The Changu Narayan temple is a religious heritage site
located in the Kathmandu Valley, historically known as the Nepa, or Nepal
valley, in the province of Bhaktapur, Nepal. The country of Nepal has a very
strong Hindu presence with roughly 80% of the population identifying as Hindu
(Burke, 1). The temple is located on the top of a hill 12 kilometers east of
Kathmandu, the capital and largest city in Nepal, and is surrounded by chimpak
trees. The Changu Narayan temple is considered by most to be the oldest temple
in Nepal’s history. The exact time when the temple was created is unknown, but
it is said to have been created during the time of the Licchavi kingdom (400 –
750CE) (Sharma, 3). The temple pays homage to the deity Visnu and is considered
the most important temple in the valley (Sharma, 1999, 8).
This temple is one of four major temples in Nepal’s
surrounding area dedicated to the Hindu deity Visnu. Changu Narayan is the
earliest and most famous temple dedicated to Visnu, but many other temples
dedicated to various other deities can be found throughout Nepal. Visnu first
appears in the Rg Veda as a solar
deity with a part of him representing the sun (Krishna, 7). Visnu has a wide
variety of depictions across the various Hindu denominations. In early vedic
religion Visnu was a minor god, but as the religion progressed he grew in
strength and popularity until he was recognized as one of the most powerful
gods in Hinduism (Krishna, 9).
The temple’s origin story stems from an ancient legend
concerning the deity Visnu. Harsimran Kaur’s article summarizes the legend of
the creation of the Changu Narayan temple and its relevance to Visnu. A gwala, or cow herder, had purchased a
cow from a brahmin that was renowned
for producing large quantities of milk. The gwala
often took this cow to a forest of Champak trees to graze on the grass, however
the cow would always go into the shade of its favourite tree where a boy would
drink the cow’s milk. In the evenings, the gwala
would return home to milk the cow but found that he would only get a small
amount of milk from the cow. This trend continued for several days and the gwala became very sad. The gwala went back to the brahmin that sold him the cow and
explained how the cow was no longer producing the large quantities of milk. The
next day the brahmin and the gwala hid and observed the cow’s
behaviour through the day. They noticed the little black boy drinking the cow’s
milk and the two men thought that the boy must be a devil that lived in the cow’s
favourite tree. The two men became furious and began to cut down the tree, but
when they struck the tree they noticed human blood coming from it. The two got
worried and feared that they had committed a serious crime. The Lord Visnu then
emerged to the two men and explained that those events were not their fault.
Visnu then told them his story of how he unintentionally killed Sudarshan’s
father while hunting in the woods. Afterwards, he was cursed for his sins and
wandered the earth until ending up on the Changu hill where he survived using
the stolen cow’s milk. When the brahmin
and the gwala cut down the tree,
Visnu was decapitated and freed from his sins. After listening to Visnu’s words
the two men decided to erect a temple in honour of Visnu. The temple has been
considered sacred since the site was constructed (Kaur, 1).
The Changu Narayan temple is a two story structure with
copper and wood carvings all around it. The layout of the temple has been
changed several times due to natural disasters damaging the temple. The four
entrances to the temple all feature triple doorways that have been cut into the
brick walls of the temple, and on the western entrance there are copper plated
sheets molded over the carvings. The temple contains artworks from the fourth,
ninth and thirteenth centuries, most of which are Newar art: work from the
Newar people, an Indiginous Indo-Aryan group primarily from the Kathmandu
Valley (Lo Bue et al., 1). Newa art is centered around Hindu and Buddhist
deities, sculptures made in this art style use the lost-wax casting method (Lo
Bue et al., 1). The most valued art piece is an earthquake damaged sculpture of
Visnu in his universal form – Vishvarupa. Two other structures just outside of
the temple are devoted to Laksmi. The centre of the temple has a mandapa, a hallway supported by pillars
and a roof, that is used for public rituals. The mandapa was contributed to the temple by Jayprakash Malla, the
final king of the Malla dynasty that ruled over the Kathmandu valley from 1200
– 1770 CE. Archaeologists suggest that the mandapa
was the origin of the temple and that the brick walls that surround the temple
were built afterwards (Sharma, 9).
A stone pillar stands outside of the entrance to the temple with Sanskrit writings on it referencing king Manadeva and his mother queen Rajyavati of the Licchavi dynasty (Riccardi, 611). The pillar once stood directly directly in front of the shrine, but was knocked over and damaged sometime in the eighteenth century; as a result, the pillar now sits to the side of the entrance to the temple. Part of the inscription from the pillar was buried in the ground until 1899 when permission was given to dig up the lost section of the inscription and the pillar was fully read for the first time in recent years. The inscription is carved into three sides of the pillar with the first portion that was damaged when the pillar fell now on the northward facing side. The other two sides are in almost perfect condition. The first side of the pillar describes Sankaradeva, the son of the king Bhupalendra, who was renowned for his “perfect actions” and “upholding of Dharma” (Riccardi, 617). Sankaradeva gained permission from his father to expand the kingdom and through his actions became “as pure as moonlight in mind and body” (Riccardi, 617). The second side explains how Sankaradeva’s father dies and ascends to “the third heaven” (Riccardi, 617). Rajyavati the “true wife of the king” and Sankaradeva’s mother told him to rule in his father’s place after his passing (Riccardi, 618). The final side of the pillar explains Sankaradeva’s role as king Bhupalendra’s successor. Sankaradeva knew his devotion alone was not enough to repay his father. The boy was known for his wisdom as well as physical abilities and vowed to travel east to destroy his kingdom’s enemies. When Sankaradeva returned from the east having conquered several kings he was “pleased in spirit” and his devout mother Rajyavati should share her “happy heart” with her people (Riccardi, 618).
The Changu Narayan temple has been plagued with destruction
since its creation and has been rebuilt on multiple occasions. The most recent
of which was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that affected most of Nepal and killed
over nine thousand Nepalese people in April of 2015 (Mendoza, 11). A few of the
main support pillars were compromised during the earthquake and a large granite
slab fell from the second story laying next to a brass bell tangled in prayer
flags. As the temple is upwards of thirteen hundred years old the structural integrity
of the temple is not what it once was, combined with illegal mining operations
at the base of the hill (Burke, 1). A British architect named John Sanday led
an effort to restore the temple, but was appalled to see the state of the temple
after the disaster (Mendoza, 11). Pillars and walls of the temple had been
destroyed leaving large piles of rubble and debris strewn across the courtyard.
The people living in the Changu village were distraught from the earthquake but
offered what little they could to contribute to seeing the temple rebuilt to
its former glory (Mendoza, 11).
The country of Nepal relies on tourism, making up
approximately 10% of the country’s total GDP, so with their famous landmarks
being so greatly affected it impacts their culture and the country as a whole.
Many of the people around the Kathmandu area have taken issue with the
government’s treatment of the sacred site and blame the destruction on corrupt
officials (Burke, 1). Global efforts
have been started to reconstruct the temple; for example, Germany has contributed
thirty thousand dollars of the needed three hundred thousand to start repairs
on the heritage site (Mendoza, 11). In Nepal many aspects of ways of life are
interconnected from religious to historical to economic elements. The residents
around the temple have come together under a common goal of fixing the temple,
not only for personal use, but for the benefit of Nepal as a whole.
Burke Jason (2015) “Nepal
begins to assess its cultural losses after earthquake; Many
monuments preserved intact for centuries have been destroyed, but hope remains
that Nepal’s shattered heritage sites can be rebuilt”. The Guardian 1:1
Kaur Harsimran. (2017). “Changu Narayan: Ancient Hindu Temple
in Nepal’s History:
Krishna, Nanditha (2001) The Book of Vishnu. New York: Penguin
Lo Bue, Erberto F., Ian Alsop, Adalbert
J. Gail, Eric Chazot, Theodore Riccardi jr, Mary
Shepherd Slusser, John Sanday,
Gautam Vajracharya, T. P. B. Riley-Smith, Anne Vergati, Susi Dunsmore, Bronwen
Bledsoe, Ken Teague, and Judith Chase (2003) “Nepal.” Grove Art Online. 1:2-38 Accessed 18 Feb.
Mendoza Martha (2017)
“Architect rebuilds ancient temple.”The Associated Press Telegraph
Riccardi, T. (1989) “The Inscription
of King Mānadeva at Changu Narayan.” Journal
Oriental Society 109(4):611-620 Accessed February 19, 2020
Sharma, Prayag Raj (1999) “A Fresh
Look At The Origin And Forms Of Early Temples
In The Kathmandu Valley.”
Nepalese Studies 26: 8-9.
The Newar people are the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The term Newar is an etymologically identical to Nepal (Gellner 1995:4). They are a product of ethnic and cultural mixing between North Indian ancestry and Tibeto-Burman language (Mackenzie n.p.). The Newars are divided by religion, caste, locality, and dialect, making the Newar peoples a complex group of people. Most Newars are Hindu, however the culture is a mingling between Hinduism and Buddhism. According to the 2001 census, Nepal was 81.8% Hindu, 11% Buddhist, and the remainder is a combination of Kirat, Christian, Jains, and Sikhs (Central Bureau of Statistics 29). From this data it is important to understand the influence the Hindu tradition has on Nepal. The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is both simultaneously competitive and ecumenical (Gellner 1995:3).
The history of the Newar people begins in the fifth century, when the “people of Nepal”, naipalah, populated the area (Gellner 1995:3). However, the term Newar only came into existence in mid-seventeenth century, where the term was used to refer to the politically dominant members of society or ksatriya groups (Gellner 1995:3). The Licchavi period saw the first appearance of monarchial state and associations with high Indian culture in the Kathmandu Valley (Gellner 1995:6). The area was settled due to the uniquely fertile soil in the Kathmandu Valley, which was at one point the bed of a lake, and benefits also included a temperate climate, and control over trade routes between the plains and Tibet (Gellner 1995:6). In the valley both Hinduism and Buddhism were supported by the ruling class, made up of ksatryas, patrons of brahmans (Gellner 1995:7).
