Oh My God!

Features Issue 85 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

Religion can be a hard pill to swallow for people who have not grown up with it. There are too many dos and don’ts and there isn’t always a logical answer for everything. And while modern times are catching up with the Nepalese people, for a country with acute poverty and many, many problems, the monopoly of gods and goddesses, at least as a crucial support system, is unlikely to be replaced by anything else, anytime soon.

Of all my growing up days and the many events that filled them, I remember the events of one particular day more vividly than all the rest. It was a hot summer’s afternoon in the Tarai town of Birgunj. I remember it was hot because I remember wearing shorts and running around barefoot in the kitchen.

I am a Buddhist, so as is normal in most Buddhist homes, there are a lot of idols of the Buddha and his many avatars in my home. One of them of the Buddha meditating had been cleaned that day and placed conveniently near a window. Something must have caught my fancy because I remember trying to look out the window. Being only about three feet and some inches in height, I could not see what I wanted, so without a second thought I climbed up on the Buddha’s shoulders.

Now I know what the Buddha’s teachings say about non violence. The Buddha is all about peeling off the layers that separate us and finding communion with everything and everywhere. But that night in my dreams, that symbol of peace and harmony showed me a whole new side to him. In my dreams, the Buddha uncrossed his legs from his standard meditating position and got up from atop the book rack in my family’s living room. The idol jumped off from the table in my dream—the freakishly diminutive size of the Buddha’s statue adding to the sheer horror— woke me up and started to slap the daylights out of me, asking me one question over and over again: “Will you ever step on me again?” I woke up that morning crying and saying sorry to the Buddha over and over again! Uneasy memories of that dream stopped me from telling lies and wasting food many times. The role of god in my life shaped me thus, by becoming a guiding light, always steering me in what I thought was the right direction and towards correct choices. For many people, gods and goddesses mean many different things.

But whatever they might mean to people, gods and goddesses are the center of most lives, quite literally at that. For instance, in older Nepalese settlements, houses were built around temples or idols of various gods and goddesses. In places like this, people from the houses in that courtyard and from neighboring areas still start the day by walking around the temples in a clockwise fashion, offering prayers. All three cities of the Kathmandu valley, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have such communities with houses built around temples. These central courtyard-like spaces with houses on all sides are used for all kinds of religious events such as bratabandhas, Hindu puja ceremonies and even marriages. Social events such as get-togethers are also organized around such spaces. In a way, this practice symbolizes the strong religious influence and need for a presence of a/any deity in all aspects of Nepalese life. Religion however is not confined to having a central role in Nepali lifestyles. Hindu culture, a base on which Nepali culture is founded, believes in deities that actually created the universe and started life itself and then some! Forget science for a moment if you will and absorb a parallel reality that runs life in Nepal.

Laxmi: Fortune, Power & Prosperity
Goddess Laxmi represents the beautiful and bountiful aspect of nature. As Bhoodevi, the earth-goddess, she nurtures life; as Shreedevi, the goddess of fortune, she bestows power, pleasure and prosperity on those who deserve her grace. To realize her, one must respect the laws of life and appreciate the wonders of existence. And although, in the struggle of life, the laws get bent and broken more often than not, Goddess Laxmi commands respect like no other.

Laxmi, also called Lakshmi, is the goddess of wealth, fortune, power, luxury, beauty, fertility, and auspiciousness. She also holds the promise of material fulfillment and contentment and is described as restless, whimsical yet maternal. In pictures, she has her arms raised to bless and to grant blessings.

Laxmi Puja, a special day devoted towards pleasing the goddess of prosperity, falls on the third day of the Hindu festival of Tihar. On the morning of Laxmi Puja, people in Nepal worship the cow as an avatar of God. My own home was purified by a neighborhood cow when she was brought over on special request this Tihar. As all family members took positions around the not-so-fresh-looking cow, wary of her huge horns, the cow suddenly decided to relieve herself of some dung and then some urine too. As I dived for some cover behind a pillar, I noticed my elders with huge grateful smiles on their faces. Apparently, such a phenomenon does not happen all too often and is considered a very good omen. I now look forwards to winning the lottery or something as big, considering I had to clean up all the mess afterwards.

