Nepal - Adventures in a Living Museum

Nepal - Adventures in a Living Museum

Having partaken of a handful of splendid artworks in the museum you have just exited, a feeling of smug satisfaction envelops you. A privileged scholar and enthusiast, viewing those magnificent sculptures behind thick bullet-proof, humanity-proof glasses after paying the hefty ten dollar entrance fee gives you an intellectual kick and stirs your thinking buds, inspiring you to dole out abstract interpretations of the marvels you have just witnessed. Gladly, you enter the street outside. Just in front of you is another narrow lane, and believing yourself to be an adventurer rather than a mere tourist, you decide to explore it.

On both sides are high, but small houses, overlooking the thin, cobbled passage. Just ahead is a shrine and surprisingly the statue installed there seems to be of the same finesse as seen in the museum. Slightly further is another shrine, then another, and as you continue walking, their sheer number and superior aesthetic leaves you spellbound. While you are working on to absorb this initial experience, there emerges a beautiful and robust peasant woman, dressed in poor, but colorful and vibrant clothes. In her hands she holds a thali (saucer) wherein are arranged various implements used for performing rituals. What happens next is unbelievable. This pious lady dips into one small dish and whips out a thick swab of rich red vermilion. She then lays down her thali and proceeds to daub the priceless sculpture of undoubted antiquity with this greasy paste. Sacrilege. Such a fantastic example of human artistic instinct needs to be installed in the spiritually sterile atmosphere of an air-conditioned museum. Along with the descriptive tag, there need be a de facto 'touch me not' sign too. Meant to be contemplated from a distance, nobody should be permitted to view these masterpieces for free. After all, people need to pay for viewing their heritage.





The fact is that, many superior deities of unknown antiquity, have had their facial features almost effaced due to the constant smearing of their bodies with ritual substances and intimate contact with devotees over the centuries.






Palanchok Bhagwati
Palanchok Bhagwati





Thus what they may have lost in their 'art museum' value, they have gained manifold in spiritual potency. Your mind, which once enabled you to get a doctorate, grapples with disbelief.








Guardian lions flank the entrance to the hilltop temple of Changu Narayana, twelve kilometres east of Kathmandu. This pagoda is the oldest Vishnu temple in Nepal, dating back to the fourth century, and also a repository of priceless stone sculptures including the most archaic inscription so far discovered in the valley.
Guardian lions flank the entrance to the hilltop temple of Changu Narayana, twelve kilometres east of Kathmandu. This pagoda is the oldest Vishnu temple in Nepal, dating back to the fourth century, and also a repository of priceless stone sculptures including the most archaic inscription so far discovered in the valley.




What happens next is even more fantastic and leaves you dazed.

Almost all shrines you have seen are flanked and guarded by mythical beasts of fantastic appearance and large proportions.





Accompanying the devoted lady is her young and restless offspring dressed in tatters. While his mother interacts with the deity, the young urchin climbs on to the back of the wrathful lion guarding the temple. His mother makes no effort to stop his rocking antics.

Viewing this vision lays waste years of experience ingrained in our collective unconscious. A 'mere,' peasant lady, a nameless face, has the right to touch, interact, or to put it honestly, do whatever she wishes with a priceless work of art, while we, priding ourselves as connoisseurs of fine art, have had to make do with a stifling distance from our beloved gods, even though we convinced ourselves that we were the privileged ones, the chosen ones who had the good fortune to have laid our eyes upon those divinities, in the dim, protective light of clinical interiors of a museum. Humbled, you retrace your steps.

Such is the magic of Nepal. But it is definitely some consolation that this spell is cast on almost everybody who first lands in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Kathmandu city itself is part of a larger area known as the Kathmandu valley, comprising of three cities, the other two being Patan and Bhaktapur.

The Birth of the Kathmandu Valley:

Many many legends ago, the Kathmandu valley was a vast lake, at the center of which bloomed a resplendent lotus. From this thousand-petalled lotus shone a light which illuminated the entire valley. This luminescence was called the Svayambhu or the Self-sprung. This magnificent lotus did not escape notice of the bodhisattva Manjushri, who had vowed to serve humanity through his deep intelligence. In his wisdom he realized that the Himalayan people would be immensely benefited if the lake were drained and the lotus made accessible to human worship. Flying through the air, Manjushri landed on the Nagarkot peak at the edge of the lake and holding aloft his sword of wisdom called 'Chandrahas,' made one mighty swoop that cut a gorge through the mountain range that separated Nepal from India. Thus the original lake was drained, and left behind was a fertile and abundant valley. Though they differ with this legend, almost all geologists are unanimous that the Kathmandu valley was once indeed a great lake.

