Kirati King Yalambar illustration

Kirati King Yalambar illustration V. Hunjan, Believe Collective 2010
(with thanks to Biplove Bhattachan & Rebecca Van Ommen for background elements)

Long before the modern nation of Nepal came into being (see 1768 The Fall of Kathmandu in the Timeline), the mountain kingdom of Nepal occupied the region now known as the Kathmandu Valley. Between 800 BCE (Before the Common Era or BC) and 300 CE (Common Era or AD) it was the home of the Kiratis, the first recorded rulers of Nepal, who are thought to have migrated to Nepal from the East. They are the forebears of Nepal's Limbu, Rai, Sunuwar, Yakkha and other 'pahadi jaataru' (mountain tribes) – tribes whose destinies would later come to be interwined with Britain and the Gurkhas.

Very little is known about the early Kiratis and their way of life, as successive Nepali dynasties have eradicated most of the records and artefacts from this distant era of Nepal’s history. What is known is that the Kiratis were fearsome warriors who armed themselves with long knives; they were skilled hunters and able farmers. What is less appreciated is that they developed a civilised society with a sophisticated culture. The Kirati people were then, as many Kirati jaats still are today, animists: worshippers of nature and ancestors’ spirits - believers in shamanism and magic.

The Kiratis are mentioned in several ancient Hindu epics, including in the verses of the Mahabharata, one of ancient India’s most sacred texts. The Mahabharata relates how Yalambar, the first and most famous Kirati king of Nepal, went to witness the Battle of Kurukshetra, in which two mighty armies of gods and mortals fought against one another. It is said that Yalambar intended to support the losing side. The Mahabharata’s verses tell of how Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the Supreme Hindu God Vishnu, killed Yalambar by cutting off his head as he feared that if the Kirati army joined the opposing Kauravas, the already extended and bloody battle would be prolonged even further.

Despite Yalambar’s untimely death, the Kiratis remained rulers of Nepal for over a thousand years. During the reign of the 7th Kirati king, King Jitedasti, Gautam Buddha (see Buddha from Nepal on the Timeline) came to the Valley to preach and to visit a number of temples and holy sites. The Kiratis did not embrace Buddhism but they made the Buddha welcome and to this day Buddhism continues to flourish in Nepal.

The Kirati Dynasty came to an end around 300 CE when what began as a gradual migration of people from the south, from what is now India, became an invasion force that pushed the Kiratis out of the Kathmandu Valley and up into the harsh, mountainous regions of East Nepal. The incoming forces erased all but a few traces of the once mighty Kirati dynasty and to this day many Kiratis remain unaware of their rich and proud heritage.

1,500 years later the descendents of those early Kiratis, mainly Limbus, Rais and Sunuwars would be recruited by the British. They joined other Nepali mountain tribesmen, most notably the Magars and Gurungs of West Nepal, already serving in the (British) Indian Army. Together the men from these tribes came to form the core of the British Gurkhas. In recent years there has been a resurgence of Kirati culture and Kirati organisations have sprung up across the world.

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