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The Atlantic Monthly | August 1970
apturing Nepal's essense is like trying to muzzle a two-headed tiger: you may have one of its heads secure, and the other bites you in the thigh. Many recent accounts of Nepal try to balance a picture of a medieval fairy-tale kingdom with references to the invasion of the twentieth century. The recent wedding of Nepal's Crown Prince Birendra produced a heavy crop of these accounts, generally explaining the incongruities as the result of sudden modernization, or Nepal's "strategic" position between India and China.
"Nepal presents problems to a God-King unsure of his charisma."
by Merry I. White
Nepal is more complicated than that. Even the "medieval" pageant of the wedding was not all the result of thousand-year-old custom. Some of it, like the leopard-skin-kilted Scottish bagpipe band playing "Swanee River," confused Hindus, Buddhists, and dignitaries alike as they sat reading their government booklets on Hindu marriage, trying to see patterns in the pageantry. Nepalese have a great sense of festivity, of pageant. In Nepal, it is said, there are about 150 possible festivals in a year. It is this love of holiday rather than specific inherited tradition which produced the great show.
It is easier to describe the incongruities of Nepal's history than to explain those of its present. Owing to its unusual geography, Nepal has, over the past 2500 years, become a repository for many different racial and ethnic groups, which have found niches in the almost inaccesible valleys, and for religious and cultural practices which have elsewhere disappeared. Within Nepal itself these ancient practices have developed with particularly Nepalese attributes.
For instance, animal sacrifice at Hindu temples, now almost non-existent in India, still exists at Dakshin Kali, a temple just to the north of Katmandu. But what is interestingly Nepalese about it is its practicality and matter-of-factness. As in Homeric Greece, the temple serves as the local abattoir. If a family is to have a feast, or just a rare meal with meat, it brings its goat or chicken to the temple. There the most efficient of butchers passes his khukuri (a curved knife, the "national weapon")
over its throat, quickly decapitates it, and sprinkles the blood on the statues of the gods, before passing the carcass to the waiting woman, who takes it home for cooking. I saw three chickens and two goats cleanly slaughtered in the space of about ten minutes; and the families who brought them receive at once great benefits in heaven and the makings of a good dinner. Religion, even the rather restrictive Hindu religion, seems to serve, not dominate, Nepalese life.
Nepal's ten million people include, pure and in mixture, several strains of the Mongoloid race from different migrations in time and from different Asian areas, and several Caucasian strains. These racial groups are usually also ethnic groups, sharing a particular geographical area, a language or dialect, and social customs.
Mongoloid people came in the earliest waves of migration from the north and met Aryans from the south and west. Later, Rajput Indians intermarried and produced the present Hindu Nepalese tribes, who live chiefly in the lower valleys. The Magars, also Hindu, and the Gurungs are Mongoloid in origin and live higher up, but not as high as the Mongoloid Tamangs (lamas) who are Buddhist, or the Sherpas, of fairly recent Tibetan origin, who live higher still.
The Gurkhas are perhaps the most famous racial group in Nepal, but they are not a tribe: Gurkha is the name given to any of the marital tribes (Gurungs, Magars, Rais, Tamangs, Limbus) who joined the British or Indian armies. Gurkhas served in foreign armies until 1947 and are considered some of the best soldiers in the world.
Under the present king, Mahendra, the first election in Nepal took place in 1955, in which the country's Congress Party had a clear majority, opposed by the Gurkhas. But the Nepalese Parliament was short-lived. In 1960, Mahendra dissolved Parliament and took over the controls, detaining his Prime Minister for "inefficiency and corruption." It is very hard to know the facts in this case: inefficiency and corruption are a way of political life in Nepal, it is not likely that the Prime Minister was punished for these transgressions alone.
Repression is also part of the political landscape. All political parties were banished in 1960, and still are. Mahendra established a form of representation known as panchayat democracy. Reverse democracy would be more accurate. It is a system in which the King is represented among the people by district officers and locally elected representatives. It is a four-tier construction: villages or towns elect representatives to district panchayats, which elect representatives to zone panchayats, which in turn send representatives to the rashtriya (national) panchayat, which also has representatives of the King in its membership. The system is said to be working, but it suffers from the customary Nepalese probems of coordination and communication: valleys are cut off from each other, and remote places are reachable only by foot—by the feet of whoever happens to be walking. There is no regular postal arrangement, let alone telephone or telegraph, for most hill areas.
