Young Girls Leverage a Hindu Belief to Earn Money Begging at Popular Temple

Parents send their young daughters to beg on the grounds of Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. That’s a common way for poor families to earn extra money because Hindus believe it is auspicious to give money or receive blessings from pre-pubescent girls.

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Young Girls Leverage a Hindu Belief to  Earn Money Begging at Popular Temple

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

People throw money and silver jewelry into the Bagmati River as offerings to the gods. When the water is low, children search for the coins and jewelry.

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL  — It’s only 8 a.m. on a Saturday, but Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, is already filling up with people. Smoke from incense merges with the winter fog as devotees walk through the courtyard, praying at various shrines.

A group of five young girls huddles in one corner near the temple entrance.

The girls are at the temple to beg for money, and the sharp eyes of Neelam Giri, 11, spot a potential target. She points to a woman in a red blouse who is walking toward her 8-year-old sister, Shilam.

“Beg some money from her,” Neelam instructs her sister. “Hurry, go and beg!”

Shilam approaches the woman.

“Sister, please give me some money, and the god will repay it to you later,” Shilam says in a pleading tone.

But the woman uses her elbow to roughly shove Shilam and walks on. Shilam returns to the group, crestfallen.

Children, especially young girls, have been begging at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu as far back as people here can remember. They bless people and sometimes mark the person’s forehead with ochre powder. In return, they receive money.

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Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Many of the families who earn their living from begging at the Pashupatinath Temple live in makeshift homes along the banks of the Bagmati river.

Devotees here believe that pre-pubescent girls are auspicious. Receiving a blessing from them brings good fortune, so parents send their daughters to the temple to beg. For some families, the money the girls earn at the temple is a primary source of income.

The Pashupatinath Temple is among the seven monuments in Kathmandu Valley which are together recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The main Pashupatinath Temple building was undamaged by the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Devotees believe it was protected by Shiva, the god to whom the temple is dedicated. Many other buildings, shrines and small temples in the Pashupatinath Temple compound were completely or partially damaged.

Located on the banks of the Bagmati River on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the temple draws devotees from Nepal and India. It is also a popular tourist attraction.

Around 160 children begged for gifts and offered blessings in the Pashupatinath Temple premises in 2014, says Govinda Tandan, member secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, a state-run organization that manages the operations of the Pashupatinath Temple complex.

The trust carried out an informal survey to identify the number of children, which they saw was on the rise.

Hindus believe young girls are incarnations of Devi and Lakshmi, two goddesses in the Hindu religion, Tandan says.

“Small girls are kept in Pashupatinath premises to beg on auspicious days like Mondays and religious festivals like Shivaratri,” Tandan says.

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Durga Bhandari, 40, and her husband Satrudhan Sijapati, 60, gave a sweater to Bina Kumari Das, 10, during a visit to Pashupatinath Temple. Pre-pubescent girls are believed to represent Hindu goddesses, so giving them gifts is considered auspicious.

Krishna Thapa, 35, gives money in return for receiving a blessing from a man dressed as Lord Hanuman at the Pashupatinath Temple. Some adults who beg at the temple dress as various gods to earn money by blessing people.

Hindu priests come to Pashupatinath Temple to facilitate rituals, worship offerings, funerals or any other religious activity required by the devotees who visit the temple.

Sushila Giri, 43, cooks the mid-day meal with help from her elder daughter, Neelam. They often eat rice given to them by temple devotees who visit Pashupatinath Temple early in the morning. Giri says she is forced to send her daughters to beg in the temple because the family has no other means of income.

Shilam Giri, 8, relaxes by watching cartoons on TV, she says. "I feel tired after begging for two hours. It’s a long time,” she says. “That’s why I like to enjoy by watching cartoons at home.” (Shilam Giri is not related to Arati Giri.)

Giri, 8, is a student at Ketaaketi SPOWC Free School in Kathmandu. She earns about 100 rupees (97 cents) a day from begging at Pashupatinath Temple. “I beg money to buy the stationary for my studies, because my mother can't afford extra stationary for me and my sister," she says. Her teacher, Yadu Sigdel, says Shilam tops her class. “She has a very sharp mind and she is very hard working in her studies,” Sigdel says.

Bina Kumari Das, 10, gives money she received while begging to her mother, Urmila Das, 40, who is also begging at the Pashupatinath Temple. Bina Kumari begs at the temple for three hours each morning.

The Pashupatinath Temple compound is located in Gaushala in Kathmandu city. Children beg outside the main temple area, but are not allowed inside the temple shrines.

Mina Giri, 10, in pink jacket, smiles, saying she has earned around 100 rupees (97 cents) from two hours of begging at the temple. That’s better than average, she says.

Arati Giri, left, and Neelam Giri, in green jacket, beg from visitors at the Pashupatinath Temple.

Arati Giri, 11 (in blue hat), is joined by other girls when she discusses her earnings with her mother, Gita Devi Giri, in yellow sari. The girls have formed a tight-knit group with an agreed code of conduct. Each girl begs in a certain area of the temple, and they respect one another’s areas. Sometimes they work as a group, allowing temple visitors to believe they are sisters.

Parents send the girls on those days with hope that they’ll come home with extra money.

Monday is an auspicious day at Pashupatinath Temple because it is believed to be Shiva’s favorite day. Maha Shivaratri is an annual festival, considered a holy day of the Hindus.

The temple compound is filled with children begging on these auspicious days, Tandan says.

“This is the reason why we have barred them from entering inside the temple to beg money,” he says.

The guards at the temple are authorized to chase away children who beg at the temple, but it’s a difficult rule to enforce, Tandan says.

Some of the devotees who visit the temple believe that giving money or gifts to the children is part of their worship and gifts to Shiva, says Durga Bhandari, 40, who regularly worships at Pashupatinath Temple.

She often makes ritual offerings and donates alms to bless her husband with a long life. On a visit to the temple in December 2015, she distributed clothes and money, totaling around 15,000 rupees ($146), Bhandari says.

“Donating to the pre-pubescent brings sweet fruit and wealth as a blessing from God,” she says.

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Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Prakash Sapkota, 17, sells garlands made of marigolds at Pashupatinath Temple. Devotees buy the garlands for worship rituals and funeral ceremonies. "It is better to work and earn, rather than beg," he says.

Bhandari says she always visits Pashupatinath Temple on Mondays.

But others want a better life for these children.

Welcome To My Yard, which works with children who live on the streets in Nepal, began providing free classes for the children begging in Pashupatinath Temple in October 2015.

Mandira Chaulagain, 25, is one of three social workers from Welcome To My Yard who works with the children from Pashupatinath. They teach English and computer literacy to 26 children in after-school classes held in Pingalasthan area, near the temple.

They began the classes because they realized the children were begging at the temple to earn money to go to school, and they wanted to help them improve their educational skills, Chaulagain says.

Tandan says the temple authorities are not able to provide for these children or their families.

“It’s not possible to support all the poor families coming inside the Pashupati temple areas,” he says.

Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.