Photograph by Paula Bronstein, Getty
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Chanira Vajracharya, 12, waits to receive worshippers on March 23, 2007. Chanira was chosen as the living goddess, or kumari, of Nepal’s ancient city of Patan at the age of 5. She was dismissed, according to custom, when she had her first period, a decade later.

Photograph by Paula Bronstein, Getty

For Nepalis, Earthquakes Send Humans Warning From the Gods

In Nepal the gods speak through disasters, and shaking ground is seen as a wake-up call to humanity.

For Chanira Vajracharya, 19, who was once worshipped as a living goddess in her native Nepal, the country's recent earthquakes are a wake-up call.

“Lots of praying and forgiveness rituals are required now,” Chanira said last week. “People have to stop being foolish and start concentrating on what matters most. We have to remember. We have to start praying like we mean it.”

For the people of Nepal, the trauma of losing loved ones, homes, and possessions is compounded by the profound psychological anxiety that this event happened for a reason: The world is out of kilter, and we humans are to blame. (See pictures capturing the shock of a second Nepal earthquake.)

I had met Chanira, an eloquent, high-flying student of business management, last September in her family home in the predominantly Buddhist medieval city of Patan, near Kathmandu, when reporting my story for the June issue of National Geographic about kumaris—young girls of the Newar ethnic group who are worshipped as living goddesses.  

Nearly a week after the earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25, survivor Ram Bahadur Danuwar reflects on the loss of life in his village of Bhimtar in the Sindhu Palchok district. 

When the April 25 earthquake struck, I was at home in Sussex, England, so I asked my friend Ellen Coon, a scholar of Newar culture who was in Kathmandu at the time, if she’d check up on the kumaris. It was a huge relief to find that Chanira and all ten serving kumaris had survived unscathed.

Then on Tuesday when the magnitude 7.3 temblor hit Nepal—the most violent yet of the many aftershocks—I was worried all over again about Chanira and the others. Thankfully, Chanira quickly posted the following message on Facebook: “We are all safe but out of internet connection area. I'll talk to u soon.”

Remarkably, during the initial earthquake, the famous 18th-century Kumari Chen, residence of Kathmandu’s living goddess, in the capital’s Durbar Square, lost not even a roof tile, although several gigantic temples crashed to the ground just yards from the front door. (Read about which key historic sites in Nepal were damaged.)

Ellen herself had a narrow escape. She’d been interviewing an 83-year-old Newar woman on the third floor of her old wood and mud house when the tremors hit. Ellen managed to bundle her sound recording assistant into the stairwell, and between shocks they escaped the building. The old lady was rescued a few hours later, waiting patiently in her bed amid cracking walls, by her son and a couple of soldiers.

Ellen found Chanira at her home last Tuesday, ten days after the disaster, looking cool and composed in a blue-and-black kurta and matching glasses, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail reaching below her waist.

But underneath, Chanira said she was distracted and jumpy, still startled by the tiniest thing. “We were terrified”, she told Ellen, describing the moment the house began to shake. “We all clung to each other in the doorway.”

As soon as they could, they ran to Hakha Bahal, the kumari courtyard a few yards down the road, where they knew the power of Unika, the seven-year-old reigning living goddess of the city of Patan, would protect them.

Her house too had stood firm. Unika had remained calmly seated on her throne throughout the quake, while other buildings along the main street came crashing down.

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Six-year-old Unika Vajracharya days after her selection as Patan’s living goddess, in April 2014. She was on her throne when the April 25 earthquake struck and, according to her family, entered a trance-like state and reassured them that they were safe.

Fated Procession

The day before the quake, Chanira, like thousands of others from all over the Kathmandu Valley, attended one of Nepal’s most important festivals—the chariot procession of Red Machhendranath, the Buddhist god of compassion, also known as Bungadya.

The procession, or jatra, of Bungadya’s chariot—a gigantic mainly bamboo structure 65 feet high on solid wooden wheels the size of barn doors pulled by dozens of young men—is an event loaded with portent.

Any incident along its precarious course can be a sign of impending disaster. In 2001, shortly before the massacre of Nepal’s entire royal family by the king’s son, the chariot had tipped over. In 2004, in the run-up to the coup by King Gyanendra, its superstructure had toppled to the ground injuring six people.

This year was a big one: Every twelfth year, the chariot is pulled four miles (seven kilometers) from the god’s home in the little village of Bungamati to Patan.

Witnessed by the reigning kumari of Patan, the jatra is supposed to be the crowning example of communal cooperation and devotion, a tribute that will encourage the god to bestow blessings upon the Earth.

But Chanira told Ellen she was appalled at the carelessness with which this jatra was conducted. There were glaring mistakes: the chariot’s mast was made of just a couple of saplings lashed together instead of a single straight 32-foot tree. Adornments were attached to the chariot at the wrong time and place, and important rituals were overlooked.

What’s more, a snake—always powerful in Nepal—had slithered across the road in front of the chariot, but no one had stopped to perform a compensatory rite.

Worst of all, the chariot hadn’t paused for the night at places marked in the road by symbolic lotuses. These places are considered protected, where goddesses are said to reside.

On the very night before the earthquake, the chariot had driven right over one of these lotuses and been brought to a halt in an unprotected space on the road.

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Left: Kathmandu’s Durbar Square on September 12, 2014, as thousands celebrate the annual chariot procession of Kathmandu’s living goddess.

Right: The scene on April 28, 2015. The earthquake brought down the towering pagoda-temple of Trailokya Mohan and severely damaged the old royal palace (at left). But the 18th-century residence of the living goddess (at center) was unscathed.

Rules for a Reason

“People forgot who we are,” Chanira said. “They forgot our culture and identity and our history and the rules we made for ourselves. Those rules have a reason, but they didn’t remember that. They thought, oh, this jatra is just for young men to have fun pulling the chariot.

“But it’s not about fun. It’s serious. You do everything with care, precisely as you’re supposed to. As you pull Bungadya around in his chariot, then the rains come in the correct way, and everybody has a good harvest, and we get to eat—we get to live. Carelessness and disrespect will cause us great suffering.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many devout Nepalis. According to a spiritual medium Ellen spoke with who’s an attendant to one of the holy temples—and whose devotees believe she channels the spirit of the divine in a way similar to kumaris—the trigger for the earthquake was people’s disrespect to Bungadya.

“The Earth starts shaking and trembling because she cannot bear the weight of people’s sin and suffering any longer,” she told Ellen. “People have become selfish and greedy. They only think of eating and getting fatter instead of working to alleviate the suffering of others. They build great big houses, buy big cars, accumulate a lot of rubbish.

“People have been disregarding the Earth—most especially drilling and boring into her for water,” she said. “Extraction and pollution have angered the deities and made us very vulnerable. There is only one Earth. This earthquake is not only for Nepal.”

If we go on like this, she told Ellen, “drought, flood, storms, earthquakes will come to everyone.”

In this spiritual land in the foothills of the Himalaya, now more than ever is a time for soul-searching and reaching out to the gods.

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