WHEN CULTURE CLASHES WITH COVID:
Thamel, Budhanilkantha & Rato Macchindranath
On Thursday 3 September 2020 in Pulchowk Ward, Lalitpur, one of the three metropolitan districts of the Kathmandu Valley, a small group of rebellious individuals took a decisive step. At the very moment that the authorities were discussing how to continue with their famed and deeply symbolic annual festival in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic, they unilaterally took the law into their own hands and commandeered the sacred Rato Macchindranath chariot, the centre-piece of the ‘Jatra’. As they started pulling the mammoth, still unfinished, chariot from its resting place where it had been abandoned for weeks on end, it was soon apparent that their combined strength was insufficient: however as news of the unexpected, galvanizing action spread, more and more people came into the streets to join their ranks, and the dangerously tilting, still incomplete chariot started to move forwards.
When lockdown was suddenly imposed upon somewhat bewildered, disbelieving Nepali citizens on 24 March 2020, amongst the places which were ordered to close were religious institutions — primarily Buddhist gompas (monasteries) and Hindu mandirs (temples) — in order to prevent the spread of what was then more commonly known as ‘corona virus’ amongst devotees and worshippers.
Simultaneously almost overnight I found myself tantamount to being a ‘paying prisoner’ in my guesthouse on the fringes of Thamel, Kathmandu’s prime tourist enclave, subject to the same lockdown rules as the locals. I ventured out every morning for an hour or so — first very warily but with increasing confidence — to observe and photograph the slow, almost imperceptible changes in the streets of Thamel and the adjacent districts as the days of lockdown lengthened into weeks. It became rare to catch even a glimpse of the distinctive maroon robes of Buddhist lamas and nuns in the maze of interlocking, now silent streets, and the gates of Shree Ghar Gompa at the heart of Tahiti’s Tibetan enclave were firmly closed. In contrast the numerous small Hindu mandirs and shrines dotted throughout Thamel, Indra Chowk and Asan Tole always seemed to be busy, especially on Saturdays, with worshippers going to pray and ask for a blessing. The official word was that the corona virus could be contracted from touching ‘infected’ metal objects, but the faithful continued to ring the omnipresent brass bells and devoutly reach out to reverently touch sacred bronze images. Citizens were instructed not to congregate in large numbers and to practise social distancing, but the imposing Shree Ghar Chaitya — or Kaathe Swayambhu Chorten, named after Swayambunath which is closely resembles — remained the cynosure of piety and worship on the passing holy days and feast days — notably Nepali New Year, Buddha Jayanti and Mother’s Day. Crowds of people dressed in their best finery congregated there to light butter lamps and incense, and perform kora — clockwise circumambulation — of the central third eye chorten, as the hordes of pigeons, deprived of their usually abundant source of food, swooped ravenously down on the grain devotees had purchased and scattered on the ground as an act of piety and compassion.
As the weeks turned to months and lockdown was abruptly, if not totally, lifted after 120 days, I finally shifted from my Thamel guesthouse to Budhanilkantha about 12km north and nestled against the foothills of Shivapuri. There is a strong feeling of spiritualty about the place, with Jamchen Vijaya Chorten, Namkha Khang Dzong Gompa and Taklung Gompa, all barred to outsiders since the onset of the pandemic, tantalizingly visible on the higher slopes above the town; and, most famous of all, the Narayanthan Mandir with its renowned ‘Floating Vishnu” in the very heart of the community.
The day after I moved to Budhanilkantha was Naag Panchami (or the Snake Puja): dutifully wearing my mask and with camera at the ready, I walked down to the mandir and was at once fascinated yet appalled to find its extensive grounds a mass of colour, as women, old and young, Hindu and Buddhist, in saris, kurtas and bangdien (Tibetan apron), as bright and colourful as butterflies, congregated there with their more drab menfolk to do puja and take smiling selfies.. Pandits rubbed shoulders with lamas, their respective puja ‘accessories’ laid out on the ground in front of them, and incense rose thickly into the morning air. Just a few days later, on Rakshya Bandhan, there were, if anything, even more people, more crowding, less spacing. Did they not understand the risks they were taking? How to protect themselves from the virus? What were they doing, flocking blindly to follow the age old rituals when we were in a new age of masks and hand sanitizer?
It was only after a few more weeks had passed — by which time Budhanilkantha had become a COVID hotspot — that finally the gates of the Narayanthan Mandir were locked and the premises sealed to all but the resident guardians and holy men. Wasn’t this tantamount to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted?
“Why did it take so long for this to happen?” I asked a local journalist and COVID activist.
“I tried to get the mandir closed”, was his response “but could not push, mainly due to my last name. They would think that I was biased and did not understand or respect their beliefs.”
The last name in question was ‘Lama’, indicative of his cultural and religious background and therefore supposed loyalties: it was the first time for me to detect even the slightest chink in the normally seamless blending of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal.
If being in Nepal throughout lockdown has taught me anything it was that most of the people either do not understand — or do not want to understand — not only the seriousness of COVID but how crucial is their individual contribution to stopping the spread and flattening the curve by following a few simple rules: wear a mask when outside the home; maintain a distance from people outside the immediate family; and do not frequent crowded places, especially enclosed spaces. As a general rule, masks were worn, if at all, at ‘half-mast’; the social distancing circles which some shopkeepers had optimistically drawn on the road in front of their shops were very largely ignored; and local tea-shops and basic restaurants, open in defiance of the government order, were popular meeting places for the exchange of news — and possibly COVID. Lockdown in its various manifestations, confusing even to me at times, had dragged on too long. People were tired of being isolated; tired of seeing their jobs disappear and their meagre savings dwindle; tired of being unable to move around freely; tired of being controlled by a government largely regarded as corrupt and inept.
