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The Malla Dynasty was a ruling dynasty of Nepal from the 12th to the 18th century. It was during their reign that the people living in and around the Kathmandu Valley began to be called "Newars" (or Nepa:mi in Nepal Bhasa, meaning citizens of Nepal). The Mallas were the ruling clan of the Malla Mahajanapada. The Mallas (literally "wrestlers" in Sanskrit) had been forced out of India and their name can be found in the Mahabharat and in Buddhist literature. The first of the Malla kings came to power in Kathmandu Valley around 1200. The Malla period was a golden one that stretched over 550 years, though it was peppered with fighting over the valuable trade routes to Tibet.1
Beginning in the early twelfth century, leading notables in Nepal began to appear with names ending in the term malla, ("wrestler" in Sanskrit), indicating a person of great strength and power. Arimalla (reigned 1200–16) was the first king to be so called, and the practice of adopting such a name was followed regularly by rulers in Nepal until the eighteenth century. (The names of the Malla kings were also represented as, for example, Ari Malla.) This long Malla period witnessed the continued importance of the Kathmandu Valley as a political, cultural, and economic center of Nepal. Other areas also began to emerge as significant centers in their own right, increasingly connected to the Kathmandu Valley.2
The time of the earlier Malla kings was not one of consolidation but was instead a period of upheaval in and around Nepal. In the twelfth century, Muslim Turks set up a powerful kingdom in India at Delhi, and in the thirteenth century they expanded their control over most of northern India. During this process, all of the regional kingdoms in India underwent a major reshuffling and considerable fighting before they eventually fell under Delhi's control. This process resulted in an increasing militarization of Nepal's neighbors and sections of Nepal as well. For example, in western Nepal, around Dullu in the Jumla Valley, an alternative seat of political and military power grew up around a separate dynasty of Mallas (who were not related to the Mallas of the Kathmandu Valley), who reigned until the fourteenth century. These Khasa kings expanded into parts of western Tibet and sent raiding expeditions into the Kathmandu Valley between 1275 and 1335. In 1312 the Khasa king, Ripumalla, visited Lumbini and had his own inscription carved on Ashoka's pillar. He then entered the Kathmandu Valley to worship publicly at Matsyendranath, Pashupatinath, and Swayambhunath. These acts were all public announcements of his overlordship in Nepal and signified the temporary breakdown of royal power within the valley.2
The first Malla rulers had to cope with several disasters. In 1255, one-third of the population of Kathmandu (30,000 people, including King Abhaya Malla) were killed when the valley suffered a direct hit with an epicentre right below the city.3 A devastating Muslim invasion by Sultan Shams-ud-din of Bengal in 1345-46,2 during the reign of Jayaraja Deva (r. 1347–1361), left plundered Hindu and Buddhist shrines in its wake. The invasion however did not leave a lasting cultural effect (unlike in the Kashmir Valley which remains Muslim to this day). In India the damage was more widespread and many Hindus were driven into the hills and mountains of Nepal, where they established small Rajput principalities.1 In fact, none of the existing buildings in the valley proper dates from before this raid. He is said to have destroyed the Lichchhavi palaces of Managriha and Kailashkuta. He also damaged all the temples in the Kathmandu valley except the Changu Narayan Temple, which he could not locate as it lies some hills away from Kathmandu. He returned after 3 days of looting and burning.
Apart from this, the earlier Malla years (1220–1482) were largely stable. During the reign of Jayabhimdev Malla in 1260, the eighty artisans were sent to Tibet. Among them was Araniko (1245–1306) who later rose to become a high-ranking official in the court of Kublai Khan in Yuan China.4 Araniko is the only person from this early Malla era whose biography is known to us in some detail, thanks to the Chinese historical records.
