Nepal Martyrs Day

January 29

The small kingdom of Nepal, nestled between two giants, India and China, has miraculously managed to maintain its sovereignty through internal struggles and bloody power plays lasting over 200 years. The latest of which, in 2001, resulted in the violent deaths of the entire Nepalese Royal Family.

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Today the Nepalese remember four martyrs who protested the rule of the Rana dictatorship in 1951: Dharma Bhakta Mathema, Dashrath Chand, Gangalal Shrestha, and Shukraraj Shastri.

The Rana came to power in 1846, when the Queen attempted to assert control over a powerful military leader named Jung Bahadur and his six brothers. Bahadur won the battle against the Queen’s forces and forced the King to hand the throne over to the Crown Prince.

Badahur placed the royal family under house arrest and ensured his progeny’s place by marrying off his daughter to the king’s son. Badahur was known as the first of the “Rana.”

Jung Bahadur, 1877
Jung Bahadur, 1877

Bahadur traveled to England to strengthen British-Nepalese relations and commissioned the codification of Nepal’s civil and criminal law, limiting corporal punishment and banning torture.

But he also killed many aristocratic opponents, and filled the Assembly of Lords with his own family and followers, effectively making himself dictator.

The power system that Bahadur established would haunt Nepal for a century as leadership passed between Bahadur’s feuding brothers and nephews. (After his death, Bahadur’s own sons were all killed or forced into exile by his nephew.)

Rani Royal Family, ca. 1920

The Rana dictatorship maintained the puppet monarchy. Tensions reached a peak in 1950 when the pro-democratic King Tribhuvan sneaked out of Nepal with his family to India. In his absence the Rana replaced the King with Tribhuvan’s three year-old grandson Gyranendra, the only male heir left in the kingdom.

The British refused to recognize the new king, and a successful public revolt forced the last Rana prime minister to resign in 1951. The four martyrs who are remembered today were killed during this time period. King Tribhuvan reassumed the throne as a constitutional monarch.

Fifty years later (June 1, 2001) Nepal’s King Birendra had an argument with his son, Crown Prince Dipendra, during a dinner event at the Nepalese Royal Palace. According to witnesses Dipendra was drunk and “misbehaving,” and was escorted to his room by his brothers.

Later that evening the 29 year-old Eton-educated Crown Prince reappeared, this time with an assault rifle. He went on a horrific shooting rampage, killing his father the King, his mother the Queen, his brother, sister, uncle, aunts, cousin, and brother-in-law, as well as wounding five other members of the royal family, before turning the gun on himself.

Crown Prince Dipendra
Crown Prince Dipendra

With the royal family gone, Birendra’s brother Gynendra, who had been crowned at age three, reassumed the throne after 50 years of absence. He was out of town during the dinner; his wife, sister, and cousin had all been shot at the massacre, but survived.

King Gyanendra dissolved parliament, dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, then proceeded to appoint and dismiss two more Prime Ministers before taking over the country as absolute monarch in 2005. According to one Nepalese citizen:

“When the king took over all the power, the situation got worse because there were three parties fighting against each other – the King, the political parties and the so-called Maoists.

“Maoists had already been declared as domestic terrorists, so they were killing people, looting them, and even attacking the police offices and the army barracks all over the country.

“Right now the situation is getting worse and worse everyday. People are dying everyday in demonstrations. Last week there was a news that some local people were demonstrating in front of a police officer residence, and the officer started firing randomly which killed like 5 people and injured about 100. In the rural parts of the country, the Maoists are killing people everywhere.”

originally at (link no longer valid)

After massive unrest and international protest, King Gyanendra reinstated the parliament, which wasted no time stripping him of power. The Maoist Party won the largest number of seats in the April 2008 election. The following month the Assembly abolished the monarchy.

Gyanendra was the last king of Nepal, a dynasty that dated back to 1769 when King Prithvi Narayan Shah united the Kingdom.

Though originally remembered for the deaths of the Four Martyrs of 1951, the flow of Martyrs in Nepal has never stopped. Over 13,000 Nepalese were killed in the fighting between 1996 and 2006.


Nepal Mourns Slain King

Massacre Witness Blames Crown Prince

Hundreds Pay Respect to Martyers

Martyrs Day Observed

Arba’een – Iraq

Date varies. January 14, 2012

Shia Muslims finish the trek to Hussein Mosque in Karbala

This week an estimated 9 million people gathered in the city of Karbala to remember the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the holiest figures of Islam since its founder.

