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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Caretaker Priest

Prakash Shakya feels privileged to take his turn as the caretaker priest this month at the Buddhist temple of Karunamaya (Janabahaa Dyo or Aryavalokiteshwor), also worshipped as White Machhindranath by Hindus. As part of his duty, he has to perform several rituals daily and follow strict rules to stay pure.

 The cult of Karunamaya is an ancient one. Karunamaya is revered by Buddhists across the world as "the compassionate one."

The Janabahaa courtyard, located in the heart of the city, is among the most important Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, and dates back to 4th Century BC. The central Karunamaya temple was added in 16th century AD. The complex today continues to be the hotspot of traditional Newaa culture, architecture and music, as well as the central location where religious activites of the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism are practiced.

 Devotees gather at the shrine as early as 4 am to pray to the deity before they start their day.

 Before entering the temple in the morning, which takes place at around 5 am, he needs to take a bath, in the open.

 He has to cook his own food. The diet is strictly vegetarian, but onion and garlic is not allowed. Only one meal a day is allowed -- lunch. Milk and fruits can be taken in the evening if desired.

Some of the rice he cooks is first offered to the deity, and then to the birds, before he can eat.

 Feeding rice to the birds before his own meal.

Newspapers are the only resource for him to keep in touch with the outside world.

Devotees and family are allowed to enter the outer chamber of the temple, but only the caretaker priest can enter the inner sanctuary.

 The ritual of circling the temple, while ringing the bell, is undertaken four times a day.

Mother and sister ensure all impure objects, such as shoes, are out of the way before the encircling ritual, and make sure that nobody touches him. If he does touch anyone accidentally, he needs to purify himself before he can enter the temple again.

 The encircling ritual is followed by reciting of special prayers while fanning the deity with a yak's tale attached to a silver handle. This special implement is called "chwamo" in the Newaa language.

Devotees of Karunamaya commonly offer butter lamps to the deity.

Another member of the priest clan recites the "Namsangati" prayer every evening.

Photos by Alok Tuladhar.