Nepal - Adventures in a Living Museum

Article of the Month - February 2004
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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.
  • Doig, Desmond. In the Kingdom of the Gods (An Artist's Impression of the Emerald Valley): New Delhi, 1999.
  • Lonely Planet Guide to Nepal: Hawthorn, 1999.
  • Majupuria, Indra. Nepalese Women: Bangkok, 1996.
  • Moore, Wendy and R. Ian Lloyd. Kathmandu The Forbidden Valley: New Delhi, 1990.
  • Moran, Kerry. Nepal Handbook, Moon Travel Handbooks, Emeryville, CA.
  • Patan Museum Guide: Patan, 2002.
  • Reed David. The Rough Guide to Nepal: 2002.
  • Sanday, John. The Kathmandu Valley: Hong Kong, 1989.
  • Slusser, Mary Shepherd. Nepal Mandala (A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley) (2 volumes): Kathmandu, 1998.

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