The Shantipur Story

Features Issue 199 Jun, 2018
Text by Eliz Manandhar

As King Pratap Malla entered the darkened vestibule of the temple, legions of bats awoke to the cadence of his footsteps and flapped and fluttered about in the dark, further intensifying the horrific omnipresent dread in the room. Serpents slithered into the room from other chambers, hissing about in the pitch-black. The king was carrying a lamp in one hand and a puja-offering in another; the lamplight flickered chaotically in the dark, and he had to pacify the cold serpents with the milk he was carrying. After a while, he heard faint and muffled cries coming from nearby. These soft cries gradually turned into hysterically loud and piercing wails and the poor king was left shivering in fright. As he looked around, he saw veiled figures in white prancing about in the darkness; their phantom limbs were swaying to the rhythm of the howling wind that had engulfed the room. There was horror all around him as he tried to make his way further into the corridors of despair; the phantoms were now closing in on him.

Pratap Malla’s sole reason for visiting this haunted shrine of horrors was to meet the enigmatic man/entity who had been living there for the past 1500 years; the man was a potential rainmaker who, as legend had it, could please the gods to bring an end to the long drought that had been troubling his land. When offers to a zillion other deities had proved futile, he had decided to seek out the reticent Shanti Shree. Shanti Shree himself had been a disciple of the revered Guru Gunakar Dev, who had given the former permission to live within the four walls of the temple and look after it.

Freeing himself from the invisible grasps of the phantoms, the king finally made it to the 27th room—the final dark room in the temple— where he found a ghost of a man, a shockingly gruesome figure in skin and bones meditating in the darkness, oblivious to the happenings around him. After a lengthy discussion, Shanti Shree agreed to help the battered king, and the drought finally came to an end. Pratap Malla recorded the events he witnessed in a book, which was read by a large number of the curious public.

So goes the story of the mysterious Shantipur Temple in Swoyambhunath, where worshipers are prohibited entry by the priests. Like the ancient king, the worshipers hope to find the mysterious Shanti Shree inside the temple. Only the chief priest can enter the temple once a year to offer prayers to the tantric deity Chakrasamvara. When it comes to what happens within the four walls of the secret chamber inside the temple, things are very hush-hush; no one’s telling anything.

The infamous earthquake of 2015 brought its own share of troubles to the temple, destroying not only the inner chamber, but also the wall of murals in the vestibule. These murals depict scenes from the Buddhist text Swoyambhu Purana. Various manifestations of Lord Buddha can be seen visiting Swoyambhunath, which itself had magically appeared in the middle of a giant lotus after the valley had been drained of water from the original lake. The murals also depict the day-to-day lives of the people of the time.

According to renowned artist and critic, Madan Chitrakar, “The myth of Shantipur dates back to late 17th to early 18th century, when King Pratap Malla is said to have visited the shrine personally. It was during the times when Kathmandu was experiencing the height of the esoteric sect of the Shakti cult. As the Buddhist stream of Vajrayana had also remained equally strong and popular then, it is more than likely that, originally, the murals may have had depicted imageries from those prevailing beliefs i.e. Vajrayana, or mythical narratives based on it.

But, the mural that went fell as a result of the great quake of 2015, to the best of my information, is relatively very recent. As has been understood, it essentially depicted the narratives from the Buddhist texts Swoyambhu Purana and Mahayana tales, notably from the earlier lives of Lord Buddha. The artist of the recent murals was Indra Bahadur Chitrakar (1921–2015), who passed away at the ripe age of 95, and is believed to have painted or repainted the murals during the early part of the last century. It is not known whether he created new images based on the earlier references, or simply painted over the earlier images.”

UNESCO came to the rescue straight after the devastating earthquake and joined hands with the Department of Archaeology, the Federation of Swoyambhu Management and Conservation, and the temple community. The likes of Alexander Von Rospatt, Professor of Buddhist and South Asian Studies at the University of California in Berkeley, archaeologists David Andalfatto and Rodolfo Lujan, and the late Dina Bangdel, an historian of Nepali art, became involved with the restoration, with funding by the Fokn Ying Tung Foundation of Hong Kong. Rodolfo Lujan, who notably worked on the Lo Manthang monasteries until 2003, is currently in charge of the project, with the plan of action being to detach the paintings and moving them to the national museum in Chhauni for restoration. Lujan is an internationally acclaimed mural painting and conservation specialist.