The country is 90 percent agricultural, and an amazingly large product is grown for the primitive methods used. The Newari farmers in the Katmandu Valley are said to be some of the best in the world: they have tripled wheat production in the last two years, using methods little changed since the valley was first cultivated. In the hills, the paddies are terraced high up the slopes, and are well tilled. The only problem at present is erosion, which is eliminating valuable acreage.
Industry in Nepal is still minimal, but there are various Five-Year Plans, both to improve agricultural production and to increase industrialization. I visited the site of a gigantic power station being built for Nepal by the Chinese, and I saw a cigarette factory and textile mill. Few other projects are in the works.
In a country where subsistence farming is the main way of life, it is not surprising to find only about 2 to 8 percent literacy. (Nepalis give both figures confidently. You hear what your informer wants you to hear; thus the amount spent on the wedding was figured sometimes at $2.5 million and sometimes at $9.5 milion.) But in spite of this, and the very low national average income, again quoted as from $40 to $75 per annum, Nepal doesn't seem like a poverty-stricken, backward country. In terms of "modern civilization," of course, it is, but in terms its own civilization, it is not—it is really a flowered civilization in a static state.
The real problems will come when modernization begins to make inroads, as it will. The chaos to come was suggested in a minor war by the first traffic jam ever in Nepal's history, on the first day of the Crown Prince's wedding. The King imported about 200 Japananese cars for his wedding guests to use while we were in Nepal. These were added to the small number of private cars and taxis already there, all of which were going to the same place—the Royal Palace—at the same time, and an extraordinary situation resulted in which everyone lost his cool. What we would call a common-sensical way to ease the jam—stop some lines of traffic, and let others by—did not immediately occur to the policemen in charge. These automobiles, the pride of Nepalis seeking "modernity," had gone out of control—perhaps they hadn't been prayed over. (Once a year, owners of autos, trucks, and buses pray for their vehicles, decking them with flowers and red paint.)
The problems of all developing nations, how to absorb and adapt, to bend rather than be bent, will soon come to Nepal. Tourism, on which Nepal is counting as its major "bridge" industry to modernity, has been given a great boost by the Crown Prince's wedding.
But what will happen to Nepal if it becomes a prime tourist mecca? One of the great joys of Nepal is its freshness. Even people who were in the position of being servants and who would have been, in India or other formerly colonial lands, at once servile and distant, were open and forthcoming in Nepal. A man would bring tea and sit to chat; waiters would smile, bring flowers, make bawdy jokes. My driver helped me market, but while helping me, was quite firm about what ingredients to buy for what, changing my menu completely the day I wanted to try cooking in a Nepalese kitchen.
The only time I felt like a "tourist" was in a shop run by very cagey Indians. My Nepalese friend rushed us out, muttering under her breath about "those Indians." (There is much anti-Indian feeling; much more than anti-Chinese feeling.) In Nepal it is possible to stare and be stared at, and to take a picture of someone spinning wool and then, instead of being asked for money, be made a friend. In Nepal, as nowhere else, I fel the importance of being myself—the importance of not going self-consciously native. One is respected and even liked, if one respects one's own identity.
I did understand why the hundreds of Western hippies in Katmandu were so unpopular. At the first word of Nepalese scorn for them, it seemed as if a sort of intolerant Silent Majority reaction must be operative in Nepal too, and I was prepared to defend the hippies. The fact is that the hippies wear Nepalese or Tibetan dress constantly and take advantage of the opportunity for begging and cheap hashish, which sells for about 10 cents an ounce. Hash is not natively used by young people but is a privilege of the aged in Nepal. Old men meet in the temples in the evenings and smoke and have long "jam sessions" with flutes, drums, and stringed instruments. I sat in on one of these, and could see why old age, once achieved, is a blessed state in Nepal, and why young people who appropriate the privileges of age commit a gross act of disrespect in the eyes of the Nepalese.
In general, the Nepalese approach to modernity is to absorb it with almost defiant archaisms: a wonderful Newari waiter at my hotel took great pride in his recipe for instant coffee—a can of Nescafé stood on the table, and while in the States it would take perhaps 20 seconds to put the boiling water in a cup with the coffee and stir, he proudly beat the coffee and sugar into a remarkable meringue-like froth with a bit of hot water, working away for ten minutes at my elbow, before triumphantly topping it off with boiling water: a great tour de force, which produced a cappucino-like appearance, and the same, unfortunate, instant taste. He would have been remiss in service if he did it any other way.
