by Pushpa Iyer
"Turn around, turn around,” my Nepali friend instructs our driver as we drive around Pokhara. She asks him to stop next to a small field. I get out of the car not really sure of what has caught her attention. She holds my shoulders and physically turns me a 180 degrees and says, “Now look.” And that is my first view of the Himalayas. My jaw drops. Unparalleled beauty, pure and majestic! And that feeling of awe stays with me every time I view the Himalayas after that. I can never say I have had enough. Tourists flock to Nepal to soak the environment into their every pore – the cold, the snow, the heat, the dirt trails, the narrow curvy paths, and the huge rocks – with a reverence that only the power of nature can demand. Of course, a country blessed with this kind of natural beauty must capitalise on it; charging the ‘foreigners’ for enjoying the bliss, sharply contrasts with how Nepal’s citizens live in raw nature – no proper roads, no potable water, no electricity, no school building for their children, and the list keeps growing.
We learn that the challenges in rebuilding this country after a decade long war are immense. The Maoists, who took up armed struggle seeking an end to monarchy and the establishment of a republic, are in power today. Everything they have not done since coming to power contrasts sharply with every demand they made when leading the war. The lack of urgency and inertia displayed by the masses today also contrasts sharply with the support they provided the Maoists to usher change in their country.
Today the country is anything but peaceful - torn by the differences, conflicts, violence and the marginalisation of many. Contrast this with one of Nepal’s big attractions: Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, where the vast green lands and Buddhist chanting lend great physical peace and mental tranquillity to every passing visitor.
As we move from the capital and areas frequented by tourists such as Pokhara, to rural areas, the lack of infrastructure development is striking. So also is the isolation and disconnect between the center and the regions, between the people in the cities and the rural areas, and between the privileged and the marginalised communities everywhere in the country.
We visit a local hospital that acutely lacks in both facilities and resources to treat patients. Overcrowded, lacking cleanliness and full of bureaucratic procedures, it is not the most reassuring of places to visit when sick in a foreign country although we do receive attention and care from doctors who seem to know what they are doing, albeit in a detached manner. Contrast this with our experience in a hospital that is exclusively meant for tourists in Kathmandu. From being charged a huge consulting fee the minute we walk in, to the thorough check-ups, sterile clean rooms and facilities, our experiences in the two hospitals are wildly different.
A few years earlier, in the summer of 2010, I stood among a group of tourists and waited hours to see Kumari Devi, the living goddess of Nepal. She appeared at the window - her tiny, heavily decorated face staring curiously, yet shyly, at us. A little girl of not more than five years, held up to the window by the adults who cared for her.
There are many legends explaining the tradition of the living goddess. The most popular one is that of King Jayaprakash Malla, the last Nepalese king of the Malla dynasty. The story goes that the goddess Taluja visited the King every night. The goddess played dice with the King while discussing and advising him on the welfare of the state. Her only condition was that the King not disclose her presence to anyone. However, the Queen, getting suspicious of the King’s daily evening disappearances, peeked in one evening. This angered goddess Taluja. She told the King that if he ever wanted to see her again or wanted her to protect the kingdom, he would have to find her in a virgin girl, Kumari, from the Newar (Shakya) community. Thus began the tradition of finding a young virgin girl to be the living goddess of Nepal, the one who protected and advised the King and his kingdom. There are many living goddesses in different cities of Nepal, but the one in Kathmandu is considered the most important and powerful.
When I waited in January 2012 at Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu Durbar Square, for the goddess to make her appearance at the window, the crowd seemed larger while the wait seemed shorter. I reasoned that it was the power of numbers, even the goddess could not hold out against so many voices asking for a vision. I noticed that the Kumari looked more grown up; she is seven now. She still seemed very shy and unsure of what she should do as the crowd yelled out ‘Namaste,’ while others folded their hands in reverence.Thoughts flew around in my head. I thought about the contrast between the deeply revered living goddesses of Nepal and the ‘ordinary’ women of the country who struggle every step of the way to secure their rights and to find their place in politics, in their homes, in their communities, and at work. Discrimination against women is as visible and as obvious as the heavily painted face of the living goddess. Domestic abuse is on the rise and women’s health, especially maternal health, is still a cause of concern. Women continue to be trafficked as commodities and the inability to see the value of girl’s education will take a long time to change. Though we did meet some incredibly strong women working tirelessly and passionately to provide a voice and space for other women, it was frustrating hearing the challenges they face in doing their work.
