Religion and Ritual in Contemporary Nepali Society: Expanding and Transforming Continuities in Khalikhane Ritual Practices

Alfred Pach

In 2016 Mountain Television filmed an elaborate fire walking ceremony in a Brahman Chettri Village n the Kathmandu Valley and soon aired the event on its TV channel. This video showed a number of young boys, as young as 11 years old, and an older man in his 60s’, dancing and putting out the hot coals of the khalikhane ritual, which was aimed to transform the suffering spirits of deceased family members who had died an inappropriate and ‘unnatural’ death.

The khalikhane ritual is unlike the well known and pervasive sraddha rituals among Brahmans and Chhetri and other groups, which remember, propitiate and ‘feed’ deceased family members on their journey to higher spiritual realms.  Instead, the kalikhane ritual complex aims to identify suffering deceased family members who have been abandoned, unacknowledged and marginalized as wandering ghosts or bayu. These bayus cause misfortune, illness and loss to their family members in order to motivate them to recognize them, confirm their former existence and death, and transform them to be a remembered and propitiated family deity, and, along with the clan deity, form an important part of the lineage’s ritual life.

There have been a few notable studies of this ritual complex in the 1970s (Hoffer and Shrestha 1973, Sharma 1970 and Gaborieau 1974) and one study in the 1980s (Gray 1987). However, overall there has been little attention paid to this elaborate and critical ritual complex.  In research carried out in a Jaisi Brahman village the 1980s, it was actually thought have seriously diminished in prevalence and was on the road to extinction in the Kathmandu Valley (Pach 1990).

However, a team of researchers I have worked with for many years have have collected information on what appears to be an upsurge of khalikane rituals in the Kathmandu Valley.  This paper draws on in-depth interviews with four ‘gurus’ or ritual specialists that conduct the kalikhane rituals, along with a survey of the of groups they have worked during 2011, 2012 and 2016.  In 2016 three of the ritual specialists conducted a total of 13 kalikhane rituals and there were, no doubt, a number of other specialists conducting these rituals at the same time.

This paper shows that although Nepal’s society and culture are rapidly changing, with increased education, urbanization and a growing individuality, which have led to a diminishment of socio-ritual practices and emergence of new religious movements, there is also a growing interest in and an involvement in traditional religious practices, surprisingly often among young and well educated members of communities (Letizia and Gellner 2016:258; Upadya 2015: 113).

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