Nepali village preserves tongue-piercing ritual

By Pramod Raj Sedhain, written for  |  July 5, 2013 at 11:21 AM
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BODE, Nepal, July 5 (UPI Next) -- Every year in mid-April, Juju Bhai Basan Shrestha stands before festival crowds in a cobbled square in the Nepali village of Bode in Bhaktapur district, 7 miles east of Kathmandu, and slowly pierces his tongue with a long needle before hoisting a massive wood and bamboo arched lamp on his shoulders and parading barefoot through cheering throngs.

This is Shrestha's bid at cultural preservation in this picturesque Himalayan state, where the creep of modernization has taken its toll on mountain traditions. The practice of tongue-piercing, a tradition of the indigenous Newar people of the district. dates back 1,600 years. In the past 150 years, however, only 11 people have kept up the practice. Five of them are still alive, including Shrestha.

"With modernization, people too have become stylish. Youngsters pierce their ears, noses and eyebrows. But they hesitate to pierce their tongues for the sake of protecting our tradition," Shrestha told UPI Next.

The Kathmandu valley, ringed by gigantic silhouetted peaks, is home to 25 festivals annually, all of which have their roots hundreds of years in the past. While the festivals persist as great drawing cards for the tourists that flock to Nepal, the traditions at their core are fading, Shrestha fears.

Shrestha, 32, has been performing the act of tongue-piercing for the past five years. It is the highlight of the Bisket Jatra, a nine-day festival in the second week of April each year.

"I have been doing this to preserve our tradition. I have made up my mind to continue this next year as well," said Shrestha, who paints traditional Buddhist cloths known as thankas.

Tradition demands that he must fast for three days before piercing his tongue.

The tongue piercing is accompanied by loud music and cheering. It is considered a bad omen if the tongue bleeds during the piercing or later extraction of the 10-inch needle. Shrestha's tongue has never bled.

"It hurts while piercing and removing the spike. However, I forget all the pain because of the support and cheers from the crowd," Shrestha said.

He alternates which side of his tongue he pierces each year. He's pierced the left side three times and the right twice.

Hordes of locals and foreign visitors watch Shrestha's performance and his parade, with the needle still in his tongue and the traditional 33-pound 'mahadip' lamp balanced on his shoulders. Shrestha is not allowed to swallow anything while the needle is in his tongue, so spectators place drops of oil into his open mouth to prevent it from drying out.

"This is exciting as well as thrilling," said Ram Kumari Shrestha, a resident of Bode who is not a relative of Juju Bhai Basan Shrestha, as he watched the ritual in April.

After the needle is removed, mud is applied to the wound as medicine. It heals during subsequent months.

Residents believe the tongue-piercing signifies the conquest of good spirits over demons and evil spirits.

"There is a traditional belief that going around the town with the pierced tongue will drive evil away from our locality," said Pancha Krishna Dali, another resident.

Nepal's most decorated cultural anthropologist, author and administrator Satya Mohan Joshi, says the practice is considered protection from natural calamities.

"People of this village believe that they have managed to protect their village from deadly natural disasters by continuing with their centuries-old tradition," Joshi, 91, told UPI Next.

Joshi is a three-time recipient of the Madan Puraskar, Nepal's most prestigious literature award. He has written 16 books on Nepalese culture and is a former director of the government's Department of Archaeology and Culture.

Some argue that the ritual of tongue piercing reserves a special seat in heaven for the performer.

Joshi says the festival was begun to chase away ghosts which had disguised themselves as humans and were bothering residents living near a local temple. Help was sought from a local shaman, who trapped one of the ghosts and forced it to show its face. He had long hair and a long tongue. The shaman cut the ghost's hair, pierced its tongue with a needle to stop it from running away and forced it to carry the mahadip lamp around town.

Most people in Bode say they believe the festival is the reason the village has never suffered any of the natural disasters that have beset so many other Nepali villages such as flooding, landslides, and earthquakes.

The head of Bhaktapur Metropolitan City Council, Ram Mani Bhattarai, said authorities were planning to develop the festival as a major tourist attraction.

Naresh Shrestha, a 25-year-old engineering student, who is not related to Juju Bhai Basan Shrestha, was disdainful of the act, dismissing it as "superstition." He suggested an alternative way to preserve this culture rather than hurting someone by piercing his tongue.

Juju Bhai Basan Shrestha spends $650 to $700 each year on organizing the festival and his own performance.

He complains that the government has not provided him with any support for his performance, nor for his work in putting on the whole festival.

"The act of tongue-piercing act is at stake since youngsters do not want to take risks," Shrestha said.

"Elder folks fear this attitude will end this unique culture."

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