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Death of the Gods

updated 06/18/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/2001 01:00AM

As a student at Eton a decade ago, Prince Dipendra of Nepal was excused from attending chapel. Officials at the venerable British boarding school reportedly decided that since Dipendra, heir to the royal throne of Nepal, had been proclaimed a deity in his home country at the age of 18, going to church was probably unnecessary. But Dipendra, who went by the decidedly unregal nickname Dippy, took his exalted status in stride. "Yes, I am a god now," a schoolmate, Oliver Poole, recalled him saying. "But the main thing is always what you feel inside, not what people say about you."

Unfortunately for Dipendra, his legacy will forever be defined by the horrific events of June 1. At around 10 that night, according to military officials, the 29-year-old prince burst into a dining room at the royal palace in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, where the reigning family was having pizza, and opened fire with an assault rifle. In a matter of moments, he had slaughtered his father, King Birendra, 55, his mother, Queen Aiswarya, 51, and his two siblings, Princess Shruti, 24, and Prince Niranjan, 21. He also fatally wounded an uncle and killed two aunts and a cousin as well as several royal retainers before I shooting himself in the head. The motive for the bloody massacre was far from clear, but it apparently stemmed from a family quarrel over whom Dipendra should marry.

If so, it was one of the few times in his life that anything had been denied to Dipendra. The Nepalese people, after all, regarded him as a deity. (His father was believed to be the living incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.) Yet as a young man at Eton, Dipendra had earned a reputation somewhat less than divine. Some schoolmates found him a spirited and charming fellow. "He was very popular," fellow Etonian Edward Grylls told Britain's June 3 Sunday Times. "He was very good to people across the board—he wasn't an elitist." But others recall that he was once caught selling liquor to other students and that he kept a gun in his campus room. "Proudly shown to visitors," said Poole, now a journalist, "it was clear Dippy...knew how to use it." Indeed, some students came to regard Dipendra, a black belt in karate, as rather menacing. "He had a reputation as a bit of a bully," says journalist Tom Coghlan, who was at Eton at the same time. "[He used his karate] to practice on small and defenseless boys."

After Eton Dipendra returned to Nepal, where he enrolled in the Royal Military Academy. He got his helicopter pilot's license and enjoyed going on maneuvers with the Nepalese army. Perhaps his shining moment came in 1993, when the Princess of Wales paid an official visit to Nepal. Recently separated from Prince Charles, Diana arrived in Kathmandu just as embarrassing tapes of the princess purportedly in intimate conversation with longtime friend James Gilbey were being broadcast by an Australian TV station. To the amazement of everyone, Dipendra quickly managed to lift Diana's spirits with his infectious good cheer. "He was her escort and host for most of the official ceremonies," says Judy Wade, an Australian journalist who covered the tour. "He helped put her at ease."

In recent years Crown Prince Dipendra had spent much of his time gallivanting around Kathmandu in his Toyota Land Cruiser, nightclubbing and barhopping—frequently in the company of his cousin Prince Paras, 29, often portrayed as a black sheep of the family. Nicknamed the "Killer Prince," Paras has allegedly been implicated in at least one hit-and-run fatality, the recent death of a popular Nepalese folk singer, but was never charged because of his royal status. (Though the Nepalese royal family has since 1990 headed a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain's, it still enjoys immunity from prosecution.)

Yet friends say Dipendra took his responsibilities as a future king seriously and dreamed of improving his impoverished country. "He had many ideas for reforming the monarchy," says one royal relative. "He wanted to reach out to people and come out of the whole Vishnu thing."

Along the way he had also fallen in love with Devyani Rana, 29, the strikingly beautiful daughter of Nepal's former foreign minister, who is also connected to one of India's most illustrious families. Well-educated and widely traveled, Devyani seemed perfect for Dipendra. Except, that is, to his parents, who wanted him to accept an arranged marriage with a princess of their choice. His mother, Aiswarya, was reportedly the most adamant in scotching any notion of Dipendra marrying his girlfriend, since she deemed part of Devyani's clan not sufficiently pure in its Nepalese ancestry. "It must have been enormously frustrating for him to see his contemporaries marrying the women they wanted to," says journalist James Hughes-Onslow, who was at Eton with Dipendra's father.

The dispute apparently came to a head shortly before the massacre. According to one royal source, the queen told Dipendra on May 31 that he was free to wed Devyani, with the family's blessing. The only catch was that, if he did so, they would anoint his younger brother Niranjan as crown prince and begin grooming him to take over as king. A royal relative says Dipendra seemed to take the news well enough and went about his duties as if nothing were wrong. But at the dinner the next night he showed up drunk and became increasingly unruly, until his family ordered him to his quarters. Escorted there by his cousin Paras, Dipendra apparently changed into camouflage fatigues, collected his guns, then returned to the dining room to launch his attack.

The days following the killings saw a sad and bizarre chain of events. His apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound did not immediately kill Dipendra, who lingered on life support for more than two days. Under the rules of the Nepalese constitution, the royal advisory council had no choice but to name him king, succeeding the father he had murdered. But at his death, on June 4, officials tapped the slain Birendra's brother Gyanendra, 53, as the new monarch. The fact that Gyanendra's son Paras had remarkably survived the attack uninjured—and may become king one day himself—aroused considerable resentment. Amid the chaos there was rioting in the streets, and authorities for a time declared a shoot-on-sight curfew. As for the once-popular Dipendra, his cremation ceremony was carried out quietly, with few mourners. Even Devyani did not attend. She had fled the tiny Himalayan kingdom for someplace unknown.

Bill Hewitt
Julian West in Kathmandu and Nina Biddle, Caris Davis, Pete Norman and Simon Perry in London

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