May 1, 2013
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – It is noon on the day after New Year’s in Nepal. Juju Bhai Bagh Shrestha, 32, stands smiling under the April sun, facing the crowd of 50,000 spectators at the annual tongue piercing festival in Bode, a village four miles east of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
“To preserve the tradition and culture followed by my ancestors, I have decided to pierce my tongue,” he thunders to the crowd.
The conductor then pierces Shrestha’s tongue with a 14-inch iron needle.
“While piercing the tongue, loud music was played with the people cheering noisily,” Shrestha says following the event. “The pain was gone under the din. I experienced divine energy within me.”
After the piercing, Shrestha commenced a 40-minute walk around town with the needle in his tongue and carrying a 18-kilogram (40-pound) lamp. A cheery procession accompanied him to Mahalaxmi Temple, where the conductor removed the needle and applied mud to the wound as medicine.
“While pulling out the needle, it hurt very much,” says Shrestha, a local art teacher.
But he did not bleed. It is considered a bad omen if blood comes out, he says.
“With no oozing of blood, my happiness knew no bounds,” Shrestha says, jubilantly. “I forgot the pain. My hunger vanished.”
This is his fifth year in a row volunteering to get his tongue pierced at the festival in order to invoke divine powers to protect the town in the new year. His late grandfather, who got his tongue pierced at 30 festivals, inspired him to volunteer, he says.
But volunteers are dwindling because of the high cost of the feast that the volunteer must provide for the entire community. The feast costs around 80,000 Nepalese rupees ($915), Shrestha says.
Nepwa Khanegu Biska Jatra, the annual tongue piercing festival held this year on April 15, is part of the New Year’s celebration in Bode, a village in the Bhaktapur district. During the festival, a local Shrestha man gets his tongue pierced temporarily. Shrestha is a caste of the indigenous Newar community.
There is no official record of when the tongue piercing festival started, but folklore maintains it was in A.D. 481, says Sanch Krishna Dali, recognized locally as a scholar of Bhaktapur ritualistic culture. It has grown into a tourist attraction. But Dali says the tradition is declining.
According to legend, ghosts disguised themselves as humans to bother the residents who lived near the local Nil Barahi Temple, Dali says, describing the roots of the festival. The residents requested help from a famous, local witch doctor, who trapped one of the ghosts and forced it to show its real, ghastly face with a long tongue and long hair.
The witch doctor stripped the ghost, cut its hair and pierced its tongue with a needle to stop it from running away, Dali says. He then forced the ghost to carry a glorious lamp, called a “mahadip,” around town.
To free himself from the pain, the ghost promised to renounce its power to protect the locals and the town from heavy rainfall, drought or earthquakes and to make them adhere to traditional religious beliefs, Dali says. The ghost also agreed to pierce its tongue every year for seven years to renew this promise.
After that, the town decided to nominate a man to adopt the ghost’s role and divine power to ward off future calamities by getting his tongue pierced at the annual festival. A number of men volunteer each year, and the conductor selects one for the ceremony.
But the number of volunteers has been declining. Around 10 men used to volunteer for the position 12 years ago, Dali says. But now, only two or three men volunteer, Shrestha says.
Fewer men volunteer for this position to get their tongue pierced each year because the feast is too expensive and because the younger generation is losing faith in these rituals and customs, Dali says.
The man whose tongue is pierced organizes a feast afterward for about 200 local people, Dali says. The feast’s price gets costlier every year.
A feast costs about 80,000 Nepalese rupees ($915), Shrestha says. The Newar community has an average per capita income of about 38,000 rupees ($440) a year, according to the 2011 Nepal Population Report.
Shyamraja Tha Shrestha, a 40-year-old man from the caste, which shares a last name, says in a phone interview that he wants to get his tongue pierced but does not have money for the subsequent feast.
The festival is also fading because young people are losing faith in traditional rituals, Dali says.
Following tradition, Juju Bhai Bagh Shrestha fasted and drank only water for two days and three nights before the ceremony to avoid bad luck. He could not touch any women and had to avoid animals. He also could not speak to or touch anyone in mourning or any mothers who had given birth within the past 11 days.
Also part of tradition, the needle used to pierce his tongue soaked in mustard oil for a month before the festival to avoid rusting.
The local people say they believe that the man who gets his tongue pierced at the festival has divine power to protect the town from drought, famine, flood and epidemics. Juju Bhai Bagh Shrestha says no natural disasters have occurred in the community as far as he remembers.
The divine power also helps relieve the pain and hunger of the man whose tongue is pierced, says Buddha Krishna Bagh Shrestha, 42, who has pierced his tongue four times in past festivals.
“Due to this power, we do not feel hungry, and the body feels light instead,” he says. “Had it not been so, there would have been profuse bleeding.”
The conductor needs to be careful when piercing the tongues of men who have participated multiple times, Buddha Krishna Bagh Shrestha says.
“The tongue should not be pierced at the same point twice, and the insertion should be precisely planned,” he says.
If more men do not volunteer in the coming years because of a lack of belief in the ritual or funds to host the feast, the local community will have to start paying men to pierce their tongues to continue the tradition, Dali says.
Although the ceremony is nationally and internationally famous, the national government does not provide financial aid to sustain the festival, Dali says. Local government offices contribute funds to organize the festival and to preserve this tradition, but funds only go toward the feast if money is left over.
Rajendra K.C., a Bhaktapur district development committee officer, says in a phone interview that the office provided 15,000 rupees ($175) this year to help organize the festival.
“We have been increasing the budget every year as commitment to sustain the local festival of great cultural value,” he says.
Durga Devkota, the executive officer of the Bhaktapur municipality office, says in a phone interview that the municipality donated 40,000 rupees ($460) this year and will assist financially in the future to uphold the festival’s tradition.
Meanwhile, those who have volunteered to play the ghost’s role say the feast is a small price to pay for the divine power they receive from the piercing.
Dil Kumar Khwapaya Shrestha, 54, who pierced his tongue every year from 1982 to 1986, says that he has received lasting divine power from the piercing.
“Ever since I had my tongue pierced,” he says, “there has been no sickness in my family, and my wishes have been fulfilled.”
Interviews were translated from Nepali.