Forty days ago Shiite Muslims began a period of remembrance for the third Imam, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE.

After being released from captivity, surviving followers of Imam Hussein

“headed towards Karbala so that they could revisit the graves of their loved ones and bury the heads of the Martyrs with the bodies. They arrived at the site of the graves and the battle of Karbala on the twentieth of Safar, or forty days after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his followers.”

Arba’een means 40. It’s a sacred length of time in Islam.

The Qu’ran recalls the story Moses (Musa) and his forty nights away from the people to hear the word of God. [2:51]  Muhammad said,

“Whoever dedicates himself to God for forty days, will find springs of wisdom sprout out of his heart and flow on his tongue.”

The holiday this year appears to be remarkably free of violence, considering the 9 million visitors that streamed from all parts of the country. In 2004 simultaneous bombings targeted pilgrims observing Arba’een; the attacks killed 170.

“I came to Karbala with my family and children after walking for 12 days,” says one pilgrim from Basra, “We were not afraid of terrorists…We have been taking risks and if we die we will be martyrs.”

Karbala Crowded With 9 Million Pilgrims
Why 40 Days of Mourning Arbaeen of Iman Hussein?

Maghi – Festival of the 40 Immortals – Sikhism

January 13


Over three hundred years ago the tenth and last (human) Guru of the Sikhs led his army in an historic battle against the Mughal Emperor.

But today’s holiday, Maghi Mela, actually honors the 40 followers who deserted the Guru before the fight.

At the Battle of Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh’s men were besieged by the Mughal army. The Mughal Empire covered over 3 million square kilometers and had a population of over 120 million people.

Forty of the Guru’s men deserted him at Anandpur. Guru Gobind Singh had to retreat from Anandpur and most of his army was destroyed in the attack that followed.

When the 40 deserters returned home, their wives and families shunned them for desertion. Ashamed, the men–led by warrior woman Mai Bhago–decided to set back out to join their badly-outnumbered Guru, now in Khidrana Ki Dhab.

As the Mughal army approached Gobind Singh’s camp, they encountered the 40 former deserters. In the Battle of Muktsar all 40 warriors were killed, but the Mughal army met such heavy casualties they were forced to retreat.

Guru Gobind Singh

Guru Gobind Singh post-humously forgave the former deserters and granted them eternal Chali Mukte–liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth and all human suffering. The site became known as Muktsar, the “tank of salvation.”

The Guru died less than three years later, but outlived his nemesis, the Sultan Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb had beheaded Gobind Singh’s father, the previous Guru, 30 years earlier for refusing to convert to Islam.

Both Gobind Singh and Aurangzeb were the last of their kinds.

The Mughal Empire declined after Aurangzeb’s death. He had ruled for half a century and was considered the last great Mughal ruler. He was succeeded by Bahadur Shah I, who reached a brief alliance with the Gobind Singh before the Guru’s death.

Guru Gobind Singh meanwhile declared that he would be succeeded not by a person, but by the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, the writings of the ten Gurus of Sikhism. By taking the revolutionary step, Gobind Singh made the Guru immortal. Henceforth Sikhism could be guided by eternal principles instead of dependent on a mortal leader.

The site of the famous battle at Muktsar is now the centerpoint of Maghi Mela, the January 13 remembrance of the 40 Immortals.

Muktsar, site of the famous battle

In the 20th century the Sikh people have faced new, yet similar challenges. According to a 1994 study the Sikh people only make up less than 2% of the Indian population but account for 20% of the Indian Army’s officers, and 10-15% of all ranks.

Yet in 1984 a controversial Indian military operation, code-named Bluestar, killed the Sikh extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and hundreds of his followers, who had declared an independent Sikh state. In retaliation two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. This in turn led to the Anti-Sikh Riots which killed 3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi alone.

In North America Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims because of their tradition dress, turban, and beards, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Four days after 9/11 a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona (Balbir Singh Sodhi) was gunned down as he helped a landscaper plant flowers around his Chevron station. The racist murderer claimed to have killed Sodhi because of his turban “in retaliation” for the attacks.

