The Pashupatinath temple row took an ugly turn in Nepal on Friday with a mob assaulting the two newly-appointed Indian priests, stripping them naked and tearing off their sacred threads regarded as mandatory for Brahmins.
Girish Bhatt and Raghavendra Bhatt were brought from Karnataka state in India this month to continue the nearly 800-year-old tradition at the revered Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu of employing priests only from the orthodox southern states of India.
The two hapless men were thrashed within the temple premises on Friday as they were readying to worship the deity from Saturday.
Eyewitnesses said about eight to 10 men, armed with iron rods, stormed a secret room in the temple where the two priests had been confined two days ago, fasting and undergoing a purifying ritual so that they would be able to undertake the ritualistic worship from Saturday.
The invaders broke open the padlock on the door of the room, dragged the two stunned priests out and beat them up. The attackers also stripped the two men naked and forcibly took video pictures.
Then, in a final insult to the two priests, their sacred white thread were torn off. The priests wear these sacred threads to proclaim that they are Brahmins and have undergone traditional rituals.
"The attackers tried to drag them away," said an eyewitness who did not want to be named. "But the abduction bid was foiled after the people in the temple raised a hue and cry and locals gathered."
The two shaken priests have been taken to a safe place, temple officials said.
The attack inside the temple comes after protests began on Sunday with at least three organisations banding together to oppose the appointment of Indian priests.
They have formed a committee to oppose the appointments, saying at a time Nepal is writing a new constitution, Nepali priests should be employed instead of Indians.
Though the protesters say they have no political affiliation, locals said the attack was led by the Young Communist League, the dreaded strong arm of the Maoists that had spearheaded a similar attack last year.
Both the new priests' appointment and the attacks on them come at a time the row is being heard in court.
For the first time in the history of the 5th century temple, the Mahasnan ritual - the ritualistic bath of the deity - is in jeopardy with the priests saying they feared to carry on with their duties in the absence of security.
The Indian priest vs Nepali priest row was triggered by the earlier Maoist government last year that sought to stop the old tradition of hiring Indian priests for the Pashupatinath shrine.
However, the move raised widespread concern in India with major political parties there asking Nepal not to politicise religion and not to hurt the sentiment of two billion Hindus worldwide.
The protestors have said they would keep up a blockade of the Pashupatinath area and take stronger action if the Indian priests are not sent back.
Of the five Indian priests who originally served at the shrine, three have already resigned due to the mounting political pressure.
Both the protesters and the Nepali government allege that the other side is trying to grab the offerings made at the temple daily that runs into thousands of rupees.