Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Among the Gods

Batsala Temple, 17th century,
in Bhaktapur
'The town of Devotees.'

My friend Shyam told me that before there was electricity in Kathmandu, his grandfather could see gods and goddesses walking in the streets. He said that the light makes the spirits less visible and wondered if the electricity itself has somehow changed the atmosphere in the valley. I am curious, could it be that it is only the changes in beliefs from past generations to the present that have made the spirits less visible? What becomes of gods and goddesses when their worshippers move on to new pursuits?

I would not say that people in Nepal have given up their belief in divine beings and spirits, but there is certainly a skepticism that comes from the intruding modern culture. Where people used to talk with casual certitude about their beliefs and visions, now they the start with, "Well, I don't really believe in the powers of the Jhankri (Shaman), but when I went to see one, he was able to make me float for a few seconds, and I had no control over my own body. I was bouncing all over the bench that I was sitting on. It was very scary." This is was what a waiter at the Kathmandu Guest House told me.

It seems to me that everyone in Nepal has one of these stories. They usually laugh about it calling them silly superstitions when I ask, but then they tell me about a floating ball of light that crossed their path or a house that was haunted because the deceased's body had not been removed in the proper way by cutting through the floor boards where the body was lying and lowering it down to the first floor. One friend told me about the time that he saw a male and female banjakri by the river. A banjakri is a mythical being, something like the yeti. These creatures are said take children away from their villages and teach them mystical things. When the children return years later, they become Jhankris. I asked my friend what the creatures looked like and how he knew that one of them was female. They were brown, hairy like monkeys, and a little shorter than men with backwards feet. He knew that one was female because it had breasts.

Nepal still has a living goddess everyone can see, Kumari, the goddess Taleju, who inhabits the bodies of pre-pubescent girls. I met a woman, a Shakya, from Patan where these girls are chosen. She told me that it was a great honor to be considered as a potential Kumari. In the place where Kumari is enshrined, tourists and locals come all day long and make donations to catch a glimpse of the little girl inside or to have a wish granted. Someone inside sees people making a donation and encourages the goddess to go to the window and look out. It makes me sad to think of a little girl trapped inside all day in her beautiful decorations, constantly harassed into peeking out the window for the tourists. The woman who was almost a Kumari told me that she was envious of the job, gifts are given to the child's family and almost no one believes the myth anymore that if a former Kumari marries, her husband will die.

The Nepalese are not the only ones with good ghosts stories in Nepal. Westerners also have told me inexplicable tales of shaman and spirits. Peace Corps volunteers and hikers have said mysterious illnesses and physical wounds were cured by the local shaman who interpreted their dream or simply laid hands on them. And one couple from New Jersey told me about a shrine that they tried to enter while they were hiking where they were both pushed back out of the door by an invisible force.

It is so easy in the modern world to explain away the inexplicable. Everything has a physical or a psychological explanation. But I have doubts about worshippers in any religion who constantly pray for miracles while at the same time explaining away with science the miracles they witness. For me, science points to even deeper complexities in the miracle that is life.

Go here to see a picture of a former Kumari http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/kumari.php Learn more, fantastic description of Kumari on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumari


  1. Terrific reading. I also believe in what cannot be seen or explained.

  2. There was a huge uproar when the town inside the stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire County, U.K. installed an electrical grid. Some people say they can no longer feel the energy of the stones.

    I've been there several times, even stayed once in the B&B inside the circle. I was grateful for access to electricity and felt the stones were shouting with power. Maybe it was even more powerful before the grid was installed, I'm not sure.

  3. Hey, thanks for stopping by! You have a fascinating blog. I love to read about other's travels and experiences around the world. I am on my way to work, but I will stop by again to read more. Great writing.

  4. Science is always having to update itself:-) The more science we know, the more questions there seem to be to ask :-).