NEPAL: Yogmaya Neupane: Nepal's First Female Revolutionary

Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Southern Asia
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She gave voice to the voiceless -- women, lower castes, the exploited -- when the entire country cowered to Rana rulers. She married thrice when widow marriage was an unpardonable offense.

She confronted rulers in person demanding dharma-rajya (good governance). She was jailed for attempting immolation as a sign of protest against the regime, thereby becoming the first woman in the country known to have been jailed for political beliefs.

And on July 14, 1941 -- when aged between 73 to 81 -- she threw herself into the Arun River to bring shame to the regime. Sixty-seven of her disciples followed suit. The bodies were never found.

For seventy years since the country´s biggest mass suicide, Yogmaya Neupane´s story has languished in obscurity. Even in her home district, Bhojpur, she was little more than a myth.

But what was just a popular myth until ten years ago is now increasingly being established as a fact, according to Professor Michael Hutt, who on Tuesday presented an outline of Yogmaya´s biography in an attempt to establish facts of her life.

“She was born between 1860 and 1868 in Simle, Bhojpur. There are still 14 Neupane households in the village. All are very clear about Yogmaya´s place in their lineage,” said Hutt, Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Makings of a Rebel

According to facts presented by Hutt, Yogmaya, whose given name was Mayadevi, was the only daughter of her parents, who also had two sons younger to her.

She was married to a Koirala boy when she was aged between five and nine. The boy died soon after marriage. Following traditions prevalent back then, Yogmaya was thereafter considered inauspicious by her in-laws. She spent several difficult years with them until finally fleeing to her Maiti (maternal home) after deciding to reject the unhappy fate of a widow. Her parents informed her in-laws that she was with them. But the in-laws weren´t interested in taking her back.

What followed was Yogmaya´s first serious attack on social traditions. She eloped with a Brahmin boy to Assam. But her second husband also died, and she married yet again. She is believed to have given birth to a daughter from her third marriage.

Between 1903 and 1916, Yogmaya renounced the institution of marriage, traveled to holy places and returned to her home district to lead the life of an ascetic. For the rest of her life, she was a permanent resident of Majuwabesi, Bhojpur, where she set up an ashram and observed extreme austerity.

She is believed to have meditated in a cave, naked and without food, for months. Wrapped in just a single piece of cloth, she had the appearance of a man.

Word spread of the powers she was believed to have been blessed with in reward for leading an austere life and she earned hundreds of disciples who called her Shakti Hajoor and Shakti Maya. Many of her followers were from the dalit community.

Challenging Ranas

Yogmaya, whose utterances are carefully yet incompletely preserved in Sarvartha Yogbani published from Assam after her death, condemned caste discrimination and corrupt Brahmins, moneylenders, jagirdars, and the rulers.

She sent petitions to Bir Shumsher, Chandra Shumsher and Juddha Shumsher demanding alms and dharma-rajya. She warned the rulers that apocalypse was near for them.

In 1936, she traveled to the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu where Juddha Shumsher came seeking blessings from her. She is believed to have demanded from him, “Truth! Dharma! Alms!”

The demands are interpreted today primarily as those for good governance and privileges that only male ascetics were entitled to back then.

Juddha Shumsher is believed to have assured her that the demands would be met.

But the assurance didn´t translate into action and Yogmaya, along with 204 of her followers, most of them Brahmins, made plans for mass immolation in order to put the weight of the deaths on the ruler´s conscience. Before they could commit immolation, they were arrested and jailed in Dhankuta and Bhojpur. Yogmaya was released four months later.

After being convinced that reforms weren´t forthcoming, Yogmaya and her 67 followers hurled themselves into a raging Arun River in their final act of rebellion on July 14, 1941.

They are believed to have hollered while taking the plunge, “May the unjust Rana government be destroyed! May dharma be established!”

Seventy years after the mass sacrifice, Yogmaya´s statue was unveiled in Bhojpur on March 8, 2011, to mark the International Women´s Day. Feminists owned her as the first among them in the country. It was a latest bead in the thread that is leading to her iconization as Nepal´s first female revolutionary.

“My plea to Nepal´s historians and social scholars is for further research,” said Hutt. “How did she not appear in standard history of Nepal for sixty years?”