Legacy of a Dynasty: Kirateshwar & the Kirants

Features Issue 70 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

Every day at Kirateshwar, a small number of Kirants come for various rituals. A few of the attendants are members of the three committees that are responsible for the development, administration and pujas at Kirateshwar. According to the gurus, Kirateshwar was the place where the Kirantis of old prayed and buried their dead further down towards Pashupati.

It was many years ago that I had accidentally discovered the Kiranti burial grounds at Pashupatinath during one of my many walks around the valley. I crossed the river where it is dammed and a narrow bridge leads to the eastern bank of Bagmati. I walked into the light forest above and stumbled upon gravestones that marked the graves of many Rai people along with those of people from a few other ethnic groups. Years later, I made another interesting discovery not far from the cemetery. As I climbed above the Kirateshwar temple of Mahadev (which lies on the way to Guheshwari), I came upon two priests doing their daily pujas on top of this hillock. A small shrine consisting of an eight-stepped pyramid that is painted white is at the center. A canopy protects the shrine from rain and around it there are many white flags with writings in a strange script. The two priests turned out to be Kiranti gurus: one a Limbu priest named Khadga Sher Nembang and the other, a Rai priest named Jit Bahadur Rai.  The writing on the white prayer flags I was told, is a Kiranti script. Every day, these two priests pray here; first separately and then together at the central shrine (the Pyramid). There are many small and simple shrines around the place. Although Kirants are not really Hindus (many supposedly started following Hindu practices after the Gorkha conquest in the 18th century) they pray to Shiva. This practice goes back to a time when people were either followers of Shiva (Shaivites) or Vishnu (Vaishnavites) and Hinduism was still evolving.


The Limbu guru says, “Our ancestors prayed here and we are just carrying on the tradition. We pray three times a day; morning, noon and evening.” Not much is known of the Kirants who ruled over the valley before the Lichhavis arrived, but if one is to search, many religious practices like the hoisting of lingos (ceremonial poles) began during the Kiranti period. They are said to have ruled the Nepal valley (now Kathmandu valley) for more than 700 years beginning before the birth of Christ. Kathmandu valley in the early days was known as Nepal, a fact quite easily verified as villagers coming to the valley always said they were going to Nepal. Even now, some people living in the hills around the valley refer to Kathmandu as Nepal.

Historians have been able to find the names of 32 Kiranti rulers beginning with Yalamber who is even mentioned in the Mahabharata. A Kiranti army is said to have fought in the epic battle. Legend has it that when Krishna asked the Kiranti King Yalambar whose side he would take, the bold king replied, “The weaker/losing side.” On hearing this, Krishna is said to have beheaded the Kiranti king with such a terrific blow, that Yalambar’s head reached the Nepal valley .It is believed that the mask kept at the Akash Bhairav temple in Indrachowk belongs to Yalambar.

Rai, Limbu and Yakkha are recognized as Kirants. Rais are actually Khambu and the title ‘Rai’ was probably given to them by the conquering Shah dynasty. Sudarshan Raj Tiwari in his book “The Brick and the Bull”, 2002 (Pg. 23) states, “The similarities among the cultural practices of bygone days leave little doubt that the Kirants did indeed come from the Indus-Saraswati Valley.” It has not been definitely ascertained where the Kirants came from.

During Visit Nepal 1998, the Lalitpur Municipality had published a booklet with a chapter on the history of Patan. It said “Lalitpur is one of the oldest towns in the valley. It is believed to have been founded in the Third Century by the Kirantis and expanded by Lichhavis in the Sixth Century.  It has a history of further expansion by Mallas during the medieval period.” (Lalit Festival ’98. Pg. 37). Historians believe the Kirants first ruled the Nepal valley from their durbar in Gokarna until they were driven out by the Lichhavis. They then settled in a place called Shankhamul, which is how they came to establish the city of Patan. There are many people in Patan who talk of interesting legends related to the Kiranti rulers of 2000 years ago.

Anil Chitrakar in his article “Yalambar: King of the Kirants” writes, “Legend has it that Yalambar was the first king of the Kirant dynasty to rule Nepal. People also believe that the Newar name of Patan ‘Yala’ is actually named after this king. Near the Patan Durbar Square, one can see the archeological site of what is believed to be the remains of this Kiranti king’s palace. We have so little information on the Kirant dynasty, yet there are numerous legends and tips that lead us to the Kiranti everywhere. It seems that numerous rituals, festivals, icons and names of places that we see in the Kathmandu valley are from the Kirant period. There is a neighborhood in the northern part of Patan city known as ‘Chyasal’. It is said that here, 800 (chyasa in Newari is 800) Kiranti warriors fell to the invading Lichhavis.

