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Published December 11, 2015
Some blame the corrupt politicians for bringing devastation to this Himalayan nation. Others fault Western tourists with tight T-shirts and loose morals. But among many of Nepal's most devoutly religious, the chaos and destruction wrought a week ago by a massive earthquake makes one thing clear: The gods are angry.
Now, in the shadow of some of Nepal's holiest mountaintop temples, many find comfort in the notion that there was a divine and just cause behind the tragedy that has killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands more homeless and destitute.
"It's a warning from the gods to the politicians: Change yourselves, or who knows what will happen," said Ishwar Nath Yogi, the 51-year-old high priest at Gorkha Kalika, a revered temple to the goddess Kali and the birthplace of Nepal's first king.
Yogi was certain the Hindu goddess of death and destruction had saved him and the many others who were praying in the 17th century temple when the Earth heaved and the red bricks of its walls began crashing down in the magnitude-7.8 quake on April 25.
Those less fortunate were unlucky, the yellow-robed holy man said, or maybe even undeserving. Perhaps they did not pray enough, or did not revere their sacred cattle. Maybe they embraced Western cultures and lost their own traditions.
"We are a Hindu nation," he explained, a place where dressing conservatively is simply a given. "Look at the Americans, the Japanese, they run around half naked. That's why the gods were mad."
Three-fourths of Nepal's 27 million people consider themselves Hindu, and the religion has a deep connection to this rugged Himalayan land dotted with countless temples and shrines. The king, for example, has long been worshipped by many as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Even as Nepal modernized in recent decades, many of its traditional beliefs remain deeply felt.
There is also a practical side to the devotion; most Nepalese are desperately poor and rely heavily on agriculture and cattle-rearing to survive. Appeasing the gods who control nature is just common sense.
The rivers, the trees, the raptors that sweep the peaks on the horizon — all can be considered holy. Prayer is a daily habit, and religious idols as ubiquitous as home-brewed milk tea. Pilgrimages to mountaintop temples that skim the sky offer spiritual relief and a path to salvation.
"My god is up there," said 23-year-old Sushma Kanwar, cradling a squalling baby in her lap as she pointed toward the hilltop temple to Kali from a valley below. "Somebody must have done something very bad. There is so much that could have angered the gods: theft, corruption, murder. These things are only getting worse."
Nepal is deeply divided along ethnic and political lines, and is still struggling to recover from a bloody Maoist insurgency that finally ended in 2006. It ranks as one of the world's more corrupt nations, and among the poorest, with an annual per capita income of just $712.
Some regret that the country, officially a Hindu kingdom for more than 200 years, was declared a secular republic in 2007. Others see lingering past evils inviting retribution, including the 2001 massacre of the royal family, apparently by the crown prince.
The same punishing gods, though, are also seen as benevolent — sparing lives, for example, with an earthquake that came on a weekend when children were not in school, and at midday when many villagers were outside in their fields and not in their now-destroyed homes.
Though Kanwar and her family lost their home and everything in it, she considers herself blessed, and prays to Kali these days with an extra measure of penitence. "Everyone in this village, our houses are destroyed but no one has died. Of course, this is the work of the goddess," she said.
The same spirit of gratitude spread throughout the temple town of Manakamana in the quake's aftermath. Another pilgrimage site in the quake-wracked district of Gorkha, it suffered no casualties among its 7,200 residents or among the thousands of tourists crammed into the alleys and the temple square when the quake turned serene scenes of prayer into a nightmare of screaming and chaos. Concrete buildings collapsed. The temple itself lost a brick wall and fell sharply askew.
Locals saw the lack of casualties as a gift from the 17th century temple's goddess, Bhagwati, a granter of wishes visited by some 10,000 people a day.
"We believe she protects us. How else can we explain why no one was hurt?" said hotel owner Dinesh Joshi, 43.
That faith showed brief signs of faltering Friday, when the smell of something rotting began wafting from the ruins of another hotel in town. "We don't know — maybe a tourist was caught underneath," said the hotel's 46-year-old owner, Rita Shrestha.
Nepalese soldiers set to breaking concrete blocks to get into the wreckage, while an assembly line of villagers quickly cleared the debris. A few hours later, the village felt collective relief as they uncovered the source of the smell — an enormous store of rotting eggs.
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