Lalitpur is justly famous for its historical role as a center for Buddhist learning and culture. This background is clearly evident in the city’s plan with its numerous Bahals and courtyards. Many community neighborhoods utilize a similar design of a central common courtyard that serves as a focus for religious and other activities. In Lalitpur, there are 15 main Bahals (Maha Viharas), which formerly functioned as residential monasteries for study and meditation. These were renowned throughout Asia and attracted students from far and wide. Practicing communities of monks are much rarer these days, and the tradition of celibate monk communities probably began disappearing starting around the late Lichhavi period more than a thousand years ago. Today’s Bahals may still have active “Sangha” with initiated monks. However, these monks have families with children, and most of the older Bahals function as residential communities. They generally remain active centers for daily worship as well as various religious and social activities.
Among Lalitpur’s ancient Bahals is Divya diwakar Samskarita Shree Vaisyavarna Mahavihara, commonly referred to as Guji Bahal. The earliest inscriptions at the Bahal are dated 747 N.S. (Nepal Sambat), or 1626 A.D. According to Fr. John Locke’s Buddhist Monasteries of Nepal, the earliest known reference to Guji Bahal is some 373 years before this in a manuscript in the Leningrad Public Library. The Bahal has many fine stone carvings, stupas, bronze works and wood carvings that are centuries old.
The majority of Lalitpur’s Bahals are vibrant social communities that are critical to maintaining a rich Buddhist cultural heritage. Guji Bahal is no exception. The present Sangha of approximately two hundred initiated monks is from the Shakya community. Shakya children are initiated into the Sangha around the age of seven through performance of the “chudakarma” ceremony. The community is led by a group of 10 elders, or “Aaju”. Newar Guthis, or cooperative societies, have been in existence for over 1500 years and all Newars belong to at least several Guthis. The main Guthi of Guji Bahal manages an array of community functions. These include daily pujas, initiations to the community of monks, the annual festival in the month of Baisakh (April-May), celebration of Buddha Jayanti, and maintenance of the Bahal complex. Many of the Guji Bahal community are involved one way or another in the area’s main economic activity of bronze casting.
One of Guji Bahal’s prominent community members is Purna Bahadur Shakya. As is common in the Shakya community, he felt that he should devote a significant portion of his resources to religion and to leave behind something tangible that the community could cherish for ages. Around 25 years ago, he had an idea to construct a statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha in the community’s common courtyard just behind the Bahal. He nurtured this dream for many years, slowly collecting resources and building community support for the undertaking. He was able to realize his dream eventually, and over the course of four years, the community completed construction of a 21-foot-tall Buddha image. The whole community participated in this impressive project. The main artists responsible for construction of the Buddha image were Ashta Raj Shakya and his son Ajay Raj Shakya, supported by many other specialists in different aspects of the statue-making process. Ashta Raj is a carpenter by profession and his son crafts beautiful bronze religious images. These dedicated men often worked late in the evenings and into the early morning as it was a sacred duty they were performing. Though they are expert craftsmen and artists, they had to learn how to work with a totally different medium as this Buddha image is constructed of bricks and mortar. Ashta said that “my art was in my heart and now it has emerged, and people will appreciate it for many years. So I am happy”. He and his son are very grateful to Purna Bahadur for initiating and guiding this project.
Of course, in order to fulfill its important religious functions, a pile of bricks and mortar must be brought to life and sanctified. This is accomplished through performing the “Prana Pratistha” (literally, life consecration) sanctification ceremonies. These elaborate ceremonies were organized by Buddhist monks and Guji Bahal’s Shakya priests in accordance with ancient scriptures. The ceremonies on the auspicious day began with community members playing Bhajans, or devotional songs. The singers were accompanied by instruments like the tabala, harmonium, tambourine and “tinchhu” (small brass cymbals). Bhajans are performed at all the community’s important religious functions. The most important part of the sanctification ceremony is the reading from the sacred “Maha Paritrana”, or great book of prayers. This is performed in a temporary circular enclosure called a “mandap”, which is used exclusively for ceremonies associated with the “Maha Paritrana”. The mandap is in the custody of the monk community and loaned to Bahal communities when required. Community members are able to participate in the “Prana Pratistha” and consecrate their own Buddha images for use in their homes. This is done through performing a “Maha Parikrama” (Great Circumambulation) around the Bahal while carrying the statues on their heads. The images are then placed in the mandap during the reading of the “Maha Paritrana”. Afterwards, the consecrated images are kept in homes and worshiped daily by the families.
The sanctification ceremony was open to the public, and monk communities from Kirtipur, Bhaktapur and other parts of the valley were invited. The community made offerings to and received blessings from the dozens of monks in attendance. In typical Newar fashion, the ceremonies were followed by a traditional “Bhoj” where several thousand people enjoyed a range of Newari delicacies.
After this great effort, Purna Bahadur Shakya can now gaze serenely from his window as the community offers respects to the Sakyamuni Buddha every day. The Lalitpur community has recognized Guji Bahal’s efforts, and the community will be hosting all of the other Bahals in organizing the celebrations for Buddha Jayanti this month. Buddha Jayanti is a sacred day that commemorates Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing from the earth (Mahapari Nirvana).