History may or may not be written by the victors but it certainly is written about the victors. They are glorified as heroes while the tales of the defeated are left unwritten. The winners are the ones who will be making an impact, the losers are the ones who have lost and have, hence, become inconsequential.
Some 250 years ago, King Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the Malla kings of the Kathmandu Valley. Because of this, history remembers him and his descendants. But what about the Mallas? They seemingly vanish after their defeat. What happened to the fallen monarchs? Where did they go? Did their lineage survive?
The answers to these questions are complex and multi-layered. There aren’t as many documents on this matter as there are with matters relating to the Shah kings and since the conquest, or fall, depending on your stance, of Kathmandu happened more than two centuries ago, many details have been forgotten and different narratives have emerged. So, tracing the genealogy of the Malla royal family after their ousting from the palaces is an ambitious task that is easier said than done.
Nevertheless, Bhaktapur is a good place to start. It is said that after militarily conquering Kathmandu, Prithvi Narayan Shah began a campaign to crush any and all opposition.
He killed and exiled many members of previously ruling families, including the Mallas. Those who were not killed or exiled were ostracised and discriminated against. This led many Mallas to make every possible effort to distance themselves from their family. They abandoned their customs, married to different caste groups and/or changed their surnames.
In Bhaktapur though, because of his special relationship with former king Ranjit Malla, Shah wasn’t as brutal in his oppression of the Mallas as he was in Kathmandu and Lalitpur. He allowed them to observe their rituals, including attending to their tutelary goddess Taleju Bhawani as symbolic kings. And this is where we find the modern-day scions of the erstwhile monarchs. These days, many of them go by the surnames Pradhananga or Rajlawat but Taleju is their patron deity and they are still recognised as the traditional rulers of the city.
That is why they are the only ones allowed in the core sanctum of the temple. The rice feeding ceremony of their sons also takes place on the temple premises.
Every childbirth is marked as the birth of a new prince or princess and followed by special tantric pujas at Taleju. The temple also maintains a genealogical record of all the families and the Dashain rituals do not move ahead without members of the designated families being present.
So, it appears that the Mallas did not vanish. They simply hid to avoid persecution. Unfortunately, in Patan and Kantipur, they were a little too good at hiding.
There are no records of them at the Taleju Bhawani temples there. They have not continued their traditions, at least publicly, as in Bhaktapur nor do they occupy any ceremonial roles. Perhaps this is because King Prithvi Narayan Shah was supposedly ruthless to the ruling classes in these cities.
The present-day status of the Mallas isn’t a topic of pressing concern. As mentioned above, their ancestors lost their thrones and as a result, became inconsequential to the country. The spotlight shifted to the Shahs and people gradually forgot about their kings who failed to protect them from invasion. But we shouldn’t disremember the Mallas altogether.
After all, they gave much to Nepal’s culture, art, architecture and trade. By this logic, we also should not forget the Shahs. History can and should focus on the victors but that doesn’t mean it should exclude the defeated.