Text by Anil Chitrakar

In all cultures around the world and throughout human history, when ever men failed, the power of women was invoked. Nepal and its cultural heritage is no exception. It is perhaps with this tradition in mind that women power is now recognized with the establishment of the Nava Durga Awards named after the various powerful women deities in Nepali tradition. Of the many forms of supernatural women goddesses in Nepal, one of the most popular is Bhagwati. The name itself is very common among Nepali girls and women to this day.

The cosmic and earthly struggle between good and evil has been going on forever. One of these critical battles is won by Bhagwati who is very often depicted in the Kathmandu valley as a beautiful woman on a lion and has multiple arms carrying various weapons. The demon (evil) she overcomes is often depicted as a water buffalo (and hence social acceptance of the inhuman slaughter of this animal on a daily basis).  These artistic depictions are in stone, metal, bronze, paubha paintings and wood and can be seen all over the valley and beyond. There are numerous beautiful and magnificent temples dedicated to Bhagwati. During the annual festival of Dashain, huge crowds are seen performing rituals and animal sacrifices at these sacred power sites (shakti pith). In many homes, people also have smaller statues of Bhagwati and is worshipped daily.

One of the earliest and most popular Bhagwati statues and temple is the one at Palanchowk. The site is a short drive off the Arniko highway beyond Dhulikhel. It is on top of a hill and surrounded by a small settlement. The date on the statue is Saka Sambat 425, which is 503 AD. Those who have seen the statue with its silver ornaments, red vermillion powder and flowers really appreciate the amazing level of detail and fine work accomplished by the artist. It is great piece of art. There are four other statues crafted and enshrined in the valley from the same period and, as legend has it, by the same artist. There is one at Nala village, which lies on the ridge that separates Bhaktapur and Banepa. Another one is situated along the Bishnumati river – the Shobha Bhagwati and the fourth at the Naxal crossroads – the Naxal Bhagwati.

There is a very popular legend that is told repeatedly, about how the four stone masterpieces were done by the same artist. As the story goes, Mana Dev the Licchavi ruler of Nepal decided to take time off and meditate at a monastery in Sankhu during the 5th century AD. He left the responsibility of running the day-to-day affairs of the country to his mother Nawa Sagar. She took this opportunity to commission the best artist in the land to make a statue of Bhagwati. The unknown artist first made the masterpiece at Palanchowk. The mother ruler fearing that the artist would make a replica, had one of  ‘his’ arms cut off or as another version goes, two fingers of the right hand were chopped off. The artist was not deterred and went on to carve the Shova Bhagwati at Bishnumati. His arm was chopped off. With the one remaining hand, he carved the Nala Bhagwati. The second arm was chopped off. He then used his feet to carve the Naxal Bhagwati, which originally was called Nawa Sagar Bhagwati. One needs to take a trip to all four sites to authenticate the legend starting with the masterpiece at Palanchowk and the less than mediocre image at Naxal. There seems to be some truth in the legend.

It is a very depressing story, but Nepalis love to tell it time and again. There must obviously be something in their daily lives that they are able to relate to, with this legend. Good and skillful people are often nameless and secondly good work is not rewarded. There is a similar story in South Asia about the designer and builder of the Taj Mahal. The rulers made sure he would never build another one.

There is yet another legend related to the wrath of the Naxal Bhagwati. It seems that at one point in Nepal’s history, Bishal Nagar was the main settlement and the seat of power of the rulers. However, the arrogance of the ruler was so intolerable that Naxal Bhagwati “caused a fire which destroyed the ruler and the entire city”. What is left of Bishal Nagar is just the name and a neighborhood which survives to this day.

Less famous but a very popular temple dedicated to Bhagwati can be seen at the Hanuman Dhoka palace area. As you walk from Maru towards Makhan, one passes a number of stores selling handicrafts and traditional paintings on your right. If you look up, you see the three-tiered Bhagwati temple. The construction of the structure is attributed to King Jagajaya Malla (1722-36). It is believed to be originally a Vishnu temple, but the image was “stolen” in 1767 and King Prithvi Narayan Shah is said to have brought a Bhagwati image from Nuwakot and installed it there.

Anil Chitrakar is a founding member of  Kathmandu 2020 and
has launched  Crafted in Kathmandu to help local artisans.
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