Anthropology Divine Malikarjun Nature Nepal Transcendence

Relationship Between the Divine and Nature in Nepal – the Malikarjun Case

In this eleventh blog post, I depart from the field experiences of anthropologists Alex Greene and David Gellner in Nepal, to problematize the conception of the landscape as a repository of memory, and a nexus that unites the divine with the human, as well as the multiform resource to religion, to question the suffering of human beings in the world. For this, I detail the case described by Greene (2019) in the remote West region of Nepal, more precisely in the municipality of Malikarjun – where the researcher found himself involved in an unfamiliar world of deep connections between the environment, the beliefs, and ancient habits of the local people. Malikarjun refers to: a god, the mountain where the god roams, and the local community worshiping that god.

  • This blog post is dedicated to the inspiring work of Alex Greene, as well as to the works of pioneer anthropologists Bal Gopal Shrestha and David Gellner. 

© Alexandra Pereira, CECC, UCP, 2022

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  • Based on the field experiences by Alex Greene and David Gellner in Nepal, I analyze the conception of landscape as a repository of memory, and a nexus that unites the divine with the human, as well as the multiform uses of religion to address human sufferings. Greene (2019) tells us how, during his anthropological fieldwork in the remote West of Nepal, more precisely in the municipality of Malikarjun, he found himself involved in an unfamiliar world of deep connections between the environment, the beliefs, and the habits of the local people.
  • Malikarjun has three distinct – but interrelated – meanings: it refers to a god, to the mountain where that god roams, and to the community that worships the god (Greene sees this as an expression of the Buddhist Three Gems: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha).
  • In addition to the legends and the myth about the origin of Malikarjun, Greene describes the mountain as a sacred place (like other elements of the landscape, it is seen through the lens of the divine) and a zone of “purity” that no one can invade. Except during the two annual occasions when the whole community, “purified” and prepared for weeks, goes up to the mountain cave to visit Malikarjun, venerating a shalagram, and other sacred objects.
  • But the researcher was also surprised: what initially seemed to be a masculine tradition, with male gods, male priests, and shamans who worshiped lingas, later turned out to be a synthesis of a rich oral literature, and sacred epics, sung exclusively by the oldest women in the community – sometimes for days – at festivals.
  • Gellner (2020) highlights how religion (religious practices, movements, rituals, and sentiments) is considered by most Nepalis as a valid and, perhaps, the most salient way of looking at, and talking about, the world’s sufferings (he then presents some examples). I also problematize the experiences of both researchers by linking them to Catholic concepts such as those of Common Home, and Integral Ecology.

The anthropologists Alex Greene and David Gellner.

N epal it is a multi-ethnic country (more than forty national ethnic groups are registered), multi-religious (with a predominance of hindus over buddhists, animists and shamans – sometimes with a mixture of practices and assimilation of rituals from other religions in the diaspora) and multilingual (with a national language, Nepali, trying to unite and overlap with dozens of other ethnic languages, and local dialects). Based on the field experiences in Nepal of both the American anthropologist Alex Greene, and the British anthropologist David Gellner, as well as on the texts written and compiled by the latter over decades, I will try to develop here and explain not only the existence of a conception of landscape as a repository of memory, and a nexus that unites the divine with the human in certain traditional Nepali communities – I will also describe the way in which the multiform expression(s) of the religion(s) still resist, are very much alive, and continue to be used by a majority of Nepalis, to question and dialogue with their experiences of human suffering in the world despite the officially secular character of the Nepalese state.

The Malikarjun mountain 1.
Alex Greene (2019) tells us that he dedicated himself, for his master’s thesis research, to do fieldwork in the remote area of western Nepal, more precisely in the municipality of Malikarjun. His intention was to investigate the strange fusion that seemed to take place over there, between the three elements necessary to any spiritual tradition: the existence of a master, a teaching, and a community. This fusion occurred in such a way, in that municipality and its community, that the same word designated the three elements: Malikarjun. Malikarjun has three distinct, though interrelated, meanings: it refers to a god, to the mountain where the god roams (which is the teaching), and to the community of practitioners who worship that god. Greene saw this as an expression of the Buddhist Three Gems: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – despite the fact that the original myth of Malikarjun refers to the fact that that community, of Hindu origin, had migrated from North India to escape Muslim religious persecutions.
The Malikarjun mountain 2.