The Licchavi period preceded the Thankuri and Malla Period; it is the Malla period that accounts for traditional Newar culture (Gellner 1995:7). The Malla period is marked by a division into three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur (Gellner 1995:9). The kings of each region did not see themselves as Newari, but rather as descendants of Rama and the sun, establishing their connection to Hinduism (Gellner 1995:9). Furthermore, in each of the three kingdoms the rulers sought to make their subjects adhere to Hindu norms, both in relation to ritual pollution and death rituals (Gellner 1995:9).
Most Newar castes hold their own myths regarding their origins. An example of this is where higher castes, such as ksatriyas, hold the belief that the later the arrival in the Valley the higher the status. These castes claim to have been kings in earlier dynasty, or courtiers to incoming kings (Gellner 1995:5). Other castes, such as the Rajkarnikars (or Sweet-Makers) claim to have descended from brahmans in India (Gellner 1995:5). The Kathmandu Valley plays host to a diversity of racial origins, and different physiognomies both within and between castes.
Newari is a Tibeto-Burman language, belonging to socio-linguistic family from Northern India, which is known for its borrowing between other Indo-European languages (Gellner 1995:5). The tradition of borrowing continues today, despite nationalistic efforts. This can be seen in that most Newari men and the emerging generations are bilingual in both Nepali and Newari (Gellner 1995:5). Language is important to the study of Hindu Newars through its connection to Sanskrit. Much like India, Sanskrit is the language of scripture for both Hinduism and Buddhism (Gellner 1995:5). Sanskrit, various Prakrits, Persian, Hindi, Nepali and English have profoundly influenced Newari, this is a reflection of linguistic borrowing (Gellner 1991:2).
The construction of the caste system shapes both the macrostructure of society and the micro-reality of everyday life. The Newar people are involved in two caste systems: they have their own system that both separates and unites them internally, and the long-standing caste system of Nepal (Parish 4). The state caste system is used to unite tribes, castes, different religions, and social organizations to create political and administrative convenience. One of the results is the reconstitution of Buddhist and Hindu identities in relation to one another (Parish 4). The Newar specific caste system hails from historic times of Newar kings, beginning in the Licchavi, but fully forming in the Malla period (Gellner 1995:9).
The Newar caste system is most easily described through the six blocks, or levels in hierarchy. Newar people speak of high and low castes, and the rank of each as described in the Bhasa Vamasavali (Gellner 1995:16). Block one is comprised of Brahmans, and the vajracarya and sakya castes combined, all priestly classes. The second block contains the chathariya and pancthariya castes. Blocks one and two are made up of those castes that are entitled to Tantric initiation using the sacred thread. Block 3 is comprised by the maharjans (farmer class). Block four is made up of several small castes including oil-pressers, dyers, blacksmiths, barbers, and painters. Block five includes the khadgi (butcher) and kapali (mortician) classes. Individuals from blocks one to four (“clean castes”) will not accept water from people in this caste, however their touch does not require ritual purification. The last block is made up of dyahla (street cleaner) and cyamkhalah (scavenger) groups. Other castes refuse to accept water from individuals in these castes and touching them requires purification. [All information on the block organization of the caste system from Gellner 1995, page 17.]
Interaction between castes occurs, however, as seen in the block system some interaction can result in ritual pollution. The caste system is an essential element to the maintenance of social structures in Newar society. Food exchange is an important aspect in determining ritual pollution. Food is divided into three categories that dictate which directions food can be taken and given (Ishii 111). Interrelations between castes are also governed by the physical structure of the village or town; this insures minimal interaction between the castes (Ishii 112). Inter-caste marriages also take place in Newar society, usually where the bride marries a caste lower than hers.
One of the main ways in which Newar culture relates to Hinduism is through its treatment of death. When an individual dies they become a preta and resides in relatives’ households before going to the kingdom of Yama. Essential death rites are performed to help the potentially dangerous spirit move on to pitr-loka (realm of ancestors). Newar Hindus of all castes are fascinated with death and are fixated with the dramatic consequences that can result from improperly performed funeral rites (Toffin 259).
Newar Hindu women in the Kathmandu Valley hold a high level of agency in Newari culture. This can be seen in particular through the relatively easy divorce practices for these women. For Newar women, leaving their family is as simple as walking away; her family can finalize the separation by sending betel nuts and reclaiming her dowry (Gellner 1991:14). Betel nuts can also be used as a way of avoiding ritual pollution in the case that her husband dies, this also allows her to remarry. The agency granted to women in the Newar population is connected to its history of collaboration with Tibetan people (Gellner 1991:8). Newar girls also partake in rites of passage, like their male counterparts. A mock marriage, ihi, can be done when a girl passes the age of five, seven, or nine; it is debated as to whom she is being married to, answers range from Visnu, to the bel fruit (Gellner 1991:9). The intent of the ceremony is to signify that the girl will never be a widow, even if her human husband dies; this therefore protects the girl from the stigma associated with being a widow (Gellner 1991:9).
For Newar Hindus marriage is affected by the caste system in which their society operates. For the upper castes, they must invite a Brahmana or Vajracarya to perform the ceremony, lower castes will invite a lineage elder (Gellner 1991:10). For each caste, there is a dichotomy between elaborate weddings with exchanges, feasts, and a marriage procession, and weddings where the bride simply comes to live with her husband without ceremony (Gellner 1991:9). In both instances, an exchange occurs where betel nuts are passed between families to symbolize the bride leaving her family and being introduced to her husband’s.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Central Bureau of Statistics (2001). Nepal – National Population Census 2001, Tenth Census. Nepal: Central Bureau of Statistics.
Gellner, David N. (1991) “Hinduism, Tribalism and the Position of Women: The Problem of Newar Identity” Man 26 (1). 105–25. Accessed February 4, 2016.
Gellner, David N., and Declan Quigley, et al. (1995) Contested hierarchies: A collaborative ethnography of caste among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Gellner, David N., and Max Weber (2001) The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Levy, Robert I. (1991) “Nepal, the Kathmandu Valley, and Some History” In Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mackenzie, John (2005) “Newars.” Cassell’s peoples, nations and cultures. London, United Kingdom: Cassell.
Parish, Steven M. (1996) Hierarchy and its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Von Rospatt, Alexander (2014) “Negotiating the Passage beyond a Full Span of Life: Old Age Rituals among the Newars” Journal of South Asian Studies. 37 #1 (March): 104-129
Whelpton, John (2005) A History of Nepal. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Dasain (Dashain) or Mohani is the largest, longest and most important festival in Nepal (Gellner 148; Levy 523; Bista 12). Throughout South Asia, the Dasain festival is also known as the Durga Puja or Navaratras and is a distinctly Hindu festival. In Nepal, Dasain festivals are ritually pluralistic, mostly filled with Hindu traditions while incorporating Buddhism and maintaining indigenous ancestor worship, animism, local myths, beliefs and practices that are prominent within different regions of Nepal (Fisher 112; Campbell 232). The heterogeneity of different beliefs and practices that take place during Dasain exemplifies the diversity of Hindu traditions throughout Nepal (Fisher 110). In the Kathmandu Valley, Newars celebrate Dasain as a religious holiday centred around animal sacrifice and the worship of mandalic goddesses; festivities are filled with indigenous ancestor worship mixed with Hindu practices (Levy 525). In other areas of Nepal, Dasain can be seen predominantly as a national holiday, scattered with religious customs from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. Others tie Dasain festivals more to agricultural celebrations, with festivities converging upon the end of the monsoon season and the completion of harvesting rice crops, and some groups choose to follow secular customs of socializing and feasting, rejecting anything religious in nature (Levy 523; Savada 82; Allen 320; Fisher 112).
Dasain festivals in Nepal take place at the end of the monsoon season and at the end of the harvesting of rice, around the September new moon and the October full moon, depending on the region. Dasain festivities last anywhere from ten to fifteen days and are celebrated by all caste groups (jats) (Teilhet 81; Chamberlain 2001: ii & 4; Savada 12; Fisher 112). Dasain festival activities and rituals symbolize the importance of agriculture, fertility, family, and the power of royalty and lineage (Gellner 148; Bista 27). Preparations for Dasain begin several weeks before festivities start; houses are cleaned, walls whitewashed and even re-plastered (Iltis 122; Fisher 124; Chamberlain 2001: 4). In Bhaktapur, where the Nava Durga (Nine Durgas) celebration of masks is performed during Dasain, masks are prepared months in advance and preparation requires commissioning priests who recite mantras and perform ritual worship (puja), so that materials can be found and masks can be fabricated (Teihet 85-91). For those celebrating Dasain as a spiritual/religious festival, among Hindus this is a very auspicious time celebrating the victory of the Great Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon (Chamberlain 2002: 28; Savada 60). In keeping with the Hindu traditions of Dasain, each day of the festival is named after one of the Nine Durgas; the myth of Durga’s defeat against the buffalo demon is told through stories, songs, and dramatizations each day throughout the festival (Teilhet 81; Chamberlain 2001: 5).
The paramount version of this story is found in the Devi Mahatmya; it is believed that demons once terrorized the world and Durga was born through the union of male deities such as Siva, Visnu, and Brahma who were unsuccessful at stopping the demons. Consolidation of these male deities’ energies, led to the conception of Durga. Through her multiple manifestations, Durga defeated the demons, including the great buffalo demon (Mahishasura) (Chamberlain 2001: 5). Dasain festivities and the telling of the myth celebrate Durga as the ultimate source, the mother of the universe who liberated the people, and it is believed that listening to the recitation of the myth will free one from mental, physical and emotional suffering (Chamberlain 2001: 4-6). Each day of the festival is named after, and dedicated to, one of the nine Durgas. Each manifestation is a representation of Durga; they are: Brahmani, Mahesvari, Kumari, Vaisnavi, Varahi, Indrani, Mahakali, Mahalaksmi and Tripurasundari (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 155). Each of the nine goddesses also represents one of nine plant forms; the plant that embodies the goddess that is worshiped that day is used in many rituals to appeal for her protection (Chamberlain 2002: 29). The Nine Durgas are also connected to each of the nine planets in the solar system; worship of these goddesses helps to protect the people of Nepal from negative cosmic influences (Chamberlain 2002: 29). All nine days of the Dasain festival are also divided into three sets: day one through three are devoted to Durga’s creativity, the next three to Laksmi, representing Durga’s beauty and abundance, and the last three days are devoted to Kali, representing death and transformation (Chamberlain 2002: 29).
