golden dorje

Power Places of Kathmandu

- Hindu and Buddhist Sites in the Sacred Valley of Nepal -

golden dorje


First edition, softback 144 pages, 1995
Inner Traditions International
Rochester, Vermont and
Thames Hudson, London
ISBN-10: 089281540X
ISBN-13: 978-0892815401

Power Places of Kathmandu

Hindu and Buddhist Sites in the Sacred Valley of Nepal

A lyrical introduction to pilgrimage in the Kathmandu Valley illustrated by Kevin Bubrinski's brilliant photographs and Keith Dowman's evocative text.

Kevin Bubriski has photographed on five continents, and lived in Kathmandu for ten years. He is the author of Portrait of Nepal, an extraordinary photo essay on the tribal people of the Nepali Himalayas. He has gained international recognition for his exhibitions and magazine work and he has been the recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim and NEA awards.

Some of the photographs can be seen here.

Translated into French in 1995 as Lieux de Pouvoir de Katmandou, Le Courrier Du Livre, Paris


Critical Reviews

'Power Places of Kathmandu is a splendid souvenir book of the Kathmandu Valley, uniting over one hundred magnificent color plates of Kevin Bubriski’s photographs and the evocative text of Keith Dowman.'

‘In Hindu mythology the Himalayas have always been the abode of the gods. The sages and seers of the Indian subcontinent envisioned the snowy peaks as the thrones of divine authority. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the mountains, their awesome majesty, and the symbolic significance of their immutable mass have all contributed to their aura of divinity. In the lap of these mountains lies the Kathmandu Valley, a landscape charged with the presence of the divine. In this fertile and temperate valley the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Nepal recognize numerous power places -- focal points of divine energy -- where humans can make contact with the realm of the gods. Geomantic forces, divine myth, and human legend and history, combine to make these locations potent sources of spiritual revitalization and psychic renewal.'

'In the environs of Kathmandu, the ancient traditions of goddess worship, animism, and shamanism have for centuries coexisted with the high cultures of Buddhism and Hinduism, both orthodox and tantric, to create a religious culture of rich diversity, vigor and complexity. The power placs of the valley range from simple unhewn rocks and boulders revered since ancient times, to impressive pagoda temples replete with wood, bronze and stone sculptures. These sacred places where the energies of heaven mingle with the affairs of earth have been the goal of devout pilgrims from different spiritual traditions down through the ages.'

Contents of Power Places of Kathmandu

[Click on Highlighted Chapter Heading for Excerpt]

  • Gallery of Photos
    • KWA BAHA
    • TALEJU

Book Excerpts


Power places are the seats of the gods - focal points of divine energy. In the traditional religious society of the Kathmandu Valley, which is controlled by the favor of the gods, the primary place of communication with them is at their residences. The power places are windows upon the realm of the divine. They are the source of spiritual revitalization and renewed psychic energy.

In Hindu mythology the Great Himalayan Range has always been the Abode of the Gods. The sages and seers of the Indian sub-continent envisioned the snow-peaks as the thrones of divine authority. Their remoteness and inaccessibility, their majesty and magnificence, and the symbolic significance of their immutable mass, imparted a divine aura. Lying in the lap of these mountains is the Kathmandu Valley, a fertile, well watered, undulating valley, with a temperate climate, surrounded on all sides by a mountainous rim. The Kathmandu Valley is called the playground of the gods.

It may be the vitality of the human culture of the Valley that sustains the fabled youthfulness of the gods. Proximity to the primordial state of nature in this unique, paradisal, Himalayan environment and the freshness of mind in the mountains can create a predisposition receptive to the realm of the gods and a creative credulity. The inhabitants of the Valley are a mixture of high mountain Tibetan stock and people from the Indian plains. The interaction of these races over the centuries in their once hidden homeland has produced a religious culture remarkable for its vigor and complexity. The ancient superstitions of animism and shamanism, coexist with the high cultures of Buddhism and Hinduism, orthodox and tantric, as varying modes of relationship with the divine.

The vitality of this alliance between man and the gods is revealed during the major religious festivals. Scheduled according to lunar fortuity and astrological advantage, during the principal annual festivals the gods are paraded in chariots through their city locales in an atmosphere of riotous devotion. Although quiet prayer may be the preferred mode for renunciates and contemplatives, for the majority worship is an occasion to open up to the power of the god and to gain some knowledge of him through possession by him. Likewise, the daily acts of ritual worship of the gods take place in an ambience of excited activity. On holy days, temples pulsate with instrumental and chanted rhythms; trance dancing is an integral part of worship; and the blood still flows in sacrificial offering.

