THIRTY DAYS OF PIOUSNESS

Photo: Kapil Thapa
Photo: Kapil Thapa
The usually crowded Swayambhunath has even more devotees thronging the premises these days. With traditional instruments and rhythmic chants, the place comes alive every single day. It is, after all, the month of Gunla, an important festival for Newar Buddhists.

Rajendra Man Bajracharya, chairperson of Vajrayana Mahasangh in Sanepa, says that Gunla comes from ‘gun yagula’ in Newar language, which means doing good deeds. Hence, during Gunla, people are encouraged to do good deeds by giving alms and engaging in religious acts.

It is when the worshippers go on a daily expedition to Swayambhunath with many folk musical instruments and singing the traditional hymn. This usually starts from the fifth day of Gunla, the day of Naag Panchami. People of different toles gather and go around the stupa premises. It is believed that doing so will be good for the departed souls, and hence the family members of the deceased make it a point to take part in it.

They carry Singhbhedi, the instruments of the dead, which is essential during the procession. Aside from that, special ceremonies take place with the help of the Gurujus, the priests. Those who can’t make it to Swayambhunath gather around the chaityas in the bahals and sing bhajans – Dapha bhajans in the morning and Gyanmala bhajan in the evening.

There are many festivals, rituals, and religious activities keeping the worshippers busy throughout this holy month, not only the Newar Buddhists. People of different religions and castes take part in the festivities as well.

Panchadaan or five offerings, is when the elaborate and beautiful shrines of Buddha are put on display and alms are offered, though the date of the event may vary in Kathmandu and Lalitpur. Umesh Buddhancharya, 48, says that the day was so important, that all kinds of living beings came to take part in the procession at Swayambhu, even gods, in the ancient times.

“A long time ago, it was said that during the night of the Panchdaan, gods descended from the heavens, and people would stay up all night to witness that. During the night, they sang stories about the 32 incarnations of Buddha, and kept themselves immersed in all things holy,” he says. Buddhancharya, who is a member of the family of priests, says that once, Yamaraj, the god of death, came to be a part of the procession and people, in a bid to make him happy, gave him sweets and gifts and asked for a boon to make them young forever.

The story of Panchdaan is said to have a direct relation with Guitobahi (now Gui: tole) in Patan, which is said to be the house of Buddha. A king named Sarwananda who used to rule Patan at that time, wanted to offer alms to the Dipankara Buddha, so he sent him an invitation. At that time, a really old and poor woman came to ask for alms. The king refused to give her the alms, saying that it was meant for the Dipankara Buddha.

On her way back, she met with the Dipankara Buddha and his disciples and gave him the alms she collected. When the king saw Dipankara Buddha accept the alms, he became angry. When Dipankara Buddha told him that she had offered him alms even though she wanted it herself, the king vowed to offer the alms earned by his own effort to him, whence the king went to work at a blacksmiths, teaching that when giving alms, it shouldn’t be the result of any irreverent work.

As the main activities of Gunla revolve around doing good deeds and earning merits, Bajracharya hints that it was a ploy to keep people from wandering. “The month used to be dangerous as there would be a fear of floods, landslides, earthquakes, and many such natural calamities. The rainy season also brought out many insects from hiding, which in turn put people at risk of various illnesses. It was considered a really dark month as many kinds of sickness affected the people,” he says.

He also adds that observing pious acts would reduce the risk of sickness and falling victim to the natural calamity. “These acts meant that people had to stay together and observe them together. It gave them an opportunity to mingle with one another and share their grief and sorrows,” he says.

Festivals like Naag Panchami and Mataya are also celebrated for the same reasons. Bajracharya says that constant rainfall meant that the snakes would come out and spread terror amongst people. Though there are many myths that accompany the story of Naag Panchami, he says that the ritual ensured that people could be saved from snakebites. “The cow milk, mustard seeds, cow dung, dubo, ghee, honey – all used in the Naag puja – are said to be avoided by snakes, hence keeping them at bay from human path,” he says.

Even Mataya, which means light procession, was said to have been conducted to check the houses for any visible damage because of the rain. As small bends and alleys, and the small chaityas and temples are visited during the procession, it is also said that it was an excuse to make sure that none of the inhabitants living in those areas were in danger of a weak structure.

Dealing with death and loss, however, seems to be the ultimate goal of Gunla, and the festivals in it. Gai Jatra or Saparu is another festival where the family member of the deceased has to visit temples around the city in their memory by traveling. And the main method of teaching people to deal with it seems to be by giving or donating whatever they can to those in need, and in the name of Buddha, the Blessed one.

