Seto Machhendranath

Destination Issue 65 Jul, 2010
Text by Roshan Gurung / Photo: Dinesh Rai

While walking from Ason to-wards Indra Chowk, if you come across an  image of the Buddha on a beautifully carved stone pillar to your right, you know you’ve reached Machhendra Bahal also known as Jana Bahal. Entering through the gateway you are confronted by a large pagoda temple dedicated to the Seto (white) Macchendranath. This deity  is recognized by Hindus as the god of rain. To the Buddhists, he is an aspect of Avalokiteshwar and once a year, his image is carried around in a chariot through old Kathmandu. The festival takes place during spring and lasts for four days. This year it started on 26 March.

As you step into the courtyard, you encounter a large number of pigeons that are constantly being fed corn. The temple is sadly enclosed with ugly iron grills to prevent theft as idols have been stolen from temples around the valley. The walls are covered in gilded images and the tympanum is exquisite. No matter what time of day one visits, there are always devotees making the rounds, burning incense and oil lamps and paying homage at the inner sanctum. The pagoda is surrounded by residential buildings with shops on the ground floor.

It is believed that the Seto Machhendranath
was established in the 10th Cent. C.E. and at one time, invaders from western Nepal had taken the image as a prize of war. However, for some reason they then abandoned it at the Kali Gandaki basin. When later, this king’s dynasty was persistently plagued by disease, they held the image responsible and had it returned to Kathmandu. But for years it lay buried until  rediscovered in the time of Yaksha Malla. It was then that a shrine was built for the god. Within the temple courtyard are many monuments from medieval times including a surprisingly European looking sculpture. This was perhaps introduced at a later date. Nonetheless, this image is also worshipped along with the rest and much incense is burned and vermillion powder put on it. There are two Machhendranaths in the valley and the other, known as the Rato (Red) Machhendranath resides in Patan, enjoying its own separate festival, which can last upto three months. The better known Red Machhendranath is the older of the two.

The image of the Seto Machhendranath is painted white and taken out in a chariot procession once each year.Before the festival begins, the image of this god is bathed and brought from the temple to where the chariot is built in preparation for the procession. When the festival begins in March/April, it is taken from one location to the next where it stays for the day. At every stop devotees pay homage and lay offerings to the god residing within the chariot. The priest who rides on the chariot, distributes prasad to the people who surround it. A large number of Newar followers pull the chariot from place to place by means of large ropes. The chariot is built at Durbar Marg from where it is pulled through Ason where it rests for the day. It finally reaches Kathmandu Durbar Square where a large number of devotees arrive to pay homage. Eventually the image is returned to the god’s temple in Machhendra Bahal.