Landscape Painting of Swayambhunath Temple
Landscape Painting of Swayambhunath Temple



At the same spot where stood the self-emanated pillar of light, now stands the Svayambhunath temple, the valley's most venerable Buddhist site, and also an awesome power place, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Actually a stupa, its date is set to precede the Buddha himself. It sits upon a forested hill like a cap of snow, and every twelve years the king of Nepal comes to a nearby field for homage.


Swayambhunath Temple
Swayambhunath Temple


It is significantly relevant to note here that the king is believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and his gesture is typical of the harmony that pervades the entire valley, where the two great faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism commingle and coexist in a unique synthesis. Hence it comes as no surprise that countless Hindus and Buddhists climb the hill to worship, for Svayambhunath is sacred to both.


The steep steps climbing to the shrine have thoughtfully been provided with iron rails at frequent intervals, but on the first visit however, it is a fairly disconcerting experience to observe aggressive monkeys sliding down the railings towards one at high speeds. Indeed, hoards of monkeys have given Svayambhu the trivial name of 'monkey temple.' Characteristically, this aspect too is not without its mythical origins.

Apparently, Manjushri chose this sacred spot to cut off his hair. Every lock of his hair turned into a tree and the lice into monkeys. A completely serious survey by a foreign agency has concluded that the number of monkeys always remains the same.

The Rough Guide to Nepal has this to say on the Svayambhunath:
"Even if temple-touring makes your eyes glaze over, don't miss Svayambhunath."

Only from the air is it evident that Boudhnath
Only from the air is it evident that Boudhnath stupa, Nepal's largest Buddhist relic mound, is designed as a mandala, a sacred religious diagram composed of concentric circles within squares.

If you thought that this one temple, more ancient than history itself, was sufficient to sum up the stupa architecture of the valley, think again. There exists another (in addition to hundreds of smaller ones) which exudes a sacred power parallel to the great Svayambhunath, and inspires equally intense devotion and reverence.

The stupa of Boudhanath lies along the ancient Kathmandu-Tibet trade route and is considered to be the most auspicious landmark along this path. One of the world's largest stupa, it is believed to be the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet, and since the annexation of Tibet in 1959, the area around Boudhanath has become the Mecca of Tibetan exiles in Nepal. Indeed, for an authentic experience of Tibetan culture, nothing beats Bouddha.

The building of the stupa itself is made in the shape of a three-dimensional mandala, whose successive tiers can be ascended, acting as a powerful metaphor for spiritual growth.

Like almost all ancient buildings of Nepal, ascribing a historically verifiable age to the Boudhanath stupa is a futile exercise. Legend comes to the rescue however, and a Tibetan text narrates how one of Indra's daughters was once cursed to take birth on earth as a mortal, for she had stolen some flowers from heaven which had caught her fancy. Born as a lowly poultryman's daughter, she nevertheless prospered and decided to use some of her wealth to build a stupa. She petitioned the king for land, who cynically granted only that much land as could be covered by a buffalo hide. Using the accommodating genius inherent in all women, she very deftly cut the hide into thin strips and joined them end to end to enclose the area needed for the gigantic stupa, and the king being bound by his word granted her wish. Tibetans attach great significance to this tale since it is attributed to Padmasambhava, who was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet. Amazingly, in the same manuscript the guru warns of an invasion by an enemy, which would scatter the Tibetan people to the lands of the south.

A Nepalese tale provides a firmer historical foundation. Apparently, a draught struck Kathmandu during the reign of the king Vrisadev. Deeply perplexed, the monarch consulted his court astrologers who advised him that a man possessed of the thirty-two virtues should be sacrificed to propitiate the rain gods. So the king summoned his son Manadeva and commanded him to go to a specific spot at dawn and sever the head of a shrouded person he would find sleeping there. Dutifully, the son carried out the king's request, and no sooner had it started raining that he realized that he had slain his own father. Befittingly, in popular parlance this tale is entitled 'The prince who was ordered to kill his father by the father himself.'