Nepal Mandala

The Kathmandu Valley is known as Nepal Mandala. "A mandala is a circle, a mystic diagram of varied form, and in ancient Indian usage signified an administrative unit or a country. From at least the sixth century A.D., in conjunction with the word "Nepal", it signified to the Nepalese the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding territory." (Mary Slusser, Nepal Mandala, Princetown University, 1982, p.vii).

The elliptical valley bowl is about fifteen miles in length and twelve miles in width. It lies at an average of four thousand five hundred feet above sea level and is surrounded by forested peaks up to nine thousand feet in height. The rich lacustrine deposits that fill the valley bottom have been eroded by its fast flowing monsoon rivers - particularly the Bagmati and Bishnumati - to form steep sided hills and ridges, some still covered by trees, that border the swaths of terraced paddy fields.

Three cities dominate valley life: Kathmandu in the west, Patan in the south and Bhaktapur in the east. Kathmandu, the capital of the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal, is now the center of the Valley's high density population of about one million peoples. Traders and artisans still form a significant proportion of the urban inhabitants. Numerous small towns and villages are scattered between the three cities, sustaining the traditional agrarian economy of intense rice cultivation.

The city-dwellers are predominantly Newar. The ethnic Newar community was the outcome of ancient intermarriage between the Mongol and Aryan races. The Newar people dominated the Valley for most of its history; they created the beauty of its traditional architecture and plastic arts; they accumulated wealth through trade; and they established its reputation amongst the Himalayan peoples as a society small in size yet immense in human spirit. The king, and most of the aristocracy and peasantry, are Gorkhali or Pahari, the Aryan people from the middle hills of Nepal who conquered the Valley in the eighteenth century. This race - the Gurkhas - has established a world-wide reputation for fierce courage and loyalty - loved by their friends and feared by their enemies. Other smaller but still highly significant castes inhabit the Valley: Brahmins from the South who now govern a nascent democratic society; Tibetans from the North, particularly the thirty-thousand economically successful refugees; and Sherpas, Manangis, Tamangs, Gurungs and others, all immigrants from the mountain valleys.

Although the Valley forms an integral social and economic unity, strong rivalry exists between the inhabitants of the three regions of the Valley dominated by its three cities. Each was once a separate political entity and, since time here is seemingly collapsed into an eternal present, memories of independent traditions still effect their cultural life. Each has its own religious customs and preferences centered upon its own power places.

The Historical Perspective

The Kathmandu Valley was once a lake; both Buddhist and Hindu myths assert it and lacustrine deposits prove it. Myth also relates how the Valley was drained and civilization established by divine intervention. Legend written down in the Newar chronicles records dynasties of pre-historical, pastoral kings History, provided by archeological evidence of urban settlements, begins only with of the Mongoloid, Kirata people, who ruled the Valley two thousand years ago and formed the matrix of the Valley race. The Kiratas were conquered by southern, Aryan, invaders, called the Licchavis, in the fourth century. With the establishment of a stable Licchavi dynasty, the Kathmandu Valley entered the mainstream of classical Indian culture with a sophisticated urban society. The Brahmin priests who accompanied the Licchavis accelerated the process of "sanskritization", which brought the mongoloid people into the Indian fold.

The Licchavi kings established the custom of inscribing royal edicts on stone tablets. Hundreds of these have survived at temple sites and provide a firm base for historical speculation. They furnish a picture of a succession of monarchs ruling a stable, prosperous and, perhaps, idyllic kingdom in which the gods were effectively propitiated, temples and monasteries patronized and the surrounding valleys civilized. King Manadeva (r.A.D.464-505) was the pre-eminent Licchavi king who was to live on in folk memory as sovereign of a golden age. The court of another great king, Amsuvarman (r.A.D.605-621), was visited by a Chinese embassy. His palace in Harigaon, near the present Kathmandu, is described in Chinese records in terms of architectural magnificence. A successor of Amsuvarman, King Narendradeva, is remembered also in Tibetan history, for he married a daughter to the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo, the scourge of Central Asia.

By the ninth century the Licchavi state had begun to disintegrate from within, and the decay of strong centralized authority led into an era known as the Transitional period. Stone inscriptions are few and the chronicles do not give a clear picture of this period. It is the time of the Buddhist cultural swell, when Patan became a university city, and it is a period of fertile artistic creativity. So evidently there was some continued stability in urban society and wealth certainly remained in the Valley. Feudal lords and the monasteries had probably appropriated political power, and although the chronicles record a disjointed succession of so-called Thakuri kings, this may have been an ideal period of decentralized political power. In the twelfth century the Valley came under repeated invasion from the powerful Khas Malla kingdoms in the west, and this undoubtedly destabilized the Valley and perhaps explains the absence of Licchavi and Transitional period buildings in the Valley today. It also set the stage for the rise of a strong dynasty of kings - the Mallas.

