KATHMANDU, Apr 16: For centuries, the Shah kings of Nepal have swung from being absolute monarchs to titular figureheads and back again, usually after horrific violence.
As present King Gyanendra, the 12th of the dynasty, battles pro-democracy protesters who want him to cede power to a representative government, many are wondering if he can remain on the throne at all.
''Gyanendra, thief, leave the country'' is the warcry of the tens of thousands campaigning against his rule, a slogan that would have been heretical just a few years ago when the Shahs were worshipped by the Himalayan nation as reincarnations of the Hindu Lord Vishnu.
''That kind of traditional respect is over,'' says Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the local weekly Samay. ''A kind of momentum is building up.'' To be fair to the king, the mystique surrounding the dynasty was torn apart by a 2001 palace massacre in which then Crown Prince Dipendra killed nine royals including his parents and then turned the gun on himself in a drink and drug fuelled rage.
''That incident sent a strong message that people we worship like gods are using drugs and killing their parents,'' says Ghimire.
''How are they different from any common criminals? That was a flashpoint.'' King Gyanendra was out of the city at that time, and succeeded his much-respected brother King Birendra, the last Shah to transition from being a ruler to a titular monarch.
Despite a somewhat unsavoury reputation as a hard-nosed businessman with interests in tobacco and gambling -- he owned part of what was the country's biggest hotel and casino at the time -- King Gyanendra's countrymen appeared ready to give him a chance to restore the prestige of the monarchy.
Instead, within four years, he sacked the government and assumed full power, saying it had failed to put down a raging Maoist rebellion. The move reversed his brother's decision to allow multiparty democracy and a constitutional monarchy in 1990 after a campaign in which up to 300 people were killed.
The resulting public anger against King Gyanendra was fuelled by nagging suspicions many harboured about why he was away from Kathmandu when Dipendra killed most of the royal family, and how his son, now Crown Prince Paras, survived the shooting.
''It was a missed opportunity,'' says Ghimire of King Gyanendra.
''He was a royal but he didn't expect to be king, so he was also a commoner. He could have given a new thrust to the monarchy.''
NOT A DEMOCRAT
The prime minister he sacked, Sher Bahadur Deuba, doesn't have much good to say about him. ''By nature, he is not a democrat,'' Deuba said of the king and his promises to hold elections by April next year. ''He says one thing and does something else. I tried very hard but his plan was not to be just a constitutional monarch.'' Deuba said he saw chaos, riots and violence continuing perhaps for years. At least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the current uprising, and hundreds of others have been arrested.
He said the only way to end King Gyanendra's rule would involve the support of the army, which currently gives him full backing.
''I don't want the army to be used as a political weapon against the king,'' Deuba said. ''But after all they are accountable to the people.'' Many say the army is tired of battling the Maoist rebels in an insurgency which has killed 13,000 people since 1996.
The Shahs came to power in Nepal in the mid-1700s, and ruled uninterruptedly until 1846, when a young nobleman engineered the killing of several hundred people in what came to be known as the Kot massacre and assumed power for the Rana dynasty.
But the Ranas ruled only as hereditary prime ministers, leaving the Shahs as kings in name.
King Gyanendra's grandfather King Tribhuvan overthrew the Ranas in the early 1950s, and, after a brief flirtation with democracy, the Shahs reigned until King Birendra bowed to demands for plurality.
Now, King Gyanendra relies on a government composed of retired army generals and other appointees to help him run the nation.
''He is strong-willed and he is a realist,'' said former army chief Satchit Shamsher Rana, a member of a privy council that advises the king.
''His brother was somewhat of an idealist. The present king is more practical.'' Rana laughed off the widespread belief that the king was aloof even by the standards of the secretive Shahs.
''He is very informal and very gregarious,'' the former general said. ''He wants to hold elections and go back to being a constitutional monarch.''