Aggrieved by his folly, the repentant prince prayed to the goddess Bajra Yogini, who let fly a bird from her hand and commanded him to build a stupa where it landed. The spot was Bouddha.

Changu Narayana Courtyard
Changu Narayana Courtyard

Connoisseurs of Nepal will recognize the king Manadeva mentioned above. He is responsible for leaving behind the earliest written record of Nepalese history, an inscribed pillar installed in the temple of Vishnu located on a hill. This shrine, called the Changu Narayana temple, is historically a contemporary of both Svayambhunath and Boudhanath, and is believed to be the supreme example of Nepalese temple architecture. It is a beautiful and pensive site, which retains its palpably ancient atmosphere.

The main shrine is surrounded by an open courtyard, the latter being an outdoor museum of priceless works of art, displayed in an almost offhand manner and all the more exciting for it.

However what takes the cake is the walk to Changu Narayana from Nagarkot (which is at a higher elevation). On this route you may actually have the good fortune of witnessing laundry drying over ancient masterpieces of undeniable artistic merit.

Garudasana Vishnu
Garudasana Vishnu




Wandering about the courtyard, soaking in the phenomenal surroundings, you come across an image of Vishnu riding his mount Garuda.

It will definitely ring a bell. Unconsciously, your hand dips into your pocket, and takes out a ten-rupee Nepalese currency note. Inscribed right there is the image in front of you. Indeed, one of Nepal's greatness is that the people are not apologetic about the fact that they are a deeply religious people and that the sacred dimension pervades each and every aspect of their existence. Thus they declare with pride their status as the only officially Hindu kingdom in the world.



Manadeva Garuda, 6th century
Manadeva Garuda, 6th century




The earliest (and the most enigmatic) sculpture of Changu Narayana is that of the eagle-man Garuda, kneeling in adoration in front of the sanctum sanctorum. He is called the Manadeva Garuda, since his face, with its unique moustache and life-like human features, is said to be a portrait of the great king himself. Some believe this attribution to be apocryphal, but is nevertheless suitable, since the strength and simplicity of this legendary (and historical) king is abundantly displayed in this Garuda image of a warrior at prayer.





Garudasana Vishnu





Another area where Changu Narayana scores is in the amazingly carved intricate roof struts depicting multi-armed deities. The roofs of traditional Nepalese buildings are very heavy and project far beyond the bearing walls, thus requiring additional support. This is achieved by angling (at 45 degrees) a number of wooden braces (brackets or struts) between wall and roof.





Temple Struts of Changu Narayana
Temple Struts of Changu Narayana


Called tunala in the Nepali language, these brackets are usually carved into likenesses of gods and goddesses, associated with the principal deities of the temple Hence, here we observe the ten incarnations of Vishnu along with protector deities and numerous female divinities. Changu Narayana indeed presents one of the best examples of Nepalese craftsmanship of this genre.

The Vishnu of Changu Narayana is also worshipped by the Buddhists as Hari-Hari-Harivahanodbhava-Lokeshvara.



The cult of Vishnu in the valley is not restricted to the Changu Narayana temple alone. Eight kilometres north of Kathmandu lies the 'Sleeping Vishnu,' more popularly known as Jalashayana Narayana, or 'Narayana lying on waters.' The valley's largest stone sculpture, this five metres long (yes that's right) Vishnu, carved from a single massive block of hard black stone, lies gently in the waters of a tank, thus giving an appearance of floating, a seemingly dreaming, half-smile on his lips. Devotees toss flower petals, coins and red powder onto the image and bow humbly at its feet, while morning and evening Brahmin priests perform elaborate rituals, chanting the thousand names of Lord Vishnu.


This fascinating sculpture was supposedly "found," some fourteen centuries ago by a farmer tilling his land. It is no big deal 'finding' artistic masterpieces in the Kathmandu valley. Anyone can do it, even you and me, provided we look with sufficient zeal and faith. Superior examples of skilled craftsmanship abound, with museum-quality artworks dispersed around almost carelessly, though not irreverently. Narrow streets often widen into squares housing small temples The constant outstanding feature, even among such lesser known shrines is the indisputable fact of their high aesthetic merit, whether reflected on the exterior walls, or the fine workmanship evident in the deity sculpture installed therein. Indeed, the entire valley lies scattered with magnificent examples of human creative devotion, waiting to be discovered.