Malla kings ruled the Valley from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. Their rule began less as a dynasty and more as a succession of powerful princes ruling from Bhaktapur. The Bhaktapur court of this early Malla period was marked by benign influence from Mithila, a Hindu state in northern Bihar, which ended only with the succession of Sthiti Malla, one of the Valley's most powerful and effectual kings (r. A.D.1382-1495), who ruled from Kathmandu. Sthiti Malla created a strong unified state, but he is best remembered as the codifier of the Hindu caste system. Even monks and yogis were forced into castes, and this brought to an end the vigorous monasticism and dominant Buddhist culture of the Transitional period. In A.D.1482 Sthiti Malla's grandson, Yaksa Malla, divided the Valley - some would say out of misplaced sentiment - between four of his sons, who then ruled from Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur and Banepa. After Bhaktapur and Banepa had united, the political stage was set for three hundred years of dramatic political, military and cultural rivalry between the three stable Malla kingdoms.

During the early Malla period, India was conquered by the Muslims. Nepal Mandala was mercifully spared, except for a single devastating raid for plunder led from Muslim Mithila by Shams ud-din Ilyas in A.D.1349. Thus Nepal Mandala, alone amongst Indian states, preserved medieval Hindu and Buddhist religious culture intact during the Muslim era. While influence from the South declined, Tibetan influence expanded. Trade prospered and large Newar trading communities from Patan and Kathmandu were established in Lhasa. Patronage from Tibetan Lamas became a significant factor in the restoration of Buddhist monuments in the Valley. However, from the sixteenth century, the dominant outside influence emanated from the Hindu hill states to the west. Particularly, the Kingdom of Gorkha, which tradition asserts had been established by Hindu refugees fleeing Muslim invasion of Rajasthan, increasingly played a role in Valley affairs. The military ambition of the warrior kings of Gorkha set the stage for the next act in the Valley's political drama.

In A.D.1768, while the Valley was in the throes of its principal religious festival, Dasain, the Gorkhali king Prithvi Narayana Shah. after years of harassment, invaded Kathmandu with a hardened army of hill men and deposed the last Malla raja. The kingdom of Patan, and then Bhaktapur, could offer no defence and were soon incorporated into the Gorkha kingdom. Prithvi Narayana Shah (1722-1775) was a highly competent military commander, an astute politician and a shrewd leader of men and he established a dynasty that still rules the Valley. He began the conquest of the Himalayan hills, which his successors continued, until Kathmandu was the capital of an empire that at its largest extent stretched from the borders of Kashmir to Bhutan.

However, the Shahs were not destined to wield effective power over their empire, for they were dispossessed by their prime ministers, the Ranas, in the nineteenth century, and became virtual prisoners in their neocolonial palaces. The Ranas' claim to the country's gratitude lies in their signal success in maintaining Nepal's independence while under threat from the expansionist British Indian Raj. After Indian Independence that threat vanished, and a revolution in 1949 led by King Tribhuvan re-established the Shah dynasty which has eventually reshaped the Hindu kingdom in the form of a democracy.

The Religious Tableau

The tableau of Valley religion is woven from five principle strands. The first, is animistic worship of the spirits. The second, the most basic and most abiding, is worship of the Mother Goddesses and Devi. The third is worship of the Great God Shiva. The fourth is worship of Vishnu. The fifth, and finest, is Buddhism. The plain background colors of this picture are provided by orthodox Hinduism and Buddhism; the vivid and vibrant hues that dominate belong to Tantra.

When the Valley was a jungle crossed by its rivers through marsh and swamp, with clearings for agriculture on higher ground, the people worshipped the elemental spirits of water and fire, the sun and the moon. They worshipped natural phenomena, the spirits of trees and earth spirits resident in rocks. This strata of religious consciousness is still present today in the Valley. The Naga serpents rule the rivers and the rain and are held responsible for all water-born diseases. The Nagas are also protectors of the earth, the valuable minerals it holds and the underworld beneath. The bodhi or peepal tree is considered sacred, and spirits and gods reside in rocks. This ancient animism forms part of folk religion, shamanism, and the shamans (junkris) are healers and exorcists.

In pre-history, before the Hindu sages and Brahmins penetrated the jungles to reach the Valley from the South, matriarchy must have dominated society and fear of the irrational creative and destructive forces of both nature and the psyche resulted in worship of Mother Goddesses - mais (mothers) and ajimas (grand-mothers). Later, both Buddhism and Hinduism assimilated the indigenous Mother Goddesses as protectresses and they were given Sanskrit names, and made the consorts of the brahminical gods. But they retained their essential bloodthirsty nature and their coveys of witches practicing black magic. As a focus of the Good, the primordial collective anima of the Valley, the female principle was identified as Devi or Durga, the All-conquering Goddess and the consort of the Great God Shiva. The Goddess was also identified in her three sexual aspects - virginal pre-pubescent purity (Kumari), fecund, sexual maturity and maternal liberality (Lakshmi), and seasoned detachment of the crone (Mahakali). By the tantric sakta cult, the Great Goddess was conceived as the non-dual matrix of the universe.