This was how, according to the myth about the origin of Malikarjun: a long time ago, when Muslim rulers swept North India, persecuting the Hindu communities there, the ancestors of the present inhabitants of Malikarjun fled to regions further afield. North, as well as east: they headed towards the mountains, hoping for the protection afforded by the inaccessible terrain, and as they fled they carried their god with them. The god Malikarjun was bound to a shaligram (a sacred ammonite from the river Gandaki) and traveled in a basket during the flight, on the back of Averaj Pandi. After a long and hard journey, the people entered the middle of the hills of the region that corresponds to contemporary Nepal, on the other side of the Mahakali River, and found a place to settle down, build houses and cultivate terraces.  

A few years later, Averaj had a dream where Malikarjun spoke to him: the god explained that the people of the community had fallen into “impurity”, raising chickens, plowing with bulls, and performing “unclean” acts. Averaj was told in his dream that he would be given a tiger, and instructions on what to do: the tiger appeared, and Averaj took a nigalo (a local bamboo) thorn, and he pierced the tiger’s left foot. This allowed Averaj to mount the tiger’s back, which carried him across the countryside to the top of a mountain, where there was a small cave. Averaj thus understood that the god Malikarjun had found a new home for himself. The next morning, upon waking up, Averaj saw the shaligram of his god levitate from the altar where he was resting, and fly out of the house, crossing the hills towards the top of the mountain, which could be seen in the distance. Averaj gathered his people, explained what had happened, and what they should then do together.

Shree Shailya Shikhar Malikarjun Temple 1.

They left their homes and moved again, this time to the base of that mountain. There, they built a temple in honor of Malikarjun, new houses, and they cultivated the fields. From then on, the god no longer lived among them – but he was never far away, looking down on them from his place on the mountain. The mountain is seen as a sacred site and a zone of “purity”, in which no one can interfere. The forest covering the mountain is given the same reverence. Other features of the landscape are likewise understood and interpreted through the lens of divine manifestation: springs and streams are bathing places for Malikarjun’s wives, giant boulders are Malikarjun’s horses turned to stone. According to the interpretation of the community’s legends, the trees on the mountainside were “bent down of fear”, due to the passage of Malikarjun’s great enemy: Chiplo. In a sense, the god represented by the pebble in a riverbed has returned to his origin: the great mountain, the birthplace of rivers. He stopped living among men to live in a more “pure” and sheltered place, between heaven and earth, touching the clouds, and watching men on the foothills. The mountain is also a symbol of ascent, and overcoming, walking to the top; in a sense, the mountain symbolizes the journey of earthly life. And that walk is, in Malikarjun, a collective one.  

The entire surrounding landscape is alive, and invested with meaning by the community of Malikarjun. People must sleep with their head facing the sacred mountain, as it is considered to be much more “pure” than their feet. They must remove their shoes when entering the circle of a sacred tree, for example. The use of the left hand is associated with “impurity”, whereas “certain ashes may be more pure than other ashes”. Twice a year, the inhabitants of the community prepare themselves, fasting and bathing for weeks, and avoiding “impurities” such as alcohol, meat and onions. Then, together, they hike to the top of the mountain and visit Malikarjun in his small cave, worshiping the shaligram, and other sacred objects inside the cave.

Malikarjun Female Singers.

It seems interesting to me to reflect on these traditions and interpretations, not only in the intersection between Hinduism and Animism, but also in light of the intrinsic wisdom that they contain, linked to the necessary balance and respect in the relationship between human beings and nature. As well as to question the pertinence that those interpretations gain in the current global context of climate and environmental emergency. In this sense, it is useful to establish a bridge between the interpretations and meanings that the community of Malikarjun attributes to its surrounding natural environment (that it deeply respects and venerates) and, on another other hand, the parallel principles defended in the Encyclical Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis (2015), concepts closer to us, such as those of Common Home and Integral Ecology. From the perspective of Hodges el al. (2018), Pope Francis argues that integral human development must be based on an alliance between humanity and the environment for sustainable human development, which implies the assumption of new habits and behaviors – embodying a path to “rehumanization”, supported by an environmental awareness that denounces the evils of modernity.

On the other hand, according to Butkus and Kholmes (2017), the Encyclical Laudato Si’ came to launch a new conceptual language in the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC), which corresponds to what is designated there by “Integral Ecology”. This interconnects with the perception that it would be necessary to seek comprehensive solutions that encompass human interaction with environmental systems themselves, and also with social systems, in order to “face what are not two separate crises (…) but one complex crisis, which is both environmental and social” (LS., nr. CXXXVIII). To solve this complex crisis, we are called to use an integrated approach, in order to “combat poverty, restore the dignity of the excluded and, at the same time, protect nature” (LS., nr. CXXXVIII). The motto “An Integral Ecology for an Integral Society” is, therefore, assumed as the “great challenge of our times” (Dicastery for Integral Human Development, 2018). Interestingly, the Malikarjun community seems not to have forgotten this link between environmental and social systems, and the human action. It shows a spiritual, ritual and practical wisdom that goes in that same direction – connecting with the intention of “doing theology from the margins, or the existential peripheries”, also claimed by the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. For inhabitants of the remote Malikarjun region of Nepal, the mountain is the center of their world. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, several biblical verses express the sacred character of the mountain: the place where God manifests himself – some examples are:

