Kathmandu, Feb 16 (IANS) Hanuman Baba rummages through the pockets of his voluminous saffron robe and fishes out, wonder of wonders, a cellphone. It has international roaming facilities and he proceeds to speak to a devotee in the United States.
Hi-tech has reached even the ascetics of Nepal, the holy men who lead a life of renunciation, leaving homes and families and living on charity.
The mobile-phone wielding mendicant, who's among the thousands of people gathered at Kathmandu's famed Pashupatinath temple to celebrate Shivaratri, the festival of Hindu god Shiva, the lord of all mendicants, is one tiny image that is proof that the times are changin' in the Himalayan kingdom.
Nepal is no longer the only Hindu kingdom in the world. It was declared a secular state by its newly resurrected parliament last year. This year, the Pashupati Area Development Trust, that is entrusted with the upkeep of the temple, has departed from several old traditions.
Out of deference to conservation efforts, it has stopped providing tiger and deerskins to the sadhus (ascetics) living on the temple premises for the festival.
With the new government being the result of a pro-democracy movement, this year the trust has also stopped the custom of issuing passes to the privileged which allowed them to bypass the serpentine queues and offer their prayers immediately on arrival.
Also, for the first time in the history of the temple, things will not come to a standstill upon the arrival of members of the royal family.
Earlier, when it was time for the king, queen and other royals to make their appearance, traffic would be halted for hours and devotees stopped from entering the temple till the royal worship was over.
However, this time, with King Gyanendra no longer in power and popularity, Trust officials have decided to allow other devotees to offer their worship at the same time, though at different gates due to security reasons.
There is unprecedented security this year with royalists announcing their plan to lead a march of naked sages from India on the capital's main roads a day after Shivaratri.
A former army general and aide de camp to the palace, Bharat Keshar Simha, who heads the World Hindu Federation, a Kathmandu-based hindutva organisation that supported King Gyanendra's coup two years ago, has announced the march to the prime minister's office Sunday to demand the restoration of Nepal's unique status as a Hindu kingdom.
There was rising concern following the announcement that the march would degenerate into violence and create a serious law and order problem in the capital. To prevent untoward incidents, the government has deployed police, armed police and a limited number of army soldiers.
While the Trust had been expecting the arrival of over 400,000 devotees from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries, pilgrims were blocked by bad weather Wednesday, with it snowing in Kathmandu after 62 years.
To add to their difficulties, Kathmandu valley and parts of the Terai plains in the south were paralysed by a general strike Thursday, called by ethnic protesters who want the new constitution to be amended before elections are held in June.