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When gods become shelterless: rituals and reconstructing temples in post-earthquake Nepal

With the devastating earthquake in Nepal on 25 April 2015, not only humans but also gods became shelterless. The famous Car Narayan or Fourfold Vishnu Temple in Patan is one of the many temples that completely collapsed. It was constructed in the classical Newar “pagoda” style with two pyramidal roofs and an inner ambulatory by a local ruler, Purandara Simha, in 1565. It is a royal temple, established in celebration of the king’s inauguration sacrifice (rajasuya). The only other temples equal in age, details, and quality are the western portal of Indreshvara Temple in Panauti and the southern portal of the Yakseshvara Temple in Bhaktapur, both which survived the earthquake almost unharmed.

With the collapse of the Car Narayan Temple the sanctum sanctorum remained while everything else broke into pieces. Already two days after the earthquake, Rohit Ranjtkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), which has its project office just a few paces away, mobilized 150 Armed Police and 50 policemen to salvage all valuable architectural fragments. Helpers collected all the wood-carved struts, doors and windows, and safeguarded them in the compound of the nearby Patan Museum.

However, the main deity remained there almost naked and unprotected. The pillar with the Fourfold Vishnu suddenly stood under the sky on top of the stepped terrace that once bore the proud temple. Quite a few years are needed to provide shelter again. International donors, among them the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, are supporting its reconstruction. But can the deity wait so long?

The local people feeling uneasy in this situation quickly organized a kind of pacification ritual (kshemapuja), covered the sanctum with cloth and built a temporary shelter. They thus provided some kind of home for the Fourfold Vishnu.

Apparently, humans cannot imagine that omnipresent deities might cope with such situations easier than all the homeless victims who still wait in Nepal their destroyed housed to be rebuilt. The members of the Mahima Dharma, a religious group in Orissa, worship the Void. They thus build temples in which nothing is. However, they also feeling the urge to venerate something, worship the threshold. It seems that in desperate moments we need somebody to address. And it would be very impolite not to provide him or her a sheltered place.

Unfortunately, what is so obvious for gods, does not work for humans. Since almost half a year rebuilding destroyed homes has been unnecessarily delayed by lack of clear government policy – despite the many financial help that was offered by international community. Since four months, many locals are still living in tents or makeshift shelters next to their ruined homes. After another half of the year the one-year death rituals for those who have been killed in the earthquake will have to be performed. These rituals are to guide the deceased to a “safe” place in death god Yama’s world. In this world, winter begins and the homeless survivors still struggle for a basic accommodation.

Image credit: “Shiva’s family blessing the Kathmandu valley” by Francisco Anzola, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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