Childhood memory on BR AmbedkarOne day in October 1956, it was announced over the radio that Babasaheb BR Ambedkar, eminent jurist and the chief architect of the Constitution of the Republic of India, was going to visit Nepal.
Poorna Bhadra Adiga
Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple. Signboards saying “Entrance for Hindus only” can still be seen outside the main entrances to the temple. Today, with thousands of people visiting the temple every day, one has to look like a Christian (‘White’) or a Muslim (‘beard with mustache shaven off’) or some foreigner with dubious looking non-Hindu characteristic to be questioned at the entrance. Buddhists, looking like Buddhists or otherwise, are allowed in though. So are Sikhs. When I was a kid, entry and access was more stringent.
In those days, even among the Hindus, different strata within the Hindu caste system, had different limits of access. Kusles and Damais (ceremonial musicians and tailors) were not allowed to climb up the marble steps leading to the four silver plated gates of the sanctum. Kasahis (butchers) could access only up to the Kirtimukh Bhairab idol (where they would slaughter one male buffalo and one goat every full moon evening) just inside the southern outer entrance next to Chausatthi. Podes and Chyames (toilet cleaners, and excrement and dead animal transporters) were to remain limited to outer periphery. Sarkis (cobblers, dead cow scavengers) were to remain beyond all limits. This system worked because there were numerous enforcers among the ‘eligibles’ and the ‘non-eligibles’ complied religiously. The visitors to the temple were not too many, most of them being regular devotees. Father, as Chief Priest (Mul Bhatta) and Chief Administrator (Rawal), was the chief enforcer of the credo.
One day in October 1956, it was announced over the radio that Babasaheb BR Ambedkar, eminent jurist and the chief architect of the Constitution of the Republic of India, was going to visit Nepal. It was also learnt that he would be visiting Pashupatinath temple during his trip. This piece of information burst the bubble of religious convention in Mul Bhatta Baje’s household. Any eminent Hindu from India was cordially welcomed and blessed in Pashupatinath. But Mr. Ambedkar was a known ‘Chamar’, the equivalent of Nepal’s Sarki. How could a devout Hindu allow a ‘Chamar’ inside the temple premises?
Consultations with the Bada Gurujyu and the Palace took place. A discrete message was sent to the then government of TP Acharya, urging the government to cancel the visit of Ambedkar and his entourage to Pashupatinath. I could not fathom the diplomacy, at that age then, that ought to have been practiced. All I knew then was that tension in our household was running high.
Gen. Madhav Shamsher JBR, a scion of the Rana hierarchy and a devout Hindu, appeared in our house one morning in some fury. He was a disciple of Father and used to visit us once or twice a year and pay his respects including placing his head at Father’s feet, a rare show of submission for a Rana scion. That day he was all worked up. The two conversed for a while. I guess the conversation went something like this.
Gen. Madhav: “We should not allow that Chamar to enter Pashupati at any cost.”
Father: “What to do? I have approached the Bada Gurujyu and explained the scripture provisions in detail. He just nods but does not respond.”
Gen. Madhav: “What about the Government?”
Father: “I sought appointment with PM Tanka Prasad Acharya. He evaded me.”
Gen. Madhav: “What about the Palace?”
Father: “I met the Principal Private Secretary of HM. He said he would ‘Binti Chadhaune’(beseech) HM and arrange for an audience for me. Later he informed me that, it is for TP Acharya and his government to take up the matter, since it is them that extended the invitation to Ambedkar and fixed the tour program.”
Gen. Madhav: “Those pissing bums!”
Father: “I have run around from pillar to post. I feel I am pilloried. Being a Priest with daily duties at the temple, how can I fight with the establishment?”
Gen. Madhav: “OK, Guruji. Please listen to me now. You are the Dharmadhikary of this country. You stand by your convictions and need to keep standing by Sanatana Dharma. We the people need to defend the Temple and all that it means to us, even if it comes to blood shedding. I am a Kshatri and a descendant of fearless head choppers. You stand just inside the main Western Gate in your priestly uniform as you would be in the process of worshipping the Idol. I will stand just outside of the Gate with a loaded pistol in my hand and a Khukuri in my waistband. I am prepared to shoot the moment those invaders cross a line that we will demarcate. I will mobilize all the people of this holy Pashupata Kshetra and they will be our army, ready to spill blood if it comes to that. They will have to force open the Western Gate over our dead bodies. Do not worry, Guruji, those invaders will hide their tails and scoot away. God is with us.”
Gen. Madhav Shamsher knelt and begged to leave. His departing gait was upright and his face stern.
