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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Philosophy vs. Ritual

What was the original significance behind the elaborate annual bathing ceremony of Janabahaa Dyo and the accompanying fanfare? It is hard to imagine that this display of pomp and pageantry was initiated solely to please the crowds. There must have been a deeper meaning to this ritual, as there is for every little action and icon in Vajrayana Buddhism practiced in Nepal.

But that meaning is now virtually lost. Perhaps a handful of individuals who possess that knowledge are still around, but those who are knowledgeable are perpetually stuck in enacting the rituals or watching them silently, without realizing the importance of dwelling on the philosophy behind the rites.

The bathing ritual of Janabahaa Dyo or "Nhawan" is probably its second most important annual event, after the chariot festival. It is conducted in the evening of the eight day of the waxing moon of the month of Poush (Poush Shukla Ashtami), which fell coincidentally on Christmas this year.

What happens is this: the official caretaker or "Dyo Pala" priests fetch water in seven containers from the holy Bishnumati River at Shova Bhagwati the evening before. The fact that Bishnumati is probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world now is totally ignored -- in honor of tradition. The idol of Janabahaa Dyo is removed from its sanctuary on the afternoon of the auspicious day and placed elsewhere to prepare it for the bath. It is carried unceremoniously by one of the priests in his shoulders to the dais in the south-east corner of Janabahaa, covered with ornate fabric. After half an hour of extravagant tantric ceremonies, the idol is disrobed of its dozen or so layers of clothing. Finally, several containers of the "holy" Bishnumati water, milk, ghee and honey are poured over the idol.

Drops of the thick liquid that accumulate on the pedestal on which the idol is placed are sprinkled to eagerly awaiting devotees, as the holy liquid or "jal" is supposed to have magical healing powers. The idol is then covered with decorative material and carried back to the temple.

Thousands of devotees gather to watch the ritual bath, many singing hymns in praise of Janabahaa Dyo. The most important spectator is probably the living goddess Kumari, for whom attending this event is one of the few occasions where she gets to come out of her temple-residence in Durbar Square.

Photos by Alok Tuladhar.

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