Source: THIRTY DAYS OF PIOUSNESS
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.