As Nepal reels under the devastating shockwaves and aftermath of the 25th April earthquake, people around the world continue to express their grief and dismay at the magnitude of the disaster.
In Mauritius too, the catastrophe has not left people indifferent. The Government through its Ministries, as well as Municipalities and District Councils, NGOs, socio-cultural organisations and individuals have shown their solidarity in one way or the other to bring support, solace, consolation and material contribution to the people of Nepal. Mr Ravin Lama who was in Mauritius sometime back and now working for the Nepali Times has made an appeal to us. Some Mauritian samaritans have flown to Nepal to be physically present and help in the areas of disaster. Mauritians stranded in Nepal are safe.
There are a good number of Nepalis residing in Mauritius either on temporary work permits, as overseas students or on a permanent basis and whose anguish and anxiety we can feel.
Mauritius Times met Acharya Umanath Sharma Shastri, a Nepali who has now made Mauritius his permanent abode. Acharya Umanath arrived in Mauritius on 1st October 1989 as Head Priest of the Mauritius Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation. He gave courses to trainee priests of the MSDTF in Sanskrit, Hindi, Indology, Hindu Shastras and Sanskars, Karmakanda, Ethics and Philosophy. After his contract was over with the MSDTF, Acharya Umanath Shastriji settled in Mauritius and went on dispensing these teachings on a private basis, promoting Indian culture in general.
Acharya Umanathji is a learned professor of Sanskrit and Hindi of the famous University of Tribhuvan of Nepal where he taught at undergraduate through to postgraduate levels for over two decades. He hails from the Bhojpuri-speaking belt of Nepal in Birganj, a district on the India-Nepal border, and conversed with me in Bhojpuri. He was, like all of us, but more so, utterly ravaged by the apocalyptic fury of the earthquake being a Nepali.
Excerpts from the conversation
Mauritius Times: Acharya Umanath Shastriji, tell us about Nepal, its history, its art and architecture, its culture and languages and the impact of the earthquake.
Acharya Umanath Shastri: Nepal is an ancient country, which has been mentioned in the Mahabharata, when Arjuna crossed India and went into Nepal and came back again. Nepal’s name is mentioned in ancient texts. The kingdom of Nepal existed even before the era of Mahabharata. It is said that the origin of the name Nepal is from Sanskrit and is derived from an ancient Hindu sage ‘Ne’ living in the Himalayas. The place got its name thus. It was protected (pala in Pali means protection) by the sage Ne. The Skanda Purana devotes a chapter to Nepal as Nepal Mahatmya, which gives details about its beauty and attraction. It is mentioned in Vedic texts as a place exporting blankets.
Nepal and Tibet have also shared ancient history and beliefs, the barter system with Tibet supplying goats and wool to Nepal and the later sending oil and salt to Tibet. Nepal’s currency was adopted by Tibet. Nepal ruled Tibet for long eras but slowly it lost its influence.
When the Moghul invaders and the British ravaged and conquered India, Nepal proudly retained its independence. Our sovereignty has always been jealousy preserved. As a result, being a Hindu State, Hindu religion has been untouched by foreign elements. It was a Hindu kingdom proclaimed by the Constitution until the party system was introduced recently.
Nepal lies in the lap of the Himalayas (Sanskrit – Abode of the Snow). It is a beautiful and peaceful country holding Mount Everest in its bosom. Nepal has eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains including Mt Everest, Kanchenjunga and Annapurna. Nepal feeds many rivers of the Indian sub-continent.
70% of Nepal is covered by the Himalayas. Earlier, Darjeeling too was part of Nepal. When the British attacked Nepal they failed.to conquer it. Pushed back by the fierce Gurkhas they could not reach Kathmandu and therefore concluded a deal with Bhimsen Thappa, the PM and signed the Treaty of Sugauli in 1815-16, and detached Darjeeling with the glorious beauty of the sun rising on the Tiger Hills. In exchange the plains of the Lower Himalayas known as the Terai were conceded to Nepal at a later stage.
Professor Umanath could not resist reminding me that Lord Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini (World Heritage Site of UNESCO) is in Nepal. Half of the kingdom of Buddha’s ancestry of the Shakya polity falls in Nepal. So also the birthplace of Sita, consort of Lord Rama of Ramayana is Janakpur, the city of Raja Janak which in Nepal. Therefore, Nepal has a glorious; famous and rich history.
