Varahakshetra

Jhākri Gurung in Varaha temple, Varahakshetra, Nepal, 2001, credits: Prof. Chiara Letizia

SITE – Basic information

Country: Nepal
City: Barahakshetra (also spelt Varahakshetra)
Neighbourhood: Khadim Mohalla, Dargah Bazaar
Type of religious site: Hindu temple
Religious communityies attending: Hindu, Mudhum. For the Rai and other Kiranti groups, mudhum comprises histories of the origin of the ancestors, the proper means of communicating with ancestors and ritually maintaining the order they have established (Gaenszle, 2000).
No of communities attending: 8 or more
Languages used for ceremonies and prayers: Nepali, Sanskrit, Kiranti languages
Pilgrimage location: YES
Pilgrimage season: winter
Names and dates of the main festivals celebrated in situ: Kartik mela (November), in particular Kartik ekadashi and Kartik caturdasi (11th and 14th lunar day of the bright fortnight of the month of Kartik) and Maghe Sankranti (first day of the month of Magh, which falls almost always on 14th January)
Name and title of the in-charge of the site: In 2001, when I last visited this pilgrimage place, the main pujari of Varaha temple was Durganath Bandhari. The person in charge of the entire religious site was the Mahanta Mukunda Prasad Barati. Of course, these people must have been replaced since.

SITE – Overview of the site

The pilgrimage site of Varahaksetra is a complex of temples situated at the holy confluence of the Saptakoshi and Koka rivers in eastern Nepal. The confluence marked the border of three districts (Dhankuta, Sunsari and Udayapur), according to the former administrative division of Nepal. The main deity, served by Bhandari Brahmans, is Varaha, the avatar of Vishnu who, according to a well-known Puranic myth, takes the form of a boar to rescue the earth (and in some versions, kills the demon Hiranyaksa). Aside the main Varaha mythology, many different local mythologies coexist in this site (involving the yogi Aulya Baba worshipped in nearby Chattara, the King Mani Mukunda Sen, the rivers Koshi and Koka personified as girls or queens, the migration of the ancestors of the Rai, etc.).

Pilgrims and shamans (dhami-jhakri) from many Nepali communities (Rai, Limbu, Magar, Gurung, Tamang, Kami, Bahun and Chhetri) visit the temples and the holy confluence on the same dates, while they refer to different mythologies, perform different rituals at different places in the area, and call upon the services of different ritual specialists.

Hindu practices (bath, tonsure, cremations, sraddha) under the supervision of pujaris can be observed in the main temple area, where worship implies vegetarian offerings and the practice of setting free pigeons; while some of the Rai communities with the help of their dhamis perform mudhum (ancestral religion), the end of funerary rituals, and animal sacrifice on the bank of Koka river. For Rai shamans, ‘Baracchetra’ is a mythical place of origin and a destination for both actual and ritual journeys.

SITE – Economy of the site

The Guthi Samsthan, national bureaucracy that funds all religious sites of state importance in Nepal, nominates the Mahanta and gives a salary to priests and ascetics. The shops during the festivals were owned by Biharis and people from Janakpur

SITE – Conflicts revolving around the site

According to my observations in 2001, Rai pilgrims seemed to be marginalized by the Hindu reformists’ aspirations for this site. The Village Development Committee (constituted by Brahmans and Hindu ascetics) established rules to make the site a dharmik kshetra, without animal sacrifices, commerce, or consumption of alcohol or meat. At the time, Maoists insurgents were also campaigning for a mela without alcohol, sacrifice, or gambling activities. Pilgrims from Rai communities had to perform rituals outside the kshetra, on the Koka riverbank. Also, pujaris seemed critical of the shamans’ trance (kamnu) and saw it as “a practice for Shiva and Devi temples”. For their part, some Rai groups claimed that this pilgrimage was established by a dhami who had a vision of a holy stone long before the statue of Varaha was installed, hiding the stone.

In post-1990 Nepal, Kirant “indigenists” have reinterpreted mudhum and introduced changes to adapt it to modern values (no blood sacrifice, no alcohol) (Schlemmer 2004). How has this process of modernization and purification of the cults (and more generally, indigenist activism and invention of tradition) affected the conflicts observed in 2001?
The transition from a two century-old monarchy to a secular federal republic in 2008, posed a direct challenge to the dominance of Hinduism and Hindu high castes and provoked a strong reaction of Hindu Right. How has this impacted the attempts to make Varahakshetra an exclusive Hindu holy place, and more generally the historical co-presence of different groups and the tensions among them? The fieldwork will enable to contrast past observations with the current context and practices.

SITE – Other information

Following the 2008 breach of the Koshi barrage and its disastrous consequences in Nepal and Bihar, Nepali and Indian government have proposed the construction of a high hydropower dam to control the flooding of the Saptakoshi River. The very existence of Varahakshetra is threatened by the proposed construction of the dam two kilometers upstream of the temple. The possibility of this sacred site being destroyed by the dam is, for some, an irreparable loss (Oza 2014). Over the years, many local people along the Koshi Basin who will be affected by the dam have formed struggle committees to resist the project in an effort to preserve their culture, traditions, environment, and homes (Katiwada 2014). In January 2015, hundreds of villagers gathered in Varahakshetra Temple complex to protest. How is this resistance affecting the interactions among the religious communities that share this pilgrimage place?

SITE – Bibliography pertaining to the site

Link: https://ishare.hypotheses.org/category/sites/on-varahakshetra

Gaenszle , M. 2000. Origins and Migrations ; Kinship, Myhtology and Ethnic Identity among the Mewahang Rai of East Nepal. Kathmandu : Mandala Book Point.

Lecomte Tilouine, M. (1993). Les avatars de Varāha en Himalaya. Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 80/1, 41-70.

Khatiwada SP. (2010, 2067 B.S.). Cultural Heritage of Varahakshetra. Chatara: Shree RKBSA Pratisthan.

Khativada, S.P. 2014. River culture and water issue: an overview of Sapta-Koshi high dam project of Nepal. International Journal Of Core Engineering & Management (IJCEM) 1/3, 101-112.

Letizia, C. 2003. Le confluenze sacre dei fiumi in Nepal, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Università di Roma La Sapienza.

Oza, J. 2014. Resisting For the River: Local Struggle Against the Proposed Saptakoshi River Dam. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 1809. http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1809

Schlemmer, G. (2004). New Past for the Sake of a Better Future: Re-inventing the History of the Kirant in East Nepal. European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 25/26, 119-144.

Leaflets and booklets for pilgrims available on the site in 2001 :

Bajracharya, M. (1998, 2054 B. S) Śri Varāhakśetra Śri Visnupaduka tīrthaśrāddha paddhati.

Bajracharya, M. (1997,  2053 B.S ) Śri Visnupaduka darśan.

Bajracharya, M. (2000, 2057 B.S) Śri Varāhakśetra Melā 20-27 Kartik.

Bhandari, K., (2001, 2058 B.S) Śri Varāhakśetra Darśan, Varāhakśetra Dhām, Hari Bodhini Ekadasi.

SITE – Photos of the site

Link to see full pictures: https://ishare.hypotheses.org/766

Fieldwork conducted by Prof. Chiara Letizia