A Surgeon’s Sketches from Nepal

<br>Bipin Adhikari

Nov. 11, 2012, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 06 No.-10 Nov. 09-2012 (Kartik 24, 2069)
Dr Henry Ambrose Oldfield’s book Sketches from Nipal was first published in 1880 by London based W. H. Allen & Co. Originally, it had two volumes. The main objective of the book is to introduce Nepal as it stood at the time of Maharaja Jung Bahadur in terms of land, history, society and religion.

The author has described the book as the anecdotes of the court life and wild sports of the country. He has included in the book some essays on Nepalese Buddhism. There are very impressive illustrations in the book of Nepal’s religious monuments, architecture and scenery from the author’s own drawings. Oldfield had a long opportunity to understand Nepal as a surgeon to the British Residency in Kathmandu from 1850-1863. He also became close to Jung Bahadur during his stay here. The British representative in Kathmandu at that time was J. C. Erskine and subsequently Colonel George Ramsay, a cousin of the West Bengal based Governor General, the Marquis of Dalhousie.

Dr Oldfield starts his book by introducing the country in terms of its area, geography, provinces, and the Nepal Valley and Kathmandu. There are separate treatments for Patan, Bhadgaon and Kirtipur. He has explained several routes into Nepal. His understanding of the military tribes of Nepal, the caste relations among Newar people, and the Catholic missions in Nepal at that time also find some space. There are descriptions on wild elephants, leopards, rhinoceros, dogs and buffaloes available in Nepal. Writing about the population of Nepal, he opines that no trustworthy census of its entire population has ever been taken, but it is believed to amount to about four millions. Of this population, he believed that at least one quarter of a million live within the narrow limits of the Valley of Nepal.

Oldfield makes his book very interesting to the readers by explaining Buddhism in Nepal in the background of Buddhism in India. There is an attempt to understand Buddhism in principle and then provide the blueprint of its current status in Nepal. He has described in detail the special objects of Buddhist worship, temples, vihars and monasteries, and religious festivals. There is fascinating and detailed account of many aspects of these objects. The Volume II of the book comprises of illustrations of the temple of Machhindranath, Charan of Sakya Singha Buddha, the Triratna or Buddhist Triad, the Thunder-bolt of Indra resting upon the Dharma-Dhatu model, and a Nagkanya (or Mermaid) seated upon a tortoise at Buddhanath, among other. No doubt, these illustrations explain the unique characteristics of Buddhism in Nepal.

A cursory reading of the book helps anybody to understand how powerful Maharaja Jung Bahadur was after his takeover in Kathmandu. It also explains the military clout of Nepal, and the power, maneuverability and respect that Nepal commanded at that time. It appears that Jung Bahadur was not only a powerful prime minister, but also a shrewd political analyst, who knew how to play fire with his enemies, and yet without burning his fingers. His role in the suppression of the Sepoy Rebellion in the northern India was well calculated effort in the national interest of Nepal. At one point Oldfield has categorically noted:

“In conversation with Jung Bahadur, he told me that he considered that the ‘Cartridge question’ was a mere pretext … ; that the real cause of Mutiny in the plains was a general feeling of distrust and dissatisfaction at the annexation of Nagpur and Oudh; that all our previous annexations, as Sindh, the Punjab, and Barmah, had been justifiable, having been warranted by some aggression against us on the part of these states. This was not the case of Nagpur and Oudh; they were in friendly alliance with us at the time of their annexation, and did not deserve their fate. Oudh in particular deserved well at our hands having rendered us assistance in former times when we were in want of money. Oudh was the home of a great part of the Sepoys of the Bengal Army, and they all sympathized with its king in his dethronement, and were disgusted at the annexation of their country. As long as Nagpur and Oudh remained independent, there were two native wealthy courts – one Hindu, the other Mohammadan – at which discontented or ambitious natives might always hope to find employment.”

Going further Oldfield writes: “[Jung Bahadur thought] there were no prizes left in the plains to which an ambitious native could aspire, as although the British government gave good pay and good positions to its soldiery, yet no Sepoy could ever hope to rise to anything above a Subhadar. This was the real ground of the discontent, and the native army hoped that after upsetting our rule and driving the British into the sea, they should be able to establish a native dynasty, under which they might hope for a much larger share of honour and of power than they ever could have obtained under the British rule.”

“He added, of course, they are fools for thinking so, as they will lose  much more than they will gain, and at present no nation state of any sagacity (mentioning Kashmir, Gwalior, Haidarabad) has joined the mutineers, as they have too much confidence in the power of the British; but if in the course of next month or six weeks Delhi is not retaken, Lucknow not relieved, and the mutineers thoroughly and severely punished, that confidence will be so shaken, that those states will probably take part against the British and the insurrection become general throughout India.”

This all explains how Jung Bahadur created safe haven for himself and his country by extending cooperation to the East India Company which had a devastating potential for Nepal.  During his lifetime, Jung not only eliminated the factional fighting at the seat of power in Kathmandu, introduced innovations into the bureaucracy and the judiciary, and made efforts to modernize Nepal, but also neutralized an imperial power next door. It is yet another story how his power resulted finally in the dictatorship that repressed the nation for more than 100 years and left it in a primitive economic condition. This is an issue that many other historians have explained so well after the book of British Residency surgeon Dr Henry Ambrose Oldfield was published posthumously.

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