As an outcry rose in both Nepal and India over the attack on two Indian priests at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, the opposition Maoist party that was being blamed for the violence, on Saturday distanced itself from the issue, saying interference in religious matters was against its policy.
Soon after Nepal's Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal publicly held the former insurgents responsible for the assault and public humiliation of the priests on Friday, former Maoist minister and chief of the party's foreign affairs Krishna Bahadur Mahara issued a statement terming the turmoil a people's programme in which his party had no involvement.
The Maoist MP said the party's attention had been drawn to the media reports in Nepal and abroad saying his party was involved in the temple attack.
"Everyone knows that Nepalis have been demanding the appointment of Nepali priests for a long time," the statement said. "It is also known that the public formed a struggle committee on its own to oppose the recent appointment of two priests by the government.
"We respect people's religious faith and we also respect people's right to support or oppose any issue. We appeal to everyone not to attribute an independent mass movement to our party in a biased way."
As demonstrators went on the warpath over the appointment of new Indian priests at the hallowed temple and began raising anti-India slogans, India and Nepal sent their top officials to hold a joint worship Saturday to uphold bilateral amity.
Nepal's Culture Minister Minendra Rijal and India's ambassador to Nepal Rakesh Sood went to the fifth century Shiva shrine that has been under siege since Friday, in a bid to send out a message of unity to the assailants.
"It is most unfortunate that an attempt was made to harm the age-old harmonious relations between two neighbouring countries," Rijal told journalists. "The government of Nepal is stunned by the barbaric and humiliating attack on the two priests and will not tolerate it."
He said the government was pledging to protect the Indian priests and provide them due honour.
Girish Bhatta and Raghavendra Bhatta from Karnataka state, who were appointed on Wednesday, were attacked on Friday by some people who came in the guise of worshippers. The two were stripped naked and beaten up inside the temple.
The two priests however said they were reassured by the government pledge and would not return to India.
On Saturday morning, the two men, their heads shaved and clad in red robes, were taken to the shrine under police protection to start their duties.
While Girish Bhatta has been appointed to perform the traditional worship at the north gate shrine, Raghavendra Bhatta will be conducting the daily rituals at the temple of Vasuki, the great snake described in the Indian epics.
Without naming the Maoists, the Nepali minister said that some people who did not believe in religion were trying to politicise religion.
"Religion is not based on nationality," he said. "Nepal and India share the same culture, religion and traditions. There are Nepal priests in Indian temples, like the Jagannath temple in India's Puri city.
"To make religion a political issue will mean tarnishing Nepal's image in the eyes of the world."
The Gaushala area in Kathmandu city, where the shrine is located, simmered with tension with hundreds of protesters cordoning it off by burning tyres on the road.
"Down with Indian expansionism," they chanted. "Indian priests, go back. We want the appointment of Nepali priests."
Police formed a three-tier barrier between the protesters and the shrine and finally resorted to baton charge to scatter the protesters and free the road.
For the first time in the history of the temple, its gates were closed to devotees who were not allowed to enter and offer their worship.
"We had to do this for the safety of the priests," said Sushil Nahata, senior official at the Pashupatinath Area Development Trust that administers the shrine. "Yesterday, the attackers came in the guise of worshippers; so we did not take any risks today.
"However, we are working to normalise things soon."
The Indian ambassador said that it was a matter of great regret that religion, a factor that brings the people of India and Nepal together, came under fire on the ground of nationality.
"Religion and nationality should be kept separate," he said. "There are Hindus all over the world. God doesn't belong to any country."