Dec 21, 2012

Being confused for Indian

Once, a friend of mine in USA insinuated that Nepali restaurants in USA serve nothing but Indian food. The resulting conversation was, to say the least, highly confrontational, with one member spitting out that India doesn't have a copyright on its food. That discussion stayed in my mind long after it was over, because it was actually just an example of many such discussions that happened during my stay abroad. Many people had trouble recognizing where I was from, and it was easier for them to understand if I said my country was near India. This I did not mind. But being confused with an Indian at every step, particularly in sensitive matters, had tempers flaring, and not just mine.

Most of the times, the most intense assertion of exclusive Indian rights over cultural property comes from Indians themselves. For example, coming back to food, Indians are quick to claim Naan, Pulau, Samosas, and many other food served by Indian restaurants as traditional Indian food. Though it may have entrenched itself in popular Indian cuisine, Pulau, alternately called pilaf, plov, and many other names, is of middle eastern origin, and can be found today all over the Balkan region. Similarly, Samosa, originally Sanbusaj, or Sambosa, is of Persian origin, and Naan and Biryani are also western imports. While it is true that many Nepali restaurants serve these cosmopolitan items, India has as little, or as much, claim to them as Nepal because these items were an earlier generation’s equivalent of today’s globalized foods like pizza and burger, so to speak. A closer look will reveal that Nepali restaurants do not serve ethnic Indian food like Idlis and uttapams and dhoklas and the like. A still closer look would reveal that the menu is usually peppered with ethnic Nepali dishes like gundruk and chhoyela.

Another aspect where Indians stake their claim is the cultural dress. For a Nepali girl wearing her national dress, there is nothing more annoying than to hear this question “But, isn't the sari Indian?” Well, sure, Indian women have worn it for ages. But then, so have Nepali women. Our saris have evolved according to our needs, we have several dozen different kinds of saris right in our backyard: the thick Hakupatasi for cold winters of the hills, the one piece Dhimal sari that leaves the shoulders bare for the hot Terai, and many others, and India has its own varieties. But it so happens today that after centuries of evolving separately into several hundred unique designs, modern women everywhere eschew such ethnic dresses and wear the sari in almost similar ways. That does not mean that Nepali women have a lesser right to sari, and silly questions such as the one mentioned above accomplish nothing but put Nepali women on the defensive.
haku patasi

Food and clothes are just small parts of a larger and more important aspect of Nepalis that is often bulldozed: our cultural legacy and identity. India has so glorified itself that Indians claim anything associated with Hinduism to be Indian. It is sheer annoyance to have to reiterate every time that "Yes, I am Hindu,", "No, it is not just Indians who are Hindus, people as far apart as in Cambodia and Bali may be Hindus", and “No, my script is not called Hindi, it is called Devnagari and there is no copyright on it!” Besides, we Nepalis have grown up on the legacy of Sanskrit poets and philosophers like Kalidasa, Valmiki or Chanakya. While it may be true that  the geographical area where these personalities lived happens to be in India today, which Indians often cite to prove that these and many other personalities as solely Indian, it is impossible and unfair to dissociate Nepalis from the wisdom they have inherited through their language and culture.

Indians are not the only ones who confuse Nepali identity. Because India is famous and highly romanticized, sometimes individual cultural items like Samosas or saris are recognized by many foreigners. Starting from George Bush, the American presidents have wished the "people celebrating Diwali" on Tihar. Though George Bush and Obama both refrained from naming any particular country, the messages still helped in identifying Diwali as Indian, because the accompanying Diwali functions at the White House were mostly attended by Indians, and because Indians’ reception of these messages were vocal and widespread. Consequently, it has become even harder to convince anyone that Diwali is not just an Indian festival. We are all familiar with Budhha being assumed to be Indian, but other vestiges of Hindu culture like the Vedas, the concept of Karma, and names of famous gods are also immediately assumed to be Indian by the few foreigners who have come across them.