Places of life
Nepalese individualism, an institutionalized tolerance, extends to matters of caste and religion. In a country which is approximately 50 percent Hindu, 50 percent Buddhist, one would expect to find at least mutual recognition, whether hostile or not, but the actual degree of "intermarriage" between the two religions is striking. My guide's mother, a Hindu, often worshiped at a Buddhist temple. Buddhists visit Hindu temples when they can (some Hindu temples are closed to non-Hindus). Within a Hindu temple, one finds Buddhist statues and iconography, and vice versa.
The temples are places of life, whether Buddhist or Hindu: in their shadows or within their precincts, children play, women cook, men have haircuts. The gods, too, partake of life. Instead of dictating precepts, they offer exaggerated examples of human behavior of all sorts, from piety to lust. A story is told that Vishnu was making a distribution of wealth and jewels found when he drained the lake to make the valley, and gave away everything except a voluptuous maiden, whom he took for himself.
Buddhism teaches that all reality is in the afterlife, where human action will be rewarded and punished in subsequent incarnations, thus making social laws on earth less important. Hindu prescriptions for living are more detailed and restrictive than those of Buddhists; still, within the Hindu religion there is relative freedom. A man's relation with gods is his own private affair. The times and manner of his worship are his business alone. Nepalis pray with flowers, with red paint (also used for the tika on their foreheads), with incense, with music, seemingly at times of their own choosing (except for the critical rites of passage and important festivals).
The Hindu patron-god of Nepal, Lord Shiva, has his main shrine at Pashupatinath, an amazing collection of temples on the shores of the sacred Bagmati River. Here religion seems more ponderous, more serious, than elsewhere. It is said that here is where Shiva's phallus fell to earth, and there are many stone lingams in honor of this. Rows of nearly identical temples stretch along the river in a grayish vista. The river is paved on both sides near the temples, and on its banks people are washing, cooking, bathing, and dying. Many Hindus come here to die with their feet in the sacred river, and to be cremated on the bank. This shrine is a meeting place for Indian ascetics who make the pilgrimage here, especially at the beginning of March, for the Shivaratri, or Shiva Festival, when hundreds of naked holy men dance in the streets.
Nepal has the only Hindu monarchy in the world. In fact, Mahendra is said to be the reincarnation of Vishnu, a God-King, as Crown Prince Birendra will be when he inherits the throne. But this does not give the king dictatorial control over the religion of the people.
His political power is something else again. Since the dissolution of Parliament and the establishment of the panchayat system, factions and controversies have sprung up. The King has countered with repression. Critics of the government are often jailed in midnight raids, no political meetings are allowed, and gatherings of any size are suspect. A strong Communist movement does exist, and many students are Maoists. This side of Nepal's political life was hidden from view during the wedding. Guests were discouraged from meeting liberals or other "controversial" individuals, and questions about political prisoners were fended off.
There has been some student unrest in Nepal, but the issues are confused. It is clear, though, that satisfactory opportunities for university graduates are few. The bureaucracy has stopped expanding, industry is too underdeveloped, and teaching pays poorly. There are complaints in the university about the faculty and the examination system. Nepal has one university, Tribhuvan University, and several colleges. Young men and women often receive overseas education if they are wealthy enough. Both the Crown Prince and Princess received their early education at Darjeeling. The Prince was also educated at Eton, the University of Tokyo, and Harvard. He has been prepared for a kingship that is difficult to predict. King Mahendra is skillful in balancing factions—he is called a "Tammany Hall" politician. Birendra will be a gentler, perhaps more subtle king, but equally skilled.
Nepal presents problems to a God-King unsure of his charisma. A strong, confident man could, at least for the present, maintain the country's unsure balance between India and China, finance the beginnings of industrialization, and provide a focus of national pride and common feeling for the multiracial, multilingual people of the mountainsides and distant valleys of Nepal. In Nepal, greater incongruities have been resolved.
At the time she wrote this article, Merry I. White was a recent Radcliffe graduate who had attended the royal wedding in Nepal as a guest of the crown prince. She is now a professor of anthropology at Boston University and the author of The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America (1994).
Copyright © 1970 by Merry I. White. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1970; Nepal; Volume 226, No. 8; page 26-32.