The Forgotten Gods of Nepal

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ April 5th, 2018. Updated on April 8th, 2018. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
A Bhimsen shrine stands lopsided in a small Newari courtyard in Kathmandu,

A Bhimsen shrine stands lopsided in a small Newari courtyard in Kathmandu, behind it a crumbling chaitya, around it are new residents who walk by on the way to work … a few old people still pass by to stop and pay respect to the god

Have the gods left Nepal or did the people leave the gods?

Following the 2015 earthquake there was a spate of news articles about the how’s and why’s of it all. Most of it was scientific. In a country with a “living heritage” there were other cultural repercussions. This included why god or the gods of Nepal let it happen. Some argued it was a day of reckoning for all the corruption, greed and a failing of society in terms of religious devotion while others simply said that the gods had abandoned them in an act of betrayal.

Predominantly a Hindu country, Nepal embraces all religions. However, most identify Nepal’s heritage and religion based on the iconic temples and shrines within The Kathmandu Valley. These were mainly built by the Newari who were the first settlers in the valley whose religious background is a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. One look at Newari temples shows depictions of Hindus gods alongside Buddha and in many instances with some Newari specific deities.

What makes Nepal so special in terms of these buildings is that in other parts of the world they would be highly protected archaeological “heritage zones”. But in Nepal they used everyday by worshipers.

Kumari shrine sits in a corner by Maru Tole in Kathmandu

Worn away by time and the elements … a lone Kumari shrine sits in a corner by Maru Tole in Kathmandu

Nepal has always been known as a country with a “living heritage”.

Time constantly moves forward and the world changes with it. However, a mere several years on from the earthquake and Nepal has literally pivoted in terms of society, economics and in many ways belief.

Today, there’s a distinct growth in the absence of faith in Nepali society compared to many years before. Was this due to the earthquake or is it simply a mirroring of what also seems to have occurred outside of Nepal?

Who knows the name of the deity this temple is dedicated to?

As someone who maps out shrines, temples and statues to provide tourists with the best guidebooks to Nepal and who also tries to preserve such monuments via the Digital Archeology Foundation and historic documentation / preservation of Nepal’s heritage this has been a routine question for me to ask many locals over the years.

Today, many of the statues within shrines have worn away to become nothing more than vermilion covered stones. In larger temples it’s still possible to identify the deity by the toran above it, or the pataka running from the roofs.

A 17th century Bhairab shrine protected in the 1970s by a metal barrier

A 17th century Bhairab shrine protected in the 1970s by a metal barrier as road expansion encroached on it … today only a few in the neighborhood remember their community god

Within the ancestral courtyards or nanis of the Newar’s the best option is often to simply ask a local or find the priest that oversees the area. If you were to merely ask a typical tour guide the answer would usually be incorrect as it would be based on their faith of which there are many in Nepal. As a modest example, a Hindu tour guide in Kathmandu will consistently refer to Hindu teachings rather than Newari history to tell you about a shrine or place. Despite the monument being built by the Newari. The exceptions to this is when they know that you know a little about Newari history – then they too will ask a local.

When you start to date things back nearly a 1,000 plus years to the Licchavi period then there are often blank stares from such guides

As Nepal finally catches up with the information age, largely due to 2016’s electricity resumption and nationwide internet coverage, people are realizing how much of their own history and heritage has been changed. This is just starting to come to light. The mainstream renaming of Swayambhunath to its original name of Swayambhu is one such example. Contentious as it may be to some. And, worthy of a whole other article. Suffice to say, the times are changing.

Nepali seem to be slowly losing their heritage and faith in the old ways

It used to be that most anyone would know who a worn out shrine belonged to. Now, such knowledge is becoming harder to obtain.

“Find an old man nearby and ask him”. Is the becoming a more commonplace answer as new neighbors with wealth move into old courtyards.

Now, these old men are slowly disappearing too as age takes its toll on the verbal history that has kept such knowledge available since the historians and writers largely stopped producing works from the 80s onwards.

Sadly, Nepal has not been known for documenting anything well over the past few decades as the 2015 earthquake pointed out when it came to major temple blueprints or diagrams. Most were deemed “lost”.  This is the excuse for many major buildings. Imagine the fate of smaller shrines.

For those of us seeking answers today, early in the morning is the new best time to find out who the deity of the small nondescript shrine is. This is when older people of faith come out for prayers and blessings.

Ask a young person, if they can look up from their phones long enough, and you’ll usually get a blank stare or a shameful shrug depending on where you are in Nepal.

Not all are like that though. I came across 3 youths to the south of Basantapur (Kathmandu Durbar Square) who could at least inform me that the shrine I was asking about no longer had a god.