In a video prepared as part of the rescue mission, “The Conservation and Restoration of Mural Paintings in the Shantipur Temple, Swoyambhu Monument Zone of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage property”, Lujan and his team of archaeologists, engineers, and other professionals are seen installing scaffolding to clean the murals in-situ and using synthetic resin to piece together the detached and damaged slabs. In order to protect the paintings from further damages while removing them from the walls, two layers of protective coatings were applied. Firstly, a layer of gauze, followed by a layer of cotton. They were attached with synthetic resin. The paintings were then carefully removed along the cracks to minimize the loss. The removed paintings were then placed on plywood and moved to a safe storage site. The thick and heavy layers of mud-plasters were reduced by chiseling away the material from the back. Cracks were filled with a paste made with rubble from the mural mixed with casein, followed by a thin layer of mud-plaster, also mixed with casein. Next, a layer of gauze using a casein-solution was applied to the back. This was followed by an application of two more layers of mud-paste in order to reinforce the painting fragments. Next, the facing that had been attached to the front of the murals was removed using organic solvent. Finally, the facing was removed, and the paintings were carefully cleaned.

The question lingering on our minds is whether the mural paintings should be left in the museum to be exhibited as a part of what once was, and the walls in the Shantipur Temple to be painted completely anew, or should the paintings be restored to preserve history in its entirety?

According to Chitrakar, “Apparently, only two options seemed available, or possible, after the destruction ; first, try to collect and salvage all the debris and put them meticulously together like in a game of jigsaw puzzle and restore. Even a layman would know it is, of course, next to impossible. The second option is to recreate the murals, retaining the original forms as best and close as possible to the earlier original imageries. And, to do that, one does need an authentic historic reference to guide the artists—the contents and the style as was created then.

So, to do that here, a thought on our earlier tradition of mural becomes highly desirable even before contemplating this option. To begin with, no earlier religious murals in Kathmandu Valley have ever appeared out of the blue. It has always remained an essential part of a larger religious practice, and often as a part of the paraphernalia of the concerned shrine, its related annual event, custodians, and most important, the designated group of artists coming from a particular clan of Chitrakar (Pun) associated with the shrine, with a donation of land to them, or their collective unit (guthi), in return for their work. This has been the normal traditional practice, and this shrine should not be an exception. Usually, the concerned clan or guthi always maintains a master sketchbook, the Thya-Safoo, translated as ‘folded book’, to guide the artists to do the desired tasks. Such sketchbooks contain all the needed details of the images to be painted. These booklets are handed down from one generation to the next so as to maintain the continuity.

So, if the objective of the present stakeholders is to recreate or retain the original shape and form as existed traditionally, the first task is to identify the designated painters from the Chitrakar caste and find out how and what has been guided or documented as the reference for repainting the mural. Then, they may decide on whether to ask the right people to get the murals repainted as has been prescribed in the book, or to create it entirely new, with little to do with the past.

Here it may be interesting to recall an episode. Immediately after the devastation of the murals, a high-level seminar was organized on how to salvage the debris or proceed further on the issue. It was well-funded by a UN agency, and conservation-experts all the way from Europe were invited at huge cost. However, the exercise proved quite futile, for the entire exercise lacked the needed information. It was initiated without checking the ground reality, and with little respect for the local experts and traditions. No wonder the entire episode came close to the famous fable of the six blind men groping an elephant.

We asked Chitrakar about the expected time schedule in which the project would be completed. He says “The construction phase of the building is still on. Preparations for the murals have a long way to go, but it is high time the stakeholders begin brainstorming on whether to go for roots, as has been argued above, of the traditional art and the tradition, or choose a path as advised and decided by conservationists from international organizations.”

We can but only wait and see what the future has in store for the priceless murals.