Appeasing the Deity and the Lord: Some Sacred Landmarks of Kathmandu

Destination Issue 83 Jul, 2010
Text by Jebin Gautam

Situated almost in the center of the Valley, the Kathmandu Durbar Square, with its red-
bricked pagoda temples and semi-European palaces, beckons history along with beauty right before one’s eyes. Although located amidst the concrete jungle of the present day city, Durbar Square area portrays a completely different era, rich with the architecture and structures dating back to the days of the 16th century Malla kings, blended with the European style palaces from Rana times. Much of Nepal’s history has occurred in this very setting.

The Durbar Square area forms a caucus of temples devoted to almost every Hindu deity. Starting from the house of the living goddess, Kumari, there are temples of Kasthamandap, Shiva and Parvati, and the demonic statue of Kal-Bhairav.  But amongst these variegated structures, stands the elegant and dignified temple of Taleju Bhawani atop a high plinth casting its wary vision over all the neighboring temples, the town area and especially the coronation palace of the kings starting from the Mallas to the Shahs. Dating back to the 14th century, the credit for its present appearance is given to King Mahendra Malla, who renovated the temple in 1579 AD.

The temple, which resembles a three dimensional mandala, is located in Trishul Chowk, a courtyard named after god Shiva’s trident. As snakes spiral down its doorways and growling lions with ferocious fangs protect the overdone entrances, the intricate and elaborate designs complement the supremacy of the deity it shelters. The roofs are gilded with copper and so are the doors, while golden kalashas (water pitchers, but in this case purely for decorative and possibly symbolic purposes) and metal flags with mantras from religious texts, hang down from the carved struts.

Maintaining its distance from commoners, the shrine stands atop 12 plinths of various heights and is guarded by two walls, the first being the 8-foot wall immediately besides the street and the other four plinths below the shrine. The main entrance, which opens to the south and is known as the Singha Dhoka (‘Lions Gate’), has stone lions guarding it. The arched frame is carved with mythical creatures from
traditional folklore.  Similarly, 12 miniature two-storied temples line the broad eighth stage and immediately, a stage above it, four similar temples lie in the four corners.

Taleju Bhawani, also referred to by the locals as Tulja Bhawani or Taleju Maju, is considered the patron, protective goddess of Kathmandu Valley. Legends say that the deity was brought to Kathmandu by Bhaktivar Khilji, as a trophy of the invasion of Ayodhya. Since then the deity has been revered by the residents of the city as their benefactress, shielding them from harms’ way. Moreover, the temple is open to the general public only during Nawami, the ninth day of the Dasain festival (considered the greatest festival of Nepalese Hindus). Soothsayers say that in the 18th century the chief image was defiled and smashed to pieces by King Rana Bahadur Shah after his queen’s suicide.

Thenceforth, it is said, the deity was isolated from the general public to prevent such events from reoccurring. The deity is left to herself throughout the year, as the myth goes, to not to bother her with the petty problems of each denizens of the city. The living goddess Kumari, who is believed to be the young incarnation of the goddess, was given that responsibility instead. Then the deity directed her attention to rather important and critical matters that concerned the safety and prosperity of the land. Hence, each year on the day of Dasain, her devotee’s flock to the temple with sacrifices and presents to express their appreciation. Usually the sacrifices start early on the night of Kal-Ratri (the eight day of Dasain) until early morning of Maha-Nawami to appease the mercurial temper of the deity.

Not very far from the temple of Taleju Bhawani, as one proceeds straight north from the Army Hospital, and opposite Durbar High School, the country’s oldest school, is a large pond known as the Rani Pokhari. Literally translated as the ‘Queen’s Pond’, the name evokes mystery and enigma among the local people. The inscriptions placed in the four corners of the pond reveal that it was constructed by King Pratap Malla in the year 1664 AD, in honor of his three sons. But skeptics question why, if the pond was dedicated to the princes, it was referred as the ‘Queen’s Pond’. Another story recalls that the pond was built by the King in the memory of his dead son, who was trampled by an elephant during his coronation ceremony. This also explains the presence of an elephant’s statue along with three riders on the southern side of the pond. But, again, there is a dispute over the identity of the riders. Some believe that they are King Pratap Malla’s three sons, while the others believe it to be the King and the Queen along with their dead son.

In spite of being inundated with arguments and disputes, the pond shimmers with beauty and elegance. Its size has greatly diminished with age and the urbanizing city. Wide roads constantly packed with busy traffic surround it. But in spite of the hindrances imposed by the growing city and the changing landscape, the vicinity features a well maintained garden along with ducks and fishes in the sacred water. Stories reveal that sanctified water from 51 different pilgrimage sites from all over Nepal and India was poured in here. The Mogul-style temple, which resembles a miniature mosque, was built by the Rana rulers as a replacement for the decayed pagoda-styled temple built by King Pratap Malla.

Just like the temple of Taleju Bhawani, Rani Pokhari is opened to devotees only once a year. But in this case the devotees are limited only to those who do not have a brother or a sister. During the fifth day of Tihar, on Bhai-Tika, brothers (bhai) receive a seven colored tika from their sisters; but, in case one does not have a brother or a sister they visit the Yamaleswor temple, the Mogul-styled temple to pay their homage to Lord Shiva. The actual purpose of this tradition is to enable men without sisters to meet women without brothers, so they can celebrate the festival of Bhai-Tika just like everyone else. Nowadays, many men and women sit on the causeway that leads to the temple to receive tika and blessings from
others like them.
To find Taleju Bhawani
The best way to reach the Temple of Taleju Bhawani is to take a cab to Kathmandu Durbar Square. Taking the local transport (bus) is not advisable, as they are quite clumsy and usually crammed with pickpockets. If you prefer walking, first go to the New Road gate and then walk straight west. Once you reach the Durbar Square vicinity it is hard to miss the Taleju temple. There are plenty of restaurants close to the temple, thus the view can be enjoyed over a cup of coffee or anything you prefer. The temple looks especially splendid in the evenings. Hindu temples are not receptive to individuals of different religion, therefore it is impossible for non-Hindus to enter the temple complex. Hence outsiders need not wait till Nawami to visit the temple, unless you want to experience the festive spirit of devout Nepalese. As Hindu festivals follow lunar calendar, this year Maha-Nawami falls in the 8th of October and Kal-Ratri is just a day ahead. 

To find Rani Pokhari
The Queen’s Pond or Rani Pokhari is within walking distance from Durbar Square. Just walk north from the New Road Gate, mentioned earlier, until you come to Durbar High School. To avoid the hustle of the traffic and commotion of the pedestrians, the scene is better enjoyed during the nights of the Tihar festival, when the pond is fully lighted. Nowadays, Chaath, a festival celebrated by the residents of the Terai, which comes right after Tihar, is also celebrated in this vicinity. Chaath involves worshipping the setting sun; therefore this puja rarely ends before nightfall. The temple and the pond are illuminated with lights, colors and joyfulness on that day. So visiting the temple during Chaath might be a better option. It falls on the 4th of November this year.