The Maiti Devi temple in Maiti Devi is the most popular temple of Goddess Laxmi in the valley.

Shiva: The Destructor
Shiva, residing in the Himalayan Mount Kailasa, is a great ascetic, always meditating for the welfare of the world. He is covered with ashes and it is believed that the sacred river Ganga flows from his matted hair. Shiva represents death and time, which destroy all things. On his forehead is a third eye, an emblem of his superior wisdom.

In pictures, Lord Shiva’s neck is blue from the effects of the poison he drank in order to save all of humanity. Shiva is also the god of fertility and is mostly worshipped in the phallic symbol called linga. In the south he is also called as Pashupatinath (Lord of the Beasts). The temple of Pashupati in Kathmandu is a very popular Hindu pilgrimage site, especially during the Shiva Ratri (Shiva’s Night) festival in February. Hindu devotees throng the temple in great numbers during this festival to worship Lord Shiva and perhaps also to be blessed with the boons of fertility. Pashupatinath, unlike most temples of Shiva, does not have an idol of Lord Shiva. Most Shiva temples are, on the contrary, are made to worship Shiva’s linga, a symbol that represents Shiva’s masculinity!

Lord Shiva is also known amongst the youth and the youthful at heart for another reason; his particular liking for a small medicinal herb, illegal in most countries–marijuana and all delicacies derived from it. Hence, on Shiva Ratri one sees a huge number of sadhus, both bona fide and posers, smoking copious amounts of marijuana as the police look away, all in the name of tradition. Youngsters flock Pashupatinath during this day to buy or even just to share a ‘hit’ with other revelers, proving that nothing—not even drugs—escapes a religious connection in Nepal.

Ganesh: Remover of Obstacles
Lord Ganesh or Ganpati is the second son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Due to a freakish accident where Shiva cut off his own son’s head, he had to replace it with the head of an elephant. Shiva’s wife Parvati is believed to have been inconsolable. To make it up to his wife, Lord Shiva granted that Ganesh would be worshipped before any other God at every Hindu ritual.

This is how Ganesh came to be worshipped at the beginning of every undertaking, be it an exam or a journey. Besides this, Ganesh is considered to posses the power of removing obstacles and to aid in the completion of any kind of ventures. The sukunda, which is a silver or brass cuplike vessel used for lighting oil lamps at all Hindu rituals, has an image of Ganesh inscribed in it. The oil light thus lit in front of Lord Ganesh before starting any ceremony is a quiet plea for good luck.

With a clever mouse as his mascot, Ganesh also proves the might of brains over brawn.

Temples dedicated Lord Ganesh are very common on the streets of Kathmandu. The Jal Vinayak temple (Ganesh is also known as Vinayak) in Chobhar is one of many such Ganesh temples. Tuesdays are believed to be propitious for worshipping Ganesh, so this temple is particularly crowded on Tuesdays for occasions such as Anna Praashan, which is the feeding of an infant his/her first grain of rice. It has also been a common belief amongst the Nepalese that Lord Ganesh has the power to bless people with children and also provide a groom for an unmarried girl. Hence, a large number of devotees at the Jal Vinayak pray to experience the joy of parenthood and/or of finding Mr or Ms Right. The image of Lord Ganesh at Jal Vinayak is quite different than most, as it is essentially a rock with an impression on it that resembles an elephant’s trunk.

There is also a huge flat stone inside the temple premises. If you lay down on it, it supposedly cures backaches. It’s a common sight to see people laying flat on their back on the stone, hoping to be cured of their backaches. Besides Jal Vinayak, there are also Ashok Vinayak, Karya Vinayak, Surya Vinayak and Kamal Vinayak, all of whom are all avatars of Lord Ganesh. Each one of these avatars has its own special power that makes devotees flock to their temples located all over the valley.

Saraswati: Art, Music & Learning
Saraswati is the wife of Brahma and is considered to be the patron of art, music and learning. While Saraswati has many temples built for her, ironically temples for Brahma, her husband, are very rare.

