“Have you seen a nāgā?”
I was talking to an eminent scholar, from a famous American university, about Kathmandu’s religion. He clearly felt that I’d misunderstood what these spirits might be.
“They are not snakes,” he said. “They are a bit like a fish or an eel, with long fins along each side. They are found throughout the subcontinent. When they appear they sit there, quite still, in a group of two or three, holding their heads up.”
I said that I had read an account from the early 1980s of an appearance of nāgās at Char Ghare, near Boudha by Kathmandu, and he said that, yes, that was when he had seen them.1 It was the last time, as far as I know, that the gods appeared in this city in bodily form to human sight. A farmer ploughing his field struck a hidden spring. From the water five entwined serpents appeared. The phenomenon immediately attracted large crowds. Stalls sprang up, parking space was allocated and charged for, and a committee was formed to manage the revenues and build a temple. Over the following weeks the snakes appeared regularly, holding their heads erect and still above the surface of the flooded field. They were pictured in the newspapers, where there were letters on the subject. What was the meaning of these snakes, which had come in the winter when other snakes were hibernating, whose daily appearances were so predictable, and which seemed so unconcerned by hundreds of worshippers, throwing flowers and money at them?
Gorkhapatra and The Rising Nepal lamented the people’s “superstitions” as “unscientific”, and at odds with Nepal’s modern progress. But even sceptics preferred to voice their doubts away from the place (“so the nāgās won’t hear us”), and there were not many sceptics at first.
“It is Lord Vishnu himself who has come to give us humans a glimpse of himself in the form of nāgās so that we will not lose our faith in the Lord at this time when the world is going through a period of turmoil,” an old man told a journalist. Besides, according to another worshipper, Nepal was the last remaining home of nāgās. It was incumbent upon people to believe in them. “If we don’t believe in the nāgās we are letting them die… then who will make sure the rains come and go?”
People thought that the manifestation was a portent of renewed Hindu piety. They were a remedy to Kathmandu’s booming profanity. Or maybe they signalled a reawakening of the valley’s ancient, pre-Hindu spirits. Yet just three months after the serpents appeared the site was in decline. An anthropologist recorded cynicism among the diminished group of spectators. Two years later there was hardly any trace of worship there at all. No temple had been built. It wasn’t clear what had happened to the money. The local people came to feel that the whole affair had brought them nothing but bad luck.
Twenty years later another cult followed a similar course through public enthusiasm to disillusionment, but the young man concerned has far further, to a darker place. In late 2005 a small story appeared in The Kathmandu Post about a teenage boy who was fasting and meditating in the jungles of Bara district, between Kathmandu and India. He had miraculously survived a snakebite, and was drawing large crowds. I went down there to write an article about him. Nothing else I’ve ever written had such an impact.2
The boy was a fifteen-year-old named Ram Bomjon. According to the management committee run by his scowling older brother, he had neither eaten nor drunk anything for six months. He was meditating under a tree in the same posture as the Buddha had done, 250 kilometres from there, 25 centuries earlier. In one of his occasional utterances, which were transmitted to the public by his brother’s committee, the boy had said, “I am not a Buddha so don’t call me a Buddha. I don’t have a Buddha’s energy,” but in my article I called him the Buddha Boy anyway, and it stuck. He was born on a full moon, like the Buddha had been, and his mother was called Maya Devi, like the Buddha’s mother was. The family were poor farmers and there were Maoist flags in the trees around their village.
“He’s definitely got thinner,” Maya Devi said. “Early in the morning he looks sunken like there’s no blood in him. But as the sun rises he seems to get brighter and brighter.”
“Even if he gets enlightenment I still have to get work,” said his father, but he seemed proud. “We don’t get sick anymore. We really feel well. Our fields are good, our house is good, our health is good.”
Inspired by their son, the family had turned vegetarian. The Maoists had recently declared a ceasefire and they attributed that to his power as well.
A bus park had been cleared in the jungle to accommodate the daily procession of overcrowded vehicles and a bazaar had sprung up, selling charms and tobacco and bicycle repairs. A barbed wire fence had been strung around the Buddha Boy’s tree to protect his serenity, then another one at a greater distance as the crowds increased, and now a third, still further out, was planned, leaving Ram Bomjon at the centre of a spreading ripple of trash. I stood with a small, expectant group at the fence, waiting to see the light appear on the boy’s forehead. It was said to look similar to the way light looks when you shine a torch through your hand.