Though I mean no offence to India or to Indians individually, especially as I myself have many Indian friends, it is clear that the kind of shrill nationalism almost amounting to jingoism that pervades in Indian media leads most Indians to think of Indian culture as uniquely Indian. And sadly, India’s monopoly over South Asian culture (I have heard similar complaints from people of other South Asian nations) continues at the international level. While there may be many reasons for the instant recognition that India gets internationally – that India is the largest and most visible country of South Asia, that Indian Press and government are very good at exoticizing and publicizing Brand India – the sad truth is that there is very little we can do to counter Brand India at the individual level without a similar branding and publicizing of Brand Nepal. Since it is too much to hope that all Indians will start thinking rationally and stop believing everything dished up by an ultra-patriotic media, it is up to us Nepalis to be more aware of our history and identity and assert the same whenever the opportunity arises.  

Dec 8, 2012

Mother Goddesses in Kathmandu

Once upon a time, Kathmandu was a city ruled by women. Therewere seven Ajimas, or mother goddesses, who protected the city. Once they wereattacked by a demon called Mayurasur (also called Chandrasur). Mayurasurwreaked havoc on the city, killing cows, goats, destroying crops, and byinjuring people. The seven mother goddesses were powerless against him.

The goddesses decided to meet and discuss the situation. Oneof them said to Naradevi: “Your daughter Shwetakali is infatuated withMayurasur. Mayurasur is taking away not just our wealth and  livelihood, but our daughters too. You musttalk to your daughter and resolve the situation.”

Naradevi asked her daughter Shwetakali “Are you in love withMayurasur?” Shwetakali, of course, denied it outright. But her mother Naradevicould not let her daughter get away with this forbidden love. She took herdaughter around the city, and showed her the devastation wrecked by Mayurasur.“Look what he has done!” she said. “And you, as his lover, can stop all this,and return our city to its former glory, if you choose.”
Performance of Shwetakali's story in Indra Jatra

Shwetakali’s heart melted at the sight. Though she did notacknowledge her love for Mayurasur, she did tell her mother when Mayurasurwould come to visit her next.  On theadvice of the seven mother goddesses, Naradevi handed Shwetakali a poisoned khadga (knife) and a bottle of liquor.“When Mayurasur comes, give him the liquor” she advised. “And when he is drunk,kill him with the knife.”

At the appointed time, Mayurasur arrived to meet withShwetakali. As per her mother’s advice, Shwetakali first got him drunk, andwhen he lost his senses, she drove the khadga into his heart.All her mothers,and the entire city started rejoicing, but Shwetakali lay senseless overMayurasur’s body.

“Get up and rejoice” said Naradevi to Shwetakali. “The timefor weeping is over”. But Shwetakali could not. “My life is over”, said she “Ihad given all my love for Mayurasur, and now he is dead. I have nothing to livefor.” There and then, she decided to live as a Kumari forever.  Since Shwetakali was instrumental in routinga demon from the city and once again establishing the mother goddesses, she wasforever worshiped as virgin girl Kumari in Kathmandu. According to cultureexpert Satya Mohan Joshi, this is how the tradition of living goddess Kumaribegan in Kathmandu. Though there are various stories regarding the origin ofKumari in Kathmandu, this is the story performed in Indra Jatra dance everyyear.
Perfornamce of Shwetakali'sstory

The worship of mother figures is a very old one in manyreligions. Even though the culture of Kathmandu valley ceased to be matriarchala long time ago, the mother goddesses continue to preside over the valley invarious forms.  The old ajimas are still worshiped today as Bhadrakali, Kankeshwari, Naradevi, etc, and live on infolktales like the one above.  ThoughKathmandu is more famous for its virgin goddess Kumari, it is also home toseveral groups of mother goddesses called Ashta Matrika, Nava Durga and DasaMahavidya.

Ashta Matrika
The earliest reference to Matrikas can be found in the epicMahabharata, where they are portrayed as the disgruntled mothers of the godSkanda. After that, the number of Matrikas has always varied. In Mahabharata,there were six, while in Chandi, which contains the most popular description ofMatrikas followed to this day, there are seven Matrikas. In many placesincluding Kathmandu, an eighth goddess called Mahalakshmi or Yami is added,possibly to correlate the number of goddesses with the number of directions.

