Nepal Clings to Tradition at Festival Time

Despite the political upheaval that brought once-rebel Maoists to power in the “New Nepal,” people here are fiercely holding on to the old ways during the Dashain holidays.

When Maoist number-two, Finance Minister Bhattarai, announced the budget two weeks ago, he cut $160,000 traditionally paid for animals to be sacrificed during Dashain and other festivals. Enraged residents of Kathmandu closed the city for two days in protest. Whether the measure was purely financial or also motivated by ideology, the finance minister quickly relented, and the blood money was reinstated.

And despite ideology, this week the state Kumari, a young girl who embodies the goddess worshipped during Dashain, was replaced per ancient tradition when she came of age. The girl is a religious figure, but the institution has deep ties to the monarchy: One of the kumari’s duties until last year was to bless the king annually. Recently the Nepali courts ordered the kumari to receive formal education, and leftist leaders had argued that the institution should be allowed to expire. Nonetheless the Nepali president and ex-royal priests followed tradition, with the acquiescence of the Maoist leadership.

And the old tradition of fleecing travelers trying to return to their ancestral homes for the holiday remains in full flower. Passengers claimed that all seats for some routes had been booked by brokers, who sold them at inflated prices. Special flights at low fares ordered by the state-run airline were blocked by local airport officials, who said they hadn’t received the necessary paperwork. That and bad weather in the high mountains increased travelers’ frustration and willingness to pay the traditional bribes.

Business houses and newspapers remained shut all week as normal, with retail stores open for the holiday rush. Nepalis spend heavily at Dashain, as westerners do during the Christmas holidays. Even with food and energy prices sharply higher this year, that tradition seems unchanged. Motorcyclists carrying goats and chickens, popular sacrifices to the goddess during Dashain, wove in and out of traffic as usual.

And just as always, less-than-efficient Nepal ground largely to a halt days before the holiday began. “Dashain lagyo malai,” people say: “I’m feeling Dashain [holiday spirit]”. The same was true for political Nepal too: Almost 6 months after elections, the government hasn’t gotten down to work. The prime minister was out of the country doing international rounds for all but eight days of his first 35 days in office and is now enjoying his holidays.

The torpor will continue for a long while yet: Two weeks from Sunday another week-long holiday, Tihar, the festival of lights, begins.

Next week when the media return to work we will learn how the Maoist leaders spent their Dashain. It would be no surprise to find that they celebrated very traditionally. After their accession to power and in the run-up to the holidays, prominent leftish ideologues were spotted at temples and receiving blessings.

Despite being Communists, Nepal’s Maoists know how deeply rooted religion and tradition are here. And when they forget, as the finance minister briefly did, Nepalis are quite ready to remind them.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.