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An assault on faith

An assault on faith

Author: Anuradha Dutt
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: January 5, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/147754/An-assault-on-faith.html

Nepal's Maoists force yet another rupture with past

The latest manifestation of the social turmoil in Nepal is the sudden decision to replace Namboodiri Brahmin priests in the renowned Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu with local pandits. The move has not gone down well with traditionalists, who point out that priests from Kerala have been officiating at this Shiv shrine since 1747. Opponents have challenged the development in the Supreme Court. Another sign of the change sweeping the Himalayan country was the abolition of monarchy on May 28 last year by the Constituent Assembly. The King thus automatically lost his divine status. Rulers of the Shah dynasty, which came into being in 1768, were worshipped as avatars of Vishnu. This rite underlined Nepal's status as a Hindu kingdom, the only one of its kind in the world, as well as the bounden duty of the ruler towards his people. Today, it is a secular country, with some observers fearing that the zeal to modernise and shake off the past could become counter-productive if done indiscriminately. It might, in fact, result in deracination.

Pashupatinath temple shared the practice of Namboodiri priests being in attendance and performing puja with other Himalayan shrines, notably Kedarnath and Badrinath. Apparently, Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century, while reviving Sanatan Dharma as a theistic assertion over heresies, is credited with having transported Namboodiri priests from his native place to the northern temples. Kings of Nepal, preceding the Shah rulers, had also recruited Namboodiris, hallowed by their association with the first Shankaracharya, for the Pashupatinath temple.

Ordinary people and historians alike regret that this tradition has now been discontinued. The Government, headed by Maoists, is reported to be interested in deploying the shrine's legendary wealth, accruing from offerings by lakhs of devotees, for 'development' purposes. They are said to have been inspired by the example of numerous Indian pilgrimages. Priests in the service of the gods and devotees will become salaried employees. Two Nepali priests have been appointed in place of Mahabaleshwar Bhatt, the main priest and custodian of the deity, and his assistants P Ram Chandra and Krishna Yog Bhatt. Namboodiri priests are called Bhatts. The chief priest took orders only from the King. But with the abolition of the monarchy, the Bhatts' position too has eroded.

Diverse reasons are cited for the tradition of recruiting Namboodiri priests. One is that since everyone in Nepal observed a period of mourning after the death of the King, Indian pandits were brought to ensure continuity of worship. Another is that human sacrifices were performed at the temple, which was a centre of left-hand Tantra. This version holds that Adi Shankaracharya himself had Namboodiris, take over the worship and so corrected the regimen. However, the site still attracts followers of the Vaam Marg, including Aghoris. For, near the banks of the Bagmati river, flowing below, stands the cremation ground called Arya Ghat. The burning ground is a haunt of left-hand practitioners, both from India and Nepal. In fact, Pashupatinath is revered as much as the 12 Jyotirlings, self-manifested Shaiv sites in India, held most sacred by Hindus everywhere.

The pilgrimage is Nepal's defining feature, along with Mount Everest. Formerly, the monarchy too was one of the nation's historic attractions. While it is certain that the origins of the shrine date back to the pre-Christian era, the existing structure was possibly built by King Bhupalendra Malla in 1697. The Shah Kings of Gorkha, who ousted the Malla dynasty from Kathmandu valley, continued the tradition of Indian priests performing puja at Pashupatinath. The King acted as patron of the temple development trust. The Queen was its head. The Maoist uprising as much as King Gyanendra's bid to pulverise democracy by force precipitated the end for the monarchy and the Namboodiri presence at Pashupatinath. The King and Queen were removed from the seat of power, and the management of the pilgrimage.

Traditionally, foreigners or those born into alien faiths could behold the pilgrimage only from across the river. Foreigners mill about the sprawling Pashupatinanth complex, including the old bazaar, but the restriction on their entry still stands. Meanwhile, Nepal is aghast at this forced rupture with its past.

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