Within the Kathmandu Valley, Hindu practices and traditions of Dasain are permeated with indigenous beliefs. The Newar Dasain festivals are a complex sequence of events centred around dangerous goddesses (Levy 523). The entire ten day festival is a dramatization of the story of Devi (Durga), with astrological significance, temple worship and a procession to different pithas of the Nine Mandalic Goddesses around the city (Levy 531 & 155). On the first day of Dasain, barley sprouts are planted, and Brahmani is worshiped. A procession takes place as individuals leave their homes to visit the pitha of the goddess Brahmani; within homes and temples puja is performed offering grains, rice and flowers (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 525). Barley is planted in clay pots; in other areas, it is planted on the floors of special rooms (Nala) set aside for Dasain where special puja takes place (Levy 527). Astrological attention is given in the timing of the planting of the barley, which is planted at the most auspicious time. In the Taleju temples of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, planting the barley is governed by the Royal Astrologer (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 527). Barley symbolizes the importance of the peoples’ connection to agriculture and is representative of the goddess Durga’s generative properties. The first day of planting is called the Ghata-sthapana (installation of the sacred vessel); on the following days of Laksmi, which represents abundance, the barley leaves will become visible and on the tenth day, the day of victory, tika (red mark on forehead) paste is made from the barley leaves (Puri 7; Bista 94). Days two through six are similar to the first day, with processions going to a new worship site where a new mandalic goddess is worshiped. Following morning worship rituals, Bhagavati (Durga) is worshipped in homes and then everyone goes about their daily activities (Levy 531). During the last four days of the Dasain festival, festivities and rituals escalate; day seven sees special temple preparations being made at the Taleju temple for the festivities that will take place on day eight. The first goat is sacrificed on day seven by a chief Brahmin and there is a procession honouring an image that represents the importance of lineage and royalty (Levy 533). The eighth day is the beginning of devotion of Kali; representations of the battle are performed, and what is known as the “bloody night of sacrifice” takes place; many goats, chickens and buffalo are sacrificed, and later feasted on during the celebration of the transformation on the tenth day (Levy 534; Bista 60).
At the Taleju temple, one hundred and eight buffalo are sacrificed in honour of the Goddess Durga and her victory over Mahisasura; sacrificing the buffalo also epitomizes two days of great battles that were fought. The story of these battles is recounted on this day from the Devi Mahatmya (Levy 534; Chamberlain 2002: 29-30). Goats, buffalo and other animals must be sacrificed with a single blow to the top of the neck; the blood of these animals is then splattered on different icons representing the Great Goddess, around the floors of the temple and on special ritual clothing (Levy 337; Gellner 341-42). With participation in reenactments of Durga’s battles and the worship of the nine manifestations of Durga, individuals become, hypothetically, the deity themselves (Levy 563). Sacrifices continue into day nine, the day centered around the worship of Tripurasundari, who is full creator deity, symbolizing the culmination of the Nine Durgas. In the evening of day nine, people make offerings of flowers and will view the masks of the Nine Durgas, which illustrates their reappearance after a long sleep (Levy 539). Day nine is also dedicated to the worship of Kumari (maiden goddess); a young girl representing the Kumari makes a public appearance and she receives offerings from the people, is worshiped by the people, and they receive prasada (gift) from her (Levy 542). In Bhaktapur, the Kumari is worshiped, by worshipping all young girls of premenstrual age at the “living Kumari”; making it possible for there to be more than one Kamari in each home. These young girls of premenstrual age are worshiped are not worshiped as themselves but are seen as “vehicles [that] bring the Goddess Kumari to the homes of the people” (Levy 540).
Day ten is a very auspicious day, on this day large feasts, drinking, and gambling festivities, that have been going on since the beginning of Dasain, escalate in nature (Bista 117). On this day, families travel and meet in the homes of senior family members, married women return to their paternal homes and the younger generations are given tika and blessed by senior members (Manadhar 7). Tiak, a red past which is placed on the forehead and blesses individual with abundance, is given by a senior male to his family, and is seen as a way to help build respect for senior generations from younger generations (Mandhar 7; Gaenszle 361). The giving of tika is also seen as a celebration of royal power and hierarchy within the lineages of the people of Nepal. The King is given tika by the priests and the King will give tika to his people as well (Gellner 147). Tika is just one representation of how Dasain legitimizes hierarchical power; power is also shown by Durga shrines being placed in all police stations (Gellner 147). Dasain celebrations are just one attempt through ritual and practice to form national unity based on lineage and power; this has recently lead to groups within Nepal who do not identify as Hindu to oppose the Dasain festival.
Along with the major Hindu traditions of Dasain, there are many secular traditions as well. Dasain, for many, is a time for families to be re-united; it is a celebration of the end of a very difficult harvest season and a holiday filled with rest and relaxation (Savada 117; Allen 317 & 405). People purchase and wear their best clothing throughout the festival, but in most regions the last few days of Dasain sees an increase in festivities that include larger feasts, gambling, kite flying, fairs, making flower garlands, putting up swings and the cooking of special foods (Levy 525; Fisher 112; Allen 317). Everyone tries to go home for Dasain, shops close and business stops for the duration of the festival; people travel to visit with relatives and pay respects to ancestors. Gifts are also exchanged with family members (Chamberlain 4). In Western Nepal, the Thakali perform rituals that include features from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. However, Dasain celebrations tend to be less about religious practices and more of a national holiday. The Thakali clean in preparation for the festival just as other jats do, but the focus is on family and feasting (Fisher 112 & 124). For the Thulung there is an intense agricultural presence to the Dasain festivities; it is a celebration of a long harvest coming to an end (Allen 317). Feasting, cleaning homes, making garland flowers, preparing special meals, drinking, gambling and family are the most important practices, while adhering to the general constructs of Hindu practices (Gaenszle 362). Some groups in Nepal, like the Yakha, have four main days of public ritual that include slaying of model animals that are made of fruits and vegetables with straw, the straw representing the swords used in battle. Animal sacrifice still takes place, and to protect the home, a small boy from each household places his hands and feet in the blood of a sacrificed animal. He is, then, carried to his home and his hand and foot prints are placed in blood on the entrance to the home as protection (Russell 342). Throughout Nepal, it is easy to see inter-group similarities and differences within the practices, rituals and festivities of Dasain (Russell 331). For those who take part in the festival, it is the prime festival of the year. Whether Dasain symbolizes harvest, fertility, power, national unity, or religiosity, it remains one of the largest and longest celebrated festivals of Nepal.
References and Further Recommended Readings
Allen, N. J. (1997) “Hinduization The Experience of the Thulung Rai.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 303-323. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.
Bista, Dor Bahadur (1972) People of Nepal. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
Campbell, Ben (1997) “The Heavy Loads of Tamang Identity.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 205-235. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.
Chamberlain, Laura K (2002) “Durga and the Dashain harvest festival from the Indus to Kathmandu Valleys.” ReVision 25, no. 1.
Chamberlain, Laura K (2001) “Embodying the Goddess Durga: A Pilgrimage to the Mother Goddess of Paradox.” Master’s thesis, California Institute of Integral Studies.
Fisher, William (2001) Fluid Boundaries: Forming and Transforming Identity in Nepal. New York: Columbia.
Gaenszle, Martin (1997) “Changing Concepts of Ethnic Identity Among the Mewahang Rai.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 351-378. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.
Gellner, David N (1999) “Religion, politics, and ritual. Remarks on Geertz and Bloch.” Social Anthropology, 7(02), 135-153.
Iltis, Linda L (1980) “An Ethnohistorical Study of Bandipur.” Contributions to Nepalese Studies, 8(1), 81-145.
Levy, Robert (1990) Mesocosm. Berkeley: University of California.
Manandhar, Tina (n.d.) “Digu Puja: A Ritual to Revitalize Family Among the Newars.” Tribhuvan University.
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The Navadurga Tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal: An Ethnographic Account
The following paper is an ethnographic report that describes the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal. All data collected was generated through qualitative research means relying mainly on the use of observations and interviews with the tradition’s practitioners and followers. I collected all the data used for the composition of this paper over the summer of 2014 in the months of June, July, and August. This paper will first provide a brief introduction to the geographical area of the study and the tradition itself. The paper will then proceed with a section discussing the collection of the information followed by a historical account of the tradition and finally the tradition as it is practiced today by discussing the tradition’s membership, activities, operations, and relations.
Nepal is a land locked county in South Asia bordered by India and China (specifically the region of Tibet). Nepal is a country rich in culture, language, landscape, history, and religion. Not only is Nepal home to the Himalayas and Mount Everest, but it is also the birthplace of the Buddha, and one of the only countries in South Asia (including Southeast Asia) to remain autonomous and free from colonial rule. Like India, Nepal’s most practiced religion is Hinduism, a complex religion that encompasses thousands of deities, thousands of ritual practices, and even competing and sometimes contradictory beliefs. The Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal is an excellent example of a Hindu tradition that is contradictory in some of its practices from that of mainstream Hinduism.
The Kathmandu Valley of Nepal is made up of three major cities, Kathmandu (the nation’s capital), Patan, and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu and Patan have both experienced rapid modernization and development that has caused the cities to loose some of their traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs. Lying on the outskirts of the valley, Bhaktapur has managed to preserve and retain more of its traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs than the other cities have. Bhaktapur’s population is mainly comprised of Newars, an ethnic group that accounts for less than ten percent of the country’s population, and is indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley and the areas surrounding it. A tradition important to the Newar community of the greater Kathmandu Valley, and specifically the citizens of Bhaktapur, is the Navadurga tradition.
