Festival shows uneroded Hindu support for Nepal king

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS

Kathmandu : “I am hungry and cold,” wailed Varsha Sharma, a third-year college student, shivering in the autumn wind and drawing her red dupatta around her shoulders for warmth.

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“I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast and I want to go home.”

It was almost six in the evening. And yet she stayed where she was, inside Kathmandu’s Narayanhity royal palace as part of the serpentine queue at the west gate that started from the main road, snaked through a long, tree-shaded drive inside and led to the Dhanusha hall where King Gyanendra and Queen Komal awaited visitors.

Sunday was a day of revelations for Nepal’s ruling parties and Maoist guerrillas. The long queue of people at the palace patiently waiting for hours to receive the traditional blessing from the royal couple showed the support the palace continued to enjoy, even after a sea change in the political landscape.

Sharma said every year her family visits the palace on Vijaya Dashami, the concluding day of Nepal’s biggest Hindu festival Dashain, to receive the tika — a vermilion dot on the forehead signifying victory — from the king and the queen.

Her mother Lakshmi Adhikari, a recipient of several state-awarded medallions including the famed Gorkha Dakshinbahu for social service, was also in the queue.

Besides former ministers of the royal regime, Nepal’s aristocracy and affluent businessmen, foreigners, tourists, orphans and Hindu mendicants formed part of the crowd.

The ceremony, which started at 4 p.m., continued for almost four hours in the chilly evening. A journalist called it the best “public relations exercise” he had ever seen in Nepal.

By contrast, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who has now taken the place of the king as head of state, did not draw the same crowd.

Besides being in mourning due to the death of a family member, it would also be impossible for the ailing premier to attend a nearly four-hour ceremony.

Last week, though the king and queen toured Kathmandu’s various temples as virtual commoners to offer worship, they were still treated as royalty by deferential priests and loyal crowds.

“This is seen in India as well,” says Babita Basnet, editor of a Nepali weekly that monitors the workings of the palace.

“In the former princely states of India, the chief minister or governor or other government officials do not attend the cultural or religious festivals in their official capacity. However, the former royal families do and get a tumultuous welcome. In Nepal too, the crown remains an integral part of Hindu festivals and rituals,” she said.

Though Basnet’s Ghatana R Bichar weekly last week said the king would not visit the temples to offer the traditional worship after an earlier public worship triggered an angry outburst from the prime minister, Basnet said the palace changed its mind after personal invitations from the temples that said the absence of the king would be a bad omen.

Although the Maoists are battling for the abolition of the monarchy and there was overwhelming opposition to the king’s authoritarian rule last year, a large number of people still want the king to remain, either as a constitutional or ceremonial monarch.

Former minister Rabindranath Sharma, whose Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal is ready to contest the election on the constitutional monarchy plank, challenges the government and the Maoists to a referendum.

“Let’s have a referendum and let the people of Nepal decide if they want monarchy or the abolition of the crown. If there is a free and fair exercise, it will still see a sizeable support for the palace,” he said.