This period reached a high point under the third Malla dynasty of Jayasthiti Malla (r. 1382-1395), who united the valley and codified its laws, including the caste system.1 The early Malla period, a time of continuing trade and the reintroduction of Nepalese coinage, saw the steady growth of the small towns that became Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon. Royal pretenders in Patan and Bhadgaon struggled with their main rivals, the lords of Banepa in the east, relying on the populations of their towns as their power bases. The citizens of Bhadgaon viewed Devaladevi as the legitimate, independent queen. The betrothal in 1354 of her granddaughter to Jayasthitimalla, a man of obscure but apparently high birth, eventually led to the reunification of the land and a lessening of strife among the towns.2
By 1370 Jayasthitimalla controlled Patan, and in 1374 his forces defeated those in Banepa and Pharping. He then took full control of the country from 1382 until 1395, reigning in Bhadgaon as the husband of the queen and in Patan with full regal titles. His authority was not absolute because the lords of Banepa were able to pass themselves off as kings to ambassadors of the Chinese Ming emperor who traveled to Nepal during this time. Nevertheless, Jayasthitimalla united the entire valley and its environs under his sole rule, an accomplishment still remembered with pride by Nepalese, particularly Newars. The first comprehensive codification of law in Nepal, based on the dharma of ancient religious textbooks, is ascribed to Jayasthitimalla. This legendary compilation of traditions was seen as the source of legal reforms during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.2
After the death of Jayasthitimalla, his sons divided the kingdom and ruled collegially, until Jayajyotirmalla, the last surviving son, ruled on his own from 1408 to 1428. His son, Yakshamalla (reigned ca. 1428-82), represented the high point of the Mallas as rulers of a united Nepal. Under his rule, a military raid was launched against the plains to the south, a very rare event in Nepalese history. Yakshamalla built the Mul Chok in 1455, which remains the oldest palace section in Bhadgaon. The struggles among the landed aristocracy and leading town families (pradhan), especially acute in Patan, were controlled during his reign. Outlying areas such as Banepa and Pharping were semi-independent but acknowledged the leadership of the king. Newari appeared more often as the language of choice in official documents. The royal family began to accept Manesvari (also known as Taleju), a manifestation of Shiva's consort, as their personal deity.2
After the death of Jayasthiti Malla's grandson Yaksha Malla in 1482, the Kathmandu Valley was divided up among his sons into three kingdoms of Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), Kathmandu (Kantipur) and Patan (Lalitpur). The rest of what we today call Nepal consisted of a fragmented patchwork of almost 50 independent states, stretching from Palpa and Jumla in the west to the semi-independent states of Banepa and Pharping, most of them minting their own coins and maintaining standing armies. Most notable Malla kings of this later era were: Pratap Malla of Kantipur, Siddhi Narasimha Malla of Lalitpur, and Bhupatindra Malla of Bhaktapur.
After 1482, a crucial date in Nepalese history, the kingdom became divided. At first, the six sons of Yakshamalla attempted to reign collegially, in their grandfathers' pattern. Ratnamalla was the first to rebel against this system of joint rule, seizing Kathmandu in 1484 and ruling there alone until his death in 1520. Rayamalla, the eldest brother, ruled Bhadgaon with the other brothers until his death, when the crown there passed into the hands of his descendants. Banepa broke away under Ramamalla until its reincorporation into the Bhadgaon kingdom in 1649. Patan remained aloof, dominated by factions of its local nobility, until Sivasimhamalla, a descendant of Ratnamalla, conquered it in 1597 and united it with Kathmandu. On his death, however, Kathmandu and Patan were given to different grandsons and again separated. The center of Nepal thus remained split into three competing kingdoms, roughly based on Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. The influence of these petty kingdoms outside the valley varied over time. Bhadgaon extended its feeble power as far as the Dudh Kosi in the east, Kathmandu controlled areas to the north and as far west as Nuwakot, and Patan included territories to the south as far as Makwanpur. The relationships among the kingdoms within the valley became quite convoluted. Although all three ruling houses were related and periodically intermarried, their squabbles over minuscule territorial gains or ritual slights repeatedly led to warfare. The kings attended coronation rituals or marriages at each other's capitals and then plotted the downfalls of their relatives.5