The Navadurga is translated as the nine Durgas, referring to nine different forms of the great goddess Durga. To most of the Indian subcontinent Durga is the divine mother, presider over the seasons of life, death, and birth, the liberator of the oppressed and marginalized, and warrior. She is often depicted with eight to eighteen arms, each of which yields a different weapon. Most Hindu deities wield specific items that allow for them to be easily identified. Durga, however, holds the weapons of other deities, including Śiva’s trident and Visnu’s discus, reinforcing her characteristics as a warrior and liberator. Durga’s power is representative of the feminine principle of the cosmos known as Shakti. The goddess Durga is said to have as many forms as there are beings on the planet. Her many forms come in a variety of dispositions and include many female deities from the Hindu pantheon. Such goddesses include Laksmi the goddess of prosperity; Saraswatī the goddess of creativity; Lalita the goddess of light; Vajrayoginī the goddess of power; and Kālī the goddess of transformation and death. Durga is not mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, Hinduism’s earliest literature. The Vedas speak of the goddesses Vac and Ratri, but neither of these goddesses is associated with battle or blood sacrifices, both of which are important aspects of Durga today. Although the Vedas do not portray the wrathful manifestations of Durga some aspects of the Great Goddess are portrayed. The goddess Vac is believed to be an early representation of the goddess Saraswatī, who as previously mentioned is one representation of the Great Goddess. Durga is specifically mentioned in the Puranic literature, which emerged after the Vedas. The Puranas attempted to assume status as the fifth Veda, however it was unsuccessful and is now considered secondary Hindu literature. The Devī Mahatmya arises out of the Markandeya Purana and provides a narrative of Durga’s victory of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. The Devī Mahatmya is the most integral piece of literature on the goddess Durga. Although Durga was not mentioned in the Vedas she has become an important Hindu figure across the Indian subcontinent.
The most widely celebrated festival in Banaras, Indias is for the goddess Durga is Navarātra (Nine Nights) this festival is celebrated over nine nights, each night marked by a journey to one of the nine different Durga temples. More than fifty thousand Hindus participate in the festival each year. The traditions of Bhaktapur differ significantly than the traditions in Banāras. A major distinction is that the festival for the Navadurga lasts for several months rather than nine nights. Another distinction is the use of iconography; in Banāras full images are created and displayed for worship, whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur uses masks that are worshipped when they are stationary and on display, in addition to when they are worn and move around. The use of masks in Durga traditions is a unique practice to Bhaktapur. Mask use, however, is not a unique practice. The Balinese employ the use of masks in various traditions and rituals, specifically when portraying the Ramāyana, a great Hindu epic. The masks used by the Balinese are sacred heirlooms that are treated as gods; when they are not in use they are placed inside the temple next to the main images of the deities to be worshiped and given daily offerings. There are several parallels between the mask use in Bali and Bhaktapur, mainly the reverence and homage paid to them and their ceremonial use. Differences between the use of masks is that the Balinese masks are heirlooms passed down to the next generation whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur begins each year by constructing new masks and ends by cremating them. Bhaktapur’s use of masks is a unique practice within Hinduism and is deeply established within Bhaktapur’s community.
Having introduced the region, topic of this study, and provided a brief contextual account of similar traditions this paper will now begin to present a full account of the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur. It begins by explaining the methods used in the research to generate the information for this paper. This is followed by a historical account of the tradition’s origins, and then outlines the tradition as it is practiced today. Specific aspects of the tradition to be discussed include its membership, operations, activities, and relations.
The information gathered for this paper was mainly collected directly from Bhaktapur, Nepal over a three-month period (June, July, and August) in the summer of 2014. Visits were made to Bhaktapur on a weekly, or biweekly basis to conduct interviews or observe various aspects of the religion such as rituals or ceremonies, preparation for such activities, or the daily actions of the members of the Navadurga community. The following section will discuss and reflect on the methods utilized to gather the information in addition to my personal experiences in conducting the research.
Prior to arriving in Nepal preliminary research was conducted to familiarize myself with Durga, the Navadurga, the use of masks in Hinduism, and Bhaktapur. This was beneficial in building an initial base of knowledge that became useful when talking with members of the Navadurga community, observing the various activities, and conducting interviews. The research in the field would have benefitted had I done more preliminary research on a wider range of topics. This will be discussed at more length in the end of this section. Once in Nepal research was done directly with the locals through interviews and observations.
Interviews serve as the main source of information for this study. A total of twenty-two (22) individuals were interviewed. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed seventeen belong to the Navadurga community and the remaining five are citizens of Bhaktapur. The five informants outside of the Navadurga community consisted of a one local historian, two tourist guides, and two individuals who pay homage to the Navadurga at their various festivals and ceremonies. The seventeen interviewed from within the Navadurga community consist of performers (both dancers and musicians), priests, community leaders known as Nayas, and various other individuals who participate in the tradition through some other capacity. All but two of the individuals have asked to remain anonymous. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed only eight individuals will be frequently cited. That is because these eight individuals were able to give additional insight into the topic that the other individuals were either not able to share due to a lack of knowledge or because they were not comfortable sharing. Included in the eight individuals who will be frequently cited are the two individuals who did not ask to remain anonymous, leaving six individuals who will be provided with pseudonyms. Table 1 presents information regarding the individuals’ experiences and base of knowledge of those who have been assigned pseudonyms. Information that was widely agreed upon will not be cited in this paper.
Naya in training, learning from his father and the other Nayas
A senior Naya
A young Naya
Performed as Duma when a child, comes from a family line of temple priests
Priest and performer
* note: Roshan was also a translator
Interviews were conducted with the use of a translator and were recorded using an audio recorder. The interviews were initially based of a basic questionnaire and then evolved along with the conversations as they progressed. Interviews were conducted with either one individual or in groups of two or three. Due to the nature of the topic being studied individuals were hesitant to answer some of the questions or felt as though they were not educated enough to answer properly. Those interviewed were very concerned that they might misrepresent something or share the wrong information, making conducting the interviews very difficult. In fact, a month into my research I found that the information I was collecting from the individuals not to be consistent. After some time I had realized that when I asked certain questions that pertained to information that the Navadurga community regards as sacred and secret they would fabricate their answers. This was a reoccurring theme in many of the interviews, so much so that I decided to start my research again having modified how I approach certain questions and the interviews in general. For this reason you will notice that there are rarely any citations from interviews held in June, except for the interviews held with the two individuals familiar with the interview process; these individuals are Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha (a historian) and Kedar Raj Upadhyay.
One adjustment made to the way interviews were conducted was a change in the translator I used. Originally I had hired a translator recommended to me from a colleague that was not familiar with Navadurga. I believe this had a detrimental effect on the work I was doing, as the translator knew less about the tradition than I had. Following the restart of the interviewing process I was introduced to a young individual named Roshan [pseud.], a son of one the Navadurga temple’s priests. Roshan had recently graduated from with bachelors of tourism, was proficient in English and was very knowledgeable on the Navadurga tradition. He was also eager to secure experience working with tourists (although I consistently claimed not to be a tourist). Hiring Roshan had a very positive impact on my research by opening new doors and creating a more comfortable and familiar environment for the interviewing process; all of the members of the Navadurga community either knew him or were related to him. Not only was Roshan excellent as a translator, but he also proved to be a very valuable informant himself. The more time I spent with Roshan the more inclusive the community became of me and the more I was able to learn.
Observing the community in action and witnessing specific events provided an excellent source for gaining new information as well as to confirm information received from informants. During my time there this summer I was able to observe the rituals and ceremonies of Sirja, Gathemangal, and Ganesh Chaturthi. I was also able to witness the preparations being made for Dashain and the daily puja performed at the temple, except for the puja done in the sacred room that I was not permitted to enter. I was also able to capture images from all of the events I attended, some of which will be shared in Appendix A.
Reflecting back on my experiences collecting information and researching in Bhaktapur I can think of modifications that would have benefitted the information collection process. First and foremost this research would have benefitted from more additional preliminary research. Having only taken one university course on Hinduism the knowledge I poses is basic at best. Had I been more familiar with topics such as Tantra, gender roles, puja, and Hinduism in general I would have been better able to pick up on certain aspects that I had otherwise missed. The most beneficial alteration made to my approach was using someone like Roshan, someone knowledgeable about the Navadurga, as my translator. While I was conducting research in Nepal I was also working an internship with a local environmental non-governmental organization. It was because of this position I was only able to visit Bhaktapur on a weekly or biweekly basis. Spending time with Roshan made connections grow faster and provided new opportunities that helped make the most out of the time I was able to spend in Bhaktapur. If I were to repeat a similar situation in the future I would hope to find an individual as resourceful as Roshan.
The largest hindrance to my research was certainly the internship. I lived and worked in Patan and had to take the local bus out to Bhaktapur, travel time would amount to somewhere between three to four hours each day I travelled. The next time I conduct field research I will certainly ensure that it is my only project and that I immerse myself in the environment of my study. I missed many opportunities because of my internship, whether having to miss an event for work or having to schedule interviews. Although a common practice in the West, setting up meeting times is not a frequent practice of the citizens of Bhaktapur. Often I would meet an individual and have a brief conversation with them to find out that they would make an excellent informant, however, I would be on my way somewhere so I would have to set a time to come back and talk with them. More often than not, the potential informants would not show up to the meeting place, or they would come along at a leisurely pace while I waited for the afternoon. Had I lived in Bhaktapur and was able to focus solely on this research I know it would have had yielded significant benefits.
The Origin of the Navadurga
Few people in Bhaktapur know the story of the origin of the Navadurga tradition. Having spoken with the locals many are familiar with the Navadurga, their processions through the streets of Bhaktapur, and their use of masks and dance. However, not many are acquainted with the story behind the tradition; except for the Navadurga community and citizens who have sought education on the topic. Robert I. Levy is the leading scholar on the city of Bhaktapur and provides an account of the origin story in his book Mesocosm. This section of the paper will present the story as told by Levy followed by key differences and distinctions made by informants from Bhaktapur. The following is a summary of the origin story as presented by Levy:
The Navadurga inhabited the forest Jwala, which was located Northeast of Bhaktapur. As people passed by, the Navadurga would capture them, kill them, and then drink their blood as a sacrifice to themselves. One day the Navadurga captured a man by the name of Sunanda, who was a Ācāju (a priest of farmer origin). Unlike most Ācāju, Sunanda was an expert in Tantric knowledge and mantras (a sacred utterance) and was able to bind the Navadurga, restricting their movement with the use of a mantra. Embarrassed, the Navadurga pleaded to Sunanda to forgive them, and in exchange they would not sacrifice him. Rather than releasing them, Sunanda shrunk them, placed them in his basket and brought them back to his home in Bhaktapur where they were placed in a chest and received periodical worship.