At the center of the religious vision of the Hindus who indianized or sanskritized Valley religion, even before the Licchavi conquerors arrived, was the Great God Shiva. Shiva Mahadeva assimilated the indigenous godlings and became the predominant presiding spiritual power in the Valley. His principal form was Pashupati, Lord of Animals, and he still resides in his phallic form (lingam) at the power place and national shrine of Pashupati. Shiva Mahadeva is Lord of Cosmic Creation and Dissolution, Savior of Mankind, and Master of the Yogis. To orthodox Hindus he is a celibate renunciate, a yogi and a sadhu; but in tantric practice he unites with his consort Parvati or Durga and he is attended by his sons, Kumara, the god of war, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, who is the Lord of Beginnings.

The importance of Vishnu, or, as he is better known in the Valley, Narayana, is his association with kingship. He is the royal god and the kings are considered his incarnations. The Licchavis imported him into the valley and established him at his principal power place of Changu Narayana. Narayana is the Preserver and the God of Cosmic Order and the State, and as such he has little appeal to the Valley people. But he is also the Cosmic Hero who emanates incarnations (avataras) into the world of man to save him from evil and to protect him. Narayana's incarnation Lord Krishna is one of the most popular gods in the Valley and is a principal focus of householder devotion.

The fifth strand of Valley religion, and its crowning glory, is Buddhism, which can be considered the supreme flowering of Hindu religious genius. The Buddha came to the Kathmandu Valley only in legend, but his legacy is evident everywhere. Besides his essential teaching of the Four Noble Truths, Sakyamuni Buddha taught mankind how to honor the gods and avoid enslavement to them. This was a message that the Newar people took to heart in the late Licchavi period and their response was enthusiastic and lasting. Today the city of Patan contains more than one hundred and sixty monasteries (bahas and bahis) and Kathmandu almost as many. The monasteries began as havens for celibate monks, but with the development of tantric Buddhism they evolved into communes of married yogis and yoginis. The monastery temples enshrine Sakyamuni Buddha and a secret tantric deity (agamdya) who is the principal focus of esoteric worship. But the main popular Buddhist deity is Avalokiteshwara, known locally as Karunamaya, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is also a principal protector of the Valley and the center of the greatest Kathmandu and Patan chariot festivals.

The growth of Hinduism during the Malla period, first due to influence from Mithila and then from the Gorkhalis, who gave government jobs only to Hindus, led to the overt eclipse of Newar Buddhism and it is fashionable to say that Newar Buddhism is decadent. It is true that after Sthiti Malla forced the Vajracharya priests and Sakya monks into the straight-jacket of the caste system, Buddhism became a closed, exclusive, order, initiation transmitted through patrilinear succession. It is true that contemporary Newar Buddhism is highly ritualistic and that in comparison with Tibetan Buddhism, which now flourishes in the Valley, it lacks creative vitality, and that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are worshipped as gods by the common people. But still Buddhism remains as a powerful undercurrent of Valley spirituality, and an unchanged model of medieval Indian Buddhism.

In the minds of most Newars, Buddhism and Hinduism create only shades of distinction in this religious tableau. From the viewpoint of rigid brahmin orthodoxy, the Buddhists are heretics who deny the caste system; and Tibetan lamas may dwell upon the iniquity of blood sacrifice and the basic fallacy of the atman principle in Hinduism. But in actual religious practice there is immense tolerance under the undiscriminating umbrella of tantra. Within a single Newar family both Buddhist and Hindu gods are sometimes worshipped: the family may belong to a Buddhist caste governed by the Buddhist rites of passage; but the family deity may have a Hindu name; and members of the family may worship daily at other Hindu shrines of their individual preference. At festival time all the inhabitants of each city are united in worship of their major deities who may have both Buddhist and Hindu identity. The Macchendranath festival, for instance, celebrates the Bodhisattva Karunamaya. The same noumenal entities are worshipped by different religious communities under different names: even the most sacred Shiva lingam, Pashupatinath, is perceived by the Vajracharyas, the Buddhist tantric priests, as the Buddha himself.

