Much during the Malla era, Nepal was a prosperous country. Nepal used to mint and supply silver coins to Tibet which used them as running currency. Problems started when the Malla Kings started to mint the impure silver coins during their last days, making Tibetans angry. To repair the damage, King Prithvi Narayan Shah, after the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley, promised to mint pure silver coins. Yogi Narahari Nath has written extensively about it in Itihas Prakashma Sandhipatra Sangraha. According to him, Tibetans refused this offer in more value until Prithivi Narayan Shah accepted the Tibetan demands for the same value of Malla’s impure coins. The case remained unsettled due to the untimely demise of King Prithivi Narayan Shah. But the coin conflict reached the culminating point in 1788—which eventually led to war. There were other reasons too. Nepal government had given asylum to Syamarpa Lama with his 14 followers of Tibet, according to Nath. He had fled from Tibet to Nepal on religious and political pleas. The low-quality salt provided by the Tibetans to Nepal turned Nepal hostile.
All these became the cause of Nepal-China confrontations that continued until at least 1856.
Nepal issued an ultimatum to Tibet for addressing these problems, which Tibet took no heed of and instead started preparation for war. Nepal then decided to launch multi-directional attacks from Kerung and Kuti.
Battle for dominance
Nepali troops captured Chhochyang in the first week of June, Kuti on June 20, 1788 and Sikarjongon August 3, 1788. The Nepali troops faced lack of logistic support but Prince Bahadur Shah, who was a regent, provided reinforcement and logistic support. When the Nepalis were about to capture Digarcha from the Kuti and Kerung axis, the Dalai Lama started asking for peace. So, negotiations started from both sides, and they arrived at a point of solution. The Tibetan Prisoners of War (POW) were handed over to Tibet by the Nepali Army. Tibet was ready to pay tributes of Rs 50,000 in silver coins per annum to Nepal and a treaty was signed on June 2,1789, in Kerung, which is why it is also called the Treaty of Kerung.
This cessation of hostility, however, proved to be short-lived.
Tibetans were compelled to sign the Kerung Treaty due to their own difficulties—mainly due to failure of Dalai Lama to get military support from China. Soon, Tibetans refused to pay tributes. The Kerung treaty did not remain effective for more than a year. Situation deteriorated after autumn 1790, which finally resulted in the outbreak of hostilities in August 1791, leading eventually to a Second Nepal-Tibet war the following year. Nepal launched offensives from Kuti, Kerung, and Kharta (now in Sankhuwasabha district). All commanders succeeded in completing their missions. Digarcha was badly destroyed, and Lamas retreated to Lhasa. Glory came to Nepal. Bahadur Shah was praised as ‘worthy son of a worthy father.’
Again, this glory proved to be short-lived. After Nepali troops defeated Tibetans and occupied main parts of Tibet and demanded 50 dharni (120 kg) gold and 100 thousand rupees with Tibetan authority of Digarcha, writes Yogi Narahari Nath in Itihas Prakashma Sandhipatra Sangraha, the Lamas refused to pay and the Nepali troops plundered monasteries including Digarcha monastery and collected many valuable items such as gold and silver. Then some of the Nepali troops returned to Nepal with those plundered property. Major portions of troops stayed back in Tibet.
It was then that Tibet turned to China to keep Nepali invaders at bay. Digarcha monastery, built by the Chinese Emperor, sought military help from China. Nepal was caught off guard when on March 8, 1792, Chinese troops reached Lhasa to fight against Nepal.
In Kathmandu, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Kunwar Rana was looking for an opportune moment to take revenge against Tibet. He did so in 1855.
Now a huge number of Chinese and Tibetan troops were jointly marching for the exfiltration of Nepali troops from Tibet. Some 14000 troops—11000 Chinese troops and 3,000 Tibetan—marched toward Nepal. They had 3000 troops in reserve. But Nepal received information that the invading joint force was 60,000 to 70,000 (which was not the case) and Nepali side planned multidirectional counter attacks via the Kerung, Kuti and Kharta axis. The Chinese Commander decided to launch a multidirectional attack from two main axes—Kuti and Kerung. At the end, Chinese and Tibetan pushed Nepali troops back up to Betrawati River of Rasuwa.
