Pashupati is one of the holiest Hindu shrines in the subcontinent, and houses Nepal's patron deity. A stern sign at the gate, enforced by a policeman bearing a stick, warns all non-Hindus that they cannot enter. But two recent incidents have begged the questions:
. Who is Hindu enoughto enter the temple?
. Who decides who is a Hindu and who is not?
At present, any brown-skinned Caucasoid, even if he is a Muslim from Aligarh, can easily slip in. A Syrian Christian from Kerala can get in without problems. But a Hare Krishna devotee from Italy with a shaven head and saffron dhoti, cannot enter the temple. Tall, fair Nepalis with goatees have sometimes been stopped.
It seems the only criteria that the gatekeepers of Pashupati have to judge Hindu or non-Hindu is the colour of the skin and the length of the nose. While this arbitrary religious apartheid goes on at the gate, tourists with digital cameras can be seen video-filming cremations on the banks of the Bagmati: turning the private last rites of Nepali families into cultural entertainment. One devout Nepali Hindu, who does not want to be named, told us: "Where does dharma end and sacrilege begin?
" Last week, for the second time in a month, Hindu pilgrims from Bali were denied entry into Pashupati. Not only was the group of 41 turned back, but they suffered humiliation and unbear- able discriminationat the gate.Security personnel deployed at the temple gate blocked the way, declaring that the 'Hindu' status on their travelling documents was insufficient proof of their faith. Bali is the predominantly-Hindu island east of Java and the pilgrims were in Nepal as part of a tour of holy Hindu sites in India where they had no problems entering temples. The Indonesians were here for three days on a planned trip to pray at Pashupatinath, and do some sightseeing. After they were not allowed in, the Indonesians sat on the asphalt outside the gate and finished their prayers (see picture).
Bishwesh Shrestha, the Nepali tour operator who was handling the pilgrims' group, is livid. He told us: "After this incident at Pashupati, they cancelled all their planned activities and left the country without ever stepping out of their hotel for the rest of the time that they were here.
" In September, another group of 11 Indonesian Hindus were denied entrance to the temple by the office of the Mul Bhatta, the South Indian chief priest at Pashupati, with the explanation that one has to be born either in Nepal or India to be able to enter. The office of the Mul Bhatta refused to recognise the endorsement of the World Hindu Federation (WHF) that recommended entrance to the Indonesians.
Having faced the problem earlier, Shrestha this time requested permission from the Pashupati Development Trust (PDT). The PDT declined to provide it in writing, assuring him that the Indonesians would have "no problem" entering the temple. "The incident would not have happened, if the tour operator had informed us about the problem with the security," PDT treasurer Shankar Raj Pathak said.
The PDT office was closed on 29 October, the day the 41 Indonesians were denied entrance, as it was both a Sunday and the day of Bhai Tika. But Pathak sought to assure us that such incidents would not occur again if Hindus "from abroad" request an entrance to the shrine of their faith.
The small PDT unit and the police at the main gate are not given the authority to determine who enters the temple. But, according to the police officer on duty on 29 October, his unit had earlier that day received strict orders from the office of the Mul Bhatta that the Indonesians were not to be allowed in. "We were only carrying out an order from the Mul Bhatta that was delivered to us by a junior bhatta. We have no authority to determine if anyone is to be allowed in or not," the policeman said.
When approached, the Mul Bhatta's office refused comment. However, the Kathmandu liaison officer for the Rangoon-based Indonesian embassy that is accredited to Nepal, Shiva Sharan Rajbhandari, believes the tour operator is at fault. "If the pilgrims had informed their embassy in Rangoon, I would have known of their tour and I could have taken them to Pashupati, as I have done many times earlier," he said.
He may have a point there but the fact remains that the Indonesian Hindus were not allowed into Pashupati. And all because the Mul Bhatta decreed it so. There are one billion Hindus in the world, and the World Hindu Federation has a membership of 57 countries, with Indonesia having an advisory status with the present executive body of the WHF. Hinduism predates both Buddhism and Islam in Indonesia, having been taken to the archipelago by settlers from the east coast of India 2,000 years ago. They later ruled the Hindu Sri Vijaya Maritime Empire that stretched from Sumatra to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Most observers, including the PDT itself, blame the all-powerful and conservative Mul Bhatta for being the main obstacle. Says PDT member-secretary and industrialist, Basant Kumar Chaudhary: "After the establishment of the PDT, the Mul Bhatta is no longer the
authority to decide on Pashupati affairs. All bona fide Hindus, regardless of their nationality, should be allowed to enter the temple. The Indonesians were regretfully denied their rights to worship at the shrine. I have already sent a personal apology for what happened.
" Travel documents attested by the World Hindu Federation and Pashupati Development Trust proving the Hindu status of pilgrims should be enough to allow pilgrims in, but the temple's traditions are unbending about allowing non-Nepali and non-Indian pilgrims. Sociologist Sudhindra Sharma says the Mul Bhatta is just a priest, and he is exceeding his authority by giving himself the power to define who is Hindu and who is not. In Nepal it should be the premier Hindu institutions like the Hindu monarch who should have the jurisdiction, says Sharma, adding: "At a time when Hinduism should be opening its doors wide, we are being parochial and myopic by not letting genuine Hindus in.
" The temple authorities are even more rigid and unsympa-thetic to those who have converted to Hinduism from other religions. They say one is born a Hindu, and that the sashtras do not recognise conversion. As a Pashupati bhatta puts it: "Anyone can follow the Hindu dharma but cannot become a Hindu unless he is born one.
" President of WHF Nepal National Unit, Narayan Prasad Pokhrel, says conversions into Hinduism should be encour-aged, but converts should pass religious tests to attain any higher status in the religion. He says: "Not every converted Hindu can be allowed to worship at Pashupati, or made a priest." But that still does not solve the problem of what happens to the next batch of Hindu pilgrims from Indonesia, Mauritius, South Africa or Trinidad.