The Tantric Element

Most worship in the Kathmandu Valley, Buddhist and Hindu, is tantric ritual, and the popular Western notion of Tantra as sexual yoga is manifestly absurd to the average devotee. His tantric reality is the yoga of ritual worship. Propitious time and auspicious place, a well-omened environment, ritual purity, the sanctity of the tangible artefacts of the ritual, and care in ritual procedure, are the essential ingredients for success in this worship. Time is determined by season, phase of the moon, and astrological computation. The place must be geomantically sound - a power place. A good environment is free from negative omens and inauspicious signs. Ritual purity is achieved by bathing, wearing clean and appropriate clothes, abstinence from intoxicants and disassociation from women or individuals with negative auras. The ritual artefacts may be, for instance, "diamond thunderbolt" (vajra) and handbell (ghanta), a skullbowl (kapala), offering bowls, ladles, etc. Liturgical manuals provide details of the ritual procedure which is also regulated by an oral tradition. Such rituals - offering rites to the gods being the most usual - are the daily activity of tantric priests, either Buddhist Vajracharyas or Hindu Brahmins and Karmacharyas. In these tantric rites the Hindus offer blood sacrifice to those gods and goddesses whose propitiation require it and the Buddhists offer symbolic flesh and blood as in the Christian sacrament.

But for those seeking it, the temples and shrines are replete with symbols of the basic tantric premise that the union of male and female principles is the source of cosmic manifestation and that sexual desire is the fundamental energy from which the highest spiritual achievement can be attained. The flags on either side of temple doors emblazoned with the sun and the moon herald the tantric ethos of the temple. Erotically carved roof-struts on many temples, particularly those of the Mother Goddesses, evoke the sexual desire that is to be sublimated in worship. The residence of Shiva is a symbolic phallus (lingam) standing in a symbolic vulva (yoni). Buddhist images and painted scrolls (paubhas) depict Mother and Father Buddha deities in sexual union. Like the sun and moon the Vajracharya's ritual instruments, vajra and ghanta, are symbols of male and female principles. However, these symbols belong to the secret, esoteric stratum of tantra which is revealed only to the yogi-initiate practicing the meditation and ritual procedures described in the tantras, which are the scriptures pertaining to the highest level of mystical experience. Yogis practicing the sexual yoga of the Buddhist Candamaharosana-tantra, or the Shiva-Shakti Kulanava-tantra, are ostensibly few and far between at the end of the twentieth century.

Historically, Tantra was a religious movement seeking to include both sexes, all castes and tribes, all heterodox beliefs and religious practices into an overarching scheme of Buddhist or Hindu vision. Particularly, the unorthodox rites of Mother Goddess worship were assimilated into the great traditions, and the Mother Goddess power places became the focus of warlocks and especially witches (bakshis), practicing lower tantric sympathetic magic, to expedite their mundane and frequently grisly aims. The cremation grounds are associated with a presiding Mother Goddess and are the haunts of all types of tantric practitioner either on the quest for the awareness that transcends both life and death, or seeking to harness mundane, manipulative, powers.

The Power Places

In the greater Indian context, the entire Kathmandu Valley is a power place. Included amongst the twenty-four most sacred places of pilgrimage in the sub-continent for devotees of Shiva, Devi and of Tantric Buddhism, it has always been a major destination of pilgrims from India, the Himalayas and Tibet. It has the geomantic qualities of sacred geography; it is sanctified by the divine presence of the deities and myth; and it has been hallowed by the gathering of the sages and yogis of legend. Its form as a natural mandala with a circular rim is its dominating geomantic feature. Its previous inaccessibility, lying hidden under the snow-peaks in a fold of the Himalayan hills, together with its spectacular beauty, add to its geomantic significance. As a playground of the gods it is replete with myth describing their nature and relating them to specific locations in the mandala. As to legend, Nepal Mandala was the hermitage of contemplative ascetics (rishis) such as Vyasa, the writer of the Vedas; Buddha Sakyamuni taught here; Padma Sambhava, who took Buddhism to Tibet, achieved his enlightenment here; and the mahasiddha Gorakhnath meditated here for twelve years in samadhi.

Within this mandala, the mountain peaks of the rim, the isolated hills within the Valley, the river confluences and the gorges, and the caves on the valley sides, provide the most potent geomantic sites of particular power places and are the preferred abodes of the principal gods of the Valley. For Newar Buddhists, the shrine on top of the wooded, pyramidal hill of Svayambhu, overlooking Kathmandu, is pre-eminent in the Valley; while for Tibetan Buddhists Boudhanath is supreme. For the Hindus, the residence of the Great God Shiva at Pashupati, where the Bagmati River leaves a gorge, is most exalted. Narayana's principal power place stands on the hill top of Changu Narayana to the east of the Valley. The power places of the Mother Goddesses are most frequently located at the confluences of rivers, places made the more sacred by the cremation grounds located there. The most fearful of the Valley's Goddesses, the blood-thirsty Dakshin Kali, lives in a secluded spot where two streams meet in a forested gorge. Sacred groves and forests, some located on hills, are also abodes of the Goddess. The Naga water-spirits have their major residences (tirthas) at river confluences.