NeelkanthaNo less intriguing is the name given to this Vishnu temple. It is called Buddhanilkantha, a source of endless confusion. It has nothing to do with the Buddha, though that doesn't stop many Nepalese Buddhists from worshipping the image as Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The word 'Nilakantha,' means 'One who has a blue throat,' and rightly belongs to Shiva. According to legend, Shiva's throat turned blue when he consumed a deadly poison which was threatening the stability of the living world, as a consequence of which his throat turned blue.

Exactly what this has to do with Vishnu is unclear, but the waters of the tank in which the god rests are said to be magically connected with the Himalayan lake of Gosaikund, where Shiva sought relief from the burning poison.

Though this shrine is invariably popular, there is one person who as a matter of policy never puts in an appearance here; he is the king of Nepal. Some say the boycott goes back to the seventeenth-century, when the reigning king (Pratap Malla), was visited in his dream by Lord Vishnu, and warned that he and his successors would die if they ever visited Buddhanilkantha. Others say it's because the king, who is said to be a reincarnation of Vishnu himself, must never gaze upon his own image.

Ihi ceremony ('bel marriage') for young girls, Bhaktapur
Ihi ceremony ('bel marriage') for young girls, Bhaktapur


But the gods of Nepal do not represent a forgotten era of the past. The deities here are living, and participate in the ordinary existence of everyday life as much as we mere mortals do. Nowhere is this exemplified more charmingly than in the uniquely Nepalese custom of Bel-Marriage. Traditionally the Newars (the predominant ethnic group of the valley), marry off their pre-pubescent girls to a fruit of the Bel tree (Aegle marmelos) which symbolizes Lord Narayana himself. The marriage ceremony is elaborate, accompanied by a feast.


An urbanised lady with (mark) and pote (necklace)
An urbanised lady with (mark) and pote (necklace)

By this custom, if a Newarni's future mortal husband should die, she is not considered a widow because she is still married to Narayana. The Newar "widow" therefore undergoes none of the often disagreeable sanctions imposed on widows. In fact, Newar marriages are much more egalitarian in all respects, and a woman is free to leave or divorce her husband, to remarry, and she scorns sati.

Hence is solved the enchanting mystery behind those smartly dressed, evidently virginal adolescent girls, thronging the streets of Kathmandu, who in spite of not being married in the 'earthly' sense, nevertheless adorn their foreheads with thick swabs of vermilion associated in India solely with a married status. The rich red of the vermilion complements well the Nepali woman's rosy cheeks, an enchanting feature, and one of the many distinguishing characteristics pointing out their Mongoloid origins.

Realization of the inherent sacrality of women reaches its peak in the cult of Kumari where Durga, as the personification of maiden virginity, invests the body of a living prepubescent girl, who is worshipped exactly as if she were the divine Durga herself.

Although the Kumari is supposed to be a Hindu goddess, she is chosen from the Buddhist Sakya caste of goldsmiths. High priests search for her amongst small girls of this clan, looking for a child worthy enough to serve as a vehicle for the goddess (The present Kumari was installed in 2001, when she was three and a half years old). Traditionally, she is supposed to manifest the battis lakshanas, or the '32 perfections,' some of which are:

A neck like a conch shell
A body like a banyan tree
Eyelashes like a cow
Thighs like a deer
Chest like a lion
Voice soft and clear as a duck's

More practically, she should have a perfect health, no small-pox scar, a skin without blemish, dark eyes and black hair, no foul smell of the body and no loss of teeth.


A likely candidate whose horoscope exactly matches that of the king is chosen. The next test occurs around midnight when over a hundred buffalo and goats are slaughtered, and their severed heads, with lighted wicks placed between the horns, are set in rows on the ground. Naturally these goings-on are unlikely to frighten a real goddess, particularly one who is an incarnation of Durga, so the young girl who remains calm and collected throughout this ordeal is clearly the new Kumari. Lastly, in a process similar to the selection of the Dalai Lama, the Kumari then chooses items of clothing and decoration worn by her predecessors as a final test.

The would-be goddess is then taken upstairs for a secret ceremony in which she is purified of all past experience and Durga fully possesses her body. Attendants dress her in red with golden ornaments, paint a third eye on her forehead and rim her eyes with collyrium.