Students are seen swarming to the Saraswati temples before and during exams in hopes of the deity aiding them. Saraswati Puja is a special day dedicated to worshipping this goddess. Students ask for boons of knowledge and wisdom and many children start school on this day. While people usually don’t ask other gods and goddesses for something aloud, there is a popular custom in Nepali households where people write down their wishes on paper in their own prayer rooms on the occasion of Saraswati Puja. Perhaps because Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, people feel that their written wishes will somehow be read.

The fact that one of the most visited temples of Saraswati, a Hindu goddesses, is in the premises of Swayambhu, a Buddhist stupa built atop a hill, says a lot about religious tolerance in the land of gods and goddesses.

Karunameya: Compassion & Nourishment
The worshipping of Karunameya makes up possibly the oldest festival of the country: Rato Matsyendranath. Karunameya is believed to be the Goddess of compassion and also of nourishment. Karunameya can supposedly also bless couples with a child. The festival of Rato Matsyendranath, which is also how Karunameya is known in the valley, celebrates a mythological tale that has Karunameya blessing the people of the country, present day Kathmandu valley, that is, with a healthy harvest season after years of serious drought. The country was then made up of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur—this was before King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the numerous small kingdoms around the valley and united them into a single country.

The word Karunameya is made out of two Nepali words, karuna and meya, meaning compassion and love, respectively. There are several popular temples of Karunameya where devotees ask to be blessed with the gift of parenthood. One of the most popular one is in Kirtipur. Quite suiting the deity, over time the site has become a place that people visit to remember the dear departed. The outside face of this temple is full of kaans , plates nailed to the walls, each one in remembrance of a dear, departed person. Kaans is an alloy made out tin and copper, deemed fit to crossover to other world, and offerings made here are believed to reach the deceased.

Bishwa Karma Baba
As if gods and goddesses that can bless mortals with babies, lovers, wisdom, prosperity, nourishment and remove obstacles were not enough, there is yet another deity that people believe resides in the working man’s tools. The bearded Bishwa Karma Baba, the architect of the universe, is the patron deity of tools and machinery. This also includes vehicles used at work such as tractors and vans and everything in between. Strangely, besides the universe, Bishwa Karma Baba is also credited for designing the country of Sri Lanka!

Bishwa Karma Puja is especially popular amongst the Tarai-residing people of Nepal. A majority of the Tarai population earn their bread and butter through farming, masonry and work at factories and the like. This can be owed to the large number of major factories based in the Tarai towns such as Birgunj and Janakpur. On the day of the Puja, devotees take out huge rallies on trucks with huge statues of the Bishwa Karma Baba aboard. These processions with devotees singing and now increasingly playing devotional or even Hindi/Bhojpuri film songs and wild dancing is known to disrupt traffic as bystanders watch the procession pass by. While watching the wild procession and the crazy looking devotees you’ll understand that they are ‘under the influence’...!

Manakamana: Goddess of Wishes
A two hour drive west of Kathmandu and a short ride on a cable car with most amazing views of the Trishuli river and the lush greenery surrounding it, will take you to the very popular Manakamana temple in Gorkha District. Mana means the heart and kamana means wishing in Nepali. It is believed that wishes are fulfilled if asked with pure intentions at the Manakamana temple.

The Manakamana temple, once a day long trek up a steep but picturesque mountain is now very reachable due to the installation of a cable car system. People queue up at the Manakamana temple at unearthly hours to ask for anything and everything that their hearts desire. Not surprisingly, in a country that still frowns upon dating culture, the Manakamana temple premises have become something of a dating hotspot. Your guess is as good as mine whether these couples ask to be blessed to stay together for eternity, or are just making a romantic and religious trip.

Religion can be a hard pill to swallow for people who have not grown up with it. There are too many dos and don’ts and there isn’t always a logical answer for everything. And while modern times are catching up with the Nepalese people, for a country with acute poverty and many, many problems, the monopoly of gods and goddesses, at least as a crucial support system, is unlikely to be replaced by anything else, anytime soon.

It is very apparent from daily life in Nepal, that religion defines lives and lifestyles in Nepal.