Mandala on earth

Mandala on earth

The timelessness and archaic atmosphere of Nepal is mesmerising, writes Lakshmi Sharath

Patan Darbar Square. (PHOTOS BY AUTHOR)

It’s a packed house. The entire open courtyard is filled with a motley crowd of people, chattering away in different languages. A group of girls walk in, wearing colourful and traditional attire and pose for the tourists. I am in Kumari Ghar, in Kathmandu Durbar Square, which houses the divine living goddess called Kumari.

It is not often that the little child goddess, referred to as Kumari, blesses her audience with a glimpse. “You have to be very lucky,” says my guide Narayan. I am lost in the rich wooden sculptures and pillars that adorn the courtyard. A couple of massive sculptures of lions greet us at the entrance. The restored three-storey brick building was originally built in the 18th century by King Jaya Prakash Malla for the Kumari.

A hush falls. All eyes are glued to the open window above us. We suddenly see a face at the window, a flash of brilliance in fact. This is the moment that we are all waiting for and yet it is all over within seconds.

An overtly bright cherubic face, with large beaming eyes lined with kajal, peeps out and scans the audience. Her eyes are sharp, and they bore right into mine and then she vanishes in a jiffy. For a moment I stand there transfixed, mesmerised by the stare of this child, barely around four years old. And then it slowly dawns on me — I have just been blessed by the sight of a unique living goddess.

Narayan explains that the child goddess is believed to be a reincarnation of Goddess Taleju Bhavani, the patron deity of the many kingdoms of Nepal. There are several myths but the most popular story speaks of a king who used to play dice with Taleju, the goddess, every night and discuss the affairs of the state. But one night he made sexual advances towards her. The angry goddess abandoned the king and his state. He begged for her forgiveness and she agreed to come in the form of a child, but insisted that he had to look for her.

Boudhanath stupa
Boudhanath stupa

The ravages of nature

I leave Kumari Ghar and walk around Kathmandu Durbar Square, where an assortment of temples built by different kings stand separated by courtyards. While the recent earthquake has destroyed most of the city and reduced the monuments to rubble, renovation is slowly in progress as each structure is being reassembled and restored.

The square is also referred to as Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square for the tall Hanuman statue standing opposite the palace. The towering statue of Kaal Bhairav looks down at me as I leave Kathmandu for the Pasupathinath temple. Dating apparently to 400 BC, the current temple, however, was built in the 15th century by one of the kings on the site of the older temple. The deity here is worshipped in the form of a linga which is almost one metre tall and is carved with five faces of Shiva that represent his different forms.

The entire temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is massive and filled with over 500 shrines and monuments. We head to the banks of the Bagmati River where the evening aarti is about to begin. The entire river is bathed in a glow as chanting begins. While the devotees are in a state of trance, dancing and singing, across the river are the ghats where funeral rites are being conducted. The cycle of life and death is enacted here on the river banks while the emotions of grief and joy flow along with the waters. I am overwhelmed for a moment.

Sculptures in Patan Darbar Square.
Sculptures in Patan Darbar Square.

 

Cultural hub

But Kathmandu is not the only city in the valley that is known for its temples. My personal favourite is the ancient Patan or Lalitpur, a treasure house of culture, heritage, arts and crafts. History explodes in every nook and corner. Temples and stupas vie for space in tiny lanes which sell masks and sculptures, thanka paintings, metallic arts and crafts besides souvenirs. I fall in love with this quaint city the moment I cross the Bagmati River from Kathmandu and land in this ancient city that oozes charm. Patan is a piece of antiquity , dating back to the 3rd century BC, and it is the centre for both Hinduism and Buddhism. There are over 130 courtyards and 55 major temples in the city.

Narayan and I walk around the Patan Durbar Square, a fantastic example of Newar architecture. The streets are laid with bricks, the locals meet for an afternoon chit chat.

There are temples and palaces everywhere. And the stories are endearing. A tall pillar of one of the kings, Yoga Narendra Malla stands in the middle of the square and locals believe that he might come back anytime and they even keep a room in the palace ready for him.

Restoration

The temples in the Patan Durbar Square are still being restored from the earthquake and the biggest and most important temple here is the Krishna temple, which has sculptures from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and has over 21 shrines.

I am more fascinated by the temple dedicated to Bhimsen, one of the five Pandavas from Mahabharata and he is worshipped by merchants as the god of trade and business. There is a temple dedicated to Vishwanath and Goddess Taleju, the patron deity of the kings of Kathmandu Valley.

The palace is stunning but it is the massive courtyards with sturdy pillars and ornate sculptures that take your breath away. There is the Keshav Narayan Chowk near the Patan museum complex, but the most beautiful courtyards are the Mul Chowk and the Sundari Chowk. 

We walk through tiny lanes and dusty roads and enter a small courtyard where the Mahaboudha temple stands. It is a replica of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya.

Narayan says that it is dubbed as the temple of 10,000 Buddhas after the tiny terracotta tiles of Buddha and over 9,000 stones were used to build them.

We head back towards Patan, stopping by at the old stupa called Boudhanath, which virtually dominates the entire skyline. It is a mandala on earth, explains Narayan, adding that this is one of the pilgrimage sites for Tibetan Buddhists.

Our last stop for the day is where the story of Kathmandu Valley began, a site which is sacred for both Buddhists and Hindus. Kathmandu valley actually started with the Swayumbunath stupa, one of the ancient and sacred sites in Nepal.

It gets a bit nippy as I climb the steps atop the stupa. It was believed that this entire area was a lake and a lotus emerged out of it.

The stupa is called Swayambu or meaning it was created on its own. The legend says that Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom and learning dreamt of the Lotus and came here. He drained the lake and made the valley inhabitable for people. The lotus later emerged into a stupa and the Valley grew around it.

It is a massive complex filled with stupas, shrines, temples, monasteries, and even a library. Standing there and looking at the stupa, I see the compassionate eyes of Buddha looking at me, perhaps with a kind smile.

The dome here represents the entire world and the pair of eyes stand for wisdom and compassion. The entire stupa radiates peace.

Even as the milieu of tourists throng the stupa, there is a serenity that fills the atmosphere. I am overwhelmed. Standing in a corner, I look out to see the entire valley of Kathmandu spread out in front of me. The setting sun adds to the glow. I lose myself in the silence and close my eyes and say a little prayer of gratitude. It is indeed a blessed moment.