Then she walks on a strip of white cloth (the Kumari's feet should never touch the ground) and takes her residence at the Kumari ghar (house of the virgin).

The goddess Kumari grants audiences to both Hindus and Buddhists. Most common are government officials hoping for promotion, and women with menstrual problems. Each year, the king also comes to receive her blessings, and obtain from her the right to rule for another year. In exchange, he presents her with a gold coin and touches his forehead to her feet. Many are the stories of kings who lost their kingdoms when the Kumari failed to bless them. Anderson (1971) writes how in 1955, the goddess put the tika mark first on the then crown prince Mahendra rather than on that of the King Tribhuvan. History knows that after eight months, the king died, and crown prince Mahendra became the monarch.

The tradition of Kumari is said to have originated in the eighteenth century during the reign of King Jaya Prakash Malla, an intimate of the goddess Taleju (a form of Durga who protects the Kathmandu valley). One evening the intoxicated king made a pass at her, and the insulted goddess disappeared. She finally consented to return, but only in the form of a virgin Newari girl of the Sakya caste.

Another legend states that during the reign of the same king, a virgin girl from a Shakya family claimed to be possessed by Durga. The king, considering the girl an impostor, banished her, whereupon his queen became seized with convulsions. Taking this as a divine sign of his error, the monarch recalled the girl and decreed that she should be worshipped as the goddess Durga she was possessed with. A variant tale claims that a Shakya virgin girl died as the result of an unseemly sexual assault by the king, who established the cult of the virgin goddess as a penance and to escape the combined curse of the entire Shakya clan.

Or so the stories go. Actually, the tradition of the Kumari predates Jaya Prakash's reign by at least five centuries and has its roots in ancient Indian practices.

The Kumari's reign ends with her first period (or any serious accidental loss of blood.). Once the first sign of puberty is reached, she reverts to being a normal mortal, and retires with a modest state pension. The search then begins for a new Kumari.

The transition to life as an ordinary mortal can be hard, and a former Kumari may have difficulty finding a husband. Tradition has it that the man who marries an ex-Kumari will die young, but it's more likely a natural belief that taking on a spoilt ex-goddess is likely to be hard work.

As a food for thought, the potential for psychological studies on Kumaris and deposed Kumaris staggers the imagination.

At the Feet of Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath Temple
Pashupatinath Temple

As Svayambhu and Boudha link the valley through myth and history to the entire Buddhist world, so is Pashupati a major destination for pilgrims from all over the Hindu world. Nepal's holiest Hindu pilgrimage site, the sacred complex of Pashupatinath is an amazing enclave of temples, cremation ghats, ritual bathers and half-naked sadhus. The essence of Hinduism, at least three millennia of unbroken tradition, coalesces in this sacred territory, littered with shrines and priceless sculptures, raised over the centuries to the glory of the great god Shiva. Indeed, it is one of the most important Shaiva sites of the subcontinent.

Pashupatinath is on the eastern edge of the town, a stone's throw from Tribhuvan international airport (whose runway was once a grazing ground for the sacred cows of Pashupatinath). The site is sanctified by the presence of the Bagmati river, which is said to be linked to the river Ganga by an underground stream. A ritual bath here is said to ensure release from the cycle of samsara, and it is widely believed that husbands and wives who bathe here together will be remarried in their next life.

The sprawling complex is littered with ancient sculptures, practically a veritable, over-sized museum, with a sixth-century Buddha, often draped with drying laundry, a gigantic 1,500 year old linga, and rambling old courtyards where pilgrims and squatters cook and wash and live. Nevertheless, despite the continuous activity in and around the temple, there is always a sense of peace and tranquility here.

Milk flows down the body of Nandi. The dog riding the stone beast makes a tasty snack of the devotee's offerings.
Milk flows down the body of Nandi. The dog riding the stone beast makes a tasty snack of the devotee's offerings.


An amazing collection of stone sculptures, some of them dating from the fifth century, lie scattered about. Not surprisingly (remember it is Nepal), many of the images are of Buddhist origin. It is an indication of the richness of this country's artistic heritage that many of these artworks, so casually distributed about, are masterpieces. There's a positive jungle of temples, images, sculptures and chaityas (small stupas) with Shiva imagery dominating. Images of the bull Nandi stand guard, tridents are dotted around and lingams rise up on every side.