No matter how fascinating these rich rituals and hidden and intended meaning behind conducting them are, the young generation is struggling to adapt to it because they don’t always understand what each rituals mean, making such acts nothing more than burden for them. Buddha Ratna Shakya, 48, a local of Shreebahal in Lalitpur, says that it is hard for the youngsters to embrace the traditions. He says that even elders’ act of keeping the tradition alive in its previous glory is difficult, because when elders pass down the rituals, most of the times, they fail to explain why.

“Not just young people, but also a lot of old people aren’t interested in knowing the reasons behind why we observe such traditions. There is so much to do, so many stories to know that it is impossible to keep track of them without having a proper system or recording. But if we had managed to record and understand it all, it would have added a new dimension to the festivals,” he says.

Even Swayambhunath, which has a great religious and cultural importance, has been reduced to a sight-seeing destination. Buddhancharya’s years of observations have convinced him that people’s perception about religious rituals and cultural traditions have been changing drastically over the years, increasing fear of indifference towards such customs.

Of course Guthi Sansthans, organizations which are responsible for carrying out religious events in the localities, are taking steps to make sure that they are being observed. According to Buddhancharya, if their family misses any of the days in the procession in the Gunla, then they have to pay fines to their respective Guthi Sansthans.

Though small, it shows that the locals have started taking steps in preserving their culture. Using Gai Jatra as an excuse to crack satirical jokes about the political scenario has definitely made people aware about the rituals, besides making it a popular festival among the masses. Perhaps something needs to be done with the other rituals as well.

The other solution

Shalini Sapkota* looked a little uneasy as she waited for her turn at the infertility center in Bijulibazar in Kathmandu. It had been a long day and black clouds loomed threateningly, making her feel like running away from there. But she stayed put. It wasn’t the first time she had visited the clinic, and there were important things to know from the doctor. Even after years of marriage, her husband Abhisekh* and she had been childless, and it was at this clinic that she sought a solution.

More at Republica, The Week

On the streets

Bijay Rai
Of all the people who can be seen loitering around in places like Ratnapark and Sundhara everyday, there are some who stay back for an unlikely reason. With a microphone in his hands and a huge black speaker by his side, Ramesh Giri and his group of friends manage to grasp the busy crowd’s attention every time they start singing. The fact that these people are visually impaired also manages to pull in the masses.

Every other day, Giri and his five other friends – Surya Limbu, Min Bohara, Nira Gurung, Kalpana Tamang, and Min Bahadur Tamang – meet at the Old Bus Park in Kathmandu, and together with Maya Rai, a woman who has dedicated herself to help them in their endeavors, go around Tundikhel, singing the tracks of popular folk and modern Nepali songs.

The first time they came together to create such a street spectacle was around a year ago. They were just acquaintances before that, and almost all of them were suffering from a financial crunch as none of them had jobs. Some sold candles and incense sticks after buying them in wholesale to a limited crowd, while the others were adept at making them. However, they were all struggling to make ends meet.

“I sold incense sticks and candles for some time,” says Giri. But it didn’t work out for him. “I couldn’t sell enough to make a good profit out of it. I was under pressure financially. It was then that Min Bahadur dai suggested singing. He is my brother-in-law and as I couldn’t think of anything better, I gave in and told him I was in,” he says.

On April 2014, Min Bahadur Tamang assembled this unique cast of singers and started a committee of their own under the name ‘Berojgar Drishtibihin Sangharsha Samitee’.

Giri had a passion for singing ever since he was a child and just a few years back he had even taken a singing course from an institute in Kirtipur. So he jumped at the opportunity to showcase his singing talents. The location didn’t matter as long as he was singing. He enjoys singing folk songs and songs by Nepali singers. Along with him, three others in the group sing; choosing from the tracks, and taking turns to entertain the crowd.

Usually, they earn around Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,500. On an extremely good day, they earn up to Rs 5,000. “But that is very rare,” says Min Bahadur. But that is not a surprise as many curious people come to see what they are doing. When they find out that they are visually impaired, they are eventually mellowed, and take out some money to give them.

Jaya Rai was one of them. She was walking to New Road with her husband and tried to see what was happening as there was a large group of people looking at something. She stayed for a while and asked her husband to give them a few rupees. “I felt sorry for them and wanted to give them money as they were working and doing something to earn their own living despite their limitations,” she says.

Many people feel sorry for their condition and give money without even listening to them. Saroj Bista, who was in a hurry, dropped a 20 rupee note and was on his way, but there are still some in the crowd who appreciate the singing. Rudra, a retired service holder, reached the venue when the group was taking a break, and seeing the crowd wait for the group to resume singing, stayed back. When Kalpana started singing, he commented on her beautiful voice.

