Heritage Issue 60 Jul, 2010
Text by Anil Chitrakar

Around Kathmandu valley, you will notice that at the base of most stone pillars, there are intricately carved stone tortoises. One can also see live and well cared for tortoises in the Bahals and temples of Kathmandu. When the people of the valley dig the foundation in order to build a new house, it is customary to first place a golden tortoise and then the first brick on its back. The logic is to hope for and pray that the tortoise will hold the house up in case of natural calamities such as the regular earthquakes that shake the valley. To understand why we come across the images and sometimes even live tortoise in sacred sites of the valley, we have to understand the worship of Vishnu or Vaishnavism.

Vishnu watches over the world and is ready to step in whenever humanity is in trouble. When he comes down to earth, he takes various forms called Avatars (incarnations). The ancient doctrines tell us that Vishnu has thus far taken nine avatars and the tenth is on the way. The second avatar is the tortoise or Kurma-avatar. Kurma or tortoise is fabled for its strong shell that forms its back and there is a popular belief that the earth is supported by a tortoise. Legend has it that once upon a time, the gods (devas) and demons (asuras) were at war and the asuras seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Fearing defeat, they approached Vishnu for help.

Vishnu devised a plan and it was decided that the devas and asuras would enter a competition and churn the ocean to see who would get the elixir or the fabled potion of immortality (amrit). For the purpose of churning the ocean, the Mandara  mountain was selected as the churning pole. The Vasuki Naga or the king of the snakes agreed to act as the rope. With the devas holding one end and the asuras holding the other end, the churning process began. Just as the asuras were beginning to win, the Mandara peak began to show signs of crumbling. Vishnu in the form of a tortoise, took his position at the base of the mountain enabling the devas to win the coveted elixir (amrit).

On 28th September 2006, I flew into Bangkok on my way to Europe. We landed at the old airport and  were then transported by bus to the new international airport - Suvarna Bhumi (Golden land). At the departure hall of this airport is a huge statue that captures the Kurma Avatar story of Vishnu. It is a great piece of art and the workmanship is very good as well. There is always a large group of passengers taking photos of the statue. There is however one problem with the iconography of Vishnu who is seen standing on the Mandara mountain. In his four hands, he has the conch shell (shanka), weapon (chakra), scepter  (gadda), but the fourth hand, holds a trident (trishul) instead of a lotus flower (padma). Is this an error or a Thai version of Vishnu? It would be interesting to find the answer.

As the story goes, the churning not only produced elixir, but also a consort for Vishu – Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. She is worshipped each year during Tihar on the new moon night. Laxmi is often depicted in Kathmandu valley iconography as a beautiful woman sitting on the lap or knee of Vishnu, as can be seen in the Changu Narayan temple complex. At her feet is  the tortoise which helped complete the ocean churning and give her birth..

During the festival of Laxmi puja, the image of Laxmi is first printed on plain paper using a wood block and then colored over. These paper images are bought in the local market place and then pasted on the walls of the household ‘safe’ or lockers where jewelry and other valuables are stored. The cow is also worshipped, fed, garlanded and protected as a symbol of Laxmi. We can assume that there was a time when wealth was displayed, and in some areas is still measured in terms of how many cows one owns.

The war between good and evil and its representation in art is probably as old as humanity itself. The insight we can draw from the legend of the Kurma Avatar is that whoever ultimately wins must have a strong base. The turtle shell or back is an excellent symbol of this reliable base or foundation. It obviously helps to have Vishnu on your side in case things look set to crumble. The poison that was separated in the churning process was swallowed by Shiva and is hence depicted as blue in colored posters.

In 1920, the tarai towns were not small either. Birgunj and the adjoining areas of Bara, Parsa, and Rauthat had a population of 414,657; again much larger than the Kathmandu valley. Similarly Mahotari and Sarlahi had a population of 471,292 and Saptari 377,855. On the other hand fast growing areas today such as Chitwan in the inner tarai had a population of only 20,520 in 1920. The rising human population of Chitwan is inversely proportional to the number of rhinos which a recent census counted at just 370. The number is fast declining with increasing poaching activities and a growing market for wildlife parts. The protected areas have become islands in a sea of human beings and their ever increasing demand for arable land.

Looking at the whole of Nepal, the 1920 census states that there were a total of 957,609 houses and the population was stated to be 5,573,791. We can see that the numbers were not even rounded off. Apparently, every Nepali was actually counted to come up with a figure that accurate. There is a footnote in the book stating that the number of houses was taken from the 1910 census. Today Nepal’s population stands at about 25 million. For a country with so much snow and mountains, the density is very high. At 25 million, there are over 60 countries whose population is far less than Nepal. Clearly the Nepali population has grown five folds since 1920. That is a lot of Nepalis to feed, clothe, educate and care for.

According to the 1920 census, the Kathmandu valley towns of Kathmandu,  Patan and Bhaktapur had a population of 108,805, 104,928 and 93,176 respectively. Today Kathmandu and Patan have grown into one city separated only by the Bagmati River, while Kirtipur and Thimi have become big enough to have separate city status. In order to manage the stress on the valley and to ensure a more equitable development for Nepal, it may make sense to use the current political developments to build and shift Nepal’s  capital to the Dang valley in west Nepal. West Nepal could surely benefit from the added investment.

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