The period of the three kingdoms—the time of the later Mallas—lasted until the mid-eighteenth century. The complete flowering of the unique culture of the Kathmandu Valley occurred during this period, and it was also during this time that the old palace complexes in the three main towns achieved much of their present-day forms. The kings still based their legitimate rule on their role as protectors of dharma, and often they were devout donors to religious shrines. Kings built many of the older temples in the valley, gems of late medieval art and architecture, during this late Malla period. Buddhism remained a vital force for much of the population, especially in its old seat of Patan. Religious endowments called guthi arranged for long-term support of traditional forms of worship or ritual by allowing temple or vihara lands to pass down through generations of the same families; this support resulted in the preservation of a conservative art, architecture, and religious literature that had disappeared in other areas of South Asia. Newari was in regular use as a literary language by the fourteenth century and was the main language in urban areas and trading circles based in the Kathmandu Valley. Maithili, the language of the Tirhut area to the south, became a popular court language during the seventeenth century and still was spoken by many people in the Terai in the late twentieth century. In the west, Khas bhasha, or the language of the Khasa, was slowly expanding, only later to evolve into present-day Nepali.5
The final centuries of Malla rule were a time of great political change outside the Kathmandu Valley. In India overlordship in Delhi fell to the powerful Mughal Dynasty (1526–1858). Although the Mughals never exercised direct lordship over Nepal, their empire had a major indirect impact on its institutional life. During the sixteenth century, when the Mughals were spreading their rule over almost all of South Asia, many dispossessed princes from the plains of northern India found shelter in the hills to the north.5
Legends indicated that many small principalities in western Nepal originated in migration and conquest by exiled warriors, who added to the slow spread of the Khasa language and culture in the west. Along with these exiles came Mughal military technology, including firearms and artillery, and administrative techniques based on land grants in return for military service. The influence of the Mughals is reflected in the weapons and dress of Malla rulers in contemporary paintings and in the adoption of Persian terminology for administrative offices and procedures throughout Nepal.5
Meanwhile, in Tibet domestic struggles during the 1720s led to decisive intervention by the powerful Qing rulers of China (1644–1911). A Chinese force installed the 6th Dalai Lama (the highest ranking Tibetan religious leaders) in Lhasa in 1728, and thereafter the Chinese stationed military governors (amban) in Lhasa to monitor local events. In 1729 representatives of the three Nepalese kingdoms sent greetings and presents to the Chinese emperor in Beijing, after which the Qing viewed Nepal as an outlying tributary kingdom (a perception not shared within Nepal). The expansion of big empires in both the north and south thus took place during a time when Nepal was experiencing considerable weakness in its traditional center. The three kingdoms lived a charmed life—isolated, independent, and quarreling in their mountain valley—as the systems around them became larger and more centralized.5
By the seventeenth century, the mountain areas to the north of the valley and the Kiranti region to the east were the only areas that maintained traditional tribal communal systems, influenced to various degrees by Hindu ideas and practices. In the west and the south of the three kingdoms, there were many petty states ruled by dynasties of warrior (Kshatriya) status, many claiming an origin among princely, or Rajput, dynasties to the south. In the near west, around the Narayani River system (the Narayani was one of the seven Gandak rivers), there was a loose confederation of principalities called the Chaubisi (the Twenty-four), including Makwanpur and Palpa. In the far west, around the Karnali River system, there was a separate confederation called the Baisi (the Twenty-two), headed by the raja of Jumla. The confederations were in constant conflict, and their member states were constantly quarreling with each other. The kingdoms of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon periodically allied themselves with princes among these confederations. All of these small, increasingly militarized states were operating individually at a higher level of centralized organization than ever before in the hills, but they were expending their resources in an almost anarchic struggle for survival. There was an awareness of the distinct culture of the Himalayan area but no real concept of Nepal as a nation.5
The first contacts between the people of Nepal and Europeans also occurred during the period of the later Mallas. The Portuguese missionaries João Cabral and Estêvão Cacella visited Lhasa in 1628, after which Cabral traveled to Nepal. The first Capuchin mission was founded in Kathmandu in 1715. These contacts, however, affected only a minuscule number of people. Of far greater importance was the growth of British power in India, notably in Bengal to the southeast of Nepal, during the eighteenth century. By 1764 the British East India Company, officially a private trading corporation with its own army, had obtained from a decaying Mughal Empire the right to govern all of Bengal, at that time one of the most prosperous areas in Asia. The company explored possibilities for expanding its trade or authority into Nepal, Bhutan, and toward Tibet, where the Nepalese had their own trading agencies in important settlements. The increasingly powerful company was emerging as a wild card that could in theory be played by one or more of the kingdoms in Nepal during local struggles, potentially opening the entire Himalayan region to British penetration.5
The Malla dynasty ruled the Kathmandu Valley until Prithvi Narayan Shah of the Gorkha Kingdom invaded it in 1768-69 CE with the Battle of Kirtipur. The last Malla kings were Jaya Prakash Malla of Kantipur, Tej Narsingh Malla of Lalitpur and Ranajit Malla of Bhaktapur.