Ashta Matrikas have been around for a long time

Right from the beginning, these mother goddesses have hadtwo personalities: benign and an angry personality. In Mahabharata, they asktheir son Skanda for the right to torture children. They are allowed to do sountil the age of sixteen, after which they must protect the children. AshtaMatrikas in Chandi, likewise, were primarily born to kill demons, so they arefierce and protective at the same time.  Sevenmother goddesses were born out of the bodies of seven male gods to kill thedemons : Brahmi from Brahma, Maheshvari from Mahesh or Shiva, Vaishnavi fromVishnu, Indrayani from Indra, Kaumari from Kumar, Varahi from Varaha, Narasimhifrom Narasimha. In Kathmandu, their angry personality is appeased throughanimal sacrifices. As benign mother goddesses, they protect their devotees. Inthe city of Kathmandu, the temples of eight mother goddesses are laid out ineight directions, the four major and four intermediary directions.

According to Pickett, the logic of placing angry deities asprotectors rather than benign deities is that people are afraid of angrydeities. Hence, they are placed at the boundaries of human settlements, whereforests and wild lands start, where thieves, bandits and demons live. Theirplacement is dictated by a mandala oryantra where each deity has aspecific place. Each goddess is supposed to protect the residents of her ownarea from demons. Interestingly, even if a person moves away from theiroriginal residence, he or she is still protected by the goddess of his ancestralhome and not of the new home.

The shrines of Ashta Matrikas in Kathmandu do not haveidols. Often, there are only shapeless stones in the shrines, and devotees haveto look at the Torans to identify thegoddess. The Torans have a detailediconography embossed in them.

Gan Pyakhan: dance ofAshta Matrikas
Every year in Lalitpur, the dance of Ashta Matrikas isperformed. In Nepal Sambat 774, King Srinivas Malla dreamt of the eightMatrikas dancing in his courtyard. He described his dream to the priest, whoproclaimed it to be a good omen, and established the tradition of this dance.

The group of Ashta Matrikas are called Gana, and with timeGana came to be known as Gan in vernacular. Hence, this dance is called GanPyakhan, or dance of the Ganas. Every year, twenty four participants fromNakubahal of Lalitpur begin training eight days before Ghatasthapana. Of thetwenty four, thirteen are dancers while the rest are musicians and singers. TheAshta Matrikas featured in the dance are: Brahmayani, Maheswari, Kaumari,Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrayani, Kali and Mahalakshmi. Apart from the Matrikas,the other characters are Simhini, Vyaghrini, Bhairav, Ganesh and Kumar.

Dancers of Gana Pyakhan

The dance includes many interesting little dramas. Forexample, Chamunda and Barahi are believed t be the wives of Bhairav. The olderwife is angry with him for loving the younger wife too much, and the dramadepicts this quarrel. While Ganesh and Kumar perform solo dances, othercharacters dance in couples. There is also a little drama about Ganesh beingthe superior god over Kumar, and being worshipped first.
After a rigorous training, the dance begins onGhatasthapana. The dance is performed every day from then on to Dashami. FromSaptami onwards, the dance is performed at the main square. The dance starts atNakubahal and ends at Durbar Square.

During this dance, the dancers are believed to be the realincarnations of their corresponding deities. Hence, they are worshipped as suchby the local people. Former dancer Manish Shakya, recalls that it is not easybeing a god. The dancers have to go their corresponding deity’s temple, worshipthe god, and bring their spirit with them.  When the training begins, the dancers have toshave their heads, remain pure, and they cannot leave their house until thedance ends. As the god, it is the dancer’s prerogative to be fed first at hishome.

Strangely, though the characters in the dance are female,the dancers are all male. According to Manish Shakya, this is a well known andaccepted tradition of Kathmandu Valley. The former Kumari dancer furtherexplained that traditionally, the dancers were hereditary. Manish’s brother wasa Kumari before him, and their father a Kumari before them. But today, thedance is open to any traditional residents of Nakubahal. However, this dancehas been discontinued for a few years, and a local committee called “LalitpurVikasko Lagi Samaj” is taking steps to reinstate this dance.