Time passed, the amount is unknown, until one-day Sunanda’s guru, Somarā Rājopādhyāya (a Brahmin) came for a visit. Somarā Rājopādhyāya had a deep and intricate understanding of Tantra and had conveyed to Sunanda that he had not been worshiping the Navadurga properly. Therefore, Somarā Rājopādhyāya took the chest containing the Nine Durgās back to his own house in the Palisāche neighborhood, where he hid them. Somarā Rājopādhyāya worshiped the Navadurga in secrecy using Tantric bidyā (secret arts) and made sacrifices to them. The Navadurga were forced to dance and tell stories using the movements of their hands. Sometime prior, the Navadurga had informed Sunanda and Somarā that should anyone else see them they would be released from the spell. This made Somarā Rājopādhyāya act very surreptitiously; he told his wife to never look into the room where the Navadurga were kept locked up. One day Somarā Rājopādhyāya had left the house and his wife peeked into the room and saw the Navadurgas dancing. The stories differ in what happened to Somarā’s wife; some say that the Navadurga killed her as a sacrificial offering, others say that she was simply severely scolded by her husband. Regardless, the Navadurga, now released from their Tantric binds, escaped from the Brahmin’s home.
Upon their escape, the band of deities captured, sacrificed, and ate a pig at the place known as “Bha: Dwākhā.” Upon his arrival home, Somarā Rājopādhyāya was informed that the Navadurga have escaped. He immediately began pursuing them and with the beating of a small drum and the use of mantras he was able to freeze the Navadurga in their flight in the upper part of the city known as “Swaga Lwaha.” Somarā pleaded with the Navadurga to return to his house. However, this was not possible since the Navadurga had consumed a pig, making them ritually impure and thus impossible for them to reenter the Brahmin’s home. Since the Navadurga could not return to the Brahmin’s house they made the suggestion that a pyākha (dance drama) be arranged where the Navadurga would enter into the performers, allowing for the whole city to be able to see and worship them. Somarā established a god-house for the Navadurga and commissioned to the Gāthā community the authority and responsibility of performing each year as the Navadurga.
An alternative ending to the story is given where Somarā Rājopādhyāya instructed one of his students, an Ācāju to capture the Navadurga in a spell. After some difficulty the student was able to capture them, he then placed them into a god-house in the district of the city where the Gāthā reside. At the request of Somarā the Gāthā cared for the Navadurga and learned their dances. Somarā taught both the Ācāju and the Gāthā all the necessary Tantric procedures they would need. And thus, still following Somarā’s instructions, the Ācāju and the Gāthā still perform their duties for the Navadurga today.
The origin story as told by Levy provides a very thorough overview; only a few distinctions need to be made. The alternate ending to the story is reflective of the Navadurga community’s (Gāthā) perspective, whereas the first ending is reflective of the Brahmin’s perspective, minus a point or two. An informant of mine, Kedar Raj Upadhyay, claims to be the descendent of Somarā, the Brahmin priest from the story. Kedar makes the key distinction that the reason the Brahmin had to pass on the tradition, that is the responsibility and the authority of the Navadurga practices, to the Gāthā, a low ranking caste, was a form of punishment for breaking the oath of secrecy. Another key distinction made is that Somarā had two wives, one Brahmin wife and another low caste wife, and some believe that it was because the lower caste wife saw the Navadurga that the tantric bond was broken releasing the deities. As mentioned previously, the alternate ending provides the account believed by the Navadurga community (also known as Gāthā). The only difference in the story believed by the Gāthās is an element of predestination. The Gāthās say that while Somarā taught the Ācāju a Gāthā brought a delivery of flowers to Somarā, this Gāthā happened to have as many sons as men were needed to carry out the tradition’s practices, providing an easy solution as to who should assume the responsibilities and leadership of the tradition. The Ācāju, or priest, is now called Karmacharya, a role that will be elaborated upon later in this paper.
Some additional points can be made about the history of the tradition that is not included within the origin story. The Navadurga tradition began in the twelfth century of the Common Era under the Malla dynasty, who reigned over Nepal for six hundred years. The Malla were followers of Shakti gods (female), because they believed that the gentleness of the male deities could not protect their nation, king, and countrymen, whereas the dangerous Tantric goddesses could protect all three. Bhaktapur had temples built in cardinal points throughout the city for each of the Navadurga, replicating the Navadurga yantra thereby increasing the tantric power as a means to protect the city. Figure 1 presents a drawing done by Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha of the layout of the Navadurga’s individual god houses with that of the Navadurga yantra. Each point on the periphery is a god-house as well as the point in the center. During the period of Malla rule over Nepal tantric practitioners knew that divinity could transfer itself into wood, stone, and
metal so they began running experiments to see if the divine could transfer into the human body. These experiments happened in the twelfth century and were found to be very successful. It is from this point that the Navadurga tradition as it is known today began. Furthermore, an interesting component of the Navadurga traditions is the use of pigs in sacrifice. Pig sacrifice is not a common practice in Hinduism, animals typically sacrificed include, sheep, goats, chickens, and buffalo. The central use of the pig in the tradition and from the origin story also began in the twelfth century. During that period the Muslim Turks established a powerful kingdom in northern India around Delhi and began to expand their control over the area. In an effort to preserve their culture and traditions the Newars of Bhaktapur adopted the use of pig sacrifice since the Muslims think poorly of pigs and avoid them. The efforts made by the Newars of Bhaktapur successfully preserved the beliefs and traditions of the Malla dynasty so that they could still practiced today.
The Navadurga Today
The Navadurga tradition as practiced today is an intricate tradition that relies solely on the tradition’s keepers, who have been referred to as the Navadurga community throughout this paper, and from the local patrons who provide their support. The Navadurga festival is the longest festival in the area, spanning over nine months and including many specific rituals and ceremonies, and encompassing several other festivals. This section of the paper will present the tradition as it is found today, first by identifying the traditions membership, then its activities such as ceremonies, rituals, and preparations, in addition to its relations and operations.
The first group of membership to be elaborated upon will be that of the Navadurga themselves. The name Navadurga refers to the nine Durgas who are Mahālaksmī ,Mahākālī, Kumārī, Vārāhī, Brāhmanī, Bhadrakālī (also known as Vaisnavī), Indrānī, Maheśvarī, and Tripurasundarī. Each of these goddesses has a dyo-chen (god house) located in a specific area in the city of Bhaktapur that together form the shape of the Navadurga yantra (figure 1). Of these goddesses Mahālaksmī is the paramount deity; she draws power from Taleju and gives it to the Navadurga. Mahālaksmī does not have a mask; instead she is represented as a silver repoussé that is carried in the lead of the Navadurga processions to showcase her superior position. The Navadurga tradition involves an additional six deities who are Bhairav, Sweto Bhairav, Śiva, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Bhairav is the leader of the Navadurga and assumes that role in the performances. Sima (tigeress) and Duma (lioness) are the protectors of the Navadurga and accompany them everywhere. All of the deities aforementioned are represented in the Navadurga tradition in some fashion. There are thirteen masks who represent all but Mahālaksmī and Tripurasundarī. As mentioned previously Mahālaksmī is represented in a silver repoussé that is carried in front of the processions. Tripurasundarī’s representation is disagreed upon. Some informants say that Tripurasundarī is represented in the three musical instruments played, while others insist that she is represented by the Kolachen (human skull cap used a cup).
As mentioned earlier there is a specific community who acts as the sole authority and keeper of the Navadurga tradition. This community prefers to be called Banmala. Other names used for them include Gāthā, as used by Levy, and Gunkā. These names provided are the surnames used by the community. While a majority of them identify themselves as Banmala, you may also find some of the other variations, dependent upon how the individual’s forefathers decided to identify themselves. The Banmala are a low caste group that traditionally farmed and sold flowers to the greater community. Today some still occupy this traditional role, however others have began to farm other crops such as rice and barley. The Banmalas are the tradition’s keepers; they alone fulfill the requirements of the tradition as well as occupy an overwhelming majority of the positions in the tradition. Other individuals or communities assist and will be elaborated upon shortly. The Banmalas provide all of the performers, known as Gana, for the tradition. The Gana includes twelve dancers and three musicians. In addition to the Gana, the Banmala also occupy the roles of temple priests (additional priests from other communities come to perform specific rituals), temple caretaker (known as the Nakin, also to be elaborated upon shortly), the tradition’s leaders (the Naya), as well all other roles needed to upkeep the tradition. The roles of Gana, Naya, and Nakin are restricted to Banmalas only. Should a Banmala marry someone from outside of their community both they and their offspring will not be allowed to assume a position within the Navadurga tradition. As previously mentioned there are other groups or individuals from outside of the Banmala who assist in the tradition. Table 2 presents the various other groups or individuals who assist along with their respective role. These groups either assist as a whole or there is a specific individual from the group that is responsible for completing the tasks (those who are individuals are marked with an asterisk). Some of the groups fill very minor roles, specifically the Shakya, who interestingly enough are the highest caste in the Newar community but assume the least important role within the tradition. This is an interesting contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. The Shakyas are the highest caste in the Newar community, however, they assume a very minor role in the city’s dominant tradition. All of these roles listed in Table 2, regardless of how small they may seem, are important aspects of the tradition.
Artisan who creates the masks each year. This role is passed down from generation to generation
The clay workers who provide the clay for the masks
Sacred priest of the Navadurga who performs specific rituals. Such rituals include the puja at Ganesh Chaturthi and Dashain
Also performs rituals and puja, such as the cremation of the masks
Colour the sacred thread
Musicians who perform at some events. Different from the musician members of the Gana
Newar priests who perform special puja
Kill the buffalo during Dashain
Repair damaged jewelry
* Note: the names marked refer to a specific individual from their respective community.
