Dalit woman priest works silent revolution in Nepal

Readers may recall a previous post

Does not Smt. Sukmaya Rokaya qualify to be known as a Brahmani? Who else if not her?

– Namaste

Kathmandu, Sep 22 (IANS) As Nepal’s parliament remains paralysed due to bickering among the major parties and the task of drafting a ground-breaking constitution by next year seems doomed to fail, a stone’s throw away from the august house Sukmaya Rokaya is working a silent but real revolution.  

The 43-year-old is the priest at the Chhakkubakku Bhagwati temple in the busy Baneshwor area of the capital, hemmed by shops and pavement stalls. Besides being a woman, she is also a Dalit, a community that stands at the bottom of still-conservative Nepal’s rigid social ladder and is ostracised as untouchables even now.  

The mother of four comes from the Sarki clan who were originally cobblers and once forced to live on the carcasses of dead cows when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom with a ban on cow slaughter.  

Before her marriage at the age of 18, when she came to live in Kathmandu, Rokaya remembers how she was not allowed to enter temples in the village in Kaski district where her parents lived. She also remembers the humiliation of not being allowed to attend any social function, especially those involving feasting.  

‘My heart used to grieve,’ Rokaya told IANS. ‘I would wonder, why did this happen to us? My heart still grieves at the memory of the discrimination.’  

But in Kathmandu, she was amazed to see that her mother-in-law, Chauki Rokaya, was working as the cleaner at the Chhakkubakku Bhagwati temple, the 7th century shrine of a Hindu goddess said to have been built by king Narendra Deva of the same Lichhavi dynasty that produced Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya.  

As the illiterate but hardworking Rokaya slowly took up the chores of her mother-in-law, her dedication won the esteem of the president of the temple preservation committee, Shyam Prasad Aryal.  

‘I would come to the temple early morning every day and it would be sparkling,’ said the 64-year-old Brahmin, whose clan is regarded to be at the top of the hierarchy and the arch enemy of Dalits.  

‘I was impressed with her dedication. I thought, we have so many Brahmins who violate their calling and yet are regarded as upper castes; and yet, this woman, whose diligence outrivals many others, is being treated as an outcast.’  

‘So many Europeans are beef eaters. And yet we court them. But we are ostracising this woman because her ancestors were forced to live on dead cows for survival,’ Aryal told IANS.  

Aryal had the revolutionary thought of asking Rokaya to start officiating as the priest, doing the simple things that did not need learning.  

‘I clean the temple and worship the deity in a simple way, offering flowers,’ says Rokaya. ‘I don’t chant mantras because I don’t know any. At night, I also do the aarti (worship with lamps) before the deity.’  

When the unusual practice started, temple goers were aghast. Many even thought of boycotting it and throwing Rokaya out.  

However, despite the pressure and intimidation, Aryal stood his ground and gradually, she was accepted.  

‘I go to her house regularly,’ says Aryal. ‘I eat the food she offers me. I don’t see any stigma in it.’  

While neither Rokaya nor any of her three sisters went to school, all her four children three daughters and a son are educated. The youngest has just completed school and the eldest taken training in education so that she can become a teacher.  

Though Nepal officially banned untouchability in 1963, the practice is still strong, especially in the remote villages.  

Over 20 percent of the nearly 29 million population are Dalits and more than half of them are women.  

Ironically, Chhakkubakku Bhagwati is said to be the sister of power goddess Bhuvaneswari, who has her temple on the grounds of the revered Pashupatinath shrine in Kathmandu.  

The 5th century Pashupatinath temple, one of the holiest Hindu shrines and declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, employs only Brahmin priests while non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple. Even late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was not allowed inside the Pashupatinath temple as he was a Parsi.  

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in )

4 Responses

  1. I was referring to the dominance of Leftist ideology since Independence & its effect on the Hindu elite.Explanation may seem a bit obvious or inaccurate but let me give it a try.

    I think one of the main reasons is the US & UK educated Hindu elite who gained prominence during the Independence movement & later ruled India.In my opinion,a sizeable number of these elites were profoundly influenced by the so-called Modernist,Rationalist,Secular Western thoughts & principles propagated by the hypocritical Whites.In addition to this,some of them were inspired by the events in the USSR in the 1920’s & 1930’s & the Marxist view on religion.

