Viharas and the Buddhist: Past of Kathmandu Valley

Features Issue 89 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: ECS Media & Yi Wen Tan

“Pashupatinath le hami sabai ko raksha garun.”
“May lord Pashupati protect all of us.”

This was how some of the Shah kings of later days ended their speeches addressed to the nation. Now that Shahs have given up the reign, and lord Pashupati has openly admitted his inability to protect even the bhattas (the main priests at the temple of Pashupatinath), let alone the people of Nepal, maybe the new Prime minister should end his speeches with “May lord Swayambhu’s watchful eyes guide us towards peace and prosperity.”

The eyes of Lord Swayambhu are growing weary from what he has been seeing all these years and, of course, age. Poor Lord has been installed at such a location that even if he wishes not, he must see what goes on in the valley. But the closing salutation by the state figures is a long overdue to the lord, if not for his popularity, he deserves it for his age. He has been there for too long; some scholars believe his presence predates the valley.

The Period before History
Longtime ago, when there were no glitzy malls and mall enthusiasts, no Durbar Squares and the aristocrats, no artisans and artifacts, and so on, the valley was a lake, it is said. At the center of this lake was a lotus on which meditated the Adibuddha (where adi means one without beginning or end). Later Boddhisattva Manjushree (also Manjusri) drained the lake out from the Chobhar gorge and established the Adibuddha in the temple of Swoyambhu which means self-created. Even the name of the lord makes it clear that he has been there, seeing all that right from the beginning.

Swayambhu Purana, believed to be a discourse by Lord Buddha on the origin of Swayambhu stupa, mentions that ninety one eons ago Kathmandu valley was a big lake called Nagarhada or, possibly, Nagadaha (where naga means serpents and daha means lake) implying that the lake was an abode of serpents. Lord Vipashvi (Vipassi in Pali), the first of the seven Buddhas, threw a lotus seed into the lake standing on Jatamatra parvat (hill in english) or Jamacho (in Newari), now called Nagarjuna hill. At that time, Shakyamuni Buddha was following Lord Vipashvi as Bodhisattva Satyadharma. Lord Vipashvi, later, explained to his disciples that a self originated divine light of Adibuddha would manifest and people will call it Swayambhu Mahachaitya. He also proclaimed that in future Bodhisattva Manjushree will drain the water out from the valley and make it a habitable land.

There are different versions doing rounds on Manjushree’s connection to the Swayambhu stupa. At the time of the Buddha Vishwobhu (or Vessabhu in Pali), the third of the six Buddhas preceding Sakyamuni, Manjushree, endowed with the five extraordinary powers, came to Nepal from the Five Peaked Mountain in China to see the Swayambhu stupa. On reaching the site he realized that the shrine of the prehistoric Buddha was located on a high mountain and accessible only by wading through the lake Nagarhada or, possibly, Nahadaha (where naga means snake and daha means lake) implying . The lake was infested with all kinds of water monsters and serpents. Thinking that beings without supernormal powers were unable to worship the stupa, he cut a gorge and drained the waters in four days. Then through the Great Master’s magical power the lotus, which was the sacred base on which the Adibuddha meditated, was transformed into the Swayambhu stupa we know today.

The other version projects Manjushree more as a learned engineer, rather than the all powerful Boddhisattva. This version says that when Manjushree surveyed the lake standing at the top of what is now Shivapuri, an incredible idea hit his mind: to drain the water and make the place habitable. So he conducted few more surveys and found out that the lowest hill was near Chobhar on the southern side. That was just perfect for his plan of draining the lake out and also having a steady source of water that flowed down from the north into the valley. After the water was drained out, Manjushree enthroned Dharmakara as king who settled in the valley with a large followers of monks.

This version appeals more to the scientifically inclined and also gives a hint that perhaps Buddhists lay claim on the valley before others.

Apart from Manjushree, who is credited with establishing the valley, Buddhist chronicles like Swoyambhu Mahapurana, Mulasarvastivada Vinayasutta, and genealogies like Bhashavamsavali, Gopalraj Vamsavali (vamsavali means genealogy) mention, separately, the visits of many historic figures like the Buddhas of the past, including Sakyamuni Buddha, to Kathmandu to pay homage to the Adibuddha of Swayambhu. The visits of the Buddhas sound like a myth, however, a faint semblance of reality begins with the visit of Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and caretaker, to Kathmandu valley recorded in Mulasarvastivada Vinayasutta.    