An abandoned shrine in Kathmandu

Just a few steps from the UNESCO “World Heritage” site of Kathmandu Durbar Square sits this abandoned shrine … nobody knows what deity used to be inside or what happened to it … the old priest no longer comes here and nobody has seen him for a long time … (If you know or have evidence of what this shrine used to be, please let me know!)

“No more,” replied one looking at me with certainty.

I pushed harder.

“It was stolen many years ago,” followed up another.

I pushed on to little avail.

“Maybe 10 years or more,” the first confessed. “I do not know who it was. I do not know whose temple it was.”

“What about the hotel beside it?” I asked, “Perhaps they know?”

“No,” confirmed the third teenager. “They are new, they will not know.”

It seems the answer to why is well known but the answer to who is vanishing.

I asked the local shop keepers. They were in their forties. Nobody knew. There were few old men around to ask.

It seems this shrine is lost. Today it is being used to protect a water pipe.

Every god has their day

From Zeus to Odin, Ahura Mazda to Tengriism, Vedisim and the Olmecs … all but gone now aside from some ancient relics and stories.

Ask a young person today who Odin is and they are likely to say something about a “super hero movie”.

Throughout the ages people have had their beliefs either handed to them, ordered to them or taken from them. Fearsome avatars of the sun, sky, war, disease and of course salvation. In Nepal, the gods were both brought to Nepal but also born in Nepal or miraculously created in Nepal. People prayed to them, fought for them, died for them and asked from them in return for sacrifices, blood, mercy, penance or simply goodwill. Such ways that would forever focus on the almighty omnipotent deities who would dictate the peoples daily lives for generations.

But slowly, as it has done for the ages, time took its toll on these gods

Then when the earthquake came there was no sign of the gods to protect the people in their hours of need nor afterwards when all was gone. Instead, foreign volunteers came bearing food, shelter and money.

Perhaps a god is only a god until the people lose their fear or belief in them. Then, when they are lost or forgotten the former almighty deities simply turn to dust.

Why are shrines, temples and idols becoming unknown in Nepal so quickly?

This is a very good question. One that has several answers. Here are the most common answers, some of which may surprise you.

Shameful graffiti on a Shiva Shrine in Pokhara

Shameful graffiti on a Shiva Shrine in Pokhara … today many of Nepals youth have lost faith … it’s hard for me to believe but I did not think something like this would happen in Nepal so soon.

Many shrines and temples are tended to by local communities. They are safe guarded by local priests. Not everyone shares the same beliefs. There’s a lack of funding for such shrines and a hint of bureaucracy as to who should take responsibility. Hence the Newari are feeling hard done by as their heritage is overtaken and generations fade away. Again, one can use the Licchavi as an example.

Many idols become worn away due to people touching them for blessings or from environmental damage. Then comes the question of do you replace the original idol with a new one? Or is that sacrilegious. What happens to the old one? Should an old community gods statue be replaced by the new community god? Invariably the argument is never won and the statue simply fades away. So when the bulldozers come, the “heretics” can point to an empty space where the new shopping mall should be built.

Shiva's Nandi (mount) kneels before a trekking office

Shiva’s Nandi (mount) kneels before a …. trekking office … the temple or shrine to Shiva is long gone. Locals say it disappeared about 300 years ago – I have my doubts

Antiquity theft leads to an idol being stolen from a temple or shrine completely. Does the local community have the money to pay for a new one? Can the original ever truly be replaced? Bureaucracy takes hold as the police carry out investigations with glimmers of  hope through the words “wait, we are investigating”.

The blame game is high in Nepal. Stolen idols are often blamed on “foreigners”. Some of this is deservedly true as shown outside the realms of Nepal. However, some of these statues have been stolen and sold by Nepali in more ways than one. Further, a recent news article shone a hidden light on a stolen twinned carving from Nepal. One “stolen” and found in a New York Museum in exquisite condition while it’s counterpart sits decrepit in a Nepali building (the worse off image was not shown in the news article, which does not help the case). Who is looking after who’s gods better in this case?

Interestingly, in this case of the two statues from New York City Museum being return to Nepal  many local communities don’t want their statues placed in a Nepali museum. They want them returned to the community for better safe keeping. “The communities also want the Gods to be returned to them and not housed in museums.” (source: Nepali Times)

Cultural diversity and economics within society has led to older communities spreading out as others of different beliefs move in thusly diluting the importance of a deity within said community. This is particularly obvious in Kathmandu city where old Newari families have moved out as rents increased beyond ability. The community gods left behind to people who know not what they are.

 Shiva Lingam in Te Bahal, Kathmandu being used as a motorbike helment rest ...

