Social Science Baha

Understanding the Success of the Gorkha Expansion in the 18th Century: Going Beyond Prithvi Narayan Shah

Binayak Sundas

The political history of the Himalayan region has demonstrated that states in the region were more prone to political fragmentation rather than consolidation and expansion. The various historians of the region have cited several reasons for this, the terrain, lack of resources, succession disputes which when combined with the terrain complicated the matter etc. Thus in the early 18th century the entire Himalayan region was littered with several small states. The state of Gorkha was one of these several small states, struggling against one another. In the latter half of the 18th century it began a process of expansion which culminated in the creation of an empire which was in size and in the multitude of people that it ruled over, unprecedented in the region.

The traditional historiography of the region has primarily focused on the narrative of the expansion and has attributed the success of the expansion to Prithvinarayan Shah (r.1743-1775) the ruler of Gorkha in the 18th century, and the martial qualities of the Gorkhas. Yet what stands out as glaring lacunae in the study of the expansion is an analysis of the structures of administration, innovation in the military strategies, changes in weapons, reorganization of the army etc. that may have facilitated the state of Gorkha to overcome various obstacles, that was mentioned above, and create an empire. Further 18th century in the sub-continent was characterized by the rise of several regional states such as Mysore under Haider Ali (r.1761-1782) and Tipu Sultan (r.1782-1799), the Sikh state of Punjab under Ranjit Singh (r.1801-1839), Marathas under the various Peshwas etc. The rise of these regional states was characterized by the downfall of the Mughal empire, use of military fiscalism, adoption of European weapons and military formations and employment of Europeans to train their armies. The historians of Nepal have generally treated the rise of the Gorkha empire as an independent phenomenon without attempting to view it from the perspective of the wider developments taking place in the region during the same period.

This paper, in an attempt to fill the lacunae, will look into the various changes that the state of Gorkha adopted in the fields of administration, organization of the army, weapons, strategies etc. to explain the cause for the success their expansion. Further the paper will look at, whether or not, the rise of the Gorkha empire can be explained as a part of the wider process taking place in the 18th century India which saw the saw the rise of several regional states. The larger question that the paper seeks to answer is whether an individual such as Prithvinarayan Shah is a result of the socio political process taking place around him or is he independent of it.