At one time, the world was dominated by god-kings. This ancient idea of divine kingship — that the king is either an incarnate god or the son of a god — was found throughout the world of antiquity, among peoples as separated and isolated as the Tibetans and the Maya.
Though once perhaps the dominant political ideology of the world, it has now essentially disappeared. In one well-known case, for example, the United States insisted that Emperor Hirohito reject his divine status as part of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Some might say that the Dalai Lama of Tibet is the last divine king. But, although he is considered to be the reincarnation of the Avalokiteshvara Buddha, and thus divine, he is no longer a king, since Tibet's sovereignty has been rejected by both the Republic of China and the current People's Republic of China. But until 2008, Nepal was ruled by god-kings, who were considered to be incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Kingship in Nepal was thus the one last manifestation of the Hindu “devaraja” (“god-king”) ideology that was once widespread throughout India and southeast Asia. The Muslim conquest of India, followed by that of the British, and the rise of democratic ideals in the 20th century fundamentally changed the basis of political power in Hindu majority countries.
As divine kings, the rulers of Nepal held both political and spiritual power — to the extent that those concepts could even be separated in the divine kingship. As such, their duties included securing the favor and blessings of the gods, which in large part was achieved by temple building and by participating in and supporting ritual worship.
Early Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, could thus be accurately described as a royal temple city whose main function was the establishment and maintenance of temples and temple rites. To show his respect for the gods, each king of Nepal was expected to build at least one temple as well as to maintain the numerous temples built by his ancestors. Some of the ancient temples still have copper plates that praise the gods and honor the royal builder.
Kathmandu thus became known as the “city of temples,” with more than 60 major ancient examples of them, not to mention innumerable small Hindu shrines and several large Buddhist stupas.
The temples generally surround the “durbar” or central plaza of the city. The Nepalese kings also built their palace nearby, allowing them to better fulfill their divine ritual duties at the temples. In this, they resemble the biblical Solomon, who built his palace adjacent to the Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 7:1-9), where he offered sacrifice and called upon the Lord to bless Israel (1 Kings 8). But as time progressed, the continual building of temples transformed much of the durbar into a warren of alleys. If one temple pleases the gods, the thinking went, many temples will certainly please them more.
Unfortunately, the Nepalese royal family frequently behaved in an all too human manner. In 2001, Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah, the heir to the throne, massacred his father and 10 other members of the royal family, including most of the line of succession. The senior survivor, the former king’s brother, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, was crowned shortly thereafter. But the Nepalese people, facing political anarchy, Maoist insurrection, and civil war, deposed him in 2008, creating a parliamentary government. Thus ended the last divine king.
In 2015, a tragic and devastating earthquake struck Nepal, near the capital Kathmandu, killing nearly 9,000 people and destroying many of the country’s marvelous temples. Since then, relief and reconstruction money has poured in, but it doesn't seem to have gotten through to the temples. Thus, many of Nepal’s great temples now lie in ruins. Some traditionalists blame this disaster on the country’s abandonment of the traditional order of divine kingship.
But divine incarnations have not ceased in Nepal. The Kumari, “Princess,” or Living Goddess, is widely believed to be a divine manifestation of the female divine power. This divine power becomes repeatedly incarnate in a pre-pubescent girl, leaving her when she reaches puberty to select another vessel while the former Kumari returns to ordinary life. Although she does not rule, the current Kumari, Trishna Shakya, appears each day on a balcony in her palace in the Kathmandu Durbar, manifesting divine power and blessing her worshippers.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.