«…until he reached Horeb [or Sinai], the mountain of God. There the Lord appeared to him in a blaze of fire, in the midst of a bush…» (Ex 3, 1-6)

«Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. The Lord called him from the top of the mountain and said: “Speak these words to the descendants of Jacob, to the Israelites”…» (Ex 19, 3)

or the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor (Mt 17, 1-9)

The tomb of Jesus is also described, in the Catholic tradition, as a kind of cave excavated in the rock, with a huge stone placed in front of it, to close its entrance. With regard to the experience described by Greene there is, from my perspective, the parallel issue of strengthening the sense of community, and community empowerment – one of the Objectives expressed in the encyclical Laudato Si’ as well. Which is interesting to apply to this remote community, professing a religion other than Catholicism. Simultaneously, Malikarjun’s hospitality is justified with the following saying: “For Hindus, the visitor is a god” – such saying is, usually, accompanied with multiple offers of drink(s) or food(s).

Calendar and the culturally important Kalaun peas.

Which means that there is a concern to include and integrate the “outsider” in that particular ecosystem and worldview, in that “whole community” (first and foremost, by quenching their hunger and thirst). But researcher Alex Greene was also surprised by the following: what initially seemed to him to be an essentially male tradition, with male gods, priests, and male shamans who worshiped stone lingas (representing Shiva’s penis), later turned out to be the synthesis of a rich and ancient oral literature, made up of long sacred epics, sung exclusively by the older women of the community, sometimes for days on a row, at festivals.

Women were, therefore, the guardians of oral history, community and cultural memory, the relationship of those human beings with the surrounding landscape, and with the ancestral legends of their people. The community’s own original myth was an abbreviated version of certain sacred epics, sung by older women. The feminine was thus deeply connected with the original myth, and with that very particular vision of nature, one passed from generation to generation through voice and music. In exchange for listening to those songs, Alex Greene began to offer the Malikarjun community his own “songs of his people”: which was very well received, because it represented a tradition and a belonging, even if the words he sang were totally foreign to listeners. This example demonstrates a conception of the landscape as a repository of memory, and a nexus that unites the divine with the human, as the women of the community assumed the role of intermediaries in this relationship. Which was broken when the god decided to inhabit the mountain, but which is maintained and fed through rituals, memory, songs, oral tradition and the daily behaviors of community members, delimited by rules and superstitions.

A typical house and traditional beehives in Malikarjun. All credits: Alex Greene.

On the other hand, the British anthropologist David Gellner (2020) defends and explains, based both on his fieldwork and on the texts that he has been writing and compiling over the years on Nepal and various Nepalese diaspora communities spread around the world, how religion(s) (religious practices, movements, rituals, and sentiments) continue to be considered, by most Nepalis, as a valid and, perhaps, the most salient way of targeting and talking about their suffering in the world. Despite the fact that Nepal is officially a secular state. A little contextualization is in order here: the multi-secular Nepalese monarchy fell (already during this century) marked by the murder of multiple members of the royal house, by the heir to the Nepalese throne himself. This “national trauma” was followed by ten years of civil war, and continued political instability, which persists to this day – including Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist factions in dispute with a Congress Party of Indian affiliations, often in tension with the national sovereignty (by granting multiple strategic resources to neighboring India, which controls the country’s supply, and periodically closes the border as a form of political blackmail).

Nepal is a state that has become secular, more in the Indian sense of the term than in the French sense – that is, secular in the sense of different religions living together and coexisting, preferably peacefully, in society and politics, with or without the hegemony of just one of them. It is a state where traditional priests and astrologers continue to guide many of the decisions of politicians, such as those of ethnic groups themselves (where they hold top hierarchical positions), families, and individuals (who are often guided by dates, names suggested, and instructions provided by traditional astrologers). However, researchers in Nepal tend to consider that the country’s secularization, both in the sense of declining religious belief and declining individual practice, has not occurred (or it has not yet occurred).

A typical tulsi shrine in a yard in Malikarjun. All credits: Alex Greene.