Indeed, here is beauty commissioned by art's greatest patron, religion, so that hardly a stone is unchiselled or wood uncarved. The windows of even the humblest dharamshalas (modest rest houses for pilgrims) are ornamented with wasp-waisted deities and intricate floral designs. Temple spires writhe with golden serpents, and on two of the platforms on which the dead are cremated are sixth century stone carvings of rare beauty.

The actual existing gold-clad, two-tiered pagoda temple dates from the late seventeenth century, but inscriptions indicate that a temple has stood here since at least the fifth century, and some historians suspect it goes back to the third century BC. To the believer's at least, there is no doubt regarding the origins of Pashupatinath. According to chronicles, the first human being to walk the forests of the valley was called Ne, a cowherd who was the progenitor of the Nepalese people. On one occasion, he noticed that a milky cow would not give milk but wander away by herself into the forest. Following her, he discovered that she would water a certain spot with her warm milk. Ne dug at that spot and uncovered the original lingam. Setting it up, he worshipped it as Pashupati, Lord of Beasts.

Several tales are told of how Shiva came by this title. Nepali schoolchildren are taught that Shiva, to escape his heavenly obligations, assumed the guise of a one-horned stag and fled to the forest here. The other gods pursued him and, laying hold of him, broke off his horn, which was transformed into the powerful Pashupati linga, which displays four carved faces of Shiva, plus a fifth, invisible one on the top (Buddhists claim one of the faces). The present linga is a fourteenth century replacement of the original one, which was damaged by Muslim crusaders.

A special sub caste of South Indian Brahmin priests tends to it in a daily cycle of ritual bathing, dressing and offerings. Wearing the ceremonial orange robes of the Pashupata sect, the priests array the linga in brocade silk and bathe it with curd, ghee, honey, sugar and milk.

In addition, once every year, Buddhists place a Bodhisattva crown upon the Pashupati lingam and worship it as Avalokiteshvara, or with the crown and four faces, as the five transcendent (Dhyani) Buddhas.

Lord Pashupati is the country's official protector, invoked in royal speeches and cited on treaties and pledges. Every morning Radio Nepal opens its programme with a prayer to Pashupatinath and when the king, himself a reincarnation of Vishnu, addresses his people, he calls upon Pashupatinath to bless and protect them all. Before commencing on an important journey, his royal highness will always pay a visit to the shrine to seek the god's blessings. Nepali kings style themselves "Favored by the Feet of Pashupati" and "Laden with the Dust of Lord Pashupati's Lotus Feet."

It is said that the last king of the Malla dynasty stripped the temple of all its gold and had it melted down to finance his war against the invading Gurkhas. Such is the power of Pashupatinath, believe the devout, that he lost the battle. Truly, as the recipient of the universal adoration of the Nepalese people, Pashupati's abode is the kingdom's most holy beacon.

Pashupatinath is a protector of animals, so there are no sacrifices at this great shrine. As the shepherd of both animals and humans, Shiva as Pashupati shows his most pleasant and creative side.

Shaivite Sadhu Wearing Rudraksh




Shiva is present also in Pashupatinath's fluctuating population of sadhus, wandering Hindu devotees who have renounced the strictures of caste and normal custom, and beg to meet their minimal daily needs. Some perform austerities or smoke incredible quantities of ganja (marijuana). Sadhus may wear splendid orange robes or appear naked smeared in ashes from the cremation ground. Some are genuine devotees, even saints, others are rogues, charlatans, or misfits who can't fit into society in any other way. Nepalis as well as tourists find them bizarrely fascinating.



A Short Note on Bhaktapur
(Or How to Transform Your Taxi Into a Time Machine)

Bhaktapur, or Bhadgaon as it is sometimes called, is located in the eastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, about 19 kilometers from the heart of Kathmandu city.

Milk flows down the body of Nandi. The dog riding the stone beast makes a tasty snack of the devotee's offerings.
Modern Postcard (Bhaktapur)

Rising in a tight mass of warm brick, Bhaktapur appears something like what Kathmandu must have been before the arrival of the modern world. It often feels more like a big village than a small city, a sensation intensified by the absence of traffic. Thanks to a long-term German funded restoration program, and to the policies of an independent-minded municipal council, much of the city is pedestrianized. Taxis and tour buses stop at the outskirts, from where it is a short walk to the heart of the city. Wandering about the herringbone-paved streets and narrow alleys, unmarred by traffic, every turn of a corner brings a new wonder; a neighborhood shrine, a sudden vibrant courtyard, or a red and gold pagoda. Everywhere the burnt-peach hue of bricks is offset by the deep brown of intensely carved wood - the essential media of the Newar architects.

