dhaibung for the major defensive -offensive battle. It was a well chosen position. The Chinese had held the battle initative up to Ramche. By the time the actual defensive battle was started, the Nepalese Army had secured good defensive positions in Dudha Thumka, Dhaibung and Gerkhu areas and stretched the Chinese uncomfortably. A strong force was deployed in Betrawoti. Trisuli Bazar was also occupied and other Nuwakot villages were vacated to protect the civilians in the vital grounds of defensive battles.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Kaji Amar Singh Thapa gave up the year long conquest at Langur Gadhi in the Godhwal and released his troops for the defense of the motherland. The soldiers had to cover a distance of more then 1,000 km from this western outpost to reach Nuwakot. They made it in about a month by traveling some 30 km per day. Some of them joined the Nuwakot defenses while others remained as reserves in Kathmandu.

By this time, the Nepalese troops had retreated about 85 km from their initial defense position in Kerung. A linear defence was set up along the Betrawoti river. The Dudhe Thumka hill was a ground of tactical importance and a strong position was held by the Nepalese here. It would be diffcult for the Chinese to launch an uphill attack. One battalion plus Chinese troops did march to capture Dudhe umka but could not do so. A big flood in the furious Betrawoti on 20th August 1792 washed away many Chinese troops. The Betrawoti bridge was destroyed by the Nepalese before it fell into enemy hands. The Chinese could only use a handling rope of the bridge to cross the river.

The enemy troops marched to capture the Gerkhu ridge. This would have been a good firm base for them to launch downhill assaults on Nuwakot and Trishuli Bazar. Earlier successes had made them underestimate the Nepalese troops to the extent of launching a daylight uphill assault. But the Nepalese launched counter attacks from many flanks. A large number of Nepalese troops attacked the enemy with only Khukuris from flank and rear positions. The attrition was overwhelming, forcing the enemy to take flight. The turning point of the battle and the war came here and led to the overextended Chinese dropping their insistence to negotiate only after Nuwakot fell. Fu Kang An wanted to negotiate in Nuwakot and was keen to preserve his troops. Nepal had been saved but it had been a close call and Nepal ended up paying tributes to the Chinese Emperor. The last battle was fought on 5th October 1792. The Treaty of Betrawoti was concluded and the war was over.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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