Riot police have been deployed at Nepal’s holiest Hindu temple to stop protests after the Maoist government tried to throw out Indian priests who have officiated there for generations.
The threat to centuries of tradition at the Pashupati Temple sparked demonstrations by Hindus appalled at changes pushed through by the secular Maoists, who also scrapped Nepal’s Hindu monarchy last year.
“We want this decision scrapped immediately,” said Hariharman Bhandari, one of the Nepalese priests upset by the move.
“The Maoists have appointed their own people,” the Nepalese priest said.
Dozens of riot police and Maoist volunteers escorted the temple’s new Nepalese priests on Thursday as they visited holy sites around the Pashupati complex, which dates from the 3rd century BC.
Protesters shouted “Down with Maoists,” and “Scrap this decision” as the two priests performed religious ceremonies at the UNESCO-listed world heritage site on the banks of the Bagmati river in Kathmandu.
Pramananda Shakya, who was recently appointed head of the Pashupati Development Trust by the Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda, said reforms to the running of the temple reflected the new Nepal.
“The former royals used to be the patrons of the temple trust and used to approve the selection of the priests. With the changed political situation this tradition has been broken,” Shakya said.
“The prime minister has replaced the king as the patron now,” he said.
Revered by Hindus worldwide and dedicated to the god Shiva, nearly 1 million pilgrims visit Pashupati annually, generating large amounts of cash in donations.
Shakya said that a shake-up was needed to clear up alleged problems over handling of the money.
“We are trying to end the financial irregularities that take place inside the temple, that’s why some people are not happy with our decisions and are protesting,” he said.
The southern Indian Brahmins, who served for centuries as high priests at Pashupati, have refused to perform the special prayers that would hand over responsibility for the temple.
Brahmajyoti Babu Shiva Narayan Das, a 58-year-old Indian sadhu (holy man) who has renounced worldly pursuits and lived off donations at the temple for the last 18 years, said its spiritual purpose was being undermined.
“Today the Maoists have appointed the priests, but what will happen if there is a change in government?” asked the orange-robed, bearded Das.
“I am worried that Pashupati is being used as a playground for politics,” Das said.
The protesting priests have hired lawyers to challenge the appointments in Nepal’s Supreme Court and on Thursday, the court ordered a temporary halt to the new appointments, the court spokesman said.
“The government has been asked to furnish a reply justifying the new appointments,” Supreme Court spokesman Til Prasad Shrestha said.
The former rebel Maoists who now run the impoverished country came to power after winning polls in April.
Before that they waged a decade-long civil war that claimed 13,000 lives.