Beneath a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, destroyer of worlds, Nepal's king and seven members of the royal family were cremated on sandalwood pyres Saturday, just hours after the prince accused of killing them was awarded the throne.
But in another byzantine twist, a royal council declared the new king, Crown Prince Dipendra, 29, unfit to rule because of his "physically incapacitated condition requiring intensive care."
The crown prince is on life support--clinically dead, according to some reports--because he reportedly shot himself after killing his immediate family and other relatives Friday night. Initial accounts from Katmandu, the capital, had said he was dead as well. Nepal's new king will be assisted by his uncle, Prince Gyanendra, as regent, the royal council announced.
As angry and horrified Nepalese tried to sort fact from rumor Saturday, they received little help from state-run radio and television, which reported cryptically that their beloved King Birendra, 55, "had passed away in an unanticipated incident" in his palace at 9:15 p.m. Friday.
Queen Aishwarya, 51, and the crown prince's siblings--Prince Nirajan, 22, and Princess Sruti, 24--died in the same incident along with the king's two sisters, one of their husbands and a cousin of the late king.
Three more members of the royal family were wounded in the shootings, Nepal's government confirmed. Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel told the Press Trust of India news agency that the crown prince committed the killings, but his government wasn't quite so frank with its own people.
None of the statements read on Radio Nepal on Saturday said the king had been killed, only that he had "ascended to heaven."
And then this morning, Gyanendra said the deaths of the royal family were caused by the accidental firing of an automatic weapon.
"According to the information received by us, [they] were seriously injured in an accidental firing from an automatic weapon," Gyanendra said in his first official statement about the deaths.
The statement said the wounded members of the royal family were rushed to a military hospital but could not be saved.
The government asked all officials to shave their heads as a sign of respect for the dead, and it announced a five-day mourning period.
Dipendra, who was trained as an officer in Nepal's army, is said to have opened fire on his family members as they sat at the dinner table because his mother refused to approve of his desire to marry the daughter of a member of parliament.
But in a desperately poor country that trips from one crisis to the next, what might seem a straightforward case of a royal gone berserk became a much more complicated political matter. The late king's most devoted supporters among the public blamed the deaths on Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. He is widely disliked here for, among other things, alleged corruption and mismanaging a country of 22 million people where Maoist guerrillas have seized large tracts of territory.
As the prime minister watched the cremations with a few dozen Nepalese dignitaries, enraged mourners taunted him from trees and rooftops they had climbed to get a glimpse of the royal funeral.
"Prime minister, resign!" they bellowed as Brahmin priests carried in the royal corpses. "Prime minister, leave the country!"
To millions of Nepalese, Birendra was a living deity, the incarnation of the Hindu Lord Vishnu, the protector, and his death left them feeling defenseless.
"He was god," said Dhiraj Sharma, 20, as he stood with teary eyes waiting outside the military hospital for the funeral cortege to emerge. "And he was my father. He felt like a father to all of us."
Sharma was wearing the tan uniform of the Nepal Scouts, who are much like Eagle Scouts in the United States. In Nepal, their patron is Dipendra, and Sharma refused to believe reports that the prince had killed eight members of his own family.
"I don't think it's possible," Sharma said. "Not a single person can kill his own father."
Pallbearers carried the king's decorated bier through the streets of Katmandu along with those of his relatives.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route to pay their last respects as the funeral procession took several hours to travel about four miles from the hospital to the cremation site at the ancient temple of Pashupatinath.
It is the country's most important Hindu temple, and the king's body was cremated next to the holy Bagmati River, in front of the Shiva temple. The spot reserved for the cremation of royalty is called the Arya Ghat, or "best place."
The pyres of stacked sandalwood logs were draped with orange and white garlands of marigolds and jasmine. Small canopies of saffron-colored cloth were tied to saplings at the four corners of each pyre, and they billowed gently in a warm breeze.
A soft rain began to fall as the priests delivered the bodies for cremation according to Vedic funeral rites. Dressed only in a traditional white dhoti, with his head shaved, Deepak Vikram Shah--a cousin of the king--circled the late monarch's body three times before setting it alight.
While the flames spread, a military band played the national anthem--and then the last post--and Shah moved on to set fire to the corpse of the queen.
The new regent, Gyanendra, who is in his early 50s, has devoted much of his time to protecting Nepal's tigers, elephants and other wildlife. He was in the jungle of the Royal Chitwan National Park when he got word of the massacre.
With Dipendra in intensive care and an alleged mass killer, his uncle is just a step away from becoming king, although the title was stripped of most of its powers in 1990.
Gyanendra was Nepal's king once before, during an even more tumultuous period for the Shah Dynasty, whose roots date to 1768. In 1846, a palace coup and a massacre reduced the Shah kings to puppets of the Rana clan, and in 1951, the Ranas put Gyanendra on the throne as a boy king, just a few years old. With the help of the Indian government, however, he was quickly replaced by the rightful king, and the Shah Dynasty was restored.
Prashanta Goswami was a close friend of Gyanendra from 1959 to 1961, when they attended the sixth through eighth grades at St. Joseph's, a prestigious private school in Darjeeling, India.
Goswami, 52, remembers the man who could be king as a pretty average kid but one who was "full of pranks and always getting into trouble."
Gyanendra was in the habit of sneaking off for a cigarette in the boys washroom, or somewhere out on the school grounds, but he was also a good field hockey player, Goswami said by telephone from India.
Goswami lost touch with the Nepalese prince decades ago and said he doesn't "have a clue" what kind of king he might make, but he said Gyanendra wasn't exceptional in any of his classes.
"He was fond of literature, but at the same time, not too keen on doing anything specific with studies," Goswami said. "All right, his parents had sent him to school to study, and he was studying. That's about it."