Minting Money & Monuments

Text by Anil Chitrakar

The Mahabouddha temple in Patan is unique for many reasons, not least of which is that it is a Buddhist shrine made in the sikhara style constructed from terracotta. In addition, each building block has a statue of the Buddha; historians and archeologist know of very few Buddhist monuments of this style in the world. The legend surrounding its construction by Abhaya Raj Shakya, who literally minted money to build the temple, and its implications for us at the present time are both fascinating.

While the popular belief is that Abhaya Raj Shakya modeled or copied the temple based on what he saw while on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, Father John Locke says that by actually looking at the two temples, we can only conclude that Abhaya Raj may have been inspired by what he saw, but the resemblance is small. What is more important is the fact that it was during his stay in Bodh Gaya that Abhaya Raj learned how to mint coins. On his return to Patan, he was probably unaware of the good fortune that awaited him.

In 1560 AD Mahindra Malla became King and with consent from the Mogul emperor in Delhi began minting and circulating silver coins. He also began circulating these coins in Tibet. During the reign of subsequent Malla kings, Nepali businessmen prospered in trade with Tibet and the coins minted in Nepal were the only currency in circulation. With the profits from minting coins, Abhaya Raj began constructing the Mahabouddha temple in 1565 AD. As legend has it, it took three generations of the family to complete the temple in 1601 AD. The current temple was rebuilt after the 1934 earthquake.

For Abhaya Raj and his siblings, as well as many families in Patan, prosperity was full and long. However, many generations later, in 1788 AD during the regency of Bahadur Shah, their fortunes changed. Tibet having accused Nepal of making coins with only 50%  silver and Nepal having accused Tibet of providing only 50% pure salt, the two sides decided to go to war.

In the 1788 war, Nepal came out the victor and initially got what it wanted. It was agreed that two old coins would now be traded for one new (pure) coin. However, the Tibetans sought the help of the Chinese emperor to put pressure on Nepal for a better deal.  In 1792, the Chinese army  advanced to the banks of the Betrawati river, and the treaty was revised in favor of Tibet. From this time onwards Nepal had little share of the minting revenue from Tibet. Nepali coins were replaced by Chinese coins. Nepal, to balance power, had to agree to sign a trade pact with British India - a compromise that Nepal had resisted for a long time.

In 1855, with Jung Bahadur Rana in power in Kathmandu, the two sides decided to fight it out again. This time the British backed the Nepali side while the Chinese were busy fighting their own wars and suppressing rebellions in the east. Nepal “won” but with little economic benefit. While the new treaty once again favored the Nepali side and trade resumed, the minting business never flourished again. It may be hard to believe that the building of the Mahabouddha temple, three wars between Nepal and Tibet as well as the beginning of Chinese influence in Tibet and British influence in Nepal can be connected to Abhaya Raj Shakya and the mint tradition of Patan, but that is what history tells us…