Nepali Times
The land of my fathers


COMING HOME:The Mugali Thapas take their gods for a spin
In 'Empty, Stately Thapagaun' (#330), Himali Dixit wondered if modernisation would draw the Mugali Thapas back to their ancestral homes in the hilly backwaters of Muga. The seasonal road from Pakhribas, an hour by bus northwest from Dhankuta, is a significant advance on the days of horses, palanquins and good old-fashioned walking. But if today's professional, metropolitan Thapas are too preoccupied with life in Dharan, Biratnagar and Kathmandu to consider getting back to their roots, what of their children, to whom Muga may seem as remote a prospect as Mugu?

On the face of it, Muga is simply another sparsely inhabited VDC spread across barren, reddish hills...but the two-hour stroll from Pakhribas gives me an idea why my parents are so pleased I'm visiting my ancestral village. The grand brick and mortar edifices the baby boomer generation of Mugali Thapas was born in are visible from hills away. Testament to the imagination and determination of the prosperous men who commissioned them, the Thapa houses are quite outlandish in their scale, relative to the mundanely charming cottages they tower over. In such a way must the Mugali Thapas themselves have dominated the Ghimires, Rais and Kamis they drew unto themselves as they settled far east of their Pokhreli origins in the wake of the Gorkhali conquest of Nepal 250 years ago.

CONTRASTING LEGACIES: Some houses have fared better than others

But what remains of the feudal legacy of the Mugali Thapas? It's not to be found in the shell of former Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa's 40-room mansion, firebombed by the Maoists in 2004, down the hill (above left, bottom). Nor is it in the half-dozen mostly abandoned residences that make up Muga's skyline. Close up you see what damage time and neglect have wrought. But tradition dies harder. This year, Thapas gathered by the hundreds for the triennial clan Dewali to honour their clan gods Seto Bara and Bindabasini.

The day before the Dewali, we wend our slow way to Muga. Scores of Thapas and 400-odd rather bewildered sacrificial goats, or boka, disembark as a steady drizzle obscures the hills. Long-lost cousins step forward to welcome us. The Thapa men - doctors, engineers, bankers, bureaucrats, farmers and the odd writer - introduce themselves by the names of their fathers and grandfathers, to polite rounds of applause. Then we scatter, glancing up from under our umbrellas at the grey firmament.

We awake on the clearest day imaginable to the delightfully unfamiliar panorama of the Makalu range. By seven, the clan has converged on the simple cottage housing their gods. To the melodic racket of a panchebaja, the Thapa dhamis (priests) whoop and holler, clashing their cymbals as they hop around the house. As the urn representing Bindabasini emerges from the dark interior, festooned with long strips of red, white, blue and yellow, the womenfolk jostle each other for a holy touch. The men then bring out a veiled hammock, under which a silver basin filled with lighted oil lamps is concealed. Following the stream of joyous devotion, I take turns to shoulder the hammock.

BOKA, BANISHED: One of 400 goats exits the corporeal world
A drawn out puja later, the killing begins. With the gods installed in an enclosure of bamboo and leaves, the bokas are led to the slaughter. And what a slaughter! A boka barely has the time to stare uncomprehendingly at the gory pyramid of heads in front of him before he's seized by the front legs, made to straddle a bloodied chopping block and chhyaakk! Down flashes the blade and the animal's head, open eyes unseeing, tongue curling, joins the rest. Its torso, spurting blood, is raised to the lips of the dhami, then flung up and out to land where it might in the dust outside, to the exclamations of a sea of villagers. The pagan imagery of the dhami, cymbals raised to welcome each offering, face and white robes drenched with bright gouts of the reddest blood, is the enduring image of the Dewali.

It's late when we finish feeding the several hundred villagers present. The hillside is covered in paper and leaf plates, bones and beaten rice. The Thapas haul their offerings home, leaving just as abruptly as they have showed up. Muga is emptied of its festive vitality, once again, just another Nepali village. And what do I feel? Rooted? Muga was hardly even a place of imagined myth for me. What does it mean to me now I have seen something of my past?

In the dimming evening, the empty windows of the Thapa mansions glare at me accusingly. The simple loveliness of the hills gives air to my pastoral longings. Could I, like my uncle Ajit Narayan Singh Thapa, join in the endeavour to educate the local children and nurse one of the Thapa houses back to life (above left, top)? Could I also tolerate joining to the age-old system of patronage? Perhaps I will choose to step back into my past, and find some part of my future in it. For now, discovering the land of my fathers is reward enough.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)