As they live in different places around the valley, they travel in groups. Kalpana and Min Bahadur are a couple, and as Kalpana can see with one of her eyes, they manage to commute without much hassle. Maya picks up Ramesh and the others from their residence and brings them to Old Bus Park. They reach their spots by seven in the morning and stay there until the weather forces them to leave, and until they are tired. Sometimes, even if it is time for them to leave, the presence of audience encourages them to keep on singing. However, they make sure that they get home before dark.

Of course Ramesh and Kalpana wish that they were singing anywhere else than on the roadside. But they are bound by the situation. There are a lot of problems when you work from the street. “Sometimes, there are drunkards getting in our way. We can’t do anything to them and when it becomes too much, we even leave the venue. The metropolitan office has never chased us away. But the weather is a huge rival,” says Min Bahadur. They brave the scorching sun, but when it rains, they can’t come out and sing.

They feel that they are not being given a chance to fully explore their capabilities, as they think that if the state had given them opportunities rather than disability allowances, they would be much more than just street singers. “If given an opportunity, we can do anything,” says Min Bahadur. Before he formed the committee, Min Bahadur had tried registering a company of household essentials that he made himself, but he was unsuccessful at that.

What Ramesh wants to do is continue his singing streak and be recognized in a bigger platform. “I haven’t gotten a chance to sing anywhere else besides the streets, even when I went to Pokhara once. If God wants me to do this, then I will have to do it. This is our compulsion,” he says. However, he is pretty satisfied with what they are doing at the moment.

That is probably the reason why the number of street singers, who are visually impaired, is growing. Min Bahadur claims that majority of people who have lost their vision turn to singing in the streets because it’s a lucrative deal compared to all the other professions.

Bishnu Pariyar and Buddhi Maiya Sirekta are examples of that. The duo slowly finds their way and reaches the streets of New Road around eight in the morning to do their business. Unlike Min Bahadur and Ramesh, they have no one to lead them and are in the mercy of the bus drivers and conductors for their public ride. Bishnu has a 15 month old son to take care of and his wife is also visually impaired. Friends convinced Bishnu to sing on the roadside telling him that it would get him enough money to run the house. “It’s difficult at times. We don’t earn a lot, but it’s enough to survive. I have to take care of my son as well, I don’t want him to end up like me, and hopefully, things will be better when he grows up,” he says.

What Pariyar and Giri, and all the street singers have in common is how they think their lives could have changed had they had an opportunity to study or get other vocational skills early on. That is exactly what Shristi KC, founder of Blind Rocks, an organization working to train the visually impaired on various fronts, is trying to do.

“We are engaged with kids and youths who are visually impaired to support them in their education and other job opportunities, so that they can live in this world which is dependent on visual impression. It can be pretty difficult for us. No one has to go and live in a way they don’t want to,” she says. Focusing on empowerment rather than charity, KC wants all visually impaired people to be able to sustain themselves.

Though devoid of such facilities, Min Bahadur and the others seem to be doing pretty good. They think that they could have done better, but are nonetheless satisfied with the way things are going. They don’t know how long they will have to continue singing by the roadside, but they are making the best of the situation with whatever little they have at their disposal.

Published at Republica, The Week

The Fate of the Red God of Rain

Barely had the chaos generated by the tremors settled, rumors started doing the rounds about how the recklessness in handling the chariot of the Rato Machhendranath was to be blamed for the massive disaster. They didn’t follow the predetermined route which they were to follow to get the chariot from Bungamati to Patan, it was said, and the gods were angry because of this opposition to the tradition.
Many came and speculated and discussed their own reasons for what happened, some even placed blame on the priests who were said to have performed the rituals from the wrong side of the chariot. Some were even convinced that the chariot pullers were at fault. The speculation has further been fuelled by the fact that more than two months after the earthquake, the chariot is still where it was last left in Chyasikot in Lalitpur. As concerned authorities mull over its reconstruction, it’s sad to note that the chariot has been left in a poor condition, with one damaged wheel, where the constant sun and rain only worsens the state of the chariot.

However, Guthi Sansthan, the government body that is authorized to organize the festival, is trying its best to get the festival to take off again. Rudra Nath Adhikari, chairperson of the Guthi Sansthan in Machhendra Bahal in Lalitpur, who is mainly responsible for the overall conduct of the festival, dismisses the rumors.

“People have their own reasoning related to what has transpired. But we can’t let it affect our work of bringing the festival back to its glory as the rumors are baseless,” he says. But the Guthi Sansthan hasn’t been able to relay this thought to the general public, erasing any hope of relieving the public from their worries and putting a stop to the rumors.

