Like No Other

Features Issue 99 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

It was during the heydays of the Panchayati Raj when royalty held sway over the country and the king’s men were all powerful. I was taking a stroll along Durbar Marg when I saw a raggedy crowd of village folk crowding the gates of the erstwhile Narayanhiti Royal Palace. All were dark complexioned; the men mostly dressed in white cotton dhotis and the women in bright colored saris. There must have been at least 50 of them. I stopped to watch. Soon, an elderly fellow was also standing beside me (you know how it is here; people are always on the lookout for some free entertainment). I must mention that in those days, one usually didn’t see so many people from the Terai in Kathmandu. So they did make for an uncommon sight.

I wondered out aloud as to what they were doing in the capital. The elderly fellow answered, “They are from Janakpur. They have been brought here by a politician from there. He will be taking them to Pashupatinath Temple for a visit.” It sounded reasonable enough, but one thing confused me, and I asked the seemingly knowledgeable man, “Why has the politician done that? Is it to keep a promise he made in some previous election?” Oh sure, I, too, was well aware of such stuff and thought that at least the politician was keeping his word. My companion, however, had a different take. A really surprising one I must say! “He will be taking them to Pashupatinath and asking them to take a pledge there.” I asked, “What pledge?” The old fellow looked at me, surely disdaining my naivety, and replied, “That they will be voting for him in the coming election!”

Discretion forbids me from naming that particular politician, but it used to be said that he was someone who never ever lost an election from that particular town during the days of the Panchayat regime. One can hardly doubt this, not after knowing to what extent the cunning chap went to ensure his votes!

Anyway, this is all an aside only. The main point here, for the purpose of this article, is that the politician was confident that his constituency members would not dare to renegade on their promise after taking an oath at the Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest of all Hindu temples in the country. So formidable is its reputation. And while we are on royalty and such things, let me also point out here that the bottom-line of all our kings’ occasional speeches used to be, “May Lord Pashupatinath bestow good fortune on all of us”.

Well, whether their prayers have been answered or not, let’s leave that open to conjecture, maybe Lord Pashupatinath is on a long break, the way this country is going. Nevertheless, from what we hear from recent news exposes, the temple priests seem to be doing pretty well at least and have been doing so since time immemorial, which, in the case of the Pashupatinath Temple, happens be since around 400 AD. A long time indeed, and actually, this fact alone would make it historically important. That it is one of the finest examples of magnificent Newari temple architecture in Nepal and, perhaps, the world, makes it doubly so. The fact that it is also one of the vital pilgrimage sites for Hindus to visit at least once in a lifetime, and a major destination for devotees of Lord Shiva, adds even more weight to its significance. And with UNESCO having listed it as a World Heritage Site, one cannot but be awed at its stature.

It is one of Kathmandu Valley’s seven World Heritage Sites, which also includes the Durbar Squares of Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur; Swayambhunath and Bouddhanath Stupas; and Changu Narayan Temple. The pagoda style temple of Pashupatinath houses the sacred lingam (phallic symbol of Lord Shiva). Tradition dictates that the head priests of this sacred temple must always be from south India and that only four appointed priests can have direct contact with Lord Shiva’s idol. Now, as is common knowledge, there are controversies raging around the particular diktat about the appointment of only Indian priests (“Why not Nepali priests?” is the question asked nowadays). But it is believed that this custom was started in the 6th century by the sage Adi Shankaracharya and that it was King Yaksha Malla who first brought in the south Indian Hindu priests.

Pashupatinath (Lord of the Animals) Temple is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and is specially visited during religious occasions like Ekadasi, Sankranti, Maha Shivaratri, Teej Akshaya, Rakshabandhan, Grahana (eclipse) and Purnima (full-moon day). The temple is particularly crowded with tens of thousands of devotees during Teej and Maha Shivaratri. During the Maha Shivaratri (the night of Shiva) festival, the temple remains open throughout the night and thousands of devotees take ritual baths in the Bagmati River. Thousands of sadhus from different parts of Nepal and India also congregate here for the occasion. Most denizens of Kathmandu also make it a point to pay their respects during this annual festival in February-March to Shiva, the lord of both creation and destruction. Those unable to, or those lacking the inclination to face the huge crowds at Pashupatinath, visit the Shiva Temple at Jaisi Deval near Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu Durbar Square), which is actually a handy substitute for the real thing even though it is, in its own right, an imposing structure itself.

The real shrine, however, is located on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River, and the temple complex in its totality, occupies an area of about 281 hectares. The present temple was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in 1653, but an inscription found at the site indicates that a previous temple dating back to the 5th century stood here. According to the oldest chronicle in Nepal, the Gopalraj Vamsavali, the Pashupatinath Temple was originally built by the Licchhavi king, Supus Padeva. The richly-embellished pagoda-style temple houses a six-foot-tall lingam. It has four faces, is known as the Chaturmukhi, and dates back to the 14th century. A large 300-year-old gold plated figure of Nandi (bull), Shiva’s vehicle, faces the front of the main temple. The cremation ground is nearby, with one section (Arya Ghat) reserved especially for royalty.

The 6th century Bachhareshwari Temple with its erotic carvings and dedicated to Goddess Parvati, lies south of the cremation grounds on the western bank of the river. Close to it is a terracotta figure of Lord Narayan. It is said that in ancient times, human sacrifices were made here during the Shivaratri festival. Also around the complex are temples dedicated to Raj Rajeshwari, Nawa Durga and Pancha Dewal, which is now a home for the aged. Across the river are the Ram Janaki and Lakshmi Narayan temples as well as the Shikhara-style Gorakhnath complex dedicated to Gorakhnath, the patron deity of the Shah kings. To the southeast is the Viswarup Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, but with large statues of Shiva and Parvati as well inside. Down the hill from the Gorakhnath complex is the 17th century Guhyeshwari Temple, dedicated to Goddess Kali. The Kirateshwar Mahadeva Mandir and Surya Ghat are to the west of the river.

Pashupatinath Temple is renowned for its beautiful pagoda style architecture. The temple has a two-tiered gold plated roof with a golden gajur (pinnacle) on top. Its four main doors are silver-sheeted and the wood carvings on the tundals (roof struts) are simply fascinating. There are many legends about the temple’s origins one of which is recorded in ancient local texts like the Nepalamahatmya and the Himavatkhanda. Once, Lord Shiva took refuge in Mrigasthali, the forest on the opposite bank of the Bagmati River, when fleeing from the gods in Varanasi. He took on the form of a gazelle and slept with his consort Parvati. The pursuing gods discovered him and when they tried to bring him back to Varanasi, Shiva (as a gazelle) broke one of his horns into four pieces while leaping across the river. After this, he manifested himself as Pashupati (Lord of the Animals) with the broken horn transforming into a four-faced (chaturmukha) lingam, which is the main attraction of the great Pashupatinath Temple.        

This temple is of great importance in the lives of the large Hindu population of the country and is often the first place they visit if from outside Kathmandu. And, lying as it does on the way to the airport, it is natural for people to pray for Lord Shiva’s blessings for a safe journey while on their way to catch their flights. Similarly, it is also natural for flight passengers to thank Lord Shiva when returning home after their journey. In a way, one would think that Pashupatinath is really ideally located. Also, for the Hindus of Nepal, to be cremated at the temple’s ghats is a much cherished wish - almost a guarantee of reaching heaven after their mortal life has come to an end! So, knowing this in addition to all its other equally fascinating aspects, is it any wonder why the great Pashupatinath Temple is like no other?