High Cost Threatens Indigenous Tongue Piercing Festival in Nepal

By: Kalpana Khanal and Anu Thapa

Kathmandu: It is noon on the day after New Year’s in Nepal. Juju Bhai Bagh Shrestha, 32, stands smiling under the April sun, facing the crowd of 50,000 spectators at the annual tongue piercing festival in Bode, a village four miles east of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.

“To preserve the tradition and culture followed by my ancestors, I have decided to pierce my tongue,” he thunders to the crowd.

The conductor then pierces Shrestha’s tongue with a 14-inch iron needle.

“While piercing the tongue, loud music was played with the people cheering noisily,” Shrestha says following the event. “The pain was gone under the din. I experienced divine energy within me.”

After the piercing, Shrestha commenced a 40-minute walk around town with the needle in his tongue and carrying a 18-kilogram (40-pound) lamp. A cheery procession accompanied him to Mahalaxmi Temple, where the conductor removed the needle and applied mud to the wound as medicine.

“While pulling out the needle, it hurt very much,” says Shrestha, a local art teacher.

But he did not bleed. It is considered a bad omen if blood comes out, he says.

“With no oozing of blood, my happiness knew no bounds,” Shrestha says, jubilantly. “I forgot the pain. My hunger vanished.”

This is his fifth year in a row volunteering to get his tongue pierced at the festival in order to invoke divine powers to protect the town in the new year. His late grandfather, who embraced the tongue-piercing role for 30 years, inspired him to volunteer, he says.

But volunteers are dwindling because of the high cost of the feast that the volunteer must provide for the entire community. The feast costs around 80,000 Nepalese rupees ($915), Shrestha says.

Nepwa Khanegu Biska Jatra, the annual tongue piercing festival held this year on April 15, is part of the New Year’s celebration in Bode, a village in the Bhaktapur district. During the festival, a local Shrestha man gets his tongue pierced temporarily. Shrestha is a caste of the indigenous Newar community.

There is no official record of when the tongue piercing festival started, but folklore maintains it was in A.D. 481, says Sanch Krishna Dali, recognized locally as a scholar of Bhaktapur ritualistic culture. It has grown into a tourist attraction. But Dali says the tradition is declining.

According to legend, ghosts disguised themselves as humans to bother the residents who lived near the local Nil Barahi Temple, Dali says, describing the roots of the festival. The residents requested help from a famous, local witch doctor, who trapped one of the ghosts and forced it to show its real, ghastly face with a long tongue and long hair.

The witch doctor stripped the ghost, cut its hairs and pierced its tongue with a needle to stop it from running away, Dali says. He then forced the ghost to carry a glorious lamp, called a “mahadip,” around town.

To free himself from the pain, the ghost promised to renounce its power to protect the locals and the town from heavy rainfall, drought or earthquakes and to guarantee they adhered to traditional religious beliefs, Dali says. The ghost also agreed to pierce its tongue every year for seven years to renew this promise.

After that, the town decided to nominate a man to adopt the ghost’s role and divine power to ward off future calamities by getting his tongue pierced at the annual festival. A number of men volunteer each year, and the conductor selects one for the ceremony.

But the number of volunteers has been declining. Around 10 men used to volunteer for the position 12 years ago, Dali says. But now, only two or three men volunteer, Shrestha says.

Fewer men volunteer for this position to get their tongue pierced each year because the feast is too expensive and because the younger generation is losing faith in these rituals and customs, Dali says.

The man whose tongue is pierced organizes a feast afterward for about 200 local people, Dali says. The feast’s price gets costlier every year.

A feast costs on average around 80,000 Nepalese rupees ($915), Shrestha says. The Newar community has an average per capita income of about 38,000 rupees ($440) a year, according to the 2011 Nepal Population Report.

Shyamraja Tha Shrestha, a 40-year-old man from the caste, which shares a last name, says in a phone interview that he wants to get his tongue pierced but does not have money for the subsequent feast.

The festival is also fading because young people are also losing faith in traditional rituals, Dali says.

Source: Global Press Institute-2 May, 2013k

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