Dashain has begun. It’s the biggest Hindu religious festival in Nepal -- a fifteen-day celebration of family reunions, candlelit rituals, gift-exchanges and bloodbaths of animal sacrifices. But this year, as the population travels en masse to their home villages to accept tikas (red vermillion paste daubed on the forehead) from their elders, no one is certain about the future of their centuries-old religious traditions.
In 2006, King Gyanendra, who was once widely believed to be an avatar of Vishnu, was forced to relinquish the throne. The interim Prime Minister G.P. Koirala then declared Nepal a secular nation, thus shattering the image of Nepal as the only Hindu nation in the world with a god-king at its head. More recently, the new Maoist-led government announced that it would cease funding animal sacrifices performed by religious institutions.
The reaction to this has been mixed, if not polarizing. Some have reacted euphorically. Others are enraged. Recent protests in Kathmandu mounted by the Newar community were so virulent that the new government was forced to back-peddle on stopping the subsidizing of the annual sacrificing of – thousands of them – sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and water buffalo during Dashain.
Now, a large contingent of pro-Hindu organizations has declared a knock-down-drag-out against the government, vowing to return Nepal to its previous “Hindu nation” status.
Concessions have already been made and contradictions have surfaced. On September 28, for instance, the Maoist-led government appointed a six-year-old girl as the new Kumari, a “living goddess” in the ancient city of Bhaktapur – a duty traditionally given to a monarchial-appointed priest but now entrusted to the state-run Trust Corporation. This is a far cry from the Maoists’ progressive intention of separating religion from state. (For the record, the new Kumari told the press that she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up.)
It may be easy, in the 21st century, to call such traditions dubious. But what seems to be at stake here, at least for devout Hindus, is their spiritual and national identity, both thoroughly entwined. It will not be easy for the Maoists, or any other political party for that matter, to extricate their goals from the faith-based wishes of the people, which are exemplified by their cherished traditions. And no religious tradition is more cherished, or more identified as a component of national identity than the annual celebration of the Dashain holiday.
The Significance of Dashain
It’s important to understand that Nepalis of all caste, creed and financial classes celebrate Dashain. Regardless of its religious underpinnings, Dashain symbolizes a fortnight for families to be together – not unlike Americans’ propensity to travel home for the Christmas and Chanukah holidays, which may or may not have any thing to do with intentions of celebrating the birth of Jesus.
But the rituals of Dashain differ sharply from Christmas or Chanukah in length (Dashain is fifteen days long, ending with the full moon of the Nepalese lunar month of Kartik), purity (there’s no Santa Claus-like competition or contamination) and mounting controversy (the nationwide beheading of animals).
The primary focus throughout Dashain is Durga, the Hindu divine mother goddess in all her manifestations. The main celebration glorifies the triumph of good over evil and is symbolized by Durga slaying the terrible demon Mahisasur, who terrorized the earth in the guise of a monstrous water buffalo. It’s not just that Durga must be worshipped; Durga must be appeased. If she is properly attended to and pleased, good fortune will follow. If she is angered through the people’s neglect, misfortune will swiftly waylay the miscreants.
On the seventh day of Dashain known as “Fulpati”, the abolished monarchy – with or without Maoist approval – will subliminally raise its ancient head. Every Nepali knows that Fulpati begins at the ancestral home of the Shah Dynasty, a medieval palace perched high above the village of Gorkha. It’s easy to see why the first king of Nepal set out to conquer and consolidate a nation from the vantage point of Gorkha.
The location was almost impregnable -- the Himalaya serving as the backdrop to this dramatic and almost godlike aerie. It is here in Gorkha that a royal pot filled with holy water, banana stalks, jamara (sacred yellow grass) and sugar cane tied with red cloth are carried by Brahmans – a parade led by a military platoon – to the ancestral royal palace.
Next to the royal palace is the temple of Kali, the incredibly wrathful manifestation of Durga. In terms of sheer numbers of slaughtered animals, the Gorkha Kali temple probably has no rivals in all of Nepal. On the eighth day of Dashain called “Maha Asthami”, sacrifices to Durga (and Kali) increase. That night is called “Kal Ratri”, meaning the “dark night”. An endless succession of goats, sheep and buffaloes are sacrificed until dawn breaks.
On the tenth day called “Dashami”, the bloodbath subsides. Nepalis take tika and jamara from their elders and receive their blessing. This function continues for four days. (In the past, thousands of Nepalis and foreigners received tika from the king himself.)
Dashain ends on the full moon day with the worshipping of Laxmi, goddess of wealth. It is a time for people to stay at home and rest. The goddess’ thirst for blood has been slaked and, hopefully, the next year will bring good fortune.
After Dashain is over, the nation settles back to normal.
But with a secular state now trying to impose 21st century ideas on a deeply conservative population, one must wonder what awaits the current government in terms of national reluctance to let go of old ways. The tikas wash off easily. Not so the ancient beliefs of Nepal. And there are those in Nepal who are willing to exploit this reluctance with all their might.