At the major power places of the Valley geomantic significance combines with divine myth and human legend to create a powerful magnetic vibration. The minor power places, which are legion, are marked by one or more of these three elements - geomantic, mythic and legendary. Hundreds of temples and thousands of shrines are found in the streets, squares and alleyways of the towns and villages, and in the fields, forests and jungles, and all possess characteristics that make them the focus of worship. The Buddhist monasteries, for instance, originally located more for convenience than geomancy, are hallowed by the presence of the Buddha and impregnated by the meditative vibration of generations of monks. Some temples and stupas, located at the entrances to towns and villages, are sited according to their guardian function. Some acquired their mythic significance when originally a seer had a vision of god or goddess at a particular spot and a boulder nearby was identified as the seat of that deity. The country residences (pithas) and town houses (dyache) of the Mother Goddesses are mythically empowered by the presence of the goddess who moves between them. The gods of many shrines that are the prerogatives of particular families (kuladya) take their power from the sense of the family lineage's unbroken connection with a god at a particular spot.

The majority of the actual abodes of the gods and goddesses are unhewn rocks. Boulders were the residences of local gods and earth-spirits in ancient animistic times and became the palaces of their noumenal successors. Each god or goddess has his or her rock residence - they are not shared abodes - and when the deity is in residence there is no distinction between the rock and the god. Where the stone suggests the shape of a deity, the elephant-headed Ganesha, or Shiva's lingam, for example, - it is sometimes called a svayambhu, or naturally arisen, deity. The practice of erecting an image as the residence of the god arrived in the Valley with high Hindu culture. Stone was sculpted in the form of the god - symbolic or anthropomorphic - according to the canon of sacred art, and then consecrated. Thereafter the distinction in the minds of worshippers between the image and the god's reality vanished. While some of the residences of the Mother Goddesses and Shiva, for instance, are unadorned open air shrines, most of them are backed by stone arches (toranas), covered by open or walled shrines, or they have been covered by temples open on at least three sides.

Most of the major power places of the Valley are covered by free-standing pagoda temples (mandirs). The temple is best viewed as a three-dimensional mandala. It leads the devote through three initiatory stages, sometimes marked by three successive walls, into the sanctum sanctorum in the middle of the inner chamber. Particularly in Buddhist temples, the three stories of the pagoda may represent three levels of awareness. A wooden tympanum (torana) depicting the images of the gods of the temple mandala in wood or copper usually surmounts the entrance of the temple. The elements of the temple architecture and the artefacts within are all charged with symbolic significance to support worship.

Only a few Buddhist shrines are covered by free-standing temples, amongst them the Karunamaya/Macchendranath shrines. In the monasteries, temples (?) are built into the south side of the buildings surrounding the courtyard and always enshrine images of the Buddha. The secret, tantric, shrine room (agamche) is usually on the second floor of the temple. But the major Buddhist power places are not monasteries; they are stupas. The stupa is a three dimensional mandalic monument representing the Buddha. It is built to be worshipped by circumambulation at geomantically significant places, but it may also mark a spot where a mythic event occurred. The two principal Buddhist power places in the Valley - Svayambhunath and Boudhanath - are of this nature, but there are also innumerable smaller stupas (herein called chaityas) located in town and village squares, in monasteries and near temples, that are more often votary monuments to honor the dead.

All these sites, major and minor, are called power places because they give special access to the palaces of the gods and to the divine circle of which they are part. They are the gates of the mandala circle of the gods. They provide an avenue to the sources of divine energy and awareness. They are like holes in the enveloping fabric of material existence that give promise of a spiritual reality. Through the power-symbols presented there, they provide an opportunity in time and space to connect with the resources of our spiritual substructure and of the psychic strata of collective consciousness and archetypal experience.

The Art of the Valley

Newar artists and artisans of the Kathmandu Valley created some of the supremely brilliant works of art in stone and bronze sculpture ever produced in the Indian sub-continent. Many of these masterpieces of Newar art are to be found at the Valley's power places. Newar fine art, as in medieval Europe, is, primarily, an expression of religious consciousness, a manifestation of the divine in man, and as an expression of the divine it is an object of worship and, therefore, functional rather than decorative. Since the artist's aim is to create an object according to an ideal aesthetic canon, individual imagination is restricted to peripheral decoration; and nearly all religious art is executed anonymously.

Whereas an artist's eye is caught by an object proficiently executed according to the aesthetic canon in which it has been trained, in say, India or Europe, the devotee is attracted by an object's sanctity. So an unhewn rock or a hastily executed work of the Shah period, may appear more valuable to Valley devotees than a product of the high Licchavi period at its most technically proficient. This lack of appreciation has led to the loss of many of the artistic treasures of the Valley. Taken from family or monastery shrine, or, more devastatingly, stolen from open air power place environments, they find their way into the international art market. Many of the Newar masterpieces in bronze, stone and paint are now to be found in foreign collections.

