Acquainted with the nightKaushaltar at midnight is a desolate place. With the horns and the dust from the Araniko Highway finally settling, an eerie silence envelops everything and is pierced only by the occasional howl of dogs.
Kaushaltar at midnight is a desolate place. With the horns and the dust from the Araniko Highway finally settling, an eerie silence envelops everything and is pierced only by the occasional howl of dogs. But these dogs aren’t the only ones protecting this neighbourhood tonight. Two men, casting long shadows under the street lamps, are striding from door to door incanting mantras from antiquity.
“Aum...Jaga ho...Jaga ho,” one of them bellows, before chanting a prayer invoking Mother Earth. Then bringing a horn he is holding in his right hand to his lips, he blows a shrill note that seems to bring everything to a standstill. The two men wait for the echo to die out then shuffle on to the next house.
At a desolate, eerie Kaushaltar at midnight, their work has just begun.
Robed in ochre from head to toe, Dilli Nath Yogi, 58, is a Kaanphata Jogi, a clan within the Nath community. Also known as Feerilaune Jogis, the kaanphata ascetics get their name from their “torn” ears and the heavy earrings they wear upon initiation. Tonight, Dilli Nath’s are of a hue matching his robes and glow in dark under the cell phone’s glare. In one of his hands is a Singhini horn, a blow horn carved from deer antlers; in the other, he sports a thin cane he says is made from a rare species of wood. He addresses his companion Padma Nath Yogi as brother, and the two are going door to door “blessing the neighbourhood with prosperity and driving negative energies away.” Padma Nath, younger and meek compared to his companion, is an apprentice—a dwindling breed in these changing times and evolving beliefs.
“We will maybe make it to 500 houses tonight,” says Dilli Nath, “We revisit all the homes in the morning and will probably receive alms from only 200 of them. The rest are too busy or don’t care anymore.”
Belying his stout gait, Dilli Nath is a surprisingly soft-spoken man. Originally from Kailali, he has been a jogi in Kathmandu for the past 20 years and is currently based out of an ashram in Sankhu, which is home to a dozen other jogis. According to Dilli Nath, along with the jogis shrinking in number, their ways are evolving as well.
“Previously we would circumambulate a house three times and chant the mantras. But now, with so many houses, and with them all clustered together, it is just not practical anymore. So, we chant the mantras outside the gate once and move on.”
But if today the clan’s number continues to fall, it was once their large membership that led to the establishment of the feerilaune tradition (feerilaune translates to “make the rounds”). According to Govinda Tandon, cultural expert and member secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, the tradition is said to have been initiated by Prithivi Narayan Shah. “An ascetic, Bhagwanta Nath, had helped the king conquer rival states, and in return he instated the practice of feerilaune so that the then-large Nath community could sustain themselves by blessing communities and living off the alms offered,” he says. Tandon adds that the kaanphata jogis, and the Naths, derive their lineage from the saints Matsyendra Nath and his disciple Gorakh Nath from the 11th Century.
Today, Dilli Nath derives his jurisdiction from the Guthi Sansthan that has assigned him to four districts—Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Kavre and Sindhupalchowk—and pays him Rs2,000 a month for making his midnight rounds. The kaanphaata jogis typically go on their feeri during the months of Kartik and Chaitra.
Dilli Nath confides that before the Maoist insurgency, the ascetics set out at midnight and continued making the rounds until the break of dawn. But as the violence began to escalate, and with burglars and con-artists disguised as ascetics on the rise to add, the government enforced an 8pm-12am schedule for the jogis. Today, even though that schedule is no longer in place, Dilli Nath continues to leave before midnight because of the larger area he needs to cover. “We would have been able to cover the entire Lokanthali area in one night just some years ago. Now, with so many more houses and new neighbourhoods, it adds up to several nights of walking,” he says.
But apart from the longer rounds, much else remains the same. Once acquainted with the night as Dilli Ram is, everything else is routine. “No one walks around at this hour,” he says, partly in jest, “save the dogs, the drunks and the thieves, and none of them want to bother us much. Once though in Balkot, I ran into a leopard.”
By 4 am, the jogis are done with their feeri for the night and return to the home that is hosting them during their stay in the area. Their host, Nawaraj Karki’s family, have been offering shelter to the jogis twice a year, since the time of Dilli Nath’s guru Ganga Nath Yogi. The jogis however, cook separately from the household with the alms they collect in the morning.
After chanting and blowing on the Singhini horn all night, Dilli Nath’s voice is a little hoarse around the edges. “At my age, the cold weather and the effort it takes to blow the Singhini do take a cumulative toll,” he says, “but with a few hours of sleep, we should be able to set out to collect alms in the morning.”
When asked if he has any expectations about what will be collected, he says, “The faith in this tradition might be receding and we might not be as welcome as we once were. But our goal is to serve the people and bless their dwellings. So, we don’t mind. We have to be happy with whatever we get.”