Durgā and the Kings of Nepal: Goddess Worship on Dasaĩ

Location: Campion Hall, Brewer St, Oxford, OX1 1QS
Speaker: Dr Astrid Zotter
Date: June 1, 2018
Time: 12:15pm to 1:15pm

The period of the autumnal Navarātra has formed a culmination point for worshipping goddesses through and for Nepalese kings. With the rise of the Shah dynasty from the 18th century onwards and the attending state building process this festival, commonly known by its Nepali name Dasaĩ, grew into the state ritual par excellence.

This contribution will focus on the situation in Kathmandu Valley where in 1768/69 the Shahs ousted the earlier Malla kings from power. The Shahs took over the earlier dynasty’s palace(s) and with it the royal goddesses residing there. Though broadly speaking, the two royal houses in question had common religious affiliations—their Brahmins following the same Vedic school and their court religions centre-staging the worship of female divinities according to Tantric liturgy—they promoted distinct ritual practices and relied on different ritual specialists. In remodelling the courtly Navarātra rituals to cope with the new political situation two seemingly opposing and yet interwoven tendencies seem to have been at work. Though new goddesses, specialists and rituals were introduced, the pre-existing ones were partly or entirely left in place, the two sets being tied together by recalibrating each of them. Such processes become evident when engaging with texts dealing with the pragmatic dimensions of religion, including ritual handbooks, court diaries and historical documents on the logistics and organisation of the rituals. Goddess worship there appears as a primarily practical concern, in which it is meaningful who is sponsored by whom to worship which form of the goddess where, when and how. Apart from the question of how the Shahs’ Navarātra ritual built upon that of the Malla kings the paper will also look at practical and administrative steps taken to impose the celebration of Dasaĩ on all subjects and indeed advance it as an integration measure in the rising national state.

Dr Astrid Zotter studied Indology and Religious Studies at Leipzig. She has been doing research on Hindu traditions in the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), combining textual studies with fieldwork. Her research and publications deal with topics such as the use of flowers in worship, life-cyclic rituals, and festivals. Currently she is a post-doctoral researcher and the deputy leader of the research unit “Documents on the History of Religion and Law of Premodern Nepal” at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.