It is in the context of all this that the events of 3 September have to be seen. Unlike my personal observances of developments in first Thamel and later Budhanilkantha, I could follow the Rato Macchindranath incident only vicariously through online reports and social media comments: Lalitpur is on the opposite side of the Valley to my Budhanilkantha ‘sanctuary’ and could not be reached, even if it had been advisable or safe to do so, as another, disturbingly unclear, type of lockdown had been imposed.
Sealing off a mandir or monastery, either voluntarily from within or under a prohibitory order from without, is one thing, but how to ban or even curtail a religious festival which is culturally bound to and celebrated in a local community? Preparations for the Rato Machhindranath or Bunga Dyah Jatra had been postponed due to COVID and the centre-piece — the chariot — had been left standing in Pulchowk. When completed, the chariot enshrines the figure of Bunga Dyah, usually housed in Bungmati’s Bunga Dyah or Macchindranath Temple and revered as the Red Avaloktishevra, the God of Compassion.
Perhaps it was the proximity to the traditional ‘deadline’ for completing the jatra, combined with pent up frustrations after all the months of lockdown and a seemingly unstoppable economic downward-spiral that led to the violence that ensued: after several warnings were issued that they should immediately stop all attempts to pull the chariot and return home, locals clashed with the armed police. Tear gas and water canon assaults were countered by rock-throwing and vandalism along with verbal abuse and threats to those in authority.
The police easily quelled the mob, but not the underlying feelings, which burst forth in a torrent in social media. Many comments, bordering on the fanatical, were in total support of the mob: they were, they maintained, righteously fulfilling their duty and upholding their culture at all costs — even death.
“Culture is more important than people’s lives. We should create history. The future shall know that we risked our lives to protect our culture and show how important and valuable it is for us. God will protect us!” screamed one woman in her comment.
On the other hand, many were equally angered by those who, in supposedly wanting to preserve their culture, were putting their own lives and those of others at risk.
“This makes me sad, furious, mad and laugh at the same time because of the silliness, ignorance and immaturity people have displayed. Don’t blame everything on God and culture and don’t forget humans made God and culture,” countered a more rational netizen. “I get that everyone is bored and frustrated, but don’t risk everyone’s lives by having fun one day in the name of God and culture. Our religion teaches us patience, perseverance and kindness. This is absolutely mad. Unfortunately, Corona doesn’t discriminate among any religion, culture, caste, gender, age or nationality. Your life is your responsibility. The lives of others you are risking are also your responsibility.”
“Newars destroying Newar pride,” was the pithy, disgusted comment of another moderate.
The aftermath of the incident spiraled in manifold ways: there were rumours that as many as thirty prayer leaders for the Jatra had tested COVID- positive prior to the mob, as had many of the police brought in to control the protestors. There were arrests made and a curfew imposed. Finally a scaled down procession to fulfill traditions and cultural requirements was held on 7 September amid high security and tense feelings.
So to date who is the ‘winner”: culture or COVID? In the case of the Rato Macchindranath, the procession was held — an apparent ‘victory’ — but as yet it remains unknown whether there will be a pronounced spike in cases in the district as a result of the mayhem and involvement in various capacities of those who had contracted the virus.
And in a wider context? 10 September saw an easing of the 3-week lockdown and yet people poured into the streets as if it had been completely lifted and the disease banished once and for all from Nepal. The same day also saw the total nationwide case number break through the psychological 50,000 barrier. Other new, disturbing records were set on that same day: there were 572 new cases in the Valley, the most ever; whilst Kathmandu itself witnessed 495 new cases, more than the previous combined total for the three Valley districts (Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur).
Lama ji commented about the whole culture versus COVID issue in these frank and explicit terms: “There are so many arrogant people around here who are staying safely at home and commenting on social pages without thinking. If they contract COVID 19 then they will know the reality of having a hard time. If they just stay at home writing whatever they want, I can say they are bunch of shits. The government is trying to break the local transmission chain while they are still thinking about their culture: if the whole of Kathmandu is wiped out by Corona, then who is going to save their culture?”
The gates of the Narayanthan Mandir in Budhanilkantha remain locked as do those of the gompas and chorten up above on the hillside. When will they be open again to devotees? When will there be an end to COVID 19? When will normality return to Nepal? Two back-to-back extended holidays — Dashain and Tihar — are on the horizon in October/November: if domestic flights and long distance buses are allowed to resume by then there will be an outpouring of people from the Valley to the ‘hilly areas’ like Mustang and Solukhumbu, rich in Tibetan and Sherpa Buddhist heritage respectively and little touched by the pandemic until now. Will there be new cultural clashes, Newars and Hindus versus Sherpas, Bistas and Buddhists? Valley townies versus mountain natives, as the locals try to keep their highlands COVID-free? Neither culture nor COVID stands to win: it is Nepal itself that risks being the ultimate loser if these pristine areas — and prime trekking regions — become hotspots as a result. The prospect of travellers returning will then fade into the far distant future.