History of Nepal Sambat

The Origins

Nepal sambat was founded on October 20, 879 A.D. during th reign of Thakuri King Raghavadeva (ca. A.D. 879-942). According to a mid-fourteenth-century Sanskrit chronicle an epoch-era was dedicated to Lord Pasupati (Pasupatibhattarake samvatsara pravartkritah) during his reign. This has led some historians to surmise that “the foundation of the era was due to some religious event connected with the national shrine of Pasupati Natha. (Petech).

Early palm-leaf manuscripts dated in Nepal Samvat (NS 28 and NS 40, i.e., A.D. 908 and A.D. 920) are extant in Nepalese collections. The earliest medieval inscriptions are dated in Nepal Samvat. However, at that time it was simply known as Samvat. The name, Nepal vatsara was used for the first time in NS 148 (A.D. 1028). Early medieval, medieval, and late medieval epigraphy and documents are dated and computed according to this lunar calendar.

The later vernacular chronicles compiled in the nineteenth (19th) century narrate a commonplace tale about the founding of this epoch era. According to one of these chronicles edited by Daniel Wright (1877):

When Ananda Malla reigned in Bhaktapur, and his elder brother in Patan and Kantipur, a certain astrologer of Bhaktapur found out an auspicious moment, at which he said that sand, taken from a certain place, would turn into gold. The King Ananda Malla having ascertained the exact time, sent a number of coolies (workers), to take up sand at that particular moment, from the place called Lakhu Tirtha, at the junction of Bhatikhu and Vishnumati, and to convey it to the Raja’s palace (King's place). The coolies did as they were directed, but, as they were going back with their loads, a sudra merchant of Kantipur, named Sakhwal, prevailed on them to take their loads of sand to his house and then the coolies(workers) filled up their baskets again with sand from the same place as before, and took it to Bhaktapur. Their second loads, however, not being taken up at the auspicious moment, did not turn into gold, and the Raja(King), being enraged at the imposition practised on him, burned the book. On the other hand, Sankhadhar Sakhwa, having obtained so much wealth, with the permission of Jaya-deva Malla, paid off all the debts existing at that time in the country, and thus introduced a new era into Nepal, called Nepal Samvat. He then placed a stone image of himself at the southern door of Pasupatinath.

The veracity of this tale is difficult to test. For one thing, the chronicler has got the names of the ruling kings wrong. The kings belonged, not to the Malla dynasty, but to the pre-Malla dynasty of Thakuri Kings. The event belongs to a period of Nepalese history generally called “The Dark Period” because of the absence of reliable source materials such as coins, inscriptions, and other contemporary documents. This has made the search for the origins of Nepal Sambat not too easy.

Although we know the exact date of the founding of Nepal Samvat, we do not know why it was founded. The only traditional explanation is the one offered by the later chronicles. The French Orientalist Sylvain Levi (1863-1935 A.D), an influential authority on ancient Nepalese history and culture, speculated that the era was founded by deducting 800 years in the Saka Era because the Nepalese thought 8 to be an inauspicious number. It is worth remembering that some three hundred years earlier, an epoch era was used, just two years earlier than the beginning of Saka Era 500-in a.d. 576. Although a later manuscript calls it Manadeva Samvat and Tibetans all it Amsuvarma Era, the origins of this epoch era, too, are shrouded in equally impenetrable darkness.

Levi also suggested that the Nepal era was founded to celebrate Nepal’s deliverance from the Tibetan yoke following the breakdown of the Tibetan power after the murder of King gLang-der-ma in A. D. 842. Both these theories are rejected by Nepali historians. The actual gap between Saka Era and Nepal Era is 801.7 years, not 800 years, just as the actual gap between Saka Era and the so-called Manadeva Era is 498 years and not 500 years. In one case, a new epoch era was founded 2 years after the close of the 8th century of Saka Era.

Nepal Samvat, Sakhwal Samvat, and Sankhadhararkrta Samvat are all later names for this epoch era. The local tradition that it was founded on the occasion of the “cancellation of everyone’s debt’s” is of uncertain antiquity. Recently, an American Tibetologist has informed that there is late medieval Tibetan manuscript which dates the era “according to the year of the cancellation of debts”. The colophon can provide us with a substantial piece of evidence in support of the local traditions.

The story narrated in the later chronicles—at least in the form as it exists—may not be of great age. The chronicler wrongly places the event in the Malla period, particularly when the rivalries among the three kingdoms were somewhat rife. It even smells of malice towards the people of Bhaktapur. On the other hand, although the chronology is wrong—as it generally is with the vernacular chronicles—the tradition as such may be right. There are two interesting clues in the tradition which are worth analyzing: the name of the merchant who cleared all the outstanding debts and the connection of the epoch era with the shrine of Pasupatinatha.

While the mid-fourteenth-century Sanskrit chronicle positively calls the era Pasupatibhattarake samavatsara pravrtakritah, the later chronicles merely mention the act that the founder had his statue erected at the southern door of the shrine. Pasupatinatha being the national shrine since the dawn of Nepal’s recorded history, the consecration of the era in its name is not impossible. That it certainly had something to do with this shrine is indicated by the later chronicles as well: Sakhwal had a stone image of himself installed at the south gate of the shrine after founding the era.