The involvement of the Banmala in the tradition can be broken down into four positions or roles. There are the Gana (fifteen individuals), the Naya (eight individuals), the Nakin (one individual), and periodical roles of assistance (number of individuals varies dependent upon the event). The periodic roles are filled according to availability and vary in their responsibilities. These positions are not dictated in the same fashion as the other roles of the Naya, Nakin, and the Gana. The Gana is made up of twelve dancers and three musicians. The musicians are responsible for playing the traditional instruments known as the khin (a large drum played on both sides), ta (small cymbals), and kya (large cymbals). The remaining twelve
members of the Gana are performers who dance and wear the masks throughout the festival. These twelve members wear the masks of Bhairav, Mahākālī, Vārāhī, Kumārī, Bhadrakālī, Brāhminī, Indrānī, Sweto Bhairav, Maheśvarī, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Young Banmalas between the ages of five to twelve wear the masks of Sima and Duma. The Gana occupy their roles on a yearly basis, although they may be chosen to perform back to back in either the same position or another one; the rotation cycle comes from a sacred book that will be discussed later in this section. Gana members have to follow specific rules while in their position; such rules include not sharing food from the plates of others except for from fellow Gana. They can not wear their costume or ornaments outside of the specified performance areas, they must always act in a respectful manner; they are restricted to only one meal on performance days, they must be barefoot whenever they are in their ceremonial costume, and finally they may not participate in funeral rights during performance or ritual periods. When the Gana are learning their roles during the off months of the Navadurga tradition they are restricted from coming in contact with women, and must visit their respected god’s/goddess’ dyo-chen (god house) everyday to worship and pray. The Gana positions are restricted to men only. The only position occupied by a woman is the role of Nakin.
The Nakin is a specific role that takes care of the Navadurga temple and performs the daily puja. The daily puja is known as Nitya puja and the Nakin performs it twice a day, once after sunset and again before sunrise. The Nakin position operates an annual cycle, each year a new woman will assume the position. The Nakin must live on the temple grounds and act as a guard to protect the images, keep the temple clean, perform daily puja, and take on additional responsibilities during various ceremonies and rituals.  Such responsibilities include purifying the Gana before performances and preparing for feasts that are held at the temple. The Nakin must be married. If she is widowed during her time as Nakin she will be replaced. The Nakin has more specific responsibilities over the course of the year than any other member of the Navadurga tradition. The Nakin’s role is another contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. Women are typically not the caretakers of temples as they are not able to become as ritual pure as their male cohorts.
The Naya are the leaders of the tradition. There are eight Nayas in total who work collectively as the managers of the tradition.  The Naya are experts and knowledgeable about all aspects and roles of the tradition. They ensure that the temple has all of the supplies it needs to perform all of their required rituals, events, and ceremonies of the tradition as well as care for the ornaments and clothes and manage all of the performances. Such supplies include oil, food, animals for sacrifice, and all essential items for offerings. The role of Naya is a family position that is passed from father to son. If a Naya does not have a son he will instruct his oldest nephew from among his own siblings. It is unknown how the linage of the Nayas was chosen. Like the other positions, the role of Naya operates on an annual cycle; the number of Nayas who are active in their position changes each year. Also like other positions, the Nayas selected each year is predetermined in a book that is kept secret. The Nayas are the sole caretakers of the unnamed book that provides some sort of mechanism for selecting the people who will fill the various roles of the tradition each year. The name and origin of the book are kept secret; interestingly though they are comfortable revealing its existence.
The Tradition’s Activities
The Navadurga tradition is unique in its use of masks, its mobility, and in its social roles. While wearing the masks, it is believed that the gods who are represented come to manifest themselves in the humans. This instance is an excellent example of an aspect of the Navadurga tradition that contradicts mainstream Hinduism. While wearing the masks the Banmala, a low ranking social group, becomes regarded as divine and assumes a position on the top of the social hierarchy. While wearing the masks the Banmala are believed to transcend the normal social order as well as normal human capabilities. During this time the beings are able to do things not normally done by humans, such as drinking liters of alcohol and eating hundreds of eggs. While wearing the masks the Gana also drink blood from sacrificed animals. Most sacrifices to the Navadurga are pigs, however, buffalo, goat, sheep, chicken, and ducks are also sacrificed. The concept of sacrifice and blood offerings can be found in the tradition’s origin story in addition to being a common practice in Durga worship. Of the Navadurga, Bhairav is the member mainly responsible for conducting the sacrifices. Some instances require Mahakālī to perform the sacrifice, and if neither Bhairav nor Mahakālī are able to perform the sacrifice than Varahi is responsible for it. This order is reflective of the order of importance of the deities and is also reflected in the order of dance performances. The Gana perform their dances in the following order: Bhairav, Mahakālī, Vārāhī, Badrakālī, Kumārī, Maheśvarī, Brāhmanī, Ganesh, Indrānī, Sima, Duma, and finally Sweto Bhairav. The Navadurga tradition follows an annual cyclical pattern that begins with Gathemangal.
Gathemangal is a Newar festival that is dedicated to cleansing away demons. Constructing figures built from straw, to represent the demons, and then burning them removes the demons. The festival is marked with loud music and processions of people carrying torches through the streets to light the straw built demons at each cross-road. For the Banmalas this day marks the beginning of the new Navadurga cycle. Every year new masks are made at the beginning of the Navadurga cycle and then cremated at the end. When the masks are cremated the city of Bhaktapur believes that the Navadurga has left their city to go into the countryside to ensure that the agricultural cycle begins. During this time while the Navadurga are away the city becomes occupied with demons. On Gathemangal the Prajapati provide the Banmala with the clay that is used to build the masks. In turn the Banmala take this clay to the Chitraker’s home to be worshiped as Śiva and sacrifice a chicken as an offering. This marks the beginning of the construction of the new masks and the return of the Navadurga to Bhaktapur, which is why the city is being cleansed from demons. The masks need to be completed by Dashain, which is less than two months away. Gathemangal happens in accordance with the lunar calendar and marks the start of a rigorous training period for the Gana. During this training period the Gana have to adhere to the rules listed above under membership and must perform puja at their respective god’s house each day.
The next annual event is Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival dedicated to Ganesh. The Navadurga have their own event that coincides with this festival. At this time the Gana make a procession from the Navadurga temple to the Nasadyo temple where the Karmacharya will perform the ritual and sacrifice a sheep. Nasadyo is a tantric god of wisdom and knowledge that is worshiped by the Gana everyday from the period of Gathemangal to Dashain so that they may be granted the knowledge necessary to perform their roles. Following the sacrifice of the sheep all Gana members eat a piece of the raw flesh combined with beaten rice. The Gana who performs as Brāhmanī takes a piece of the sacrificed sheep to the Brāhmanī temple to performs a specific puja ritual. After these rites have been completed all of the Gana members return to the Navadurga temple where a feast is being prepared. The sacrificed sheep is butchered and cooked for the feast and the sheep’s hide is removed, stretched, and framed and placed in the sun to dry. The temple will use the sheep hide for some task, such as to repair a damaged drum. Following the feast the Gana perform their first dance of the season. This is the only dance that the Gana perform in public that they do not use their masks for, since the masks have not yet been completed. These dances are not expected to be perfect, since it is some Gana’s very first public performance. Each performer will perform an independent dance, except for Indrānī, Sima, and Duma who all perform together. Following these dances a group number is performed in honour of Ganesh, with the Ganesh Gana in the center.
The next event in the annual cycle is Dashain, the largest Durga festival. By this time the Chitraker will have completed the masks and they are placed on display on the ninth day of Dashain where the citizens of Bhaktapur come to give them offerings and puja.Offerings typically consist of egg, fish, meat, wine, and set Newar food dishes (beaten rice, dal, and spicy potatoes). Before the masks are displayed they are taken to the Taleju temple in the palace compound (Durbar Square) of Bhaktapur where they receive initiation rituals. These rituals are unknown as the members of the Banmala would not share this information; they did however say that the masks received similar initiation rituals as Hindu people. Following their initiation the masks are then regarded as divine and set out to be worshipped by the public. On the tenth day of Dashain Brāhmanī is worshiped in the morning and then a buffalo is sacrificed at the Brāhmanī temple. Following the sacrifice the Navadurga make a procession towards the Taleju temple in Durbar Square. Prior to making the procession the Karmacharya hands each performer their masks, symbolic of the Karmacharya’s, or Ācāju’s, role in capturing and placing the Navadurga into the care of the Banmala. The Taleju image is removed from the temple and placed at the front gate to greet the Navadurga. Having greeted the Navadurga the Taleju image is then taken on procession with them throughout Bhaktapur; this is the only time that the Taleju image is removed from the temple.
Following Dashain the Navadurga Gana journey around the Kathmandu Valley where they perform specific rituals in each community they pass through in addition to being commissioned by patrons to come perform private rituals. The Navadurga travel to the following destinations:
Kavre District: Nala, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Panauti, and Shreekhandapur.
The Navadurga are prohibited from using vehicles. Instead they walk everywhere; they go with bare feet. It is believed that they cleanse the areas they walk through from disease, which is why they must walk everywhere.
After visiting the surrounding areas and performing their rituals at each one the Navadurga season begins to come to an end. Sirja and De-chā-mukego, the last supper and last ceremony, mark the conclusion of the Navadurga season. The De-chā-mukego is the final procession of the Navadurga through Bhaktapur that ends at the Taleju temple. Within the temple compound the Navadurga have their last supper (Sirja) and then return to each of their own respective god house. The next day the masks are cremated at the Brāhmanī temple funeral pyres. The cremation marks the end of the annual Navadurga cycle and it is believed that the goddesses have left Bhaktapur to attend to the fields, crops, and farmers. After the Navadurga have left the city compound a sacred room in the Navadurga temple is sealed off until the Navadurga return, in the next two to three months. After this point the Banmala community begins to train the new Gana and prepare for the next annual cycle.