“Do you see a white light coming from his hands?” asked the monk who attended him. I couldn’t. I wondered if he was looking at the dappled effect of sunlight through the leaves.
Someone else said, “Do you see it? Do you see the blue light from the back of his head?”
“I feel very good, very light, very cool,” said another.
“He’s taken the god inside himself.”
“I feel love.”
The local administration was hostile towards the magical teenager. The Chief District Officer sought technical advice from Kathmandu and appointed a team of doctors to investigate, but the management committee would not let them disturb the subject. Neither did they allow anyone to observe him at night. Studying the boy from a distance of five metres the doctors found that he was malnourished and dehydrated. It was impossible that he had not eaten for six months (“Science says that a person cannot survive like that,” they confirmed), but without testing his blood sugar they couldn’t say what stage of starvation he was at. The journalist who’d written the Kathmandu Post article called him a “coma patient”. Hoteliers, who’d never known such good trade, joked that he would die in the jungle.
My story was the most popular article that had ever appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website. It was picked up by The Drudge Report and the Buddha Boy’s fame became global overnight. Journalists from Europe and America telephoned me, and after their other questions they all asked: What do you think? Is it possible? Has he really eaten nothing for six months?
When I went back for a follow-up I wanted to expose the fraud. At the District Administration Office they took out a large file. They had received complaints, alleging the misuse of donations, and demanded to see the committee’s accounts, which were incomplete. But they were proceeding warily in a religious matter. There was still “no proof” that the Buddha Boy had eaten a single thing. No one had so much as seen him take a piss. In my second story I suggested as clearly as I could that it was all a scam. But newspaper editors (like the truth-seeking public at large) don’t like facts to stand in the way of a good story, so they toned it down in London before it was published.
I made a reasonable amount of money writing about the Buddha Boy. People magazine was into him. They flew a young woman over from New York to take his photo. There were foreign TV crews. His picture, DVDs and other trinkets went on sale in Patan, around Boudha, and in other parts of town where Buddhists live. Yet Buddhist scholars in the city regarded him as some kind of country huckster. There are saints all over India, they said. There’s a bābā who’s never cut his fingernails. There’s a guy who’s been standing on one leg for 20 years. Eventually the Buddha Boy story faded away. The crowds thinned. After 10 months of public meditation he disappeared deeper into the jungle and re-emerged only rarely, always accompanied by pronouncements from his committee.
Over the years, unsavoury stories appeared in the Nepali press – that the Buddha Boy had savagely beaten a group of men with an iron bar, that he had been discovered lying under a bridge with a prostitute – but they were not picked up abroad.3
I left Nepal, but in 2011 I was back in the same area, looking for a story about illegal logging. People said that the Buddha Boy was involved.
There were seven of us all together – my fixer and his friend, plus a guide who knew the jungle, and the three guys he’d brought along for back-up. One of them was wearing a khukuri openly and a couple of the others had one tucked away somewhere. They were forestry people and they were keen to confront the Buddha Boy, but they were worried about it too. In the jungle we heard the whack of an axe but we quietly skirted the loggers. In the wide tract that the Buddha Boy’s committee had illegally fenced off (his sacred grove), there were large piles of firewood, just like the fuel that is illegally used in brick factories. We had been walking for more than an hour when we came to his encampment.
The place was deep in the forest, but visible from half a mile off on the bank of a dry river. A collection of huts, with a tractor parked, and a generator running. We scanned the camp for people but couldn’t see any. The guys who’d come as back-up were alert and making jokes. Then we stepped out into the sandy, sun-blasted open ground and walked towards the camp. It was a shabby, slightly depressing settlement of wood and concrete and tin.
In the camp we found two American dharma freaks. It was a mild relief. “We’re looking after the place,” they said. “It’s a great feeling here.”
The hippies pointed at the big knife on the back-up’s belt. “Hey yeah! For all the wild animals,” they said. The back-up stared back at them, not understanding.
More people appeared. Some Nepali monks, and the same scowling brother of the Buddha Boy whom I remembered from the management committee. There were a couple more foreigners, wearing the same T-shirts as the first ones, with “loving kindness” printed on them. “They are completely devotees and disciples,” said the Religious Director, who was the fattest of the monks. “They are completely dedicated.”
An American aromatherapist called Andy gave me a form, requiring my father’s name, my address, religion, occupation, purpose, opinion… “You have to fill in a form like that everywhere in Nepal now,” she told me, incorrectly. Someone videotaped us while we talked.