    This coterie gradually wrested control & leadership of the INC at a crucial juncture.So although there were various groups within the INC (differentiated by ideology),these elites reaped the benefits by being at the forefront of the Independence movement & then successfully marginalizing the Hindu conservatives & leaders who advocated a different path.

    A case in point is the sidelining of SC Bose,Sardar Patel & Purshottam Das Tandon in 1939,1946 & 1950 respectively.Of course MKG’s assassination provided an opportunity to vilify the Hindu Right.

    INC governed India virtually unchallenged for 2 decades.In that period,Nehru & his ilk succeeded in permeating their ideas & socio-political point of view in the system & the society.

    This was a brazen & purposeful move to mould Indian society & State into one based on Western espoused principles.In their attempt & desire to be accepted,and more importantly to be treated,as an equal by the West,these elites started to conform to Western values.

    This manifested (somewhat expectedly & inevitably) into disdain for traditional beliefs,values,customs,history & daily rituals.An example:

    Nehru’s qoute:”The spectacle of what is called religion,or at any rate organised religion,in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror,and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it.Almost always,it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction,dogma and bigotry,superstition and exploitation,and the preservation of vested interests.”

    I think this behavior is prevalent even today.May be I’m generalizing.But a significant percentage of the Hindu elite are knowingly or unknowingly falling victim to this trend.

    It’s the responsibility of the Elders to pass on the ancient,sacred culture & knowledge to the next generation.Perhaps this isn’t happening and therefore the current drift.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Tanmay.

    However, I wouldn’t blame the colonials. They did what they had to to retain power.

    It’s also true that in colonies, there will emerge a local elite that mirrors the colonial ruler, in, style and temperment. Mirroring thought is perhaps more complicated since this involves personal experiences.

    Complicated cases would be Savarkar and Bose.

    Were they Hindu traditionalists? Were they even conservatives? Both were educated in Western establishments. Both are viewed very differently from the likes of Nehru.

    Again, when you speak of “leftist ideologies” dominating, please remember that Western colonialists largely opposed communism and generally any kind of “leftism”. It went against their grain.

    In my opinion, I’d make all this simple and analyse positions taken by the premises they rest on.

    My own favorite is to view issues and opinions in terms of Traditionalist Conservatism and Liberalism. I’m in the former camp.

    Let me know if you have any questions with all this for now.

    Thanks again, Tanmay!

  3. Thanks for the reply.I did read some of your posts on Yoss’s blog & therefore followed you on Twitter.Sadly,I’m not a philosophical guy 🙂 But I’ll do my best to convey my point.

    Could you elaborate on your categorization of opinions into Traditionalist,Conservatism & Liberalism?Is it w.r.t. political views or opinion on religion or an individual’s position on various issues in a society & his way of life?

    In political/social terms I’d say I’m a loyal supporter of the Hindu Right.I’m a staunch atheist but that does not mean I abhor our culture.I’m proud of it & I differentiate between belief in God & belief in/following Hindu culture.

    My point in the earlier post was that in trying to mirror Western societies or as people climb the social & economic ladder,Indians often distance themselves from their culture & traditon.

    What is the reason for this behavior?

  4. Tanmay, my apologies for the long delay.

    Let me briefly take up your points – Btw, i’ve posted on these on this site and you can use “search” to read all of those.Nothing scholarly though 😦

    To me, being a Traditionalist is the same as being Conservative except that Traditionalism is a holistic view of life and living seen from the perspective of our social evolution.

    Therefore a traditionalist will not limit himself to the social or the political aspects of life but will view them in totality.

    You may read about my thoughts on liberalism here – https://konenakshatra.wordpress.com/2009/09/15/is-liberalism-truly-evil-and-if-so-are-its-ill-effects-universal/

    Your thoughts on distancing from our culture is true. See, I think we have failed to link pride in and practice of our traditions – with material progress. This is mainly because we have confused our identities and sense of belonging-to our culture and tradition-thoroughly.

    We used to speak of the American Born Confused Desi? We should really have been talking of the confused folks right here at home.

    I have tweeted about this confusion a bit and debated it in some blogs – I shall post on it soon – perhaps today.

    Let me know your thoughts post the reading.

    Take care!

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