Through the Rubble: A Shaken Faith
As Nepal continues to rebuild itself three years after a devastating earthquake, we uncover how a disaster that sent shockwaves throughout the country and beyond shook the faith of the worshippers who embark on journeys to the world’s last Hindu kingdom a
While pilgrims try to continue worship amongst the ruins, tragedy has made one thing apparent — as the ground shook, so did their faith.
On April 25 2015, Nepal was struck by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake which saw nearly 9,000 fatalities, 22,000 more injured and infrastructural damage totalling USD10 billion. It brought entire townships to the ground and caused the catastrophic destruction of historic artefacts and religious monuments. As piles of rubble still stand in plain sight along the streets of Nepal’s major cities, memories of the tragedy remain etched in everyone’s minds. The state’s Department of Archaeology had previously estimated that it would take about seven years to fully restore the religious monuments and artefacts damaged during the earthquake. Till today, that appears to remain a distant reality. While pilgrims try to continue worship amongst the ruins, tragedy has made one thing apparent — as the ground shook, so did their faith.
Situated in the lap of the pristine Himalayas, Nepal is renowned for its peace, harmony and deep-seated spirituality. It is home to some of the world’s oldest Hindu and Buddhist monuments and the holy rivers of Bagmati, Gandaki and Koshi. As such, for many pilgrims from across the world, Nepal is a destination of great religious significance. A census by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation in 2016 found that pilgrimage accounted for 11 percent of the country’s international tourism. Most pilgrims, if not all, tend to be Hindus and Buddhists, whose faiths account for over 90 percent of religion here. Both regard spirituality and Nature as complementary and this is manifested in their common belief that all entities — from snow-capped mountains to fields and harvest — are governed by specific deities and signify the existence of a divine being. In turn, monuments in the country, such as the Temple of Pashupatinath (the Hindu national deity) and the province of Lumbini, which Buddhists believe to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, are revered.
For many Buddhists, the act of pilgrimage is sacred and demonstrates their faith and devotion. Through his teachings, Buddha himself had encouraged devotees on the sites to journey to — namely the places where he was born, attained enlightenment, preached the first sermon and passed on into parinivāna (Sanskrit term for attaining nirvana after one’s death). Devotees are taught to reflect on Buddha’s virtues so as to purify their thoughts and actions in their daily lives. Of all the sites most significant to Buddha, only one is found in Nepal — in Lumbini, where he is believed to have been born. When the Indian Emperor Ashoka visited Nepal in 249 BC, he ordered a stone pillar to be built to commemorate his visit to Buddha’s birthplace. One of many Ashoka pillars erected during the Mauryan king’s reign, this has one of the oldest inscriptions in Nepal. He also ordered four stupas to be built — one in each of the four cardinal directions — in the ancient city of Patan (also known as Lalitpur). Through the years, thousands of similar Buddhist monuments have been built throughout the country, including the three Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites today. Pilgrims believe that “these monuments are special places on Earth where it is possible for [them] to reach out and commune with guiding goddesses and gods”, according to UNESCO Professor of Archaeology at Durham University and Director of Lumbini’s excavation site, Dr Robin Coningham. They are “the portals where heaven touches the Earth and […] the centre point for the lives of millions”.
Legend has it that upon the death of Mother Goddess Sati, Lord Vishnu cut her body into 52 parts, which then fell onto Earth to become scared sites where worshippers can pay homage. These sites are scattered across Nepal, India, Bangladesh and even China and are referred to by Hindus as tirtha, with the act of pilgrimage being known as tirtha-yatra. These are not just physical sites but spiritual fords where one crosses the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth to reach liberation. While there are no documented pilgrimage circuits, a study by India’s Ministry of Tourism found a trend among Hindu pilgrims from around the region: They usually commence their journey in Kathmandu, stopping by Boudhanath Temple and Pashupatinath Temple among others before proceeding to Pokhara and then heading south towards India.
Beyond the physical devastation, the spiritual loss devotees feel is real. Chhopema Tamang, 24-year-old student said, “The monastery near my home was a symbol of unity for Buddhists like myself. When I heard and saw that it was destroyed by the earthquake, I was greatly shaken.” The impact is not much different for the Hindus. Rajendra M. Dangol, a 50-year-old tour operator, said, “[The temple is] a centre
of faith and spirituality and a symbol of unity for Hindus. When I heard it was no more, this was bad news for me. When I saw the Bhairabi Temple in my village in ruins right after the earthquake, as a devotee, I felt really hurt as I could not see the goddesses as usual.” Kabindra Pandey, a 52-year-old businessman, feels the same pain. “Temples are symbolic for Hindus. Their destruction upset me a lot and I was really hurt throughout the year in 2015,” he said.
