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Nepal reinstates Indian priests

world Updated: Jan 08, 2009 12:25 IST

Nepal's Maoist prime minister has temporarily reinstated a group of sacked Indian priests at the Himalayan nation's holiest Hindu shrine after protests forced riot police to intervene.

The secular Maoists, who run the country after winning elections last year, ended centuries of tradition last week when they replaced the Indians with Nepalese priests.

But Prime Minister Prachanda told the national assembly late on Wednesday that he had ordered officials "to manage normal worship at the temple by the same Indian priests for the time being."

Riot police were deployed at the temple on the banks of the Bagmati river in Kathmandu after local priests and their supporters launched heated protests against the Maoists.

The move to reinstate the Indian priests was greeted with jubilation.

"This decision is a victory for us," Om Shiva Raj Bhandari, one of the priests protesting against the changes, told AFP. "The new appointments were made illegally and without consulting local priests."

But the reprieve for the Indian priests appeared to be only temporary and the temple trust would soon look for replacements, the Maoist-appointed treasurer of the temple trust told AFP.

"We will begin debates with religious experts to decide the criteria for applications," said Ganesh Prasad Adhikari.

Adhikari said the plan to replace the Indian priests was an attempt to clear up concerns about the handling of cash donations to the temple, which attracts one million pilgrims a year.

"Our idea was not to attack an age-old tradition, we were just trying to make things more transparent," he said.

"In the past the offerings left by devotees were never made public. We have broken this tradition. In the last seven days we have collected an average of 650 dollars per day."

Many devout Nepalese Hindus aim to spend their last days or hours at Pashupati and then be swiftly cremated, with their burning funeral pyres pushed in the river.

Subarna Baidya, an ayurvedic (holistic) doctor who works at Pashupati checking bodies before cremation, said that the Maoists had ignored the history of the temple, which is a UN world heritage site.

"Those Indians were from a caste that had been conducting rituals for centuries, but they were not even consulted over the decision," said Baidya, 60.

"The Maoists have their own financial interests in the temple."

The proposed changes caused concern in India where LK Advani, the head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called the treatment of the Indian priests "shabby and totally unprovoked."