Relations Between the Locals and the Navadurga
The Navadurga of Bhaktapur are the city’s protectors from violence, disasters, disease, and illness in addition to ensuring agricultural prosperity. The Navadurga dance is a symbolic representation of the struggles, responsibilities, and discipline of the society in which it is based. A common belief in Bhaktapur is that the ringing sounds of the music played by the Navadurga Gana not only give the rhythmic signals to the dancers but also removes all obstacles caused by evil beings. It is for this reason that the Navadurga perform in so many communal areas throughout the Kathmandu Valley. The local people not only believe that the Navadurga remove obstacles and illness, but also that they answer wishes and provide blessings for those who worship them and give them offerings. Those who give the Navadurga money receive Prasad, a gift, in the form of flowers, plants, sacred thread, or food. The sacred thread is tied around the wrist and/or the neck using a specific knot according to tantric beliefs to grant the individual purity in their life. One informant’s grandmother stated that the Navadurga also assist in the digestive system. She recommended that you be careful about what and how much you eat during the months when the Navadurga have left the city. The relationship with the Navadurga and the local populations is of reciprocal nature. While the locals rely on the Navadurga for protection and as removers of obstacles and illnesses, the Navadurga rely on the locals for financial, social, and physical support. The local community donates the clothes worn by the Gana and the Gana must keep and use these clothes until new ones are donated. It is believed that the clothes hold Shakti power which would be lost if the clothes were washed, therefore the clothes remain unwashed and unchanged until the community provides new ones. It is typical for the outfits to be worn for years before they are replaced. While the Navadurga protects the locals they in turn are also in need of protection. Although the Navadurga are gods, they posses the bodies of humans during the Navadurga rituals and become vulnerable. On several instances the Navadurga Gana have been attacked or stolen from while wearing the masks, resulting in broken bones, lost artifacts, and offended deities. The Navadurga rely on the local people and authorities to ensure that the spaces they occupy for their rituals remain safe and sacred. The Navadurga tradition as operated by the Banmala relies heavily on the local community for financial support in order to maintain the traditions as it is practiced today.
The Navadurga tradition relies heavily on its patrons for financial support. The tradition costs approximately 900,000 NRS (Nepali Rupees) per year, without accounting for inflation, which is equal to $10, 537.41 CAD (at an exchange rate of $1 CAD to 85.41 NRS). While this amount seems small from a western perspective, it is a large sum for the people of Nepal. Most of the community members are labourers and a labourer’s salary may range from $80-$250 CAD per month. This total covers the maintenance of the temple, the daily necessities (such as oil for the lamps), the supplies for specific rituals, and animals for sacrifice. The Navadurga make a small earning by renting a few small pieces of property either for farming or in the city to be used for small storage spaces or stores. The remainder amount of the costs is collected throughout the Navadurga festivals from either privately commissioned rituals or from the crowds of people at Navadurga ceremonies and events. The members of the Navadurga tradition do not receive any monetary compensation for their roles. This places a huge strain on the members of the tradition since the various roles last for a whole year when one includes training periods. Members are permitted to work when they are not training or performing. However, the type of work they can do is limited due to the demanding schedule of the tradition and the odd hours it requires. These strains cause a lot of Banmala to remove themselves from the tradition and focus on earning a living and providing for their families. Modernization and westernization are challenges and obstacles faced by the Navadurga tradition. In years past the tradition had the patronage of the royal family, which secured the tradition and brought with it ample support. However, today the government of Nepal does not provide any subsidies or support for religious traditions. Modernization also has effects on the individual and collective values. In past periods the sacred was closely aligned with people’s values, and the positions in the Navadurga tradition would have carried prestigious value. However, today values are beginning to be reflective of the western practice of materialism, which lures the Banmala towards jobs, and positions that do not allow for them to commit the time necessary for being an active member of the tradition.
This paper has presented a report of the Navadurga, a Hindu tradition from Bhaktapur, Nepal. The Navadurga employ interesting and unique practices not present in other traditions. Such practices include mobile deities, the use of masks, an integral female position, and a unique inversion of social roles. It is interesting how interdependent the Navadurga and Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley are. The Navadurga are just as much reliant on the community as the community relies on them. The Banmala have managed to preserve the ancient Navadurga practices due to their rigorous dedication. Although they face many strains I am hopeful that the tradition will remain for many more generations in to the future.
I would like to thank the University of Lethbridge for providing me with the opportunity to travel to Nepal and experience this amazing tradition. I have learned and grown from this experience in countless ways and know that this growth will benefit me in my future endeavors. I would also like to thank my Professor Dr. Hillary Rodrigues for believing in my capabilities and helping me make this all possible. Finally I owe a lot of gratitude to the Banmala for allowing me to conduct this research and for welcoming me into their community and sharing their stories with me. I will cherish the memories built throughout this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you.
 Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durgā and Sacred Female Power (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2010), 3.
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Rodrigues, Hillary P. “Divine Times: Goddess worship in Banāras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 131-45. New York: Routledge, 2011.
[Article written by: Brandon McNally (December 2010) who is solely responsible for its written content and pictures.]
While India accounts for the vast majority of the world’s Hindus, there are significant populations in other countries, notably Nepal, the Himalayan nation located between India and China (Tibet). In fact, Hindus make up a larger share of the population in Nepal than any other country. 85 to 90 per cent of the people in Nepal are Hindus, while according to the 2001 census, 80.5 per cent of the people of India identified themselves to be Hindu (Rodrigues 28). Hinduism has played an important role in shaping the history of Nepal, which was a Hindu kingdom, and the world’s only officially Hindu state, until 2008. Although Hinduism as practiced in Nepal is similar in many ways to Hinduism in India, several unique and important aspects characterize Nepali Hinduism.
Nepal has historically been a meeting point of Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups. The Indo-Aryan, or Hindu caste groups, migrated to central Nepal between the 12th and 15th centuries when the Muslims invaded India and they migrated north (Burbank 46). Most of the indigenous Tibeto-Burman groups eventually adopted Hinduism in some form, yet in many cases their religious and cultural traditions survived and were incorporated into their version of Hinduism. Any migrants that arrived in Nepal at different times in history eventually interacted with the local population, and these waves of immigration and the interaction between Hindu groups and indigenous groups helped influence how Hinduism is practiced in Nepal.
Sudden and violent political change has been a persistent part of Nepal’s history (Whelpton 1). Prior to the emergence of the modern state of Nepal, the area that now makes up the country was divided among many competing kingdoms and states. Nepal was first occupied by the dynasty of the Licchavi family and then was dominated by other historical dynasties. The Licchavi-kings ruled the country and had close ties with India because they were related to the Indian dynasty by marriage (Kooij 3). The Malla Dynasty ruled the nation from the 13th to 18th centuries after being forced out of India. During the Malla dynasty was when the indigenous individuals were called Newars (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:4).
The modern state of Nepal emerged in the middle of the 18th century when Prithvi Shah conquered the Katmandu valley, known as Nepal today, and unified the territories that now make up Nepal under his leadership. Prithvi Shah established a royal dynasty that lasted until the ending of the monarchy in 2008 (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:3). The Shah dynasty at this time played an important religious role in Hinduism in Nepal, as the royal family occupied their own caste and were revered, with the king believed by many to be an incarnation of the deity Visnu (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:3)
From 1846 until 1951 the Rana dynasty ruled Nepal with the Shah kings serving only as figureheads (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:4). The Rana dynasty made the prime minister and other governmental positions hereditary. The Rana dynasty used Hindu ritual to codify the castes and ethnic groups of Nepal (Gellner and Whelpton 1997: 4).
A popular uprising led to Nepal becoming a constitution monarchy. In 1990 the new constitution changed the country from an independent Hindu Kingdom to a democratic Hindu and constitutional monarchial kingdom. Ten members of the royal family died in 2001 and prince Dipendra was crowned to be the new monarch. Dipendra shot and killed the family, and eventually Gyanendra, King Birendra’s brother, became king. Protests broke out in 2006 and Nepal was officially in civil war and later was declared a federal republic.
Hinduism played a significant role in the emergence and development of the modern state of Nepal. While the country is now an officially secular republic, political parties with Hindu nationalist and royalist views remain important, although not as powerful as secular parties.
Hindu practices and traditions play an important part in day-to-day life for Nepali people. Festivals and rituals help promote group cohesion and solidarity (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 1). In Nepal a commonly practiced ritual is morning worship at neighborhood shrines (Burbank 80). The main gods that Nepali Hindus worship are similar to India’s Hindus, being Brahma the creator, Visnu the preserver, and Siva the Destroyer. Nepali Hindus may often choose one particular god to worship daily (Burbank 76).
Siva is regarded as the guardian god of the country of Nepal. Temples dedicated to Siva are decorated with bulls on them, as the bull is Siva’s mount. A trident is usually placed on top of the temple and a drum is another decoration and is one of Siva’s known attributes. The word Siva comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “destroyer”; this destruction associated with Siva has to do with the purifying power of opening a new path for new creation. The deity Siva follows Brahma the creator and Visnu the preserver with Siva being the destroyer of the world (Kooij 14).
The Hindu religion in Nepal teaches the concept of Dharma. The duty and righteous actions in relationship with the cosmic order that Hindus follow. In the context of Nepal, people speak of Dharma as something one does, rather than something one believes in (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 8). This concept is practiced by most religious Hindus and is therefore an important part of the faith in Nepal. The three paths to Moksa are also important within the concept of Dharma in Hinduism in Nepal. These three paths consist of the attainment of knowledge, devotion to god, and the path of action are the ways to attain Moksha, the union of the individual with the Supreme Soul (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 11).
Several significant Hindu festivals are celebrated in Nepal. Perhaps the most important festival in Nepal is Dasain. All castes participate in the festival, which lasts fifteen days, making it the longest and most anticipated festival in Nepal. In September to October the fifteen days occur during a lunar fortnight with the final day ending in the full moon. The Hindu Goddess Durga is worshipped for nine days and on the tenth day young individuals receive blessing from elders. The festival has great social significance and family is a very important part of the celebration with a large emphasis on the renewal of community ties (Kooij 11).
Another important festival is Tihar, known as Diwali or Deepawali in India. Tihar is also known as the festival of lights, where lights are celebrated for five days and people pray to the Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune and the consort of the god Visnu. Families gather in their homes where they light candles and small clay lamps, which are kept on throughout the night to make Laxmi feel welcome in their home (Burbank 76).
