Ilan Samyak: Calling Forth Dipankars

Features Issue 89 Jul, 2010
Text by Looza Mahaju / Photo: Rabindra Prajapati & Hari Maharjan/ECS Media

Dharma Ratna Shakya solemnly looks around the ornately decorated temple complex of Hiranyavarna Mahavihar. The Golden Temple’s guthi (the religious trust set up to manage and ensure the smooth running of the temple) hasn’t spared anything to decorate the vihar. Thusly, it has appeared on countless magazine articles, books and even touted as the must-visit place by famous guidebooks.

Slowly, after making his way around the vihar, he inches along to one side of the square fenced off with ornate wooden lattice work windows, done high until it greets the ceiling. Inside the room, a life-size statue is glinting. And, it is not alone. Some other statues, of various proportions, are giving it company. By the solemn and deep looking eyes, the radiance that is blazing through, it is not that hard to understand that they are the statues of gods. Not your usual god, though. If you carve a statue centering its theme on nirvana, that elusive something which almost seems like the prerogative of the blessed ones, that statue would be it. It belongs to the blessed one who walked the earth well before Shakyamuni Buddha, and like him was a Buddha too. It belongs to Dipankar Buddha. 

As he exits the temple square, Shakya heaves a long sigh. Who wouldn’t after witnessing the gods being confined like that. But, then again in festival rich lunar calendar, every god has his day. Once every five years, the Dipankar Buddha has his day: the Samyak jatra.

The march of Dipankar
Once every five year, as the heavenly bodies breathe flavors of auspiciousness in the air, statues of Dipankar Buddhas across the valley are taken out from their closets, dusted and are readied for the primary duty of any deity: to bless their devotees. Unlike other jatras, where gods resides on beautifully crafted palanquins or chariots, Dipankar relies on muscle power to reach where the rest of the council is taking place. These statues are hollow inside, made in such a way that an able-bodied man can fit inside it to ‘man’ it. Devotees and guthi people from places as far as Kirtipur take turn at hauling the gods to Nagbahal, where other 28 idols from all over the valley has been brought in to ‘participate’ in the two-day long jatra that adds another beautiful dimension to already culturally rich city of Patan.

Imagine! What a heavenly sight it must be when, one after another, 28 Dipankars march down the street to the ancient tune of traditional instruments, amid cheers and prayers from the devotees. Most of them are folding their hands, bowing their hands in reverence, in gratitude. As the Dipankars are marched across the streets, people in either side of the houses are cramming in their windows to get a view of the parade of the gods and so does the people in the streets too. Don’t think badly about them if they push you around to get a better view. If gods are marching down the streets, it’s got to be rich and a parade that is not to be missed for anything. Most of them, at least the religiously inclined ones, have rice grains in their hand, flowers and, if they are sure the coins won’t bounce off the idol and help them to earn extra religious merit, some loose changes too. They have it all cupped up in their hands. Their heads are lowered as the idols are taken to Naghbahal, where the ‘council of gods’ is in full session.
As rows of Dipankar march down the street, the devotees cup their hands, raise it to their heads, touch their temples with it and, mumbling a silent prayer, hurl it into the procession. There is almost a carnival air to all of this, sans the gigantic rides and mechanical music. Devotees are playing the game where one gets three tries with hoops to rope in anything they fancy. Well, it’s different here; oh—the actions are similar: aim, swish and throw—I grant you that. But at the fair the most crucial bit is missing, that important bit that makes it more mundane than holy: devotion and faith. You certainly don’t see anyone riding all those crazy rides, playing all those games any more religiously now, do you?

Back on the streets people have all lined up to get a better view. They follow the procession into Nagbahal, where gods and humans are mixing freely. The idols of the Dipankars are lined up in the huge courtyard and the pathways have been roped in  to allow the devotees to have a glance and pay homage to the assembled gods. A big bowl is placed in front of every Dipankar and devotees offer to their heart’s content and within their capacity to give alms.

Once upon a story
Legends have it, as always and like with everything profound in the valley, that the jatra was started to honor someone. No, no, not a divine entity, but there is the presence of the divine entity as well, otherwise how it would be a religious event? The festival was started by King Sarvananda to honor an old woman who went out of her means to honor Dipankar Buddha. The illuminated one, as the story goes, went straight past the king to receive alms from the poor old lady, who had gone great length to scour few grains of rice. Another tale pins the date to 6th Century AD, when a king named Harsha Vardhan, ruler of the great Magada empire, invited monks and started the Samyak. Whatever be its origins, the history of Samyak is deeply rooted in faith and devotion as the primary ‘instrument’ and principle ‘ingredient’ to wade through the murky and sometimes beautiful waters of reality. Which goes on to say, you’ve got to pray when the times are hard and pray harder when the times are good.