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
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.
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.
happens next is even more fantastic and leaves
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
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.
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.
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.
Rough Guide to Nepal has this to say on the Svayambhunath:
"Even if temple-touring makes your eyes glaze
over, don't miss Svayambhunath."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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