The rivalry between the three kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley found its expression not only in warfare but also in the arts and culture, which flourished in the competitive climate, quite similar to that of Renaissance Italy. The outstanding collections of exquisite temples and building in each city's Durbar Square are testament to the huge amounts of money spent by rulers desperate to outdo each other.1
The building boom was financed by trade, in everything from musk and wool to salt, Chinese silk and even yak tails. The Kathmandu Valley stood at the departure point for two separate routes into Tibet, via Banepa to the northeast and via Rasuwa and the Kyirong Valley near Langtang to the north-west. Traders would cross the jungle infested Terai during winter to avoid the virulent malaria and then wait in Kathmandu for the mountain passes to open later that summer. Kathmandu grew rich and its rulers converted their wealth into gilded pagodas and ornately carved royal palaces. In the mid-17th century Nepal gained the right to mint Tibet's coins using Tibetan silver, further enriching the kingdom's coffers.1
In Kathmandu King Pratap Malla (r. 1641-74) oversaw that city's cultural high point with the construction of the Hanuman Dhoka palace, the Rani Pokhari pond and the first of several subsequent pillars that featured a statue of the king facing the protective temples of Taleju, who the Mallas had by that time adopted as their protective deity. The mid-17th century also saw a high point of building in Patan.6
The Malla era shaped the religious as well as artistic landscape, introducing the dramatic chariot festivals of Indra Jatra and Matsyendranath. The Malla kings shored up their position by claiming to be reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu and establishing the cult of the Kumari, a living goddess whose role it was to bless the Malla's rule during an annual celebration.7
The cosmopolitan Mallas also absorbed foreign influences. The Indian Mugal court influenced Malla dress and painting, presented the Nepalese with firearms and introduced a system of land grants for military services, a system which would have a profound effect in later years. In the early 18th century, during the reign of Pratap Malla, Capuchin missionaries passed through Nepal to Tibet, and when they returned home gave the West its first description of exotic Kathmandu.7
Temple of Nyatapola (Bhaktapur).
- Bindloss et al. p34.
- Savada. History, The Malla Kings.
- Savada. History, Three Kingdoms.
- Bindloss et al. Nepal. p34-35.
- Bindloss et al. Nepal. p35.
- Bindloss, Joe; Holden, Trent; Mayhew, Bradley. (2009). Nepal. Lonely Planet.
- Savada, Andrea M., ed. (1991). Nepal: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress.
- Newar, Naresh. (2004). 70 years after. Nepali Times. Issue #178 (09 Jan 2004 - 15 Jan 2004) . Retrieved: 10 Dec, 2011.
- Petech, Luciano. (1984). Mediaeval History of Nepal (ca. 750-1480). 2nd ed. Serie orientale, toma 54. Rome: Institutio Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.
- Regmi, D.R. (1965–66). Medieval Nepal. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.
- Shaha, Rishikesh. (1992). Ancient and Medieval Nepal. New Delhi: Manohar. ISBN 81-7304-402-3
- Jing, Anning. (1994). The Portraits of Khubilai Khan and Chabi by Anige (1245-1306), a Nepali Artist at the Yuan Court. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 54, No. 1/2 (1994), pp. 40–86.
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