A Licchavi period (700 CE) Shiva Lingam in Te Bahal, Kathmandu being used as a motorbike helmet stand…

Post-earthquake there was an influx of affluent volunteers from other countries with different faiths. Local youths saw the affluence, the power and prestige of these volunteers who paid their way to “help”.  It was not hard to question if these “foreign” beliefs were better than their own. These people certainly looked and dressed better and had ample money. Christianity seems to be taking the hot seat on this one with a lot of blame being directed at it despite the difference between a “missionary” or “church” and the Christian faith as a whole.

Add to this the prolific usage of unverified but easy to find internet sources like Pintrest, TripAdvisor, profiteering travel agencies and random bloggers who do not have an in-depth knowledge of a place and continuously misname places or simply “get things wrong”. It’s become a mess out there. Yes, in todays world it’s easier to Google a random answer than look up a dusty book from the past. This will take some time to rectify, but it will happen.

In the meantime, there will continue to be cultural casualties

Terrorism has yet to reach Nepal. It is an unspoken yet very real threat from those that destroyed so much in Syria, Afghanistan and more. Much like the earthquake that would never come, Nepal may yet be under threat unless action is taken sooner rather than later. Last week there was an alert of an attack … nothing came about. Last year the faces of the Buddha in Kirtipur were cut off a stupa. Nepal’s continued reaction is … denial.

A Ganesh and unknown shrine beside it being used to prop up vegetables in Kathmandu

A Ganesh and unknown shrine beside it being used to prop up vegetables in Kathmandu … if you come here earlier or later the shrines are completely blocked by packing crates … locals blame “Indians” when they are not around … but when they are around the “Indians” say they are Nepali and from Kathmandu and indeed speak Nepali and not Hindu.

Make no mistake about it, post-earthquake there was an influx of Christian, Islamic and other religious groups who have set up shop to spread their faith.

Society worldwide is going through a stage where it seems religion is often rebuked in favor of human “freedom”. This message is loud and clear in Nepal as TV and media herald human freedom of expression over the constraints of faith. Who wants to get up early for a puja (blessing) when they can stay in bed browsing Facebook on their mobile.

Historic and cultural education or employment is near on non-existent in Nepal. Simply walk to any ticket office counter to a heritage site and ask what their educational background is and you’ll probably be told “Business studies”. There are virtually no jobs within cultural heritage in Nepal so no incentive to preserve or learn about the past.

An old shrine long gone and covered up by a road

An old shrine long gone and covered up by a road … the stone guardian is damaged and battered. It’s a tale repeated along many roadsides – let it crumble and when nobody knowns or cares it will be cleared away. Nearby is a wonderful statue covered by bags and buckets … it’s ripe for stealing as nobody will notice … I won’t publish it for this very reason

Corruption of heritage has led to profiteering. During the long reconstruction efforts authorities were charged with seeking out the lowest bidders to reconstruct damaged temples. No better examples are of Kasthamandap and Rani Pokhari both of which were defiled by concrete and cheap modern building materials. Meanwhile people saw donation money being squandered even by the likes of UNESCO on world heritage day who attended a champagne reception.

When those who are entrusted with cultural preservation “enjoy” new equipment and expenses paid dinners, what hope for the god’s heritage when those tasked with restoring it betray and disrespect their own ethos?

Historic Nepali gods being preserved

Many Nepali and “foreigners” over the decades have documented Nepali temples, shrines and gods. It is this literature that will be proved to be invaluable in the future. It won’t be ugly signs declaring a site to be a “heritage zone” no matter how much a local community “donated” to the international organization for such a title.

Empty Bhairab Shrine near New road in Kathmandu

An empty Bhairab shrine near New Road in Kathmandu … the metal fence was built to protect it from the road and traffic … nobody knows if the shrine has worn away or was stolen … it’s a part of Nepali “Living Heritage” so people still worship here without the physical manifestation of the god present … one wonders how many of Nepal’s gods will look like this in the future.

There is a quandary though. Trust in the failure of international organizations like UNESCO or trust in independent researchers and writers? History repeats itself despite worldwide lessons. It usually goes that the powers that be will take the money and forget impartiality. However much like the past, it is not these well funded documents and certificates people will read in the future to garner the truth about the forgotten gods. It’s the old books, documents and photographs which are independently written and researched that will stand the test or time.

Such researchers, preservationists, writers and photographers include the likes of Mary Slusser, Prayag Raj Sharma, Chittadhar Hridaya, John K . Locke, Father Giuseppe, Rebati Ramanananda Shrestha, John Child, D. R. Regmi, Gustav Le Bon, B. H. Hodgson, Satya Mohan Joshi, Henry Ambrose, Niels Gutschow, Dipesh Risal, A. Campbell, Alok Tuladhar, Hugh Downs, Lain Singh Bangdel and so many more.