Recorded History of Valley’s Buddhist Past
The four stupas standing on the mounds at the four corners of Patan, one each in Pulchowk, Satdobato, Gwarko and Sankhamool, is said to have been erected by either Charumati, the daughter of Mauryan king Asoka, or the king himself during their visit in the 3rd century BC. Since the earliest known inscription found in the valley dated to 185 AD, and there is strong assumption that the valley may have been inhabited as early as 3rd BC, the recorded history of Buddhism may date back to that period. However, as is the case with the visits of the Buddhas, there is no evidence supporting Asoka’s visit. Scholars believe that the stupas probably do date to that century because the four stupas are thought to be a part of 84,000 stupas that king Asoka pledged to build at the third Buddhist council, held in Patliputra (modern day Patna in Bihar, India). Another reason to believe that Asoka did visit the valley is the reference to the city of Patan in various Buddhist scriptures produced in the valley as Asokapattana.

Daniel Wright’s genealogy mentions that Asoka visited the valley during the reign of fourteenth Kirat king Sthunko when he heard that it was a sacred place. He was accompanied by Upagupta, his spiritual guide, and daughter princess Charumati. They reportedly visited Swayambhu stupa, Guheshwari and other sacred places and had several chaityas built. Charumati, fascinated by the mysteries of the valley, decided to stay back and was married to a kshatriya named Devapala.

Charumati and Devapala decided to build as many viharas as they could. Charumati, after the death of her husband, spent rest of her life as a bhikshuni (nun). She reportedly died in one of the vihara she built. Two charumati viharas named after her still exist in Kathmandu’s Chabahil .

Licchavis’ Ineffaceable Imprint of Buddhism
The Licchavis are mentioned in various Buddhist tales that go back to the time of the Buddha himself. Buddhist literatures like Licchavi Sutta, the Ratna Sutta and the Petavatthu mention the Licchavis in a number of discourses. They are described in pali scriptures as one of the foremost followers of Buddhism and are one among the eight recipients of the Buddha’s relics. The Licchavis, who were the rajputs (warrior clans) of today’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India, settled in Nepal after defeating the valley’s last Kirat king, Gasti.

The earliest known physical record of the Licchavis in the valley is an inscription that dates to the period of  Licchavi king Manadeva (464 AD). The inscription names three preceding rulers and glorifies King Vrasadeva (400 AD), grandfather of Mandeva, as ‘a great follower of Buddhism’.

Some scholars believe the oldest inscription relating to Buddhist history in the valley is the one found at the site of Chabahil chaitya. The inscription clearly describes about constructing a new building for a bhikshu sangha (community of monks), which hints at the construction of possibly the first vihara in the valley. It is thought that the inscription was of period earlier than Mandeva.

Among the the earliest references to viharas is Licchavi king Amsuverma’s inscription in Handigaon that mentions five most important viharas of his time: Mandeva Vihara, Gum Vihara, Sriraj Vihara, Kharjurika Vihara and Madhyam Vihara. Amsuverma was a strong patron of Buddhism who built Raja Vihara and gave ample grants to Buddhist viharas. Amsuverma gave his daughter in marriage to a Tibetan Emperor Srong Tsen Gampo (617-650 AD) who was Buddhist.

Other inscriptions of king Narendra Deva (641-673AD) installed in Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, and Yagabahal, Patan, lists Sri Sivadeva Vihara. The Yagabahal inscription also mentions viharas like Adhyaruchi Vihara, Vartakayan Gupta Vihara, and Chaturbhattansan Vihara. Sri Sivadeva Vihara, built by king Sivadeva (509-604), who later became a bhikshu, was one of the most prominent vihara of the time.

The inscription of Narendra Deva in Pashupati temple mentions his incomparable contribution to the bhikshu sangha of Sri Sivadeva Vihara. He donated two villages to Chaturdisa Arya Bhikshu Sangha (bhikshu community of four directions). In such instances, the administration of the donated villages was handed over to the community. The sangha was authorized to assign labor, adjudicate disputes, to conduct trials and impose sentences.

The vihara culture in the valley was in full-swing during the reign of Licchavis. Licchhavi rulers enthusiastically supported the activities of sangha (community of monks) or vihara and helped them with all means to function as well-organized, autonomous units. Complete devotion to the Buddhist precepts and practices can be inferred by the fact that the Licchavi kings not only made donations in cash and kind with a freehand, but also many of them went on to abdicate throne to become a bhikshu and live in viharas.  

Simhadeva, Mandeva and Rudradeva abdicated throne to enter Buddhist monkhood and ended their days in viharas. Likewise, Narendra Deva, before abdicating the throne to live in vihara, had two of his three sons put in a position to carry the Buddhist traditions. While Padmadeva, the eldest was deputed at Pingal Vihara to become a bhikshu, Ratnadeva, his second son, was put under the guidance of Bandhudatta Vajracharya. Narendra Deva built a vihara in Alagbahal, at the southern end of Bhadgaon, and spent rest of his days there.

Licchavis contributed greatly to ensure the longevity of the already flourishing Buddhism in the valley. In fact, the personal involvement and generous donations of the Licchavi rulers can be wholly credited for survival of Buddhism in the valley.

