KATHMANDU: Hundreds of people cried and sang in jubilation on Thursday as Hindu devotees began a victory march to celebrate the return of Indian priests to Nepal's 17th century Pashupatinath temple and the pledge by the humbled Maoist government not to interfere in its management.
"It is a victory for Hindus worldwide," said Bharat Jangam, a social activist and regular visitor to the temple, who was among the three groups that had asked Nepal's Supreme Court to intervene after the Indian priests appointed at the shrine nearly a decade ago were replaced by Nepali priests under the new Maoist government.
After nearly two weeks, the shrine, regarded as one of the eight holiest Hindu pilgrimage destinations, Thursday returned to its nearly three-century-old routine with the main Indian priest, Mahabaleshwar Bairy, resuming the daily worship.
For nearly a fortnight, the 40-year-old Indian, who came from Udupi district of India's Karnataka state eight years ago to take up the challenging assignment, had been keeping a low profile, staying away from the media and continuing with the ritualistic worship quietly at his own residence.
Bairy, said to be the only Hindu priest currently in Nepal who knows all the intricate rituals of Pashupatinath's worship, had a foreboding of things to come two years ago.
After the fall of Nepal's last Hindu king Gyanendra and the new government's decision to declare Nepal a secular state in 2006, there were growing allegations that the Indian priests as well as royalists controlling the Pashupatinath Area Development Trust (PADT) had misappropriated millions of rupees and other priceless treasures offered by devotees.
"It is false," the beleaguered priest had told IANS. "There is a growing conspiracy to throw out Indian priests."
His fears came true last month after the Maoist government accepted his resignation.
Though Bairy cited health reasons and said he needed to return to his village Belve to look after his elderly parents, it is said that he and the other four Indian priests had been receiving threatening phone calls.
Soon after Bairy's resignation, three more Indian priests, Krishna Bhatt from Uttara Kannada, K.P. Ramachandra Bhatt from Udupi district in Karnataka and Ganesh Bhatt also resigned.
However, the situation was reversed Wednesday after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, who came under intense pressure both at home and from neighbour India, told parliament that all new appointments made by PADT were annulled.
The Indian priests, Prachanda told the house, would continue with their duties till new appointments were made.
The capitulation came after Nepal's Supreme Court asked the government to stay all new appointments till it resolved the dispute.
Nepal's major parties as well as two powerful parties from neighbouring India, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party, also joined the protests, expressing concern at the Maoist interference in religion.
For nearly 300 years, Indian priests have been appointed at the shrine as they are regarded as being well-versed in intricate Vedic rituals.
The tradition was attacked by the ruling Maoist party, which professes to have no religious faith and whose ministers took oath of office last year in the name of the people instead of god.