Nepal's deadly curse exorcised in an elephant ride

Peter Popham
Monday 24 February 2014 03:29

A Brahmin priest put on the robes of Nepal's murdered King Birendra, mounted an elephant and went into symbolic exile to rid the country of the curse of his death as the official period of mourning ended yesterday.

Eleven days after the massacre in which almost the entire Nepalese royal family died, the people of the Himalayan kingdom remain in shock, still finding difficulty in digesting the monstrous crime or accepting the only explanation for it that is on offer.

One traditional means by which the nation comes to grips with the death of its king ­ a traumatic event in such a traditional society, even when the king dies of natural causes ­ was played out on the banks of the sacred Bagmati river in Kathmandu yesterday. An aged Brahmin priest symbolically enacted the departure of King Birendra's soul from the midst of his subjects.

The Hindu ceremony, known as katto, is performed only after the death of the monarch. First, in a tent specially erected by the river, the priest, whose usual brahminical diet is strictly vegetarian, consumed an "impure" meal containing animal marrow. Then, over his white cotton clothes, he pulled on the elaborate, medieval court dress of the dead king, including a replica of his crown with its long, curling bird of paradise plume, and a pair of heavy black spectacles similar to the late king's.

Possessions of the king were wrapped in cloth ­ television sets, ceiling fans, bedding, baskets of food ­ and strapped to the back of a caparisoned elephant. Then the priest, too, was heaved aboard, and with a mahout (elephant minder) in front, wrapped in a saffron sash, and with a bearer behind grasping a large, fringed parasol, he set off. The elephant waded into the shallow and smelly Bagmati, bearing the king's soul into exile for ever. The brahmin chosen for the job is supposed never to return.

Whatever comfort the Nepalese may derive from this spectacle, they are still waiting to hear an explanation for why King Birendra and seven other royals were taken from them on the night of 1 June.

The Commission of Inquiry, set up by the new King Gyanendra immediately after his accession ceremony eight days ago to investigate the atrocity, requested four more days to finish its work, and is now expected to deliver its report on Thursday. The commission consists of the Chief Justice of Nepal, who heads it, and the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament. A third member, the leader of the Marxist opposition in Parliament, pulled out last week.

The commission has visited and taken photographs of the scene of the carnage, and is interviewing surviving royals and other witnesses. The report is expected almost inevitably to repeat the explanation for the massacre that has been espoused since immediately after it happened: that Crown Prince Dipendra, drunk and high on cocaine, in the midst of a bitter feud with his parents about his choice of bride, changed into military fatigues, took a sub- machine-gun and mowed down his family.

This version has been told and retold so often now, and with such small discrepancies of detail ­ how many guns the prince used, whether or how he was in uniform, how long the assault lasted, the exact sequence of events ­ that few observers with open minds doubt that that is what happened.

But Nepalese, except those among the élite who are already in the know, still find accepting the truth is impossible. Throughout their history, court murders ­ and there have been many ­ have been committed for the elimination of rivals. The senselessness of Prince Dipendra's act, culminating in suicide, goes against the grain. Only a clear statement of the facts by the new king will win them round ­ and perhaps not even that.

Tej Ratna Tamrakar, chief of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace and Museum in the centre of old Kathmandu, said: "I still cannot believe that the Crown Prince did it. I cannot accept it in my heart. Until the King says it, we cannot believe it."

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