Nepali time

  • In Nepal, strict astrological time contrasts with a more relaxed way of dealing with time in mundane spheres
- Gérard Toffin
Nepali time

Jun 3, 2014-

Astrology (jyotis) is traditionally all-important in Nepali life, not only in people’s daily existence but also in state issues. During the Shah rule, it was a matter of national politics. Narayanhiti Palace had its own astrologers (jyotisis), who were called upon and consulted with regarding the sovereign’s every move and any happening in the kingdom. The date of key royal events, ie, international agreements, treaties, visits to temples, the monarch’s birthday celebrations, the crown prince’s marriage, foreign travel, etc, was immediately submitted to the appointed jyotisi and set according to his advice.

The coronation of king Birendra (1975) took place three years after his father’s death following the astrologers’ recommendation. In fact, according to Hindu dharmashastras, astrology and astrologers were vital elements in the art of governing. A kingdom without a good astrologist was doomed to destruction. These experts in the stars and the sky ensured the monarch’s success, wealth and celebrity.

Secular astrology

To what extent have things changed in the self-declared secular federalist democratic state of Nepal? At the local level, people consult astrologers at least as frequently as during the monarchical period. The occasions are too numerous to list. On the whole, the main reasons for paying a visit to an astrologer include requests for a horoscope to be drawn up at the time of birth, choosing a bride or groom, seeking to settle family conflicts, staving off disease or afflictions caused by supernatural beings (dasha), performing a ceremony, predicting events and planning long-distance journeys. The Nepali-certified panchang almanac has always been a sought-after document at the time of festivals and ceremonies. Likewise, a horoscope, cheena, established at the time of birth has always been just as important a document for Nepali Hindus as their identity card. The recent success of the bestselling book Cheena Harayeko Manche by Hari Bansha Acharya attests to the prevalence of this topic among a popular audience.

Since the fall of the monarchy, the government no longer officially uses the services of astrologers. Nevertheless, a committee still exists; the Nepal Panchang Nirnayaka Samiti, which is set up by the government and is made up of nine members, all astrologers who belong to the Parbatiya and Newar community. Each member is appointed for a two-year term. Every year, the Committee, which comes under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, establishes the official lunar-solar calendar and sets the dates for auspicious (sait) ceremonies.

Aside from this, many other private or semi-private consultations still take place in the political sphere. It is no coincidence that the date of November 19, 2013 (dutiya krishna paksha, Mangsir in the lunar calendar)—an auspicious, mangal or sait, day for Nepal, free of the influence of the planets Gemini and Rahu—was chosen for the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections. As I was told by an astrologer with whom I discussed this question, “An astrologer is not difficult to find in a country like Nepal”.

Past and present

A lot can be said about astrology in Nepal in past and present times, all of which is of utmost importance if we are to understand the country. Let me deal with two aspects. First, the Nepali patro almanac is established for the whole of Nepal, from ‘Ilam to Dadeldhura’. However, in some places in the Tarai, Indian calendars are also used jointly with Nepali ones. In other places, the Tibetan calendar is the reference. In addition, some local ethnic methods of calculating time are used here and there. For instance, in the Kathmandu Valley the Newars’ way of calculating the passage from one tithi (lunar day) to another in the middle of the night is different from the Parbatiyas’. The exact date of some festivals, particularly Tihar, can therefore differ from one group to another. These differences introduce a certain variation in the calculation of time within the country, not to mention Bikram Sambat (chosen as the official Nepali calendar by Chandra Shamsher in 1903) which coexists with Nepal Sambat and the Gregorian calendars.

Perhaps even more importantly, the way of calculating astrological time is different in India (for example in Varanasi, one of the most famous places for astrological science) and in Nepal. This is not the place for discussing technical issues but the differences in the method of calculation (Nepal

being more traditional than India in these matters) lead to finding various dates for

the same religious festival, Makar Sankranti for instance. The Nepali identity itself is therefore at stake in matters of astrology and the religious calendar, even if it must be admitted that different astrological schools are referred to in India to set the dates for festive events.

Time out of joint

One thing particularly stands out here. Paradoxical as it may sound, this obsession with ‘sky time’ contrasts starkly with a very relaxed way of dealing with time in more down-to-earth spheres. Foreigners and urban Nepalis joke about ‘Nepali time’ to explain the frequent delay on any fixed date for an appointment. How can a country so strict regarding some aspects of life accept such impediments in completing profane deeds? This maybe because the materialistic realm is devaluated compared to the religious one. Be that as it may, time—a wholly cultural concept—has not been totally Westernised or globalised in Nepal.

This dual conception of time, both strict and lenient, depending on the given realm it applies to, dictates the present and future of the country. If everything is foreseen in the sky and the stars, what’s the point in fighting against political and economic forces? Why rally against the current tide of events? What role might individual deeds and initiatives play in this cosmogonist-determined environment? Unfortunately, things sometimes happen in a haphazard, unpredictable way. In June 2001, Mangal Raj Joshi, the court astrologer, confessed to an Indian newspaper (The Telegraph) that the massacre of the royal family in a shower of bullets had been “unpredictable”, but that to forecast it would have called for a more detailed astrological study of the persons concerned!

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research,  France

Published: 04-06-2014 07:17

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