Text by Anil Chitrakar

As you walk the streets of Kathmandu or enter the various monument zones, you will come up to many statues of the Garuda. It is quite easy to recognize the half man half bird. Usually the Garuda is seen in a kneeling position on top of a pillar and in the ‘Namaskara mudra’. Putting two and two together, one should be able to derive that the temple in front of any Garuda is a Vishnu temple because Garuda is the vehicle, devotee and loyal follower of Vishnu. One should also not be confused when the temple is refereed to as a Narayan temple; for Vishnu and Narayan are the same. Further  one should nod knowledgably when the Vaishnab or Buddhist relates slightly different versions of the story because Buddha is recognized as one of the incarnations of Vishnu. See how everything fits together so well in Nepal?

One of the most beautifully crafted images of the Garuda is the one kneeling in front of the Changu Narayan temple. A close look at the face has made many historians conclude that this is what 5th century ruler Mana Deva must have looked like. Around the neck of the Garuda one can also see a large Naga (divine serpent). Legend has it that Garuda is a solar deity. Garuda’s mother had been made a slave by the mother of the Nagas. The Nagas put up a demand that she will be freed only if Garuda is able to bring them the elixir which gives eternal life. As the story goes, Garuda was successful and on this way back met Vishnu who was very impressed with his honesty in not keeping the elixir for himself and thus granted Garuda eternal life as well, and made him his trusted mount or vehicle. Garuda would henceforth always have a high place in front of all Vishnu temples.

The Garuda then headed on to deliver the elixir to the Nagas, but was stopped by Indra, king of heaven, who kept the elixir for the gods. The Nagas, naturally did not believe the Garuda’s story and hence they became enemies for ever. The fight between the Garuda and Nagas results in drought and they have to be in harmony to have rain and good crops. They control the sun and rain. The Buddhist version of the story of the serpent around Garuda in the Kathmandu valley, including the one at Changu Narayan, is that there was a great battle between Garuda and the Takshak Naga. The Boddhisattwa of compassion, Avolokiteswara saw that the earth would dry up in the valley and cause human suffering and hence got the two to reconcile. The symbol of this co-existence is the Naga draped around the neck of the Garuda.

If you pull out a ten rupee note, you will see the image of Vishnu mounted on the Garuda. The original stone image depicted in the bank note is found at the Changu Narayan temple compound. The image is called the Garuda Ashana Vishnu. It may be worth noting that the Indonesian airline is also named Garuda.

Each year the people of Kathmandu participate in the chariot festivals of the white and red Avalokiteshwor or Karunamaya in order to express gratitude for rain and also to seek a good season ahead. As part of these festivals, the idols of Avalokiteshwor are bathed in great fanfare and the various jewelry and decorations taken out and cleaned. One of these pieces of jewelry is that of the Satya Naga. Again legend tells us that a Naga from the Nakku area of Lalitpur had taken a human form and had gone to watch the bathing ceremony at Lagankhel from atop the Ashoka stupa. He instructed his wife not to tell anyone where he had gone for fear of an attack by Garuda. The wife did not heed his warning and gave his whereabouts away to Garuda who pounced of him. The Naga asked the Garuda for a chance to go home and promised to come back. Having scolded his wife for not obeying him,  the Naga surrendered himself to the Garuda. Impressed by the honesty of the serpent, the Garuda took him to the bathing ceremony, named him the Satya Naga (truth serpent) and offered him to Avalokiteshwor.

Another time, another Naga and another fight. This time Garuda and Basuki Naga get into a fight. The Basuki is able to cleverly escape the claws of Garuda and hides in the Bagmati river. The Naga then began to meditate to ask Pashupatinath – the lord of the animals to come to his rescue. Lord Pashupatinath, impressed with the serpent’s dedication decided to protect it from Garuda if it could stay close to him. Basuki Naga was very pleased and agreed to live in the Pashupati temple area. The Naga was then made responsible for the treasury at the temple. The Basuki Kshettra (area) of Pashupati is the temple built in the name of the treasurer Naga.

At Hanuman Dhoka, in front of the Ganesh temple and Kasthamandap, there is a large and beautiful stone image of Garuda placed there in 1689 CE. At the entrance to many Buddhist courtyards, bahals, one can see the snake draped Garuda at the top of the arch. Another beautiful image of the Garuda in metal can be seen on top of a pillar in front of the famous Krishna temple in Patan Durbar Square.

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