By Gopal Sharma
BODE, Nepal (Reuters) - Pressing his palms together, Jujubhai Basan Shrestha raises his hands, acknowledging greetings from the cheering crowd of devotees and onlookers.
Sporting a white turban, the 31-year-old sits on a chair as a man inserts a 13 inch metal skewer through his tongue in a centuries-old ritual in this poor settlement, 12 km (8 miles) east of Kathmandu.
The scene at the weekend, on the second day of Nepal's New Year, was unique to Bode, a sleepy village of 8,000 people from the devout Newar community, who are thought to have been the early settlers of the saucer-like Kathmandu valley.
A crowd of thousands jostled for a glimpse as young dancers twirled in the dust of vermillion powder, beating cymbals and banging drums in a frenzied performance.
"This is to keep our culture alive," said Shrestha, who teaches fine arts in a local school and spoke to Reuters before the ritual started. Behind him, his wife sat on a bed and painted the eyes of their three-month-old son with kohl paste.
"Performance of this ritual saves the inhabitants of Bode from disasters like earthquake, severe drought and famine."
Some medical experts say tongue piercing may result in big gaps between front teeth or complications like infections.
But Shrestha, who had his tongue pierced for the fourth time on Saturday, said his motivation came from his faith and he had not experienced any problems so far.
"I always wanted to marry before I started piercing my tongue," Shrestha said. "Now I have a wife as well as a son. The god fulfils your wishes."
MYTH AND FAITH
The origin of the ritual lies with tales of a devil that harassed the residents of Bode more than 1,600 years ago.
Legend has it that a religious scholar captured the evil spirit through his tantra, or the knowledge of ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, keeping him in custody for several days.
The spirit was freed after he had his tongue pierced in punishment and swore to protect the villagers from disasters. The ritual is believed to have been repeated every year since.
In preparation, Shrestha abstained from sex for two days and fasted for 48 hours. On Saturday, he shaved his head.
The ritual was performed in front of a small temple of the elephant god, Ganesh, worshipped for good luck.
"There is no pain, no scar and no bleeding, although it looks chilling," said Krishna Chandra Baga, the man who inserted the metal rod through Shrestha's tongue.
"This is due to the divine power. Otherwise how can this be possible," said Baga, who had his own tongue pierced 12 times.
In Bode, women in red saris with thin streaks of crimson red powder in their hairlines threw auspicious offerings of rice and flowers at Shrestha, who went round the village for over two hours before the metal rod was pulled out.
The scene wowed tourists.
"It is scary but very impressive," said Sophie, a 31-year-old French tourist from Paris. "You have to be very strong in your mind to do this. I would be really scared."
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Elaine Lies)