Then the Chinese army commander approached for a treaty and Nepal accepted the proposal with many provisions including sending the Quinquennial Diplomatic Mission to China. The treaty signed in Betrawati on October 2, 1792 finally ended the war.
Treaty of Betrawoti was a big humiliation for Nepal. Soon after Tibet started to misbehave with Nepalis in Tibet. The Nepal-Tibet border dispute was still in existence and the Tibetans were harassing the Nepali traders in Lhasa. Nepali diplomatic delegation was driven out from Lhasa without good reason.
In Kathmandu, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Kunwar Rana was waiting for the right time to launch an offensive against Tibet. Jung Bahadur thought this was an opportune moment. He thought that neither Britain nor China would interfere, for they were involved in problems of their own—China with the Taiping uprising and Britain with Russia at the Crimean war. Besides, Tibet had given good reasons for Nepal to go on offensive. Members of Quinquennial Diplomatic Mission either fell ill or died due to maltreatment and obstruction by the Tibetans on the return journey.
Jang Bahadur wrote a letter to the Chinese Amban in Lhasa asking why security was not provided to the members of the diplomatic mission. By now, there were many reasons for Nepal to teach Tibet a lesson: Nepali merchants and traders in Tibet had often been wrongly treated, there were instances in which the Nepali merchants were assaulted, and the Tibetans boycotted their shops. According to Itihas Prakashma Sandhipatra Sangraha, several Nepali merchants had been killed between 1852 and 1854.
There were boundary disputes in Kerung, Kuti, Athara Saya Khola and other areas. Nepali subjects of Athara Saya khola had set up a cowshed at the Nepal-Tibet border area, paying rent to the Tibetan officials. It was reported that in December 1854, some 25 Tibetans made an attack on Nepali cowherds in which one was killed, four wounded, and four were forcibly taken over to Tibetan territory. The Tibetans also plundered the property of these cowherds.
So in 1855 Nepal went to war with Tibet again. Nepali troops marched from the Kerung and Kuti axis. The first Division under the command of General Bam Bahadur Kunwar Rana marched via the Kerung axis. Similarly, General Dhir Shumsher Kunwar Rana was leading the troops via the Kuti axis. He conducted battles in Chusan in April 1855. Kuti was already captured. The Tibetan lost battles everywhere. There was no hope of Chinese support this time. Tibet proposed a treaty in order to end the war.
Peace at last
A Tibetan diplomatic mission, led by a Chinese leader, arrived in Kathmandu on August13, 1855. They had brought many gifts too and the discussion took place but with no final solution being made, they returned to Tibet without any agreement. Kaji Til Bikram Thapa and his team left Nepal along with that Tibetan mission. At that time, the Nepali troops were being deployed in many parts of Tibet.
The next meeting took place in Sikarjong, Tibet and the Nepalis asked for 90,000 rupees silver coins as war compensation. Again, the Tibetans refused to pay the money. Instead they were secretly reorganizing many troops to counterattack against the Nepali troops. Consequently, the Tibetans launched a big counterattack with 1500 troops against Nepalis in Kuti on November1, 1855.
Jung Bahadur got the message in Kathmandu, and he immediately sent reinforcements of troops to Jhunga and Kuti. He himself left for Tibet to lead the troops. This time, General Dhir Shumsher was again leading at the battle of Kuti fort, and he launched multi-directional attacks against the Tibetan army. The Tibetans lost the battle. They attempted to stop the Nepali offensive by proposing a treaty again. The Tibetans team arrived in Kathmandu in January 1856. Finally, the Treaty of Thapathali was signed between Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana and Kalon Shatra of Tibet. The ten-point peace agreement signed at Thapathali, writes Bala Chandra Sharma in Nepalko Itihasko Ruprekha, on March 24, 1856 ended the war.
All these confrontations with Tibet, an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times, and indirect confrontations with China, would later come to define Nepal-China relations.
History is built on several foundations.
Laxmi Basnyat, an MPhil scholar at Tribhuvan University, is researching Nepal-China Military Relations.