While human beings are the worst foes of the Valley as a treasure house of sculpture and painting, the Mother-Goddesses' wrath, manifest as earthquake, fire or flood, is the principal enemy of architecture. The great pagoda temples, of three or even five roofs, with their ornate wood carving, are all Malla period constructions, the earliest belonging, perhaps, to the eleventh century. This design is said to have been taken to China in the thirteenth century. Many of the pagoda temples have been rebuilt and restored repeatedly over the centuries, after natural disasters have brought them down, but their essential form has remained unchanged. The carving of wooden roof-struts provides the best evidence of the Newars' mastery of this medium still to be seen at Oku Bahal in Patan and at Indreswara in Panauti. The monasteries, the royal palaces and large and small pilgrim rest-houses (mandapa, sattal and pati), all constructed during the Malla period, complete the legacy of the Newar architects in brick and wood. The plastered brick temple structures only appeared in the late Malla period.

Stone provides the oldest artistic artefacts of the Valley. Images of Mother Goddesses were sculpted in the Indian, Kushan, style in the second and third centuries A.D. Later, Gupta influence characterizes the wonderful stone masterpieces of the Licchavi era - some still lying in the courtyard at Changu Narayana - providing a continental concept of space and a cosmic concept of divinity. The size of the Licchavi images, the ambition of their themes, and the grace and power of their execution, place their work amongst Asia's most magnificent artistic achievements. The fertile Transitional period continued the excellence of the Newar tradition, concentrating more on Buddhist themes, but later, Malla period, stone sculpture only rarely sustains the excellence of craftsmanship and reflects less of the divine and more of the human sensibility of enisled Valley consciousness. The popular Uma-Maheshwara reliefs depicting Shiva and his consort in their conjugal elysium in Kailash illustrate this essentially Valley style. The Malla period was the most prolific in stone sculpture and most of the pieces now found at the center of temple worship and around the shrines of the power places were created during this period.

Some critics consider the bronze-casting done in the lost-wax (cire perdue) method from the Licchavi period until today - particularly in Patan - to be the height of Newar artistic achievement. In style bronze-casting generally followed the same development as stone sculpture from Gupta-influenced Licchavi work to the indigenous doll-like style of the Malla period. Large early masterpieces, all Buddhist, can be seen at Sankhu Vajra Yogini and in Kwa Bahal in Patan, for example, and fine Malla Buddhas can be found peering from within the shrines of the monumental stupas. But there is little bronzework evident to the contemporary pilgrim to the power places. Rather, the immensely fascinating work in gilded copper repousse is more likely to strike the eye. Repousse copper frequently covers the tympanums surmounting the temple doors, or sheaths the wooden motifs of the door-frames.

Last Word

Although the Kathmandu Valley as the playground of the gods, residing in their power places, is still the potent vision of traditional devotees and pilgrims, the latter part of the twentieth century is seeing radical change. For three thousand years the culture of the Valley evolved in virtual isolation. In the south it was secluded by malarial jungles and hills and in the north by the High Himalayas. Sandwiched between two cultural giants - India and Tibet - slowly it absorbed elements of both, while retaining its own special individuality. In the last twenty-five years it has been catapulted out of medievalism into the international arena of tourism and development. It would be difficult to find another culture on the face of the planet that has been subjected to such a forced pace of accelerating change as that of the Kathmandu Valley.

Today, the snow-peaks, the abodes of the gods, are climbed and conquered, rather than circumambulated and worshipped. In the Valley itself rapacious imported materialism and consumerism has laid a pall of smog across the Valley. There is an increasing tendency for devotees to invest in electronics rather than offer gold to the temples and monasteries. The temples, monuments and shrines that mark the residences of the gods and which once dominated the landscape are squeezed into smaller confines as the demand upon land increases. To some extent this book reflects nostalgia for a vanishing culture, but it is also a plea for sensitivity to what still remains and an appreciation of what can be preserved. Primarily, however, it is a celebration of the gods of the Valley, the magic of sacred places, and the unique creativity of the people.


The Great Stupa of Svayambhu stands on a hill to the west of Kathmandu. Its name means "The Self-created, Self-existent Buddha". The myth of its origin is also the myth of the primordial Buddha's enlightenment, it is the story of the origin and spread of Buddhism in Nepal and the origin myth of the Valley. This most sacred power place has always been the must important power place for Valley Buddhists and for pilgrims of all Buddhist persuasions from all over the world. It is considered to be the most powerful shrine in the Himalayas.

