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CULTURE-NEPAL: Religious Tradition vs Maoist Secularism

Rita Manchanda

KATHMANDU, Oct 23 2008 (IPS) - Nepalis, religious and tradition-bound as they are, have in recent months worried over the fate of their centuries-old rituals and customs in the newly minted Maoist republic.

Ceremonies around the ritual blessings of Kathmandu’s Kumari (prepubescent living goddess), showered annually on the monarch at Dashain – the biggest Hindu festival here falling in late September-early October – are proving to be a test case.

The Kumari anoints the monarch’s forehead with the tikka (a paste of vermillion and rice). The king and the queen also smear the tikka on the foreheads of ministers and subjects at what is called Bada Dashain (Big Dashain).

This year, the beginning of the season was marked by street protests over what was seen as a violation by the Maoist government of the people’s religio-cultural traditions by blocking state funds normally set aside for the mass sacrifice of goats and buffaloes.

In the end, the government backed down and restored the grant. But the popular agitation suggested simmering differences between millennia-old, religiously-sanctified cultural traditions and the Maoist vision of a secular, non-feudal Nepal.

Until last year the Kumari anointed King Gyanendra, as per tradition established 240 years ago by his forefather Prithvi Narayan Shah, who first sought the Kumari’s blessing when he seized the capital in 1768.

In 2007, amidst considerable controversy, it was then prime minister Girija P. Koirala, presiding over an interim government, who came forward to have his forehead smeared with the auspicious tikka by the Kumari. But, within minutes, the king drove up to claim his right.

This year, with the monarchy abolished, it fell upon the republic’s head-of-state, Ram Baran Yadav, to receive the Kumari’s blessings. But the street protests pre-empted the country’s president from assuming the king’s ritual role.

President Yadav, however, offered tikka at Bada Dashain to hundreds of people who thronged his residence, including government ministers. This was a compromise with the past when when the king and queen performed the function.

For its part, the ex-royal couple administered the tikka to hundreds of loyalists who went to their residence. Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ chose to spent Dashain with his family, taking the tikka from his father.

Traditionally, during the Dashain period, tours religious places and visits the ‘Kumari Ghar’, the palace of the Kumari in central Kathmandu. President Yadav has not done so, though he has assumed the royal prerogative of approving the appointment of the new Kumari.

Matina Shakya, aged three, was installed as Kumar on Oct. 7 by the Maoist government, replacing the 11-year-old Preeti Shakya, who had to retire as she was approaching puberty.

Kumaris, considered by the devout to be the incarnation of the goddess Kali, and the Kumari Ghar are major tourist attractions in Kathmandu.

For Chunda Bajracharya, professor of cultural studies at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, there is no apparent dilemma involved in this transition. “The person who has the power in Nepal is the one who receives the royal Kumari’s blessings.”

His pragmatic approach was echoed by Keshab Bahadur Shrestha, a member of the government’s Kumari selection panel. “Just because we are now a republic, and no longer have a king or royal priest, does not mean we should end our traditions,” he said.

The Maoist-led government of ‘secular’ Nepal is maintaining the tradition of the ‘living goddess’ mostly because it wants to avoid the kind of popular backlash seen over the animal sacrifice rituals. Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai was forced to apologise though he warned of “invisible forces trying to take political advantage by provoking people on the pretext of religious and cultural issues.”

Royalist political forces were quick to seize the opportunity. Spokesman for the monarchist Nepal Rashtriya party, Naresh Bir Shakhya, tapped into the bubbling resentment, stating, “It only proves that the Maoists are determined to impose cultural revolution’’.

Dipak Gyawali, a former royal minister, added: “People are beginning to understand what secularism means. Secularisation, yes, not this ham-handed imposition of secularism which leaves the majority feeling insulted.”

Prof. Kapil Shreshta, an academic at Tribhuvan University who belongs to the prominent Newari community, argued: “Secularism (for Newars) isn’t the issue as long as declaring the country secular doesn’t affect them personally and leaves undisturbed their vital ritual traditions.” However, he was uneasy at democratically elected political leaders “mimicking” feudal practices.

Columnist Prashant Jha of ‘Nepali Times’ was more explicit. “To have the head of state – first Girija Prasad Koirala (2007) and now Ram Baran Yadav – replace the king at Kathmandu’s religio-cultural events leads to questions about whether formal secularism would mean a change from past practices.”

The project to restructure the state of Nepal includes secularism. The royalist political forces have so far failed to intertwine the secularism debate with the survival of the monarchy despite the king being considered as the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and the long tradition of nexus between state and religion.

Political scientist Krishna Hachhethu argues that although the 1990 Constitution made Nepal a Hindu state, the democratic disposition from the 1990s saw the emergence of secular trends, especially reflected in the non-Hindu assertion of Nepal’s indigenous communities.

In the 2001 census, the figure for Hindus in Nepal dropped from 86.5 to 80.6 percent. Also, the Maoist movement has given significant impetus to identity politics and the mobilisation of non-Hindu, indigenous people.

Nepal is unique in South Asia for the absence of religious tension in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

Hachhethu believes this is because “religion in Nepal is primarily thought of in terms of ritual practices and these are different from one locality to the other and from one group to the other, and within and among the Nepali Hindus.”

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