Private quarters may be dark and cramped, but people are rich in public space, and the open squares are living exhibits of all the mundane activities of daily life: people spinning wool, throwing pots, husking grain, nursing children, bathing, pounding chillies, hammering jewelry or selling vegetables. Indeed, when you drive into Bhaktapur, your car is a time machine and you are back in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Tradition has it that Lord Vishnu himself built the city in the shape of a sacred conch. Surprisingly enough, aerial photographs confirm the shell shape of Bhaktapur. Due to its numerous temples and shrines and the pious nature of its people, it became known as the city of devotees (bhakta meaning devotee in Sanskrit).

Historically, Bhaktapur was once the capital of the entire Kathmandu valley (mid 12th - late 15th century). With the subsequent fragmentation into three kingdoms and the rising importance of Kathmandu, the city was left to dream in peace. It is not as old as either Patan or Kathmandu, but oddly enough it looks older, for Bhaktapur has managed to preserve its medieval identity almost intact. Of all the ancient cities of the Kathmandu valley, it is the least changed. There are no modern buildings; nothing obtrusive that jars the eye. There is also far less western attire about. The elderly and the old stick to their traditional dress. New buildings too are now required to follow traditional architectural styles. This is one Nepalese city that has got its act together, and it wears its status as a UNESCO world heritage site proudly. It's hardly surprising therefore that an increasing number of travelers (like the author himself), are heading to Bhaktapur straight from the Kathmandu airport.

In a hundred years perhaps, Nepal will be forced to recreate Bhaktapur in a historical park run by costumed employees, but for the present it remains genuine. A visit here restores faith in the possibility of a tranquil urban existence, and inspires admiration for the traditional culture of the Newars. The city undoubtedly remains one of the last bastions of authentic Newari culture, and even today, you can meet people in its backstreets who speak not a word of Nepali.

In the immortal words of Mary Slusser: "For the moment at least, Bhaktapur remains one of the remarkable treasures of the Kathmandu Valley - indeed, of the globe."


Consider the following:

Where else would one find:

a). A land where Vishnu still rules.
b). A place where you can see Goddess Durga in flesh and blood.
c). A whole category dedicated to shamans in the yellow pages (jhankris).
d). Actually ascend a three-dimensional mandala (Boudhanath).
e). A country where every woman is a bride of the god, and wears this distinguished stature on her person proudly.

Indeed, Nepal is the ideal place to rise above the theoretical, often stifling textbooks, and see the twin strands of Tantra and Shamanism actually at work, rooted in the eternal and faithful depths of Hinduism, and tempered by the sobering influence of Buddhism.

The valley's living culture is a unique hybrid of Hinduism and Buddhism, and presents a remarkable case study in the way two great religions can both enrich each other, and evolve independently at the same time. Some examples underlying this syncretism are:

1). Kumari, a Hindu goddess, is chosen from the Buddhist clan of Sakyas.
2). The king worships Kumari, who as mentioned above, is a Buddhist.
3). The king is a reincarnation of Vishnu, bur nevertheless addresses Pashupatinath as his patron deity, and is barred from visiting one of the most important Vaishnava shrines in the region.
4). A significant temple of Vishnu is given the name of Buddha Nilakantha, even though it apparently has nothing to do with Buddhism.

Walking around the Valley, you experience the unmistakable feeling that something mysterious and wonderful is about to happen. So you wander around, with your tongue hanging out in a primal longing.

And things do happen. A chance encounter, a sudden moment of primordial awareness, a realization of the awesome faith that integrates the anarchic fabric of this diverse society, or a sense of belonging to a place, which a few moments back, was just another foreign land.

One enters Nepal as a traveler, and leaves as a pilgrim.

The author had the good fortune of making two trips to Nepal in preparation of this article.

References and Further Reading

  • Aran, Lydia. The Art of Nepal: Kathmandu, 1978.
  • Bubriski, Kevin and Keith Dowman: Power Places of Kathmandu: London, 1995.
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