18-24 July 2014 #716

Moving out, moving on

Basil Edward Teo and Louise Evangeline Ng

There are fewer people to look after rituals at Patan’s temple courtyards as the younger generation leaves

Louise Evangeline Ng
As part of his daily routine, 74-year-old Punyaraj Bajracharya ambles towards the temple courtyard in his bahal for evening prayers. After much effort, his chest heaving he takes a deep breath, and sits on the temple steps.

Just three years into his tenure as an aju, or elder, of Bu Bahal he will carry out this daily ritual for as long as he lives. Punyaraj (pic, right) is part of a group of 12 elders who oversee the bahal’s rituals and prayers.

The role of aju indicates seniority and wisdom, and he is revered by the community. Punyaraj’s ties to Bu Bahal, which consists of Bajrachayas and Shakyas, run deep within his bloodline - both his father and grandfather were aju in their time as well.

Yet, this celebrated tradition, which has remained a cornerstone of Bu Bahal’s identity for generations, is now at risk of being lost as the younger generation moves on and moves out.

Bipin Bajracharya, 28, understands that he will be required to participate in the bahal’s Buddhist rituals when he is older, but it is still in the distant future, and remains the furthest thought from his mind. “These traditions are mainly for the older generation. Young people are not really involved,” he said.

In the past five years, young people from some 15 families have moved out from Bu Bahal to work or study. Although they might return for holidays, the chances of them coming back for good are low.

“They usually go out to earn money, and then come back and build houses. Not in the bahal, but in the ancestral lands in the outskirts of the city,” Bipin explained.

The reason for this exodus can also be attributed to space constraints within average-sized homes in bahals. With rapid modernisation and increased affluence over the years, families now prefer to live in much bigger spaces than what a bahal can offer.

Tightly-packed houses surround Bu Bahal
Basil Edward Teo

“Bigger is always better,” said Bipin. “There are not many rooms in my house. If I get married, and my brother gets married, there’s no way we can still stay here together.”

Bipin’s family is planning to move to another property in Bagdol in two years to afford the family more space.

Uttam Ratna Dhakhwa, 70, from Nag Bahal in Patan moved out of his family home 40 years ago due to limited space for him and his two brothers.

Though space was ample in his father’s time, it soon ran out as the family expanded. It came to a point whereby it was impossible to divide the house up further. After Uttam left, his brothers followed suit. Today, the family home is locked up and abandoned. Eight other homes within the Dhakhwa part of Nag Bahal are also deserted.

Uttam and his family still return to their bahal twice a year for annual feasts and celebrations, but his links to the bahal are not as strong as before.

“It’s happening on a large scale. It’s very natural that families are growing, places are too small, and at the same time, the demands are increasing in terms of services. Now people want a water tap in the house, proper washing facilities, cars – and sometimes that’s not possible there,” Uttam said.

Like a thread being pulled from a fine garment, community ties are starting to unspool as families continue to move out from their ancestral homes. Today, Punyaraj is unsure if the traditions he keeps now will be passed on to his grandchildren.

“My grandson is very busy. He has no time to talk to me about the rituals, and doesn't want to become an aju,” Punyaraj said. “But I hope one day he will.”

Keeping up with the times

Before dawn while the rest of the temple courtyard was still asleep, Bibindra Bajracharya (pic, sitting at the centre)pulled away from his bed to start the first puja of the day at Bu Bahal, a temple courtyard in Patan. As he cleaned the temple and moved about the courtyard lighting up oil lamps, devotees started to congregate outside the temple at the break of dawn.

“My main responsibility for the last seven days and the rest of this week is to look after the temple,” said Bajracharya, a 37-year-old jeweller who is from a younger generation of priests. He is part of a tradition that requires a male from every family within the community to care for the Buddhist shrine within the temple on a 15-day rotation basis. He also sweeps, cleans and leads prayer rituals three times a day while still working in his nearby jewellery store.

Although the process has been challenging, he feels proud to carry on his family’s tradition. “Yes, I have a full-time job and other responsibilities, but I’ll always have my job,” he said.

Bu Bahal is over 800 years old, and the community’s tradition for its upkeep and rituals have survived generations evolving with the times. Said Bajracharya: “In the past, you had to wear a traditonal dhoti to perform these rituals, and you had to stay inside the bahal for 15 days. Today, I can still work and eat outside.”

He adds: “I have taken the responsibility and I hope the younger generation will do so too. Even though many young men from the bahal are working overseas now, I hope that they will still come back to fulfill their duties.”

Basil Edward Teo

Transforming bahals

According to the late Jesuit Nepali scholar John K Locke, there are an estimated 356 bahals and bahis in Kathmandu Valley, 165 of which are in Patan. Scattered across the entire city, bahals are a type of courtyard commonly found in Newa architecture. Bahis, on the other hand, are a sub type of bahals. Apart from being smaller in size, they contain a number of structural differences including an elevated entrance and lack partitions in the interior residences.

A bahal or a bahi usually consists of the Sangha (the community members), Kwapadeo (the shrine of the main deity) and an Agam (a secondary shrine that houses tantric deities, accessible only to certain initiated individuals).

Bahal map of Patan

Bruce McCoy Owens, associate professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, retraced Locke’s steps to research the changes undergone over three decades. He visited each one of these known bahals extensively and has documented their transformations throughout the years.

Over time, he noticed both structural changes in the bahals as well as changes within the traditions of the community. However, he does not view this negatively.

“Transformation doesn't always mean destruction because it is an ongoing tradition,” Owens explained at a talk program in Patan this month. “Transformation is what keeps bahals alive.”

Online production: Ayesha Shakya

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