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Nepal - Adventures in a Living Museum

Article of the Month - February 2004
Viewed 64822 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

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.

Continued in Page 2

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Post a Comment
  • I am from Nepal and I really enjoyed reading about my hometown Kathmandu. However, I believe there is a mistake in the section about the birth of Kathmandu Valley. There's no mountain range separating India and Nepal. The Himalayas separate Nepal from China but across the India-Nepal border, there are only plains called the Terai region. The gorge that was cut separated Kathmandu Valley from the rest of Nepal, if there was a Nepal and India. Kathmandu Valley used to be called "Nepal" by people living outside the valley and that is why you might have found inscriptions saying "cutting the mountain range around Nepal." The region outside might have otherwise been small city states that were unified later in the 17th century by PN Shah to be Nepal, just like the city states further south were unified to become India. I just wanted to clarrify that. Thankyou.
    by Saumya Pradhan on 3rd May 2006
  • I got the opportunity of going through your review articles. It is amazing. I can well imagine the time spent to prepare the articles with illustrations and photographs. You are doing an excellent work. The review of the literature is comrehensive. You do not leave any stone unturned to accomplish your review. Kindly keep it up. I do not have words to appreciate your efforts. God bless you. Ravi from USA
    by Dr Ravi K. Puri on 6th Mar 2004
  • I read with great interest your article about Nepalese culture, and I wondered, once again, how two religions, that are apparently so different, can get on well together. I also appreciated the fact that Nepalese women and girls enjoy more freedom than anywhere else in the Asian space (as far as I know). The tradition of Kumari shows that Nepalese people do not consider girls, and women, in general, as bringing back luck, as it is the custom even in some regions of Romania.
    Thank you, once again, for sending me your wonderful artcles.
    by Cristina Vintila on 27th Feb 2004
  • this was a completely enjoyable article! the visuals presented by the words were very realistic - almost as if one were there with the author with all these things going on :).
    to have another culture opened up for us to read about is simply a marvellous way to learn that we are all so very unique, & that unique societies offer so much just by their very existence - even if one has never seen it for oneself.
    thank you for such a beautiful piece.
    by uus on 22nd Feb 2004
  • Another great article. brings back so many memories of Nepal!
    Wonderful pictures!
    Living with the gods in daily life sure is a different experience than seeing statues in a museum. But let us not forget, the statues were ment to be worshipped by poor peasants with unruly sons....
    Thanks again
    GABI from Japan
    by Gabi on 18th Feb 2004
  • It is always a pleasure to recieve your articles. This one on Nepal is extraordinary. As an artist I am very influenced by the beauty and myths of the asian people. Thank you for creating such informative works to share.
    by Elise on 17th Feb 2004
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