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© AP Photo, Ujir Magar

In late May, two Hindu tantric priests from Gwalior, India, checked into the Yak & Yeti, Kathmandu’s leading hotel. Their expenses were covered by the mother of Deviyani Rana, the woman set on marrying Nepal’s crown prince, Dipendra Shah. Astrologers had already decreed that the stars were not favorable for their union, and the king and queen themselves opposed it. Deviyani, however, was adamant. “If this doesn’t work out,” she once said to a cousin, “I’ll be the laughing stock of Nepal.” Hindu tantric practitioners often claim the ability to alter destiny, and Deviyani’s parents had ample resources to recruit the best. The chosen rite was that of Bagalamukhi, a fearsome weapon-wielding goddess of Hindu tantrism. Deviyani’s mother had commissioned a painting of the goddess in the weeks before, sending it back repeatedly to add more implements and arms. One of her several hands wielded a club. Another clutched an enemy’s severed tongue between a pair of iron pincers.

By accounts of those close to the court, the king and queen got wind of these dark rites and recruited rival sorcerers. Many Nepalis now believe, in fact, that the Crown Prince was caught in the crossfire of tantric warfare. When he entered the palace billiard room on the evening of June 1, he carried more weapons than he had hands; guns were slung over his shoulders or strung from his sides. Without uttering a word, he proceeded to gun down his entire family, the obstacles to his union with Deviyani. The Queen Mother was sitting in a separate parlor but didn’t budge. “There he goes killing cats again,” she said to her companion, referring to the Crown Prince’s nocturnal penchant for shooting crows, bats, and other small mammals that frequented the palace compound.

Fourteen members of Nepal’s royal family died in the massacre, including King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, and the Crown Prince himself, from bullet wounds said to be self-inflicted. The tragedy could not have come at a worse time for Nepal. The kingdom’s foundering parliament was riddled with corruption scandals, and a Maoist insurgency born six years earlier in the impoverished hill regions was rapidly gaining ground. Rebels secured arms by attacking remote police posts, the death toll from their predations climbing to more than eighteen hundred since the insurgency began. Bolder forays in July led to an armed confrontation between Maoists and the Royal Nepal Army, poising the country on the edge of civil war.

A new prime minister, elected into office in August, initiated a cease-fire with the Maoists on the first day of his appointment and began a series of “peace talks.” The negotiations reached an almost immediate impasse; the Maoists were demanding a new constitution and the establishment of a republic in place of the current constitutional monarchy. In deference to Maoist sensibilities, however, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba proposed a land redistribution act that set a limit on the ownership of land. The presumptuous move was later retracted since it crippled the economy and panicked Nepali banks, whose loans are primarily secured by land. The proposal also led to a surge in divorce petitions when couples sought to secure their current holdings by dividing property.

Although the Maoists talk about their “dharma,” their “People’s War” has transmuted into a Taliban-like crusade against common sense. Maoist leaders have sought to ban the production and sale of alcohol, beer, and tobacco, which, after tourism, provide the government with its largest sources of revenue. These funds are desperately needed for developing the remote areas of the kingdom where revolutionary sentiments first emerged. In addition to depriving the government of needed taxes, the Maoists’ ideological war against “vice” has been oddly advanced by an escalating campaign of terror and intimidation. Distilleries have been blown up, and in mid-September an armed Maoist-aligned student union forced the closure of all schools in the Kathmandu Valley and lobbed Molotov cocktails into two empty school buses parked outside Nepal’s most extensive library.

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