With their places of worship destroyed, Hindus and Buddhists can no longer worship the way they did. Dangol shared that Hindu believers had to stop worshipping for the first few days after the earthquake because the gods and goddesses were fully covered under the rubble when the temples collapsed. “In our culture, worship should stop for a few days when someone in the family dies or someone gives birth for example,” he adds.
However, devotees were keen to resume regular worship. According to Dangol, the gods and goddesses were taken out of the temples and temporarily transferred somewhere safe; he and other devotees then continued their worship as soon as possible.
Pandey said, “Although we had to break our worshipping for a few days after the earthquake, we immediately resumed it with much more fervor as soon as we could.”
Tamang said, “I started to worship more after the earthquake, [praying] largely for the recovery of those who were wounded.”
Even till today, visible traces of rubble remain along Kathmandu’s streets as workers
With their places of worship destroyed, Hindus and Buddhists can no longer worship the way they did.
While some saw the earthquake as a natural, amoral event, many believe that it was a sign from the gods that called for soul-searching and reflection amongst the people.
continue the tireless endeavour to reinstate what had fallen to its former grandeur. Nepal’s Department of Archaeology reported that the earthquake had claimed heritage worth more than 12 billion rupees (over USD100 million) across the country. An estimated 721 structures such as temples and palaces were severely damaged, another 133 completely destroyed and 95 more rendered useless. They include the famous Swayambhunath Temple (or Monkey Temple) which is the oldest of its kind in the Kathmandu Valley; Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest stupas in the world; Dharahara Tower, which took over 60 lives when it collapsed; and Kathmandu Durbar Square, which saw the entire destruction of four major temples: Kasthamandap, Maju Deval, Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple and Vishnu Temple.
Interestingly, several sites, such as Lumbini Complex and Kumari Ghar or House of the Living Goddess, were seemingly unharmed. While some saw the earthquake as a natural, amoral event, many believe that it was a sign from the gods that called for soul-searching and reflection amongst the people. The immediate rhetoric that emerged from the disaster was that the surviving monuments stood as a sense of hope for Nepalese while those that had fallen reflected god’s admonishment for good reason.
Many Nepalese now suspect that it was no coincidence catastrophe struck where and when it did. The same day the earthquake struck, a massive procession known as Bunga Dyah Jatra aimed at honouring Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, was ongoing. It was uncovered that the procession had been carelessly organised and adornments were attached haphazardly. Participants had also ignored pausing the procession at places marked by symbolic lotuses which are believed to be protected places where goddesses reside. Witnessing the procession with much dismay, Chanira Bajracharya, a former kumari of Patan (a kumari is considered an embodiment of a Hindu goddess and is worshipped as such), commented that “earth shakes as the god of
compassion…cannot bear the weight of people’s sins”. Ironically, the earthquake triggered an outpouring of desperation amongst pilgrims and worshippers to reach out to their gods for help. The emblematic mantra
then started trending on social media to invoke Avalokiteshvara to appear and help.
Over in Kathmandu, former kumari Matina Shakya, then nine, was preparing to receive devotees in the city’s Durbar Square when the earthquake occurred. As the temples in close proximity fell to the ground, her home escaped relatively unscathed. Observers said she maintained a calm facade and sat still on her throne in the face of panic, and worshippers seemingly took refuge around her and prayed. Like those in Patan, many believe the disaster is a punishment from the gods and that the kumari had known it was coming all along.
For Hindu pilgrims, especially followers of Lord Shiva, the survival of Pashupatinath Temple is significant. “I knew full well that the gods and goddesses out there protect their devotees. After reflecting, I believe that the gods and goddesses had protected us during the earthquake. Otherwise, many more people, including myself, would have died in 2015. This greatly strengthened my faith,” Dangol shared.
Pashupatinath Temple was used for the final rites of hundreds of victims. For Nepalese, it became a source of strength and faith that the country will return to an eventual normalcy; and impressed upon them that the earthquake was a test of faith predestined by god and an inevitable result of human sin that necessitates repentance and forgiveness. For the devout people of Nepal, it seems this calamity serves as a religious wakeup call that must be heeded.
Nathaniel Soon is currently pursuing his undergraduate degree at Yale-NUS College in Singapore with the prospect of majoring in environmental anthropology. He is interested in global cultures, marine conservation and humanitarian efforts and has launched a short film series on marine conservation in Singapore this month.