The news spread with urgency and awe. The locals around Devpatan were mostly Newars and Bahuns. They were united more behind Father. Literally ‘behind’ because they left the frontline for the Chhetris and others that the Jersaheb would assemble. The sattal above the Bhajan Mandal to the north of the golden Bull and his son became the bivouac of Gen. Madhav and his aides. The rich Rana had compromised all his luxuries for the sake of defending the Hindu Dharma.
Word came that Dr. Ambedkar was equally determined to enter the Pashupati premise. It was said that he was no longer a Chamar, because he had taken up the Buddhist religion. By abandoning Hinduism, he was free from the chains of casteism. And Buddhists were free to enter Pashupati.
The Hindu hard-core insisted that once a Chamar, always a Chamar, and Pashupati cannot be abandoned to be soiled by the feet of a Chamar. The then His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, the government led by the ‘Living Martyr’ Mr. Tanka Prasad Acharya, ostensibly chose to remain a spectator.
It was a mild November afternoon. The daily pooja of Pashupatinath ended at about 2:30 PM. Father came home, quickly disrobed, had a long pee and a loud fart, drank a cup of milk, robed again and was all set to go for the vigil. The pee and the fart were held back for almost 6 hours before being released. It was a routine he underwent throughout his adult years as a Priest inside the sanctum of the temple.
The collapsible gate of steel grills at the Western Gate was then a recent installation, a novelty, and somewhat out of sync with the other age-old structural elements. It came with the renovation package ordered by King Mahendra. On that day, the vigil started at about 3 PM. The gate was un-collapsed, and locked from inside. Father, in his priestly robe including the Rudraksha Mala around his neck, and the Jhaari (a pot-bellied silver cup with a gold spout sticking out of the belly and curving upwards) with holy water in his right hand, and a pair of wooden sandals on his feet, took the prime position right behind the gate. Other priests and Brahmins lined up behind him. The space between the Gate and the rear of the kneeling papa Bull was almost packed with priests, Brahmins, Santa Mahantas, Yogis from Gorakhnath, Sadhus and the sundry.
In front of and outside the locked gate, facing the approach road, stood General Madhav Shamsher with a revolver in hand and a Khukuri in his waistband. He was wearing a pair of snow white Daura-Surwal, coffee-colored Ishta-kot, and a Dhaka Topi.
The crowd in front of him was swelling up by the dozens. There were hardly any women among them. Men in various layers of clothing were crowding in, some in an attire of festivity, some sans anything noticeable. Poor peasants, beggars, people with some kind of disability or other were there. I was one of the kids around, glued on to one of Father’s lieutenants.
To me, it was a moment of great occasion. I was privy to most of the conversations at home, conversations that were discussed in a process of historical decision making. I could single out the name of Ambedkar when I heard Bhogya Prasad Shah or Hari Shreshtha, the newscasters on Radio Nepal, or Devaki Nandan Pandey or Indu Wahi over All India Radio. He who was Krishna in Delhi and Singha Durbar had become Kamsa in Devpatan. And a Kurukshetra battle was going to be waged soon, here, in front of my nose.
Minutes stretched into hours. Then there was a commotion. People squirmed and panted. A caravan of 5 cars and jeeps gurgled in and stopped at the tip of the access road near Dakshinamoorty temple at about 4PM. Among the people who alighted were five or six men in Bhikshu robes twirling a chain of chestnut brown beads. A man darkish and thickset was leading the small pack. He looked different from the others in feature, in body language, and in the fire in his eyes. He must be Ambedkar, for sure, I thought. The others looked like grown up lambs.
The crowds outside the gate raised slogans. Words I was not used to hearing. The assembly inside the gate hollered Hara Hara Mahadev, Pashupati Nath ki Jay, Bhole Baba ki Jay, Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah. Words I was used to hearing. The yellow robed five moved forward slowly. Gen. Madhav Shamsher JBR muttered something. A man in grey tunic saluted the General, turned around on his heels and scurried towards the visitors. There he pointed to a line on the ground drawn by chalk. The line had escaped my notice until I saw him pointing at it. The visitors kept walking forward, albeit slowly. The man in grey ran back towards the General. The General whipped a command, raised the revolver, and cocked it. The emissary ran back to the invaders. They scrambled a few paces forward and stopped short of the Laxman Rekha. There they lingered. The leader of the pack turned toward his fellow Bhikhshus. They were already a few paces behind. ‘Gingerly’ is a word I experienced then but learnt much later. After an aeon, they turned back and turned their back towards Pashupatinath temple. I sweated in the late autumn of November. After all, the battle between the ‘Army’ of Gen. Madhav and the Bhikshus ended in non-violence. However, the happy ending did not merit the cacophony that ensued once Ambedkar turned his back with dignity and grace.
Later that evening, some ungrateful zealot murmured, “Within the next four months Pashupatinath will punish the Sarki with Samhar for his blasphemy.”
Dr. Ambedkar passed away on 6 December, 1956.