Are the gods of Nepal going to be lost forever?

Some will be, there is little doubt. In particular the community Newari deities. I have little doubt that the fate of many tiny little roadside shrines will be extinction. Roads will be widened. Houses built and highly profitable shopping malls will be the new “what’s best for the community, employment and finances” focus. Uncared stone shrines finally washed away from the developers check list of irritants.

How often do you see a young Nepali priest replace an old one who stands by a shrine every morning as a symbol of faith and defiance?

The larger more famous temples will live on as will the history behind them due to the virtue of their size and attraction as a tourist/religious site. Then again, who remembers Harishankhana?

At some point over the next 50 years or so physical and cultural heritage in Nepal will return as an important educational requirement. Much like the old castles and statues in Europe have enshrined themselves into a vital part of a nations past and present.

Much like religion outside of Nepal today there will still be a dedicated following of many faiths. But, Nepal is far from reaching this level yet. It is still in the faith reduction phase. Perhaps in the short-term the gods of Nepal will more likely reenter society as superheroes from the past in upcoming movies and animations.

A Bhairab statue stands under rubble in Kathmandu

Many blame the gods for abandoning them during the earthquake, but maybe it was the people who first abandoned the gods of Nepal

Today, many of Nepal’s youth are still moving on from the gods their parents insisted they visit every morning for all the reasons given above.

With hope, some will choose a different path. Realizing either the historic and financial value of their heritage or by finding hope anew in faith.

It is this demographic of Nepali society that may well ensure the gods live on in Nepal.


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28 Great responses to The Forgotten Gods of Nepal

  1. Anna's World says:

    Really enjoyed this. It’s a problem facing many cultures.

    I wonder how many people have counted the number of closed churches in North America?

  2. Timothy Osman says:

    Very well written. Faith is not only an issue for Nepal but many other countries at the moment. Today’s generation look to money and fame. Something so many religious beliefs say is negative

  3. Rebecca Kennedy says:

    A reflection on modern society from Nepal! I agree with so much you’ve written. I just don’t know how Nepal can deal with this unless they become like India or Egypt and close off so many places to protect them.

    • This is the route many people want to follow. It’s highly unlikely to happen for another generation at least. People use these temples and shrines on a daily basis.

      An alternative would be replicating them. And, displaying statues in museums or virtual museums. Temples being renovated or at the very least maintained.

  4. Henzo says:

    I bought your guidebook last year. I spent so much time using it to visit places.

    I also noticed people saying Shiva when I ask what a temple is. But it is not always like this.

    One guide in Patan made us sleep because he sounded like a recording. We asked him about the history of one temple, but he could only repeat his mantra…. Training of tour guides would help Nepal.

  5. Raj says:

    Namaste,

    You are right that so many of us here in Nepal do not respect our heritage.

    Last year in Kathmandu so many roads were widened and everybody complain from their armchair.

    We should learn from Kasthamandap.

  6. Sudwn says:

    What is the solution?

    You write a lot about what’s happening, but little about what to do?

  7. Surya says:

    I am sad that we are failing our ancestors.

  8. Thomas Ryan says:

    I can fully understand why the earthquake would shake the faith of anyone. But faith or belief in any God does not mean that they will suddenly appear and save you.

    Most religions say salvation is in the afterlife, not the current.

    The current is where we prove ourselves. I think this is what’s lost on many.

  9. Charlie Bolton says:

    Great read to start the day. I wonder what would happen if people started to put enclosures around the smaller shrines?

  10. Ellie Appleton says:

    This is something I drive into my kids. Respect all faith. Today everything has become so virtuous towards the self rather than the whole.

    It’s okay not to believe in something, but there’s no need to disrespect it.

    I hope Nepal sets up some sort of national protection for temples like these.

    • Well, there are meant to be people that protect the temples. Unfortunately so much is lost on communication and so forth. Think of it this way. You can have one temple that can be a Work of National Interest. Work that belong to a community. Work of religion. And of course a work of international interest plus all the above. Trying to get them all in agreement is the main issue.

  11. Emma A says:

    Is there a national culture & heritage department who should be looking after these places?

  12. Claire Thompson says:

    A newsworthy article. It’s very interesting to read such insightful views on Nepal and a nation that has so much at a cross roads like this.

  13. John Bell says:

    Very interesting article. It’s a shame that old shrines like these are disappearing. I do hope, like you say, that the next generation will be able to restore them.

    It sometimes skips a generation before people realize what they’ve lost.

  14. Richard says:

    This article is impressive and very informative. I still try to read things like this in magazines but there are just too many ads these days. It’s like reading a perfume catalog!

    Here’s it’s just quality articles. Really enjoying them too.