The Bura Janko of Carleton S. Coon

Features Issue 73 Jul, 2010

Among Newars it is believed that those who have passed the age of 77 years and seven  months are no longer mere mortals, but are becoming dyas, gods.

What can the dyas do that humans can’t?—They can fly.

When Carleton S. Coon, former U.S. Ambassador to Nepal (1981-84) turned 80, his family decided to honor him in the Newar style by performing the Buro Janko ritual for elders—in America. During the ceremony, the elders are made to fly by being carried in palanquins decorated with winged horses. This powerful and auspicious occasion represents the transformation from human to god.

Carleton Coon’s daughter, Ellen,relates the Newar belief: “As their bodies and all material existence are carried into the future by their strong descendants, our elders’ minds and hearts are free to fly like the winged horse, enabling them to see farther than the rest of us. Our far-seeing and insightful elders become a treasure for the community, a resource for us all.”

The ceremony was held in a rural community outside of Washington, DC. Since it wasn’t Nepal, it was Ellen’s job to determine what was most essential in the ritual and translate it into an American context. “For one,” she says, “we honored not one but three family elders, my 80-year old father, 78-year old mother and 82-year old aunt. For the palanquins we used sturdy chairs (because Americans are much fatter than Newars!).”

The initial convocation ceremony featured lights, incense and a Pyakhan, or sacred dance, performed by a local dance troupe wearing handmade masks. Carleton was dressed in a special vest and turban, and the women in red scarves. “They also wore coral and pearl,” she explains, “symbolizing that from now on they ride the chariots (rath) of the sun and moon.” Carleton also wore a magnificent coral Ganesh brooch surrounded by pearls.

It is traditional for family members to wash their elders’ feet in milk, after which the elders are supposed to bless all involved by sprinkling them with a bundle of flowers dipped in the milk. For this Bura Janko, however, they used water guns (like those seen during the Hindu festival of Holi), to everyone’s delight!

The highlight of the occasion was the palanquin procession around the garden. At first afraid, the elders were soon exhilarated by the joyous freedom of flying, while the little children scattered flowers and rice grain ahead of them. In conclusion the family performed the Laskus welcome ceremony, complete with a large key. The elders came back to earth through a decorated archway. As all rituals should, this event concluded with a feast, including a cake decorated with flying horses, and speeches thanking all who came and the many Nepalese who have taught this family so much over the years.

After the ceremony was over and the guests had gone home, Carleton asked: “Now that I’m a god, I don’t have to wash dishes anymore, do I?” Ellen replied, “Not when we ordinary mortals are around. But when you’re alone with mom, you’ll have to remember that she’s a god now, too.  I guess even the dyas have to take turns washing up.”