Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal's Hindu Monarchy. By ANNE T. MOCKO. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. ix + 246.
When in June 2001 almost the complete royal Nepalese family was wiped out in a shooting spree, or when in 2005 the last Shah king assumed direct rule that triggered the People's Movement of 2006, it was apparent that these events would shake the foundations of Nepal's political system. It is one thing to realize that history was being made, but another to pin down the key changes, as Anne T. Mocko has done in her PhD thesis and the present monograph based on it.
Starting from the observation that in June 2008 King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah quietly abdicated and turned into a normal citizen, she sets out to trace the unmaking of this last Nepalese king in the preceding interim period (2006-2008). She asks how the monarchy could have ended so abruptly but still largely peacefully, and how and why elites who up till then found "it more convenient to rule through a Shah king than replace him" (p. 29) suddenly turned against it. Rather than through a conventional political analysis, these questions are answered from the perspective of ritual studies.
In her introduction (ch. 1) the author argues, building on pertinent theories about kingship and ritual practice, that a cornerstone in constructing the social office "king of Nepal" and its attendant ideologies was the performance of exclusive roles in rituals. In her investigation of how the monarch was dismantled by "systematically acting against the office of kingship, rather than the person of the king"--by blocking his access to "objects, locations, events, duties, privileges, and relationships through which the monarchy had been constructed and supported" (p. 2)--two sets of rituals are focused on. Initially, the "succession rituals" that transferred the office to its last holder in 2001 are dealt with, contending that these failed in many respects and "left Gyanendra's kingship incompletely established" (p. 61). In the calendric "reinforcement rituals," which reconfirmed the king's royal identity on a regular basis, roles previously reserved for the king were shifted to the head of the democratic state from 2007 on. Construing Nepalese royal ritual as elitist practice, "performed not for 'the people' but for the king" (p. 11), the author limits herself to asking how ritual performance is productive of political ideologies, leaving the question of their reception aside. She follows the main actors involved in recasting the rituals. On the basis of personal interviews, observations...