Heyday of Buddhism in Valley
Drawn in by the thriving Buddhist centers of Nepal, great many people including kings, highly learned Buddhist scholars and accomplished monks used to visit the valley to see and take part in the activities. In order to study Nepalese Buddhism and Buddhist art and architecture, many scholars from India, China and Tibet visited and stayed in Nepalese Buddhist monasteries.

Santrakshita, a famous Indain logician, came to Nepal in 743 AD and stayed for six years. Padmasambhava, a professor of Yogacharya School of Tantric Buddhism at the Nalanda Mahavihara visited Nepal in 743 AD and stayed in Nepal for four years before leaving for Tibet. Komalasila, a great Buddhist philosopher of India and a disciple of Santrakshita at Nalanda, came to Nepal in 762 AD and visited Swayambhu chaitya and Boudhanath. Dharmaswamin, the Tibetan monk who spent eight years in Swoyambhu vihara in the early 13th century, observed that there were viharas where monks were sheltered and fed. In a certain Tirtha Vihara, it is said, some six hundred bhikshus lived at one time during the reign of Licchavi King Narendra Deva.

From ancient time, Nepal was famous for Buddhist viharas. These viharas were humming with intellectual activities of Nepalese and foreign Buddhists and were the centers of propagation of Buddhist religion and culture.

Buddhist scholars believe that Patan was as good a center for Buddhist activities as the ones in Bengal and Bihars. They say that scholars from Odantapuri, Nalanda, Vikrimasila and other Indian centers of Buddhist learning streamed into the Nepalese viharas with their students. The viharas also attracted Tibetans who came here for Buddhist instructions.

Since all big viharas were inhabited by great scholars and famous priests of the time they created great collections of books. Nepalese viharas at that time became the storehouse of Buddhist literature. Charumati Vihara, Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, Rudravarna Mahavihara played significant role in this regard as, owing to their popularity, most visiting foreign scholars stayed there. Their quiet locations provided the residing monks and scholars opportunity and inspirations to create bulks of Buddhist literature which not only educated the natives but also attracted the foreign visitors.

Thakuris who took over the reign from Licchavi added to the existing viharas and contributed to renovate the older ones. The viharas at Chhusyabahal, Musyabahal, Padma Chakra Mahavihara, Dharmachakra Mahavihara are some of the eminient viharas of that period; but there are hundreds of them. Some even say that it was during the period of Thakuris that the present day vihara culture developed in the valley.

The viharas were centers of religion, education and cultural activities during the medieval period. Originally the viharas were designed as a places for training, preaching, copying religious manuscripts and provided shelter and boarding to visiting monks.  

Viharas and Buddhism as of Today
Sakyas, who survived the massacre carried out by Koliya king Viruddhaka, and Buddhist scholars of North India, who escaped large scale destruction of Buddhist centers by Huns under Mihirakula in 5th century AD, by Gaudas in 7th century AD and by Turkish Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1197 A.D, found Kathmandu, already famous for Buddhism, a safe heaven. With the support of the kings ruling the valley at that time, these Buddhist noblemen turned the valley into a hub of Buddhist practices.  

The strong Buddhist traditions in the valley began to dilute with the secularization of viharas that began during the early decades of Malla era in the 12th century AD. About mid-14th century under state coercion, the Buddhist community began to drift into the Hindu fold. Official pressure, said to have been applied initially by the zealously orthodox Jayasthiti Malla, continued throughout the Malla period.

Eventually, at some point in time, Nepal was declared a Hindu nation and from then on its glorious Buddhist history was deliberately sidelined and kept low profile. There can be some speculation about who conspired to browbeat Buddhism, but the fact that they were far from successful is evident by the presence of as many as or more Buddhist monuments, chaityas and viharas as there are temples in the valley.

A paragraph in Mary Slusser’s book Nepal Mandala sums up the Buddhist heritage of the valley like this: The Kathmandu Valley is not only an immense museum of Buddhist antiquities but is a unique oasis of surviving Mahayanist Buddhist doctrines, cultural practices and colorful festivities. The stupas, viharas, sculpture and the Nepalese Buddhists themselves provide an unbroken link with the Buddhist past...  There is also a sizeable Buddhist community that as of old turns to the stupas, the viharas and the penitents and celebrants observe the ancient and unbroken cycles of Buddhist ceremonies and festivals.

Some of the information used in this article is taken from Mary S. Slusser’s Nepal Mandala (1982) and Naresh Man Bajracharya’s Buddhism in Nepal (1998). Special thanks to Dharma Ratna Shakya, president of Buddha Vihar Sangh, and  Bidur Dangol, of Vajra Books, for their help and advice during the course of research.