Tales of Taleju

Features Issue 179 Oct, 2016
Text and Photo By Kashish Das Shrestha

The Taleju temple, which opens once every year on the ninth day of Dashain Festival is an icon of Nepali culture and for the writer, it becomes the locus to trace the countrymen’s resilience to persist in the face of devastation and tragedy. 

Under the deep blue sky still dotted with stars, ritualistic flames danced in the breeze, smoke from seemingly infinite wickers and incense spiraled upward. Ensembles with percussions and cymbals, performed steadily and endlessly as one moved on and another emerged. Melodies of flutes blended them all. As the long line of devotees who had arrived here patiently moved a few inches at a time, loud temple bells of stone rung out every few seconds, the metal ones echoed more constantly, along with the murmurs of prayers, hushed conversations, and hymns. Above, the birds were starting their day too, their calls adding to the magnificent chorus. Volunteers, a mix of pre-teens to elders, worked to keep everything in order and warned against photography. The Taleju Temple, in Basantapur Durbar Square, lived up to its mythical reputation. To be there at dawn on that cool Nawami morning in 2009, was to be washed in a powerful and moving energy one rarely feels anymore in this ancient valley of mythical proportions. 
As I got up at 2:30AM, and brewed a French press of coffee on Nawami 2015, I wondered how the Taleju temple would feel, or how many would show up to worship. The quake had taken a severe toll on one of Kathmandu’s most dominating structures. Memories of being in Basantapur as structures were still falling apart and victims being rescued from under its rubbles on April 25, 2015, as the earthquake reverberated beneath our feet was all too fresh. Still, we had witnessed a defiant celebration of Nepali spirit and cultural heritage through Indrajatra that year. And the festivities in the 8 days leading up to Nawami had been perhaps even more vibrant than the last few years many of us remembered. Perhaps in a year of devastation of historical scale, we had found strength and reassurance in our “living heritage”, the traditions and rituals that have for centuries given value to our temples, monuments, the “built heritage.”
Cycling through Jyatha and entering Ason, street dogs barking echoed periodically. As Indrachowk approached, groups of women lit up against a motorcycle passing by. Others, in small groups, headed towards temples carrying offerings. At 3:30AM, a line had already formed out Taleju’s gate, and volunteers assured those present that we would be allowed in soon. 
The sky got lighter, the stars disappeared steadily, cell phone screens continued to light up faces below. Before I knew it, I had been live tweeting the morning for almost four hours. Dozens of ethnic Newar ensembles and hundreds of devotees had lined up around the temple and made their way out. Countless “we will take your cellphone away” warnings had been launched, often to no avail. Surely, great many selfies and we-fies of worship at Taleju populated social media platforms that day. As did portraits of the Taleju temple.