The recent controversy over the demand of the main priest (mool bhatta) and four other priests regarding their share in the amount collected by performing special rituals (bishesh puja) has sent shock waves through religious circles. This is the first time in the 300-year history of the Pashupatinath Temple that the Bhattas have made such a demand.
Bhattas, who are originally from south India, are appointed by the government as main priests of the Pashupati temple. For the first time, devotees could not perform special rituals at the temple for 45 days as Bhattas refused to conduct any such ritual demanding their share in the amount collected through such arrangements.
However, Bhattas later agreed to perform special rituals after the Pashupati Area Development Trust agreed to fulfill the demands of the Bhattas. This incident has left people pointing fingers at the integrity of priests appointed as Bhattas of the Pashupati temple. “Why are Nepali priests not appointed as Bhattas? Are they not capable of becoming main priest of the temple?” people have begun to question.
“Special rituals at the temple would not have halted had there been a Nepali Bhatta,” said Parmananda Shakya, former member-secretary of the PADT.
“Nepali Bhattas would not have made such a demand. I think it would have been a lot easier for PADT to deal with Nepali Bhattas than Indians. Once we had attempted to replace them by appointing Nepali Bhattas, but we did not succeed.”
The government had appointed Nepali Bhattas at the Pashupatinath Temple when Shakya was the member secretary of PADT. “The government had attempted to start a new trend but had to back out following a Supreme Court verdict on the issue,” said Dahal.
Then Minister for of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Gopal Kirati in the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led government had taken a bold move to appoint two Nepali Bhattas in 2009 after accepting the resignation of Indian Bhattas at the temple.
The government had appointed Prof Dr Bishnu Prasad Dahal and Saligram Dhakal as Bhattas of the Pashupatinath Temple. Dahal has been working as a director at the Nepal Sanskrit University, while Dahal is a lecturer at Sanskrit Bidhyapit, a school under PADT.
The Supreme Court ordered had ordered the government to revoke its decision and reinstate Indian Bhattas at the temple.
Following the SC decision, the Indian Bhattas resumed their work at the temple. However, the government was able to introduce a guideline for Bheti (offerings made at the temple) collection.
As per the guideline, the PADT would collect the offerings and pay monthly salaries to the Bhattas. Before the guideline was introduced, it was the Bhattas who took away the offerings made at the temple.
“We have proven that we are capable of working as Bhattas of the Pashupatinath Temple,” said Dahal, who had a one-week stint as Bhatta. “We are equally capable of working as Bhattas. Unfortunately, we were allowed to work only for two weeks.” He also said that though it is difficult to master the mantras, it is not an impossible feat.
According to Dahal, the main objective of appointing Nepali Bhatta at the Pashupatinath Temple was to make the offerings made at the temple transparent as the PADT received nothing from the offerings.
“Nepali priests can also work at the Bhattas of Pashupatinath temple,” said Dhakal, who also served for two weeks as Bhatta at the temple. “We can also work as Bhattas if we are chosen for the task. But, the government considers that only the Indian Bhattas can undertake the job.”
According to Dhakal, the government does not want to discontinue the practice of hiring Indian priests for the temple. “I am not challenging the age-old practice. But I want to say that Nepali priests are equally capable,” said Dhakal.
While former Bhattas are not in favor of replacing Indian priests, there are those who claim that the age-old practice cannot be altered by appointing Nepali priests.
“There are many Nepali priests who have been working in Indian temples. So it is not fair to point fingers at Indian Bhattas just on the basis of their nationality,” opined Sushil Nahata, ex-member secretary at PADT. Nahata said the concerned authorities should try to make the offerings made at the temple transparent rather than challenge the age-old practice of appointing Indian Bhattas.
“The authorities should work toward bringing transparency in financial transactions at the temple,” added Nahata.
Govind Tandon, member-secretary at PADT, said they cannot challenge the age-old practice. “There are many examples of temples across the world hiring priests from other countries,” added Tandon.
How Bhattas replaced hermits
Dr Govind Tandon
Culture expert and PhD in cultural study of the Pashupatinath Temple Area
It was almost 300 years ago that the trend of appointing Indian Bhattas at the Pashupatinath Temple began. Prior to this, daily worship and other duties of the temple were carried out by sanyashi (hermit).
Earlier, the Bhattas were appointed by the king.
From Lichhavi period till the reign of Jaya Prakash Malla, hermits used to be the priests of the temple. The names of some of these hermit priests are Somsekharananda, Bhairabanada, Niyananda, Gyananda, Bimalaanda, Raghwananda and Kapilanada.
After the arrival of guru Sankaracharya in Nepal, the practice of appointing priests from south India was introduced in the country. These priests were called Bhatta meaning priest or scribe in Sanskrit. However, today, many people have been using it as their surname.
Krishna Bhatta, Ramchandra Bhatta, Nilkantha, Gopal, Shyam, Krishna Shastri, Damodar were some of the other priests hired from India to work as main priests of the Pashupati temple. The practice is still followed as the Pashupatinath Temple guideline states that the priests from South India should be appointed as Bhattas of the Pashupatinath Temple.
Similarly, the priests must have the academic qualification for appointment as Bhatta.