Consider the Newar community, from which the living goddess is chosen. Historically, this is a community of immigrants with Indo-Tibetan features – physical, social and cultural. Yet as mainly traders and business people they have integrated through customs, traditions, and language into mainstream Nepali society. They have become powerful because of their closeness to the government at the centre. The same, however, cannot be said for the Dalit community, the untouchables of Nepal. Dalits remain on the fringes of society - shunned and marginalized to the degree of being voiceless - in spite of a decade of Maoist-led war, one goal of which was to integrate the lower castes and Dalits into mainstream society. The contrast between privileged communities like the Newars and the Dalit communities of Nepal is as wide as it was before the war.
One can go on and on about the contrasts in Nepal. As a group of outsiders, the differences between what the country was, what its current conditions are, and what the nation wants as its future stands out vividly for us. The challenges in rebuilding the country after war are daunting to say the least. Its current political leaders seem to be obsessed about holding power, and rather than help their own people, constantly undermine much of the excellent efforts being made by some local organizations to bring peace to Nepal.
In my first visit to the Kumari Ghar, I was allowed to go inside the home to meet the goddess. I was asked to touch her feet and seek her blessings. I balked. The tradition of the living goddess contrasts with my belief in God. During my second visit to the Kumari Ghar, as I waited for the Kumari to appear, I contemplated the contrast between those who sought divine intervention to alleviate human suffering with those who like me believe that it is not God but we humans who need to do all we can to help other fellow humans. At that precise moment, I was blessed with bird poop. As I wiped it away from my jacket, I realized the message is clear – what comes from above, what is thrown at us from the powers that are, needs to be dealt with by those of us who have our feet firmly placed on the ground. The people of Nepal need to take charge and act. They need to challenge their political leaders. Just as we, the international community, need to do our share to help the people of Nepal.As we travelled from the flat lands of Terai to the mountains, the contrasts stood out but so did the need for peace, an equitable peace that would unify the people in these contrasting landscapes while retaining their magnificent diversity.
Picture poor villages filled with barefoot children in threadbare clothes watching us, the foreigners, who in well-protected clothing and boots stand admiring the mountains that dot their country. I am determined that we, as the foreigners in that picture, not provide yet another contrast for Nepal.
The articles presented in this series are my student’s efforts to highlight the various challenges that those building peace in Nepal tackle. In each of these articles you will note that while some good is being done it still contrasts sharply with what still needs to be done. Recognising that peacebuilding is a long-term process we hope our research will add to the continuing discussions among various peacebuilding actors on identifying needs and priorities for Nepal.
Dr. Iyer's student blogs will posted to The WIP Talk and linked to below in the weeks to come as they reflect on the challenges to building peace in Nepal. -Ed.
Marina Savinovich Power and Empowerment: Struggle for Gender Equality in Nepal
Jasmine Wolf Challenges to Policing Nepal
Kaori Ambo Neglecting the People with Inner Wounds
Maria Luisa Olavarría Easier Said than Done: Integration and Rehabilitation in Nepal
Kyrstie Lane Searching for Justice in Nepal
Kirill Prudnikov Nepal and Its Political Future
Joel Post New Relationships
About the Author
Pushpa Iyer is Assistant Professor of conflict resolution in the Graduate School of Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She specializes in identity conflicts, non-state armed groups, civil wars, peace processes, and peacebuilding in post-war societies. Her current research interests are: non-state armed groups, challenges to peacebuilding, and gendered security in the US military. Pushpa is a long-term activist and advocate for the poor and marginalised communities in Gujarat, India. She has consulted and conducted research in several countries in South and Southeast Asia as well as in Africa. Pushpa is also the founding Director of the Centre for Conflict Studies and is the Editor-in-Chief for the centre’s publications.