The legendary founder’s name has two forms—Sankhadhar (Sanskrit) and Sakhwal (Prakrit). The later chronicles call him a sudra merchant. The colloquial name is an interesting linguistic clue. Most Newar traders with Tibetan outposts used to have stkha kotha, a credit or transaction room. In Bhaktapur, in a locality known as Kwa (tha) chem, there still is a room called sakha kotha, reportedly a room where the kings used to have transaction as in cash or credit with merchants. In Prakrit (Hindi), the word sakha means trade, transaction as well as credit. Thus, the name Sahwal probably meant a merchant or creditor.

Nepal Samvat

Some refer to Nepal Samvat as ‘Newar Samvat.’ The Prakrit word Newara – Nevala is only a colloquial variant of the Sanktritized classical word Nepal. Whereas the word Nepal goes back at least to the 4th century A.D., the earliest attested incidence of the word New@ra is in A.D. 1652. Nepal Samvat was founded 321 years earlier than the Mallas arrived in the history of the Nepal valley. It has, therefore, little to do with the Mallas, and the Mallas have less to do with the Newars. There is no documentary evidence to show that the Mallas had ever described themselves as “Newars”. The Malla Kings used Nepal Samvat just a s their predecessors, the Thakuri Kings, did. The Mallas were finally “lost” among the Newars just as their predecessors the Thakuri Varmans, the Licchavis, the Abhira Guptas, the Kiratas, the ancient clans of Sakyas, Kolis, and Vrjjis were all absorbed into the matrix of Newar social structure. The much-maligned people known today as the Newars are the offspring of at least two millennia of miscegenation between the aboriginal Tibeto-Burmans and the Indo-Aryan immigrants-inheriting the language from the Tibeto-Burmans and the social and cultural systems from the Indo- Aryan ancestors.

The Newars have preserved numerous features of ancient Nepalese religion, culture and social organization. Needless to say, both on formal and informal occasions, for ritual and non-ritual purposes, the Newars alone have continued to use Nepal Sa¶at for well over a millennium. By now enough documentary evidence has accumulated to prove that Nepal Samvat was in use, not only inside the Nepal Valley but also outside of it, including Tibet. Nepal Samvat may be called Newar Samvat only if we are also willing to call the entire high culture that evolved in the Nepal Valley in the last two thousand years s “Newar Culture” rather than the culture of Nepal. If we were to boycott all this as Newar Culture, how much of Nepalese culture will really remain, other than, of course, the Rana palaces and their French windows?

Official Boycott and Recent Revival of Interest

The official boycott of Nepal Samvat, and the adoption of the Vikrama Era, began in A.D. 1903, during the faterul reign of Candra Sumser Rana (1901-1929). It is relevant to note here that eh origins of the Vikrama Era are obscure. It has very little to do with Nepal to install it as the national era. Even India, the place of its origin, has rejected it in favour of Saka Era, by installing the later as its national era. However, in Nepal, Ranas adopted Vikrama Era merely to flatter their family pride and prove their “Rajput” or Solar origins.

The legendary founder of the Vikrama Era (57 B.C.) was Vikramaditya who drove the foreign Sakas out of Ujjayini, the capital of the Kingdom of Avanti. This is the legend. As far as history is concerned, the King who took the title of Vikramaditya (the Heroic sun) and drove th Sakas from Ujjayini was Candra Gupta II (ca. A.D. 376-4315), who lived some four hundred years later than the founding of the Vikrama Era ! In the earliest inscriptions using this era, all from Western India, it is not called Vikrama Samvat; it is simply called malva k{ta samvat, i.e., handed down by the M@lva tribe-a tribe of uncertain origins in Central India.

Lately, there has been a renewal of interest in the more organized celebrations of New Year’s Day (Mha Puja) according to Nepal Samvat. Both within and outside of the Valley, more and more people are rallying around for the celebrations. Some observers find this an inscrutable development. Hostile critics call it a wave of fanaticism. But the reasons for the renewal of interest are not far to seek. Numerous elements of genuine local culture are increasingly threatened by a pallid version of pseudo-nationalistic culture propagated by the official media and the educational network. One has only to listen to the Radio Nepal-the round-clock relay centre of Indian film-songs and Western rock-to find out for oneself how “nationalistic” this culture is.

Some sections of Nepalese society have been at the forefront in these celebrations. This may not be merely accidental. They fare deeply concerned at the total overshadowing of their ancient culture, language and literature by the social and cultural values of the politically dominant ruling classes of Nepal. Nepal Samvat may have been a symbol, lately discovered by a beleaguered people, to rally around in defense of a culture and ethnicity increasingly submerged under the bulldozer of the official media.

Read about Mha Puja: The New Year’s Day


Levi, Sylvain. 1905-08. Le Nepal: Etude historique d’un royaume hindou. Vols 3. Paris.

Petech, Luciano. 1958. Medieval History of Nepal ca. 750-1480 A.D. Rome. Regmi. 1965. Medieval Nepal. Vol I. Calcutta.

Wright, Daniel. 1877. History of Nepal. Cambridge.

(This paper was first published in The Souvenir of the New Year Celebrations Committee, the Ganga Club, Kathmandu, NS 1102./ 1082, pp.1-4. Translated into Nepali, and published in Sam@ch@rpatra daily, VS 2053 Karttika 27.)