On the contrary: they assume that the enduring prevalence of religious interpretations in the Nepalese society continues to be evidenced in everyday life, in the relationship between human beings and the surrounding landscape, in the interpretations of events, in the way how human relationships are built and managed, in the social reaction to extraordinary events, such as disasters and catastrophes (which highlight human fragility, and even the fragility of earthly constructions, but also the importance of permanent reconstruction and the collectivist solidarity that it calls for or, symbolically, the relevance of cultural resilience and identity). In the wake of the connection to Christian concepts that we proposed before, it is interesting to draw a parallel with the multiple invitations to prayer that Pope Francis has made, following catastrophes or natural phenomena (e.g. Covid-19 pandemic, drought, etc.), in the sense of asking for divine intervention (to help humanity or the affected communities).

David Gellner (2020) presents, as examples of this, the various explanations and interpretations given for the devastating earthquakes that affected Nepal during the year of 2015 (they were followed by a very serious humanitarian crisis, which affected millions of children, and a unilateral border closure by neighboring India, that prevented fuel and food from reaching Nepal). Among the multiple religious and mythological explanations offered at the time, there were reflections about the collective karma of Nepalis, reports circulating about how the little goddess Kumari had protected her home and her relatives during the disaster, rumors that earthquakes resulted from a blood sacrifice, or even that people had not pulled the chariot of the god Bungadyo (also known as Matsyendranath, or Karunamaya) as they should have, which eventually had triggered the catastrophe (Gellner, 2020: 4-5).

Malikarjun Naula: one of the sacred springs where women collect water to be used during the Gaura Festival. All credits: Alex Greene.

These explanations and theses circulated in the society peacefully, and without any friction – coexisting naturally with scientific data from seismologists and interviews with engineers specializing in anti-seismic constructions on national television, politicians’ press conferences, and food or fundraising, tent field pitches, or other actions carried out by locally present NGOs and by the Nepali diaspora (which immediately dedicated itself to disaster relief activities, demonstrating a unique solidarity). Furthermore, following the earthquakes, various religious rituals gained prominence within the Nepalese society, representing a way for people to deal with (or assimilate and work through) the natural disasters they had survived to.

These rituals had a relationship with the solidity of constructions and buildings, with the connection between human beings and the landscape they inhabit, with their ancestors or, even, with safety within the means of transport most used by the population, such as motorcycles, rickshaws, and public buses. Gellner thus demonstrates the fundamental role that religion plays in the lives of most Nepalis in the 21st century – as a way of questioning and elaborating their experiences of suffering in the world. We could, on the other hand, argue that the same still happens in some Western societies, more specifically in the Portuguese society, when thousands of people, in the face of a natural disaster (despite the scientific explanations) resort, for example, to Our Lady of Fátima.

However, it is up to us to question, given the “westernization” of the habits of the younger Nepali generations, how long will the optimistic “non-secularization” of the country, mentioned by most researchers, be maintained. After all, satellite television arrived several decades ago (with broadcasters such as CNN International and the BBC inside the homes of the new middle class in the country), all Nepali families have emigration experiences (those even confer ascending social status in the Nepal), smartphones and the use of the English language are current, as well as daily contacts with a Western-type secularized mentality, through tourism and business. From this point of view, the “balance” achieved by many Nepalis between maintaining a “proud” cultural identity, traditional or “modernized and adapted” religious practices, and living with Western-style secularity is impressive. Without becoming assimilated nor giving up practice or beliefs.

Shree Shailya Shikhar Malikarjun Temple 2.

The caste system (deeply associated with the hierarchy proposed by certain religious systems such as Hinduism) was officially abolished in Nepal in 1963, yet it continues to determine the social salience of priests and astrologers, many educational opportunities, as well as the access to political representation and socio-economic status of much of the Nepalese population – even though there are repeated efforts to compensate for these inequalities. However, the malleability of rituals and practices, as well as the naturalness with which Nepalis integrate religious sentiments into their ethnic cultures, and in the elaboration of their life experiences along with contemporary scientific knowledge, does not cease to surprise Westerners.

Although we know that religion continues, today, to have a great impact on the ways how people live and interpret reality (e.g. not to mention Christianity, the millions of Hindus and especially Muslims who configure their lives through religious “prescriptions”). Finally, it seems curious to me to note that the fact that earthquakes have a natural connection to the local terrain and geography, to the mountains of the Himalayan Range to the North demonstrates, once again, how the landscape can be a repository of memory, and the nexus that unites the divine to the human – either by the graces granted or via the punishments suffered – in the subjective, but also very objective and materialized, palpable experience of the majority of the Nepalese population.     

  • I thank for the generous revision by António Oliveira, Postdoc fellow IHD.   

*Please find the portuguese translation on the next page

*Para a tradução portuguesa da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página


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Alexandra Pereira (2023, 20 Março). Relationship Between the Divine and Nature in Nepal – the Malikarjun Case. Desenvolvimento Humano Integral. Recuperado em 22 de Maio de 2024, de

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