The Nepalese and the Holy City
‘Banaras is not only a city, but a culture in itself — those who can sense and be part of it can experience its revealing consciousness,’ said Kamal Gupt, a local scholar. Brahma, the Creator of the Universe in Hindu mythology, is said to have remarked, ‘You balance all the heavenly deities on one side and Kasi on the other, and the gods will be lighter.’ The celebrated poet-seer Vyasa established his hermitage here. Tulsidas wrote his Ramacharitamanas here. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath nearby. Kabir, Ravidas, Ramanand, Munshi Premchand, Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Laxmi Prasad Devkota and a host of other great philosophers, and men and women of the arts and letters found inspiration in this holy city.
The connection of Nepal with Kasi is as old as history itself. Some of the rarest texts of the Skanda Purana preserved in Nepalese palm-leaf manuscripts, dated AD 810, are available in Kathmandu. It is ordained by the scriptures that the practice of yoga and even merely spending one’s last days in Kasi, will lead to moksha. Even before the history of these cities were recorded with exactitude, and until the mid-twentieth century it was the ardent desire of most Nepalese to visit Kasi at least once in a lifetime or better still, to ‘attain deliverance from the body’ in Kasi.
Kasi has always been the centre for Nepalese pilgrims and priests, but it also sheltered those exiled from the country. ‘Some days after Jung Bahadur took control of governance, he asked King Rajendra to choose a destination for him and the queen to settle down, outside of Nepal. The king replied, ‘there are many places of worship and for meditation in Kasi. The holy River Ganga flows and the God of Gods, Lord Vishwanath is there. Many Nepalese people have lived in Varanasi for generations. That is where I wish to go’. This is how in 1846, King Rajendra and Queen Rajya Laxmi came to live in Varanasi with their large retinue. My great-grandfather, the Raj Purohit and his son, my grandfather were part of that retinue’. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, fondly remembered as Kishunjee, was born at an outhouse of the palace the royals built. He followed the footsteps of the family helping his father in the performance of religious rites in Banaras and Ramnagar, a town located in north Bihar across the Chitwan district at the palace of Mahendra Bikram Shah, alias Ram Raja. But once his elder brother, Gopal and he joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the 1940s, they were absorbed by the revolutionary spirit that engulfed India and joined the movement against British rule in India and the Rana oligarchy in Nepal.
The story of the Nepal royals exiled in Varanasi and the Raj Purohit Bhattarai family as part of the entourage depicts parallel tales of thousands of other Nepalese families who came to Kasi and adopted it as their home. The profession of ‘purohits’ was the most lucrative and prestigious occupation in Nepal, well into the twentieth century, and Varanasi was the city where one could train in and master the practice. Once proficient, there was no shortage of patronage whether in Banaras or on return to Nepal. Conversely, to this day if one seeks the assemblage of 108 Nepali pandits for a recitation of the Vedas, they can congregate at Kasi within a couple of days’ notice.
Arun Dhital, a third-generation Nepali now living in Dudh Binayak, says,
‘The holy Ganga was revered then as it is now. But those days the water was sparkling clean. Some Ganga Jal is preserved in most Hindu households; it contains rare chemical properties that keep the water pure for months, even years. When Maharaj Chandra sailed for Europe he had huge vessels made, sent them here to be filled with Ganga Jal and took the cargo in the ship and was used for drinking purposes. The city was neat and clean then: garbage was carted out of town to be disposed at sites assigned, not dumped into the holy river as now’ (p199).
The holy city still presents a stunning face. On a clear morning as the ‘Sun God, Surya appears, glowing with opal fire, its rays hit the gentle waves and together they impart an orange glow to the Ghats — of magnificent architectural grandeur, rows of lofty buildings and holy sites — filled with devotees, pilgrims and visitors, and the sound of bells and conches and of religious hymns and chants ‘contribute to make the complete view, one which stands quite alone, and possibly could not be surpassed in the whole world’ (p200). The Nepali Temple built under the patronage of the king of Nepal in 1841, is one of the eighty-four Ghats that line the river front. The picturesque temple is fashioned after the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu with pagoda roofs half-hidden by magnificent tamarind and Pipal trees with leaves shimmering in the river breeze.
Many of Nepal’s political leaders have lived in Banaras, and it was one of the main venues where the anti-Rana movement gathered force; however, politics was rarely a subject of discussion inside the inner city. Here the entire population was engaged in literary and spiritual discourse and activities. Those days, the Rana oligarchy never allowed education to flourish in Nepal, so students and scholars came here. The famous poet, Devkota composed many of his poems in Banaras. Much later the Nepali Congress located its office in Dugdha Binayak, but that did not interfere with the spiritual ambience of the area — Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and his brothers were devoted Hindus very much at home with Kasi, its mores and manners. Pushpa Lall, amongst other communist leaders and even the Koiralas, lived in Dugdha Binayak for a short time but they were very discreet about their atheist views. The pivotal centre of Nepali politics was at the residence of the Koiralas located at Thateri Bazaar. And the hub of Indian politics and the Indian independence movement were in and around BHU and other parts of the city.
Excerpted from ‘Singha Durbar’ by Sagar S.J.B. Rana. Published by Rupa Publications India.
Singha Durbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal is one of the most important recent historical accounts about the kingdom nestling in the Himalayas that has been ravaged by violence in modern times. The author, a descendant of the Rana clan, presents a balanced and frank account of what happened in the years till 1951, an important period in the history of Nepal; he writes about family, historical facts and misrepresentation of facts regarding the Ranas of Nepal who ruled the country for a little more than a century, brought stability to the land but were also criticized for economic and religious excesses.