One of the most significant aspects of Hinduism in Nepal is the Kumari tradition, in which young girls, selected from the Newari community, are worshipped as manifestations of the goddess Durga. The word Kumari means “virgin” in Sanskrit and the girls need to be prepubescent and unmarried. While there are multiple Kumaris in Nepal, the most popular well-known Kumari is located in a palace in the center of the capital, Katmandu. The Kumari must perform purification rites before taking her throne and is not supposed to leave her palace except for important ceremonial circumstances. Like Durga, Kumari has a third eye painted on her forehead and she dresses in red. Every few years, in October or November, a new Kumari is selected and has to undergo a test. The first part of the test the young girl is taken to a temple and freed into the courtyard where there are several scary creatures and the second part is sleeping in a room with many scary animal heads. If the girl does not show fear then she is the correct candidate and holds all the right qualities; this takes place during the Durgapuja festival (Kooij 11).
While Hinduism is practiced in Nepal in similar ways to Hinduism in India, it differs in other important ways. The caste system in Nepal, for example, is broadly similar to the caste system in India. In Nepal, as nearly everywhere in India, everyone knows what caste or ethnic group he or she belongs to (Gellner 2007:1823). The caste system was first introduced to Nepal by the Hindu caste groups, which migrated to Nepal around the 12th to 15th centuries. It was during the 14th century that king Jayasthiti Malla introduced caste principles and conduct in Nepal (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 5).
The caste system in Nepal is different from India’s Hindu caste system, although this difference mostly shows up in the comparison of the upper levels of the caste system. In India the caste system came about by regional adaptation in which there were four main categories (Hitchcock 116). The Tibeto-Burman groups were incorporated into the Nepali caste system, this integration being one of the biggest differences between Nepal and India’s caste systems.
In Nepal, the top caste consists of the Brahmans, known as Bahuns in Nepal, and the Kshatriyas, known as the Chetris. The bottom includes untouchable artisan castes (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:4). However, the Nepali system includes Newari and other ethnic group-based castes in the middle, as well as historically included a royal caste at the top. The lack of intermarriage also helped to create this aspect of structure.
There are numerous festivals that are celebrated by Hindus in Nepal and India, whether it is harvest season offerings to gods or rainy season when the rain god is worshipped. Another difference between Hindus in Nepal and India is that some festivals that are celebrated in India are not celebrated in Nepal, or vice versa; and certain festivals are celebrated on different days and at different times. Dasain is a more important festival in Nepal and Diwali is generally more important in India.
Perhaps the main reason for Nepali Hinduism’s unique character is the influence of Tibeto-Burman indigenous groups’ traditions. Kumari and Durgapuji are well-known examples of this influence and of the interaction between the cultures that make up Nepal. The tradition of the Kumari is significant because it originates with Nepali Newari community. Newari culture has retained elements, which are non-Indian and belong to the cultural background of the Tibeto-Burman Himalayan people (Kooij 1). Hinduism in Nepal has been shaped through its interaction with, and incorporation of, these traditions and cultural practices.
Until 2008, Nepal was the world’s only multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, Hindu kingdom (Rodrigues 460). Religion has always been a central feature of Nepali life, and Nepal has been a meeting ground for diverse religions (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 8). Hinduism has played an important role in shaping Nepali history. Although broadly similar, Nepal and Indian Hinduism differ in certain important details. Certain unique aspects, and the interaction between the Hindu migrants from India and the indigenous groups fundamentally shaped the unique nature of Nepali Hinduism. Rituals, festivals, and traditions such as Kumari help define Hinduism in Nepal as well as the country as a whole.
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In Hindu mythology the goddess Taleju, or Taleju Bhavani, is considered to be the tutelary and wrathful form of the Goddess Durga. Durga is known to be the embodiment of all powers and to be the source of and contain all other goddesses within her (Monaghan 88). The creation of the goddess Durga was actually by the gods themselves. While the gods were resting after fighting with demons, a particular demon, named Mahishasura, took advantage of the god’s absence and declared himself Lord of Heaven and Ruler of the Universe (Harding 53). Upon hearing this declaration Visnu was outraged and “shot forth a terrible light from his forehead” (Harding 53). All the other mighty gods were similarly angry and also shot forth beams of light in the same direction of Visnu’s. The beam of lights eventually converged and from the blazing eruption of light the Goddess Durga emerged. In some scripts Taleju has also been referred to as Kali, another form of the goddess Durga known for her destructive nature. Taleju is also known by many different names such as Tulja, Turja, Tava, Tamva, Talamonde, Talesvari, as well as Manesvari (Slusser 316).
In the Kathmandu Valley the goddess Durga in the form of Taleju has a special place of worship among the Newar society. Three major cities lie within the valley Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapu. It has been estimated that about 5 percent of Nepal’s people live in the Kathmandu Valley which is around 600,000 people and it is thought that half of the population is comprised of Newars (Levy 35). The Newars are a people whose nation ruled long before Nepal was established. Their borders are generally accepted as having included the slopes of the hills that surrounded the Kathmandu Valley.
In this society the goddess Taleju is extremely important; she represents the political aspect of the society in Kathmandu Valley, she is the most important deity, and is the goddess to which all other goddesses pay homage. She is the tutelary goddess to the Nepalese or Malla kings and the success, greatness, and prosperity of the kingdom is controlled by her. The Malla Kings often used the Goddess Taleju in order to legitimize their rule and succession in the Kathmandu Valley. The mantra of Taleju is a mark of the ruler’s succession and is very important to receive. It is thought that if a ruler failed to receive the mantra, he was liable to lose his kingdom (Allen 15). Even when the Malla kingdom was conquered during the Shah dynasty, the new king adopted Taleju as his new royal deity, in order to prove and cement his legitimacy to the throne.
The Kumari are another form of the Goddess Taleju and are young girls considered to be the human manifestation of the Goddess Taleju. The origin of using the Kumari to worship the goddess is explained in Nepalese mythology. There are several different versions of the myth, but they all point to a Malla king upsetting the Goddess so greatly that she refuses to appear to him in her true form. One myth claims that the Goddess Taleju agreed to appear before the king Trailokyamalla of Bhaktapur and in return he had to secretly establish a symbol of the goddess and allow no one to see it. However, one day while he was worshipping, the King’s daughter walked in and saw the symbol. Taleju revoked her agreement with the King and refused to appear to him unless she was in the body of a young high-caste girl (Slusser 316). Another account implicates the King Ratnamalla and his sister Gangi as the intruder (Slusser 316). Other versions say that the King Trailokymall used to play games of dice with Durga at night and she would give him advice on the affairs of the state. Unfortunately the King became so overwhelmed by her beauty and her sexuality that he started to have impure thoughts, making it too difficult to concentrate on his actions. The Goddess perceived the thoughts of the King and was offended; consequently the goddess informed the King that he would no longer hold the privilege of seeing her in her goddess form, and instead she would appear in the body of a young virgin girl (Amazzone 72). Yet another description explains that it was the jealousy of the Queen that angered the Goddess. Not knowing that the beautiful women playing dice was indeed the Goddess Durga the Queen burst into the King’s chambers and accused him of infidelity. Outraged, the Goddess furiously stood up waving her ten arms and several of her other enraged faces came forth showing her multi-headed manifestation of the Goddess Taleju declaring that she will no longer give him her help (Amazzone 72). The King was devastated and for days he performed pujas to win back the affection of Taleju, but again she will only return to him in the body of young girl so as not to cause anymore outbreaks of jealousy (Amazzone 72).
The worshipping of the Goddess Taleju in the form of a young virgin girl, or Kumari, became a tradition in the Newar society and has continued to this day. Usually young girls between the ages of two and four are selected to take on the role of a living Kumari, but they can be even younger. Many different girls can be worshipped as living Kumaris at the same time and there are three principal Kumaris in the three cities of Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. These girls are chosen on a measure of purity, to which there is specific criteria. In the case of the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, physical and psychological testing is done in a rigorous examination that is carried out by a committee appointed by the King’s priest (Allen 20). A group of eligible girls is brought before the committee on an auspicious day to be examined using a list of 32 perfections thought to be found in goddesses. The young girls must be in perfect health, suffering no serious illness especially an illness that may have caused a physical imperfection, no bad body smells, black hair and eyes and most importantly the girls must not have lost any blood from things like losing teeth or the start of menarche (Allen 20). The committee is also expected to take into account the reputation of the young girl’s family and her personality. If the committee is unable to find a young girl without an imperfection, they will choose the girl who most closely portrays the ideal (Allen 20). Once there has been a selection the young girl is brought to the palace of the king where he offers her a coin. She then returns to her home until the installation rites can be formed making her the new living Kumari (Allen 20). During the wait for the installation rites the spirit of the Kumari is thought to already be entering the body of the young girl, so if she shows any negative bodily symptoms she is considered to be unworthy of the role (Allen 20).
Once the girl is officially inducted into the role of the Kumari she is taken from her parents and family, and lives separately for the remainder of her term. The young girl is given attendants and caretakers to see to her needs (Allen 24, 25). Because the Kumari is a goddess, she is allowed to behave however she wishes, and she cannot be given instruction. However, if the Kumari was to consistently behave in a manner that was unbecoming, she would not be considered fit to continue her duty (Allen 27). The Kumari is an important part of religion and events in the Kathmandu Valley and is worshipped by the inhabitants of the Nepal; she is expected to appear in various rituals and participate in the many important festivals (Allen 28).
The young girl will continue her role as a Kumari until she shows signs of being human. The two biggest signs are the loss of teeth resulting in blood, or the beginning of the girl’s menstrual cycle. Once these signs appear the young girl is disqualified and a new Kumari is chosen (Allen 22). The now ex-Kumari must give back all of the valuable garments and jewellery she possessed during her reign and proceed through the life-cycle rituals and the rituals that will lead to her marriage (Allen 22).
References and Further Recommended Reading
Allen, Michael R. (1975) The Cult of Kumari: Virgin Worship in Nepal. New Delhi: Siddhartha Press.
Amazzone, L. (2010) Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. Plymouth: Hamilton Books.
Anderson, Mary M. (1971). The Festivals of Nepal. London: Allen and Unwin.