The Nepali people are very soft, kind and open-hearted but also very brave and courageous. In particular the Gurkha peoples are noted for their military prowess, being fierce and ruthless fighters noted for their valour and military competence. So much so that the Gurkhas form part of a regiment in the British army as well as the Indian Army. The origin of the word Gurkha, name of a locality is from the Sanskrit goraksha i.e. one who protects the cows.
Bhojpuri – One of Nepal’s 14 languages
Nepal has 14 official languages, most prominent being Nepali derived from Sanskrit. The script used is the Sanskrit Devanagri. Bhojpuri is the third largest language spoken. Bhojpuri and other related forms such as Bajjika, Tharu, Maithili, Awadhi are spoken in the southern Terai regions.
Nepal’s Art and Architecture
According to Prof Umanath Shastri, Kathmandu the region of wood (forest) is a favourite spot for researchers and scholars and cultural tourists. Some 1000 books have been published on Kathmandu. Nepal is the seat of Hindu culture, Art and Wood Art and Carving Statues, history of Gods and Goddesses. Nepal is known for one prominent school of Tantra known as the Kaul Tantra. Many sacred texts and their manuscripts have vanished from Nepal to find their way to America!
Hinduism is practised by the overwhelming majority of the people (81%) with Buddhism coming next (9%). Shiva is said to be the guardian patron of the country where stands the famous Lord Shiva Temple – the Pashupatinath, a pilgrimage centre for Hindus, from all over the world. Buddha, born as a Hindu, is also said to be a descendant of the Vedic sage Angirasa in many Buddhist Texts. The family name of Gautama Buddha is derived from the Maharishi Gautama. Therefore, due to the cultural and historical intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs differences between Hindus and Buddhists are minimal in Nepal.
Thus most people in Nepal are comfortable with both Hinduism and Buddhism. Both faiths are amalgamated. In fact, syncretism can be noticed in the cultures and schools of thoughts too. A Hindu and a Buddhist can sit and pray together at the famous Pashupatinath (Hindu Shiva Temple) and at the Swayambhunath Temples.
The Devastating Earthquake
But on Saturday 25th April at 11:56 am (NST), the Gorkha Earthquake devastated my country. Its epicentre lay in Barpak village of Gorkha district. It is the most powerful disaster to strike Nepal since the Nepal-Bihar earthquake of 1934. This earthquake triggered also a big avalanche on Mount Everest.
Centuries-old buildings at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the valley of Kathmandu including iconic monuments and temples, the beautiful shopping boulevards of Kathmandu Durbar Square, the Patan Durbar Square and the Bhaktapur Durbar Square have been destroyed. At every ‘pag’- step in Nepal’s Kathmandu are found small, medium and big temples. Many ancient temples made of wooden architecture have been flattened to the ground. The great Gorakhnath Temple where the famous Hare Rama Hare Krishna film of Dev Anand was shot has totally collapsed.
90% of the temples and important heritage sites have been reduced to rubble and debris. Many people died and many have been crushed or trapped under the ruins. Many others have been injured or lost forever. Hundreds of thousands of houses have been destroyed. People are homeless. Villages have been flattened.
A Deathblow to Economy
We have all been shaken. Adjoining India was the first to come to our help with operation Maitri. But the whole world also has come to our help in a vast operation. In Mauritius too people are helping. Nepal is a mountainous area, but not a rich country and this earthquake has come to give a death blow to our economy. Financially, it is indeed a bleak situation for us.
Nepal depends immensely on its tourist industry. Now with its precious art, architecture, and wondrous temples and beautiful wooden buildings devastated, this attraction is gone forever. Nepal will not be the same again. This calamity has brought down all the tangible and intangible cultural heritage with havoc caused to precious artefacts, m.s as well as human and animal life. We have to reconstruct, rehabilitate again the basis of our traditional art and heritage.
Acharya Umanathji: I am therefore making a fervent appeal to all the people of the world and especially to all Mauritians to donate generously to help restore as soon as possible the fabulous art works of Nepal. I am appealing to artists, scholars, art lovers, tourists in general and philanthropists to contribute their knowledge of art and architecture and sponsorship to restore our rich heritage. As well as help us to pick up again physically, morally, economically and psychologically.
* Published in print edition on 8 May 2015