As we walk around the magnificent Patan Durbar Square, we notice three stone pillars of which the biggest one has the image of Malla ruler Yog Narendra with a snake canopy and a “golden” bird on top. Yog Narendra came to the throne of Patan at the age of 18 and ruled the city-state between 1684 and 1705 AD. During this period in Nepali history, the Malla king was able to add many facets to Patan city that we can still enjoy to this day. As an example, the two sattals (rest places) on both sides of the stone stairs leading down to the stone water spouts (Manga Hiti) were built by this king and the auspicious dates related to the chariot festivals of Karunamaya (Red Machindranath) are discussed and determined on this Mani Mandapa. The dates on the pillar and sattals are 1693 and 1694 respectively.
At the northern end of the square is the large three storied temple dedicated to one of the heroes of the Mahabharat- Bhimsen. This temple was also built during Yog Narendra’s reign. He also initiated the annual festival for Bhimsen, which all merchants of Patan participate in to this day. There is a popular masked dance festival called the Kartik Nach celebrated for a whole month each year also started by this king.
Now let us focus on the snake canopy over the king’s head. Satya Mohan Joshi, Keshar Lall and Basu Pasa who have all published books on the subject have slightly different versions of the following tale. Karkota Naga was the king of the serpents that dwelt at Taudaha, a small lake one sees to your left on the way to Dakshin Kali. His wife was one day seen frolicking with another Naga (snake) in the fields of nearby Khokhana village. The two snakes were not just having a good time, but also damaging the crops. A farmer on seeing this got very angry and was disgusted by the character of the wife of the great Karkota Naga. The farmer bruised both of them as he beat them away with a stick.
At night Karkota’s wife tried to explain away the cuts by blaming the farmer and asked him to avenge her humiliation. The king Naga was angry and decided to slip into Khokhana to teach the farmer a lesson. As he approached the window of the farmer’s home he overheard the true story as it was being narrated by the farmer to his wife. Karkota took human form, thanked the farmer for the truth and presented him a special gem that would give him immortality and prosperity. The farmer lived a happy and prosperous life till he had outlived everyone he knew, and decided that the best thing to do would be to give away the gem as a gift to Patan’s ruler Yog Narendra Malla.
While these interesting events were unfolding at the southern end of the valley, another farmer from Patan had gone to Bhaktapur to sell vegetables. Having done almost no business, he was sitting in the Bhaktapur Durbar Square when the king noticed him. Hearing the farmer’s tale of woe, the King of Bhaktapur decided to buy all the vegetables and asked him to come back in the future as well. The king became a regular client and began to buy anything that the farmer had for sale. The king of Patan who did not get along with the king of Bhaktapur heard what had transpired and plotted to use it to his advantage. He had a sculptor in Patan make a stone idol of “Ku laxmi” who would bring ill fortune to Bhaktapur. The city faced many misfortunes as a result.
Bhaktapur wanted its revenge and asked the King of Patan if they could add a temple to the beautiful Patan Durbar Square. As soon as confirmation was received, the “Nishantaneshwor” Mahadev temple was built to make sure that the king of Patan would not have an heir. This is the stone temple lying on the main road, right in front of the Patan palace. It can be distinguished because no one worships it for fear of being rendered childless.
Historians tell us that Yog Narendra Malla had over 30 wives and also that he did not have a male heir when he finally decided to abdicate the throne of Patan. However, before he left the throne, he made the bronze statue with the Karkota Naga canopy and the ‘golden’ bird on top and told the people that they should know that he is alive till the day the bird flies heavenwards. We are also told that his bed, meals and “hookah” or tobacco were prepared each day till very recently at the Palace.
Throughout human history, kings, emperors, and Pharaohs, have claimed divine power, immortality and the ability to speak to God. Yog Narendra Malla of Patan was no exception. The fact that he went to great lengths to have icons placed in the palace square and the fact that people remember them to this day is fascinating. While some still seem to believe these tales, historians tell us that the king lived in Changu village after abdicating, was poisoned, cremated at Shankhamul Ghat along the Bagmati river, and that 31 of his wives committed Sati –by jumping into his funeral pyre. It is very difficult to separate history from legend, and legend from folklore, but this is what makes Nepal and her heritage so unique.
Anil Chitrakar is a founding member of Kathmandu 2020 and has launched Crafted in Kathmandu to help local artisans.
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