“I think the important thing to remember is that we are inter-religious,” said Andy. “I’m a Catholic myself. We try to be as international as possible. It’s basically the United Nations. Besides the Eight Morals we don’t require any vows to any deity.”
The back-up shuffled around restlessly on the bench beside me. I told Andy that I had been responsible for some of Ram Bomjon’s international fame.
“Thank you,” she said. “But it was very difficult for him at that time because of all those people.”
She produced a laptop and went to print a copy of the Eight Morals. It didn’t seem a very compelling manifesto. There was a tendency towards banality and repetition. The world should not follow the religious or irreligious doctrinal principles which are harmful… The world should avoid practicing negative actions… The world should stop exaggerating…”
The Buddha Boy was off in the jungle somewhere, fasting and meditating on top of a concrete pedestal, built specially. The Religious Director mediated his thoughts to the rest of the community. “He never talks to anyone. He never talks to the disciples,” Andy assured us. The Buddha Boy’s brother, listening to everything, scowled at us from behind the Religious Director.
After we’d been there for about an hour, and received denials that they were involved in illegal logging, I became impatient to leave. (In a few weeks 1500 pilgrims would arrive to attend World Peace Great Prayers, apparently. The firewood in the jungle would be used to cook for them.) The place was sinister. Going there was a pointless diversion. A heap of firewood isn’t international news, whatever it’s used for. But now the Buddha Boy’s people pressed us to stay for lunch. It was prasād, they said, and since they put it like that my companions felt they couldn’t refuse. We sat down on the ground to eat and one of the monks crept forward to crouch nearby. “I don’t trust this Bomjon,” he whispered. “I’m only staying here to see what’s going on.” Then he crept away again, and there wasn’t another chance to speak to him.
I don’t think I asked myself where the end of the road might lie for the Buddha Boy and these people. They had already gone further than the nāgās, and seemed to have some distance left to go. After lunch we left, and if I never run into that scene again I won’t mind.
About a year later, in the spring of 2012, I noticed a humorous reference in the Nepali Times to a cult that had kidnapped a foreign woman. Of course it was the Buddha Boy again. A Slovakian woman called Zsuzsanna Takacs had apparently been taken from a hotel by two men on a motorcycle and kept tied to a tree for three months, accused of practicing witchcraft to disturb the Boy’s meditation. When she was released she had a broken arm.4 (The reports revealed even less about a Nepali woman who was held with her.) Some journalists were beaten up by the Buddha Boy’s gang.
His father had died the previous year. But when Maya Devi heard the latest news of her wayward son she sent some of her other children to reason with him. They were beaten up too. Someone called Andy entered the debate beneath a critical article on the internet:5
I am convinced that MS Dharma Sangha [the Buddha Boy] is acting with complete wisdom and taking the surest and fastest path to benefit beings. He does not mete out Dharmic punishment in private, but in front of those who would witness… He is simply doing as the moment requires, and what do we understand of that, in this day and age that we have drifted so far from natural instinct that we do not know how to lovingly discipline our children…?
Others who also seemed to have been in the jungle chimed in, calling themselves “Anonymous” and “Helen”:
We already know from first hand accounts that stories about kidnapping, etc, are all false… I carry the wind that the universe blows. I hold no authority and own no knowledge. I only say what I have experienced myself, since I belief [sic] in nothing and will repeat nothing that I have not verified myself. From my experience, there was a great Light that is extreme love and joy. I was also this Light. There was also direct knowledge, knowledge without words or reason. There was also a distinct awakened feeling, as if I had been in deep slumber all my life. That is our true nature. I am not special. This is achievable for all.
1 John Draper (1986), “Nāgas”, Contributions to Nepalese Studies, vol.13, no.2
2 Thomas Bell, “Pilgrims flock to see ‘Buddha Boy’ said to have fasted six months”, The Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2005
3 For example: “Buddha Boy attacked and injured a guy with his sword”, 20 July 2007, nirlog.com;
“Buddha Boy sees red”, 25 July 2010, eKantipur.com; “‘Buddha Boy’ unrepentant”, 26 July 2010, myrepublica.com; “24 hurt as Bamjan supporters clash with locals”, 12 June 2012, eKantipur.com
4 For example:“Freed Slovak woman still admires Buddha Boy”, 28 March 2012, myrepublica.com;“Buddha Boy turns violent, thrashes siblings”, 3 March 2012, thehimalayantimes.com
5 This post, accessed in the summer of 2012, is no longer available.