According to Tiwari, the Bal Kumari mandir of Chyagal, Patan, was originally a Kiranti temple. Apparently, there are many temples around Patan that date back to Kiranti times and are rectangular in shape. They usually house Bhairav and Bhimsen, as well as Bal-Kumari Ajima and other mother goddesses which the Kirants worshipped. They are said to have been renovated during the Malla times. Tiwari claims “They are obviously designs from the Kirat domain.” There is further evidence that these are of Kiranti origin as Mary S. Slusser has written: “There are two sites in Patan where the Kiranti maintain traditional ties. One of these, the Siddhalaxmi temple near Tyagal-tol attracts certain Kiranti families for the annual worship of their clan god, the Kuldevata (degu devali). The other site, Tikhel, Southwest of the old city proper, Kirants recently restored a shrine in deference to their tradition that a Kirata temple once stood here. …Even more intriguing than the legendary association of the Kirata with Patan is modern custom that provide a link with the Kirati of eastern Nepal, a people who are perhaps Kirata descendants. Slusser adds: “What, if not some ancient association, should bring modern Kirantis of distant and inaccessible eastern Nepal to a particular temple site in Patan, or induce them to foregather. (Nepal Mandala pp 96-97).

Tiwari makes many interesting points in his book. For instance, he writes, “…The Kirats also eventually established themselves as a ruling house in the valley. They ruled for 32 generations, until they were overthrown by the Lichchhavi (kings) around the middle of the first century CE. They were apparently pushed eastwards into the Tamakoshi and the Arun river valleys. A sizeable number appears to have continued to stay on in the Kathamandu valley too.” In the same page (pg.22) he says, “Early Kirats, the Kirat of Kathmandu valley in the first millennium BCE, and the presumed Kirat of today are, naturally, very different. Only their most fondly held beliefs would have survived through the long centuries of inter-culturation.”

One shocking conclusion that Tiwari comes to in his book is his belief that the Jyapus are the descendants of the ancient Kirants of Kathmandu valley. He states “Pottery as a traditional trade among Newars has remained the purview of the Prajapati, the Awale and the Kumah, all of whom are believed to have Kirat origins.”  The Kirants are said to have settled in many different locations around the valley besides Gokarna and Patan. There is much evidence of their residence in Thankot and Hadigaon (Originally ‘Andipringga’ in Kiranti just as Pharping was called ‘Phalapringga and Khopa now Bhaktapur was Khopringga). Tiwari states “Here, at Dabal, the pole is raised in honour of the goddess of Andipringga. It is an obviously Kirat New Year’s announcement and honours both the king and the tutelary goddess, albeit in different places. The tutelary god Bhairav with his face mask, similar to that of Bhuteshwor Bhairav is believed to be a representation of the Kirat king and is also seen in various other places in Kathmandu Valley speculated to be Kirat seats of power or a palace.”

Since Gokarna became the private property of the new rulers of Nepal, the Kiranti people never ventured there again. However, there is a forest named Hathiban on the way to Godhavari where the Kiranti people hold their pujas to this day. Two of the important Kiranti pujas are the ‘Udhauli’ and ‘Ubhaili’. These pujas are held at both Hathiban and Kirateshwar and a large number of Kirantis attend. A big eight-day puja is held during Shivaratri as Kirantis still worship Shiva. The other important puja is held on the day of the Mahaguru’s (Great guru of the Kirants) Birth Anniversary.

Every day at Kirateshwar, a small number of Kirants come for various rituals. A few of the attendants are members of the three committees that are responsible for the development, administration and pujas at Kirateshwar. According to the gurus, Kirateshwar was the place where the Kirantis of old prayed and buried their dead further down towards Pashupati, but once they were driven from the valley, others took over and a temple of Madhev was built here. Today, these gurus pray here: in the morning at 8am; then at noon and once at 6pm in the evening. Three committees were formed in 2000: The Kendriya Karya Samiti headed by Bishnu Bhatta Pomu; The Mahila Samiti (Womens’ committee) headed by Shobha Maden and a Puja Samiti headed by Bir Bahadur Yongya.

Vice-President of the Kendriya Karya Samiti, Bir Bahadur Limbu says, “We are going to build a proper single-storey temple to house the shrine. Money is being donated for the construction. We have approached the ministry for help and they are sending us an engineer. A water system is already being built for which a fund has been sanctioned and a contractor hired to complete the task. A toilet and bathroom is also coming up soon. So, things are moving smoothly now.” When asked why there is little publicity about this part of Kirateshwar (Only the full moon concert at the shrine below gets publicity), Limbu replies, “We once had quite a lot of media people attending a puja ceremony here. But the only people who actually showed anything about this place was a German TV crew. One of our people saw the program in Germany and informed us. Back home, nothing was shown or published in the local media.”

A lack of interest in Kirati history and too little research has kept us in the dark about a rich Kiranti legacy. We Nepalis and especially Kirants, have a limited knowledge of our own heritage and sadly need people like Mary Shepherd Slusser to open our eyes.