Sitting on the corner of the main temple complex, a pundit baje scans for an unadorned forehead.Any forehead without a tika is a business opportunity. Like numerous other bajes (old men) and sparingly scattered bajais (old women), scattered across the Sesh Narayan Temple square, Rato Baje lives from forehead to forehead, literally. Rato Baje, who takes his name from his red garb, makes his living whispering prayers and selling his blessings in the form of tika he so beautifully decorates on the foreheads of hundreds of devotees visiting the temple. Business swells during religious functions, numerous festivals that are spread across the lunar calendar to which most occasions are tethered. Even so, a day like Haribodhini Ekadashi comes once a year.
A day for Vishnu
Haribodhini Ekadashi is for Vishnu what Shivaratri is for Shiva, sans the dope and the parade of naked babas. Haribodhini Ekadashi is believed to be the day when Vishnu wakes up from his slumber and presides over the religious rites across the universe. Another legend has him guarding the gates of the King Bali in Pataal (the land down under, in Hindu literature). It is believed that the good folks in the heaven were deeply suspicious of Bali’s generous nature and had him deported, literally, to the land down under, to Pataal. But, impressed by his selfless acts and generosity, the holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva agreed to be his gatekeeper; each of them dividing three months in between shifts. So, as the scriptures have it, on Haribodhini Ekadashi, it’s Vishnu’s turn.
One cannot help but wonder: ‘Is all the fanfare to see off Vishnu? Remind him that there is someplace familiar to return to?’ “Might be,” Rato Baje says, adding, “It’s one of the most important festivities after Dashain and should be celebrated, in a mood fit for the keeper of the universe.” Looking around at the temple complex, it did look like the entire Valley had joined with Rato Baje to celebrate the day of Vishnu. The interesting part of the festival is that it’s not the Sesh Narayan Temple in Pharphing that devotees throng to. Scattered across the country, in every Vishnu temples the pandit baje and bajais will happily report a good business day. But, the most important of the festivity happens right here in the Kathmandu Valley, a city revered and respected as the abode of the gods.
Abode of the gods
In modern parlance, consider Brahma as the President and Founder of Universe, Inc.; Vishnu, as the CEO; and Shiva as Auditor who, if so inclined, can take down the whole establishment without even flinching. Being the CEO, Vishnu is the most revered, hence some of the most important Vishnu shrines have adorned the Valley since the time immemorial. To get an inkling of how Vishnu was important in the Valley, all you have to do is take a look into its past and only then you’ll catch a glimpse.
The ancient rulers of the city did all they could to make the city prosperous: they designed the city so that in the four cardinal points of the city there would be a Vishnu’s shrine watching over the valley. These shrines are Ichangu Narayan (West of Kathmandu), Changu Narayan (East), Bishankhu Narayan (North) and Sesh Narayan (South). On the occasion of Haribodhini Ekadashi, then, devotees throng to these temples from sunup to sundown. Back in the old days, they used to visit each and every one of the temples. On foot, mostly. They obviously had lots of free time back then. Now they hire a vehicle and bring some friends along: nothing’s more fun riding on a back of a truck, under a clear sky and playing musical instruments till your hands complain and give way, now is it?
It’s an arduous journey to make a trip to all the temples, since they are scattered very far from each other. The hired bus or a quick zip on a motorcycle seems logical now, but before the advent of vehicles or even roadways, people relied on their own strength to take them places. They would begin way early in the morning and finish the whole trip by nightfall: A true tirtha (a religious journey, a pilgrimage, often sprinkled with various hardships that make it more adventurous and interesting), indeed! Wherever they begin, most people try to end their journey in the Sesh Narayan Temple in Pharping. Sesh Narayan also takes its name from that. Sesh means ‘final’, hence the appropriate fit.
The Char Narayan Temple
Even before the word ‘alternative ______’ (insert an appropriate word here) became popular, the folks from yore thought of everything. Of course, not many people can accomplish that feat of covering every Narayan temple in a day. What did they do then? Did they cry in anguish; or, being god-fearing-citizens, did they spend the rest of their lives waiting for a divine retribution? No no!—they went to pray in the Char Narayan Temple in Mangal Bazaar instead. It’s closer, and altogether easier. Here’s why: char means ‘four’ in Nepali and, as you may have guessed by now, the Char Narayan Temple is where people come to worship all four gods collectively, if they cannot make it to their individual temples.
The Char Narayan Temple in Mangal Bazaar (old Patan) is adjacent to the famous landmark, Krishna Mandir. Just in front of the temple is the dabali (elevated performing space) where Kartik Nach (the dance of Kartik) takes place every year. Usually, the temple opens only during the mornings, except on the special day when it remains open until the last visible light is chased away by the welcoming rays of the moon. Madan Mohan Mishra knows exactly why he has to close the temple’s door a little late that day. (If a temple can be considered as a museum, Mishra would be the curator.) “Haribodhini Ekadashi is a special day,” he says, smiling as he wipes the sweat from his forehead. “Every god has a special day, so when Vishnu has one for himself, why not visit him to make that day extra special for him?”