Nava Durga inBhaktapur
Durga Bhawani, known as Chandi, Bhagawati and many othernames, is most famous for killing the buffalo formed Mahishasur. Her nine formsare worshiped as Nava Durga, which are: Shailaputri, Brahmacharini,Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri andSidhidatri. The worship of this goddess is an ancient tradition in Kathmandu,proven by  a third century statue found inHandigaun’s Dhanaganesh temple. Subsequent historical documents also mentionthe worship of a  goddess who killed thebufflao-demon. Amshuvarma was a famous patron of the Nava Durgas and he issupposed to have established the tradition of their regular ritual worship.

A modern picture of mahishasur mardini that i found interesting

Of the three cities, mothergoddesses are the most prominent in Bhaktapur, where statues of Matrikas can befound in and around the Durbar Square too. In Licchavi period, Kathmandu Valleywas in danger from powerful Khasa and Doya kingdoms. Since Bhaktapur is locatedhigher than Kathmandu or Lalitpur, and the main settlement is surrounded byriver, it was believed to be the most secure place to guard in the valley. Thisalso led to the establishment of an additional ninth goddess, Tripurasundari,who presides over the center. The palace’s name Tripur is supposed to come fromTripurasundari, a goddess around whose temple Anandadev built his palace. 

The eight Matrikas and the ninthgoddess Tripura Sundari comprise the Nava Durgas of Bhaktapur. Worshiping thesame deity in different forms is an old tradition in Hinduism, and hence it isnot surprising that the Matrikas are worshiped as Durgas in Bhaktapur.Similarly, the central Durga of Bhaktapur, Tripurasundari, is also worshiped as one of the Dasa Mahavidyas.

Anandadev’s construction of theNavadurga shrines for the specific purpose of the protection has been mentionedin several genealogical chronicles. It is evident from the map below that theeight outer Matrika shrines are located at strategic tantric points. Theconstruction was done on an ancient mandala based Vaastu system, according towhich the temples were located at strategic points from where the city can bebest protected.  

The Nava Durgas are honored inBhaktapur through a dance every April in the Bisket Jatra festival. The masksused in this dance are of special importance as they are constructed through tantricritual process. 

Dasa Mahavidya
The Dasa mahavidyas are also tantric goddesses, who areworshipped a smanifestations of Durga. Their name literally means ten greatwisdoms. Though famous goddesses of Kathmandu like Bagalamukhi and ShobhaBhagawati are among the Dasa Mahavidyas, they are not as famous collectively asthe Ashta Matrikas or Nava Durgas.

Among the three cities of the valley, the Ashta Matrikas areleast visible in Lalitpur, while the Dasa Mahavidyas occupy  a prominent place here. They are honored everyear through ceremonial worship.
Even though there are more festivals dedicated to male godsthan female one, the most important Hindu festival, Dashain, is dedicated to afierce mother goddess.  The mothergoddesses of Kathmandu are an example of this interesting phenomenon. Whateverstatus women may have in real life, as goddesses they are worshiped fanatically. Besides, though women are encouraged to be gentle and docile inreal life, the goddesses worshiped are vengeful and bloodthirsty. Thus,besides enriching the cultural life of Kathmanduites today, the mothergoddesses of Kathmandu provide an interesting link to ancient matriarchalcultures too.

dasa mahavidyas

 Even though there are more festivals dedicated to male godsthan female one, the most important Hindu festival, Dashain, is dedicated to afierce mother goddess.  The mothergoddesses of Kathmandu are an example of this intersting phenomenon. Whateverstatus women may have in real life, as goddesses they are worshipedfanatically. Besides, though women are encouraged to be gentle and docile inreal life, the goddesses worshiped are vengeful and bloodthirsty. Thus, besidesenriching the cultural life of Kathmandu residents today, the mother goddesses ofKathmandu provide an interesting link to ancient matriarchal cultures too. 

Researched for and published in October issue of Spaces Magazine
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