Myth and Legend

Long before the dawn of history, the Kathmandu Valley was a vast lake. Eons before the Buddha Sakyamuni was born in Lumbini his predecessor of the Aeon of Truth (satya-yuga), the Buddha Vipaswi, came to Nepal to meditate upon the hill that rose from the lake on its western shore. Wishing to give the rough mountain people an object of worship, Vipaswi threw a lotus seed into the lake. When this lotus bloomed, a light shone from the centre of its thousand petals that illuminated the entire valley mandala. This light was called the Svayambhu Dharmadhatu, the Self-sprung Infinite Field of Light and the flame of the enlightened mind of the primal Buddha, Vajradhara burned at its centre. The light of Vajradhara also emanated in the colours of the rainbow and in each of the five colours appeared one of the Five Buddhas -Vairotsana, Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi.

In the far west of China, on Wutai Shan, the Five Peaked Mountain, lived the great Bodhisattva Manjushri, whose vow was to serve mankind through use of his deep intelligence. Manjushri in his wisdom foresaw that the Himalayan people would be greatly benefitted if the Kathmandu Valley lake was drained so that the svayambhu lotus and flame was accessible to human worship, and that a great civilisation would arise in the rich farmlands that would result. Then Manjushri flew through the air to Nagarkot Peak on the edge of the lake, and after having pondered in samadhi how best the lake may be drained, with his keen-edged sword of wisdom he cut a gorge through the mountain range that separated Nepal from India, and the original lake was drained. Then in order to finish the work of drainage he cut the Gokarna Gorge, the Pashupati Gorge and the Chobar Gorge. After the lake had been drained and the Valley bottom made suitable for cultivation Manjushri founded a town, Manjupattan, and enthroned one of his devotees, called Dharmankara, as king. He taught the people the fundamentals of civics, of craftsmanship and also the art of ritual, particularly the ten rites of passage.

Underlying the Valley Mandala is the cosmic ocean, the abode of the naga water spirits, and in this elemental watery stratum the cosmic turtle lies motionless. In order to support the thousand-petalled lotus and its burden of flame after the lake was drained, a great timber, seven fathoms in circumference and forty-two fathoms in height, was set up on the back of the turtle. A high mound of earth and stone was then piled around this axis by forty-two thousand arhats from Vulture Peak. Thus the primordial Svayambhu Stupa was erected.

The great timber axis of the stupa is also identified as the Primordial Buddha Vajradhara himself. "On top of a jewel lotus, the blessing of the Buddha Vipaswi, the Victoriously Enlightened Vajradhara spontaneously arose from the Pureland of Akanistha as a great sacred Tree of Life, the axis of the stupa."

"This self-sprung Temple of Wisdom confers spiritual liberation by sight of it, by touching it, by hearing of it, or by reflecting upon it. Thirteen billion times more religious merit is gained by worshipping the Svayambhu Dharmadhatu Stupa than by worship at other power places."

The History of the Stupa

Myth places the origins of Svayambhunath coeval with the beginning of Valley civilisation. The first mention given in the Newar chronicles avers that the father of the Licchavi dynasty Vrisadeva, had his death rites performed on the hill in the early fifth century. This association with Vrisadeva has lived on in Newar tradition and Svayambhunath is the principal of the four stupas said to be founded by that great king. An inscription of his great-grandson, the most glorious of the Licchavi kings, Manadeva, is to be found there. An inscription of a later Licchavi king, Amsuvarman makes reference to Svayambhunath. If Svayambhunath was built in the same mould as Indian stupas of the Gupta period, it would have been a simple high dome surmounted by a stone canopy, and certainly the stupa would have been attended by monks of the hinayana ordination.

In the reign of Amsuvarman, in the seventh century, an Indian king from Bihar renounced his throne and came on pilgrimage to Svayambhunath. He took ordination there and took the religious name Santikara and practised vajrayana tantra-yoga. He became renowned as Santikara Acharya and is remembered as the first tantric master of the Valley. When Santikara arrived at Svayambhu the flame was hidden under a slab of stone placed there by the Bodhisattva Vajrasattva to protect the jewel lotus from thieves of the dark age, the iron age, the kaliyuga. The legend has it that Santikara raised a stupa studded with gems and having a golden wheel attached. It is probable that Santikara's stupa was designed with the five shrines of the five Meditation Buddhas in the four cardinal directions. He also built five shrines to the five elements around it. This story indicates the renaissance of Buddhism under vajrayana influence and while some say that Santikara erected the first stupa at Svayambhu it is more likely that the Licchavi stupa had fallen into disrepair and that Santikara performed the first renovation in a long succession of restorations of the stupa after damage caused by the elements or by the neglect or destructive urges of man.

It appears that by the eighth century tantric Buddhism was well established at Svayambhunath. At the end of that century Padma Sambhava, the great tantric magician who was to establish the Buddha's teaching in Tibet, came to Svayambhu. During his visit the Great Guru transfixed an earth spirit with his magical dagger and established the Black Lord of Death (Yamaraj) as a protector of the place. In the eleventh century, Atisa, the abbot of Vikramashila monastery in Bengal