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Traditional essence at risk (feature story)

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Indeed the month of Shrawan may not rank quite as high as Dashain or Tihar on the festivities chart but the enthusiasm on the streets for it has always been impressive.

Kathmandu, July 22, 2016: There isn’t a month better than Shrawan to locate the devotees among us. As the holy month makes its presence felt, we can easily spot them among the masses with their puja tikas, green bangles and henna tattoos. We may be barely a week into Shrawan right now, but we can already hear a lot of talk about fasting commitments, various religious ceremonies and the inevitable Monday trips to the holy Pashupatinath temple.

Traditional essence 1

Indeed the month of Shrawan may not rank quite as high as Dashain or Tihar on the festivities chart but the enthusiasm on the streets for it has always been impressive.

Regardless of it being monsoon season, this is also known as the top three busiest time of the year at the Pashupatinath site. Further these hordes of devotees don’t only flock the Shiva temples but also the markets. The festive season of Shrawan easily secures some of the highest sales rate in the year. However, despite the immense interest among the masses, many culture experts have expressed their concerns about the waning of traditional values.

“When you have a chat with youngsters, I think it is apparent that most are still unaware of the reasons behind these rituals that we follow and when I say many, I’m talking about 90 percent of them. We can all see so many girls wearing green bangles and sporting henna but this is mostly about fashion for them, nothing else,” explains Prof. Chunda Bajracharya.

Traditional essence

It’s the age old tug of war between modernization and traditions. The fear that, with time, we might lose our culture to the changing attitudes and priorities of youngsters is very real. So while festivities like the holy month of Shrawan still seem to hold its appeal, culture expert Govinda Tandon too is suspicious that their popularity is based more on fad rather than cultural or religious significance. It’s a source of real worry for culture experts like him because they can already sense the struggle that lies ahead.

“Preserving the true essence and meaning behind our culture requires constant effort. There are so many fascinating tales and beliefs behind our traditions. So far, these stories may have been passed down by generations but today, I wonder how many youths can retell the legend of Samudra Manthan (the churning of oceans), for instance. It features heavily in the story of Lord Shiva and why we have dedicated this month to his worship but how many young Nepalis care to learn about it?” asks Tandon.

Given the concern, this scribe set about asking youngsters around town about the significance of the month of Shrawan and the reasons behind its rituals. Out of the 11 people that I talked to only three could give me a somewhat comprehensive version of the story. Most didn’t even know why Shrawan was considered a holy month. The girls had their palms covered in henna and green bangles jingled as waved their hands but rather than religious beliefs, they confessed they were doing it because it was fun.

This is the kind of façade Prof. Bajracharya was referring to. She explains, “I have no problem with girls participating in rituals like wearing mehendi because it is fun. They are allowed to do so but while they are at it, I only wish, they knew the significances of such practice. I wish we had been able to ignite the desire to want to know such facts among our youths.”

When told about the legend of the holy month of Shrawan, Ashish Sharma, 25, for instance, also confessed that he was hearing about it for the first time even though he and his family have been celebrating the festivities of the month for as long as he can remember.

“Since it is the month of Shrawan, I’m trying to be more regular with my Pashupatinath visits. This is what I was taught at home. Every Shrawan, we follow all the rituals, fast and pray, and I enjoy participating in these activities with my family. However, to be honest, I don’t think it is all that necessary. I believe the younger generation is more spiritual than religious. Perhaps that’s why I never asked for the story behind the rituals. I’m not that interested. If I’m good at heart and don’t hurt other people, do I have to perform all these rituals? If I were alone, I probably wouldn’t bother with them,” says Sharma.

It’s the sort of sentiment that further fuels debates of youths today losing their cultural identification. Manju Adhikari, for instance, was also looking forward to carrying out the Shrawan festivities with her US returned daughter. As a mother and a Hindu, she considers it her duty to introduce all these tradition to her 22-year-old but despite having successfully brought her daughter to Pashupati, she revealed she was having problems making her understand their values.

“Like most women, I thought we too would have fun with henna and green bangles. But when I explained the beliefs behind these practices, about how unmarried girls fast to get good husbands like Shiva himself and married women for the safety and peace of their husbands and families, she didn’t agree with the idea. She says it goes against her feminist values. Hearing about the notion of green bangles being worn to fulfill one’s desire and wishes for a prosperous family life doesn’t make sense to her either. Her reply made me laugh but it has me worried as well,” shares Adhikari.

Culture expert Tandon though isn’t bothered about such disparity in views. He believes this should be expected. Customs and traditions aren’t like the way they were back in the days of our forefathers thus change is inevitable in the future too. He believes we can actually take this as an opportunity to reform harmful practices and backward thinking which have been disguised as culture. According to him, the real danger is complete ignorance on the matter.

“I have had countless youngsters even in their 30s claim that their generation doesn’t have time or interests in our culture. It’s not something they give a second thought to and I believe that our education system has failed them here. We teach them many different subjects but we don’t emphasize on the importance of teaching them our history and traditions. When you give importance to these things I believe one will automatically be curious about culture and such,” explains Tandon.

At the end of the day, it is about having enough pride in our culture to want to cultivate it and pass it on. Eventually the responsibility to continue with our traditions will fall on the younger generations and unless they understand the deeper implications of our customs and rituals, giving continuity to it will be the least of their priorities.

By Priyanka Gurung

priyankagurungg@gmail.com