May 29, 2015-On Buddha Jayanti this year, I was at the Swoyambhunath Temple, right in time to see the army and police restricting devotees from entering the beloved but damaged shrine. Many of those who had lined up had had their houses destroyed or damaged by the earthquake. But despite everything, they were eager for a darshan of Swoyambhunath, and some of them were loitering around until late hours hoping that the authorities would let them enter again.
The quake may have damaged our temples, but for most of the city’s faithful, their faith remains intact, though every individual has their own way of reconciling their faith with the disaster. Right after the earthquake and during subsequent tremors, it was normal to hear the older people chanting the names of gods. In times of crisis, it is the gods we turn to for explanations and answers.
On one end of the disaster spectrum is the Sankata Temple, right in the heart of Kathmandu, which sustained no damage and witnessed no deaths in the immediate vicinity. Most of the residents of the area are exuberant about this, and credit their patron deity for their safety. “Sankata le thapyo sabai,” (Sankata took on the damages) says Amita Shikhakar, 40, a resident of the area, implying that the goddesses Sankata protected them from harm.
On the other end is Harisiddhi, a beautiful temple in southern Lalitpur that holds as much respect among the Valley residents as the temples of Macchindranath and Pashupati. The temple of Harisiddhi Mata was slightly damaged by the quake: it developed a few cracks and its gajur fell sideways. But most tragically, several deaths occurred in Harisiddhi, including four right in the chowk behind the temple. However, the locals are not angry with the goddess for not protecting them. Instead, their explanations reveal their deep faith in the goddess.
“Maybe Harisiddhi Mata was angry with us because the rituals had not been properly conducted at the temple,” says Sabin Maharjan, a Harisiddhi local, echoing the general belief. He is of the opinion that conducting the right rituals will appease the goddess and make her bestow favours on the community. Shivaram Maharjan, the temple priest, disagrees, contending that rituals have been performed well and regularly at the temple; but he cannot stop the general tide of opinion from moving in the other direction.
For several days after the quake, the flow of visitors had reduced drastically at Harisiddhi temple, and it was the same at other temples of the city like Mahankal, Sankata, and even Pashupatinath. But the quake did not deter Sanumaiya Shrestha, from Kalimati, from visiting the Harisiddhi Temple on May 21 to offer worship to her Kuldevata. Despite the quake, she had come to fulfill her yearly ritual. For the highly devout communities of the Kathmandu Valley, their temples and gods are as dear to them as their houses, and their rituals are deeply ingrained in their daily lives. The Sankata Temple authorities decided not to postpone the12-year festival on May 11, about two weeks after the great quake. Even though the participation in the mela was less than in the previous years, it was still higher than expected, according to temple priest Purushottam Bajracharya.
“It is but natural that fewer devotees come to temples at the moment,” says Shivaram Maharjan. “People want to protect themselves first. But that does not mean that their faith has weakened.”
In fact, the opposite may be true, considering the sudden spike in the number of forgiveness rituals (kshama pooja) being carried out at most temples in and around the Valley. The Ugrachandi Temple at Nala was among the first to commission one. The statue of Nala Bhagawati was said to have sweated prior to the earthquake, and the residents of Nala had been concerned that it augured a great disaster. The rituals to appease angry deities like Nala Bhagawati and Dolakha Bhimsen, known to signal disasters, began immediately after the quake. Kshama pooja was also carried out by the Nepal army, presided over by the Army Chief Gaurav Shumsher Rana. Poojas held by individuals and neighbourhoods (the Gyaneshwor pooja made it to newspapers) are also aplenty.
The role of kshama pooja after a crisis like this can be both social and religious. For Sabin Maharjan, it is the human aspect of the pooja that is more important. A devotee of Harisiddhi, he used to come to the temple for a darshan every Saturday. But after the quake, everything was quiet at the temple. Even the busy chowks were silent; people fearfully spoke of hearing a woman wailing at night in the area. The atmosphere was one of fear and anxiety. Sabin stopped visiting the temple he had grown up around.
A kshama pooja was finally held at the temple on May 18. “After that, the people felt relieved,” says Sabin. “They saw that the area was bustling with activities, so they were not afraid to come here anymore.” Any fears they had about the wrath of the gods vanished, and the residents felt a measure of peace. Sabin was found at the site of his beloved temple on the date of the interview.
For many other devotees, the earthquake itself had a divine motive. Many faithful are of the opinion that the quake had occurred because sins had increased on earth, and that it was cleansing itself of the sins with a quake.
Govinda Tandon, secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, puts it best when he says that humans can use nature, but not abuse it. “We know that our earth is fragile, but we have been relentlessly extracting from her,” he says. “And we continue to put pressure on the earth, despite knowing that we have gone beyond its capacity,” he explains, connecting ancient beliefs with modern ecological realities. For him, it is the disrespect shown to the earth and over-exploitation of nature that set the divine wheel in motion, bringing about deadly disasters.
The Pashupatinath Temple has not conducted an official kshama pooja yet, since it is waiting for the tremors to subside. But poojas commissioned by individuals and groups are taking place at the temple. As for the purpose of the poojas, Tandon acknowledges its role in the psychological well-being of an individual, and is clear about its broad, benevolent motive. “Even today, we have regular pooja rituals for the good of the world,” he says. “And the kshama pooja will fulfill the same purpose. Hinduism must be the only religion in the world that has rituals for vishwa kalyan (the good of the world).” Devotees may believe that they are worshipping for their own benefit or to appease angry Gods, but according to Tandon, Hindu rituals are concerned with the good of the community, the world, and nature in general.
For the people of Kathmandu, as they pick up the pieces of their lives, their faith is the one thing that is still intact. They say that faith can move mountains. But it is clear from the resilient faith shown by the people in the Valley that faith can also survive trembling mountains, shaking plates, or any other disaster that comes its way.
Published: 30-05-2015 07:43