Around two weeks ago, the members of the Guthi Sansthan formed a 19-member committee comprising of different stakeholders and officials for a special study of the condition of the chariot to decide on the recommencing of the festivities. The result of the committee was submitted only earlier this week and the officials are themselves confused as to what should be done.

Saroj Thapaliya, leader of the 19-member committee says that they have to pull apart the chariot to actually decide its fate, though he has a hunch that the chariot will most probably need to be reconstructed. “Simple maintenance of the structure is not enough now. We need to take it apart and see how much damage has been done to the skeleton of the structure to know its fate,” he says.

Acting on this hunch, the Guthi Sansthan has been collecting raw materials from different partners and sources required to remake the chariot. Woods from plants like shanadana, phalat, mahel, saur, etc, have been assembled in the premises of Guthi Sansthan in Machhendra Bahal for the same purpose.

But Purna Mangal, one of the four astrologers consulted for the chariot pulling festival, says that they didn’t have to wait this long for the festival to resume. “According to the old scriptures, it’s written that you have to conduct a ritual asking for forgiveness from the gods in the account of an earthquake. But it doesn’t say you have to put a stop to it altogether if there are aftershocks,” he says.

But as this was a special year for Rato Machhendranath festival, Guthi Sansthan decided to resume the rituals properly. But it was a double whammy this year to gather the materials to make the chariot: the Barha Barse Mela, happening once every 12 years, fell this year and it was mandatory that they get new construction materials – from the woods to the ropes.

The earthquake is bound to double their challenges. Once the festival resumes, whenever that may be, they will have a problem maneuvering the chariot around the mostly narrow streets of the city. It will be difficult to operate the jangla, the thick ropes used to maneuver the chariot, which are pulled and controlled by climbing the roofs of the houses as the chariot moves on, because even the houses that fall in the route that the chariot will pass by are weakened by the earthquake and need support of their own.

The state of the weakened houses will also question the safety of the people who come to watch it, as it attracts thousands of people from around the city and there is no provision made yet to guarantee that they will be safe.

One must keep these questions in mind, as the concerned people proceed to make decisions regarding the fate of the chariot. Rato Machhendranath festival is one that attracts not only national and cultural spotlight, but also the international limelight for its uniqueness.

Besides, Rato Machhendranath chariot festival is a time of celebration for people every year, but due to the circumstances this time around, it remains to be seen how people will take to the festival. Caretakers who are in charge of looking after the chariot in Chyasikot say that the devotees haven’t stopped coming despite the situation. In fact, the number grows every weekend, proving to some extent that despite the circumstances, belief of the people in the Gods and protectors still remains intact.

The festival is conducted by consulting the lunar calendar, which states that festival related activities are forbidden from June 16 till July 16. As the date is nearing, people are expecting the festival to resume immediately after July 16. Balram Limbu is one of them. Limbu, who has a carpentry shop in Chyasikot where the chariot rests, says that he is excited for the festival to resume, but also laments that it won’t be near his home anymore.

“My business is going really well ever since Machhendranath’s chariot has been here. People frequently come to worship the chariot and stay back for refreshments. Small eateries have been greatly benefited by this, and with them, my business, as I’ve been getting a lot of orders to make benches for them,” he says with a smile.

No doubt that people in Patan are waiting for the festivities to resume, most probably because the reminder of the festival in the form of the Minnath’s chariot that has been standing in Na:tole.

It is definitely so for Shreejana Bajracharya, whose family is responsible for the morning and evening aartis once Rato Machhendranath is in Patan. “Once the chariot crosses the river in Nakkhu, we are responsible for offering the first and last aarti of the day to Machhendranath,” she says, adding, “We are waiting for the Guthi Sansthan to make a decision.”

Despite the rumors, there is no doubt that people are looking forward to one of the most popular festivals of the city. Many are anxiously waiting for the day when the festivities will resume, giving people a religious distraction from the natural disaster that has changed the face of the nation. But as per the Guthi Sansthan’s workings, it’s going to be a long wait.

Published in Republica, The Week

Artistic outfits

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It’s eerily amusing how expressive our clothes have become.

Sometime ago, I went to my aunt who has been running a successful boutique. I went to her to get myself a new pair of whatever I could get. Browsing through her collection, I came across this one. At first, I thought it was just another kurta piece, but looking closer, the design was different. “Who’d wear it?” I thought. I’d rather use it as a sort of secret wallpaper instead of a clothing item. Our clothes are no less than a piece of art.