Raud the Strong

January 9

Viking ship

Far north in the Salten Fiord
By rapine, fire and sword
Lives the Viking, Raud the Strong;
All the Godoe Isles belong
To him and his heathen horde…

With rites that we both abhor
He worships Odin and Thor
So it cannot yet be said
That all the old gods are dead
And the warlocks are no more…

Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When King Olaf Tryggvason came to power in 998 he converted the Norwegian population to Christianity Viking style; by…

“looting and burning Pagan temples and compelling community after community to be baptized or die, taking hostages to enforce continued Christian observance.”
A History of Pagan Europe, by Prudence Jones

Despite these persuasive efforts, many of the Vikings were reluctant to renounce their Gods and accept Jesus as their savior. New and increasingly painful tortures and executions were devised by King Olaf and his men.

The seer Thorlief had his eye torn out. Eyvind Kinnrifi was tortured with a brazier of hot coals on his stomach. Other pagans were beheaded with an axe, mutilated, drown, or burned alive along with their residences.

But the most innovative torture developed was reserved for a landowner, leader-priest and sea-farer known as Raud the Strong. Raud the Strong was known for his beautiful longship, a boat larger than any of the King’s, with a dragon’s head crafted into the bow.

When Raud the Strong refused to renounce Thor and Odin, King Olaf’s men inserted a poisonous snake into a long metal horn. The horn was then rammed down Raud’s throat and the end of it was heated with a flame, forcing the snake to wriggle down Raud’s esophagus.

Longfellow waxes poetically on the scene. After Raud refuses King Olaf’s offer…

Then between his jaws distended
When his frantic struggles ended
Through King Olaf’s horn an adder,
Touched by fire, they forced to glide.

Sharp his tooth was as an arrow
As he gnawed through bone and marrow;
But without a groan or shudder,
Raud the Strong blaspheming died.

Then baptized they all that region,
Swarthy Lap and fair Norwegian,
Far as swims the salmon, leaping
Up the streams of Salten Fiord.

In their temples Thor and Odin
Lay in dust and ashes trodden,
As King Olaf, onward sweeping,
Preached the Gospel with his sword

After Raud’s death King Olaf seized Raud’s beautiful ship, and supposedly copied the design. According to legend this is how the famous Viking ships got their distinct shape.

How Asatru’s observe Raud the Strong Day, I don’t know. But it is not by shoving horns with snakes down Christians’ throats.


December 15, 2011

Battle of Karbala

Ashura (aka Ashoura) means 10th. Ashura falls on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the New Year. Fasting, though not obligatory during Muharram, is highly encouraged on this date.

Ashura is observed by both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims throughout the world, although for varying reasons. These differences give insight to the both commonalities and the conflicts between the two branches of Islam.

Ashura is one of the most sacred days of the year for Shi’a Muslims, who commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala. The battle took place on Muharram 10, 61 AH, or October 10th 680 CE in what is now Iraq.

Hussein was the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Hussein and over a hundred of his followers, many of whom were family of Muhammad, were slain in the Battle of Karbala.

Hussein is the third Imam of Islam for the Shi’a Muslims.

In the immediate wake of the passing of Muhammad, disagreement arose as to the true successor of Muhammad, and two groups solidified.

The larger group elected the Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and close companion, citing among other things, Muhammad’s asking of Abu Bakr to lead prayers at mosque shortly before his death. These followers became the Sunni. They felt that election was the accepted way of deciding leadership at that time, and that Muhammad would have agreed to this, or would have left no doubt as to his successor.

But the election took place without the participation of key members of Muhammad’s family, including his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali, who were preparing Muhammad’s body for burial. This smaller group believed Muhammad chose Ali as successor, citing as partial evidence a speech Muhammad made at Ghadir Khumm:

“Of whomsoever I am the mawla, Ali is his mawla.”

Mawla means “friend,” but it can also mean “master” or “protector.”

Also, the Shi’a believed that since the prophet Muhammad was appointed by God and God alone, his legacy was passed on by blood, not by the elections and factions of men.

In the 24 years between Muhammad’s death (632 CE) and Hussein’s ascension to Caliph, three Caliphs ruled the Islamic empire: Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.

Under their reigns the Empire spread from Arabia to what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East, to Turkey and Georgia in the North, and to southern Spain and northern Morocco in the West.

(Islamic Empire under Caliph Uthman, 656 CE)

Uthman’s reign was the longest, lasting just over a decade. In 656 CE Muslim rebels laid siege to his palace and killed the Caliph. What follows is one of the most hotly debated aspects of all Islam.

Uthman was succeeded by the son-in-law of Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib. Initially Ali is reported to have initially refused the Caliphate, but he eventually accepted.

Aisha, a wife of Muhammad and daughter of the first Caliph Abu Bakr, believed Ali let Uthman’s killers off the hook too easily and raised an army to overthrow Ali. This did not succeed, but increased tensions between the two factions.

Around this time Muawiyah I, governor of Syria appointed by Umar, refused to acknowledge Ali as the new Caliph. Muawiyah had been the son of a powerful family controlling Mecca in the days of Muhammad. Ali doubted his piety, for Muawiyah had converted to Islam only when it was politically advantageous to do so. Muawiyah rebelled against Ali in what is known as the first Fitna, or Muslim Civil War. A truce was reached, but when Ali appointed one of Uthman’s suspected killers to be governor of Egypt, Muawiyah invaded Egypt and assumed authority.

In 661 CE the first Imam Ali was killed by the poisoned sword of a Kharijite. By this time Muawiyah, as ruler of Syria and Egypt, was the most power man in the Empire. He forced Ali’s oldest son, Hasan, to step down as the new Caliph.

When Muawiyah died in 680 CE (60 AH) he appointed his son Yazid as Caliph. This was the first time the Caliphate had been passed from father to son.

Which brings us to Hussein ibn Ali. Hasan’s younger brother. Hussein refused to acknowledge Yazid as ruler and mounted a campaign against him.

Meanwhile rebellion broke out against Yazid in Kufa. Yazid’s forces squashed the rebellion.

Hussein, unaware of this, set out for Kufa with a band of followers numbering between 108 and 136. He expected to be greeted with support in Kufa, but encountered Yazid’s troops, led by Umar ibn Sa’ad near the city of Karbala.

It was on the tenth day of Muharram that Hussein ibn Ali and all his supporters were killed by overwhelming forces.

In the aftermath of the battle the news of Hussein’s death solidified the Shi’a people against the Umayyad dynasty.

Hediah Ghavidel of Press TV, Tehran wrote:

“Many westerners do not understand why it is that Shia Muslims mourn the martyred Imam Hussein as though the event did not occur a thousand years ago but as if it happened as recently as yesterday.”

Today Shi’a Muslims around the world are united in their view of Yazid as a force of evil.

Many Sunni join them in this depiction. However, Sunni are divided. And in addition to remembering the death of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, Sunni observe Ashura for additional reasons. According to tradition, the 10th of Muharram is the anniversary of the date:

  1. God created the earth
  2. Adam and Eve were banished from Heaven, or the Garden,
  3. Noah, or Nuh, stepped off the ark onto Mt. Judi
  4. God saved Moses, or Musa from the Egyptian Pharaoh
  5. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were born

The origin of the establishment of Ashura for all these dates is unlcear. In his journeys Muhammad observed the Jews celebrating the tenth of Muharram as a day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Today, both Sunni and Shi’a mourn the tragedy of the death of the grandson of Muhammad, and Ashura is commemorated in different ways by the one-billion-plus followers of Islam.

In Flirting and Flag-Waving: the Revealing Study of Holidays and Rituals, Atimai Etzioni observes:

“I had long been deeply impressed by the religious fervor of hundreds of thousands of Iranians whom newsreels in the 1980s showed marching in the streets, flagellating themselves with heavy-duty, Hydra-headed whips, drawing blood to commemorate the martyrdom of Iman Hossein in 683 CE. When I found myself in Shiraz on the memorial day Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day after the martyr’s death, I heard that self-flagellations were about to take place down the road, and I rushed there with my camera and notebook. What I found was a well-stylized dance. Young men were eagerly stepping in a circle to the tune of pleasant, if repetitive, music, gently waving slight whips, with which they symbolically touched their well-covered backsides. They did not even work up a sweat, much less draw blood.

Ashura in Pakistan – 1/19/2008

Ashura Procession Bangladesh – 1/20/2008

Ashura: – 1/19/2008

Pearls of a Muslim – Day of Ashura 1/15/2008

Virtues of the Month of Muharram and Fasting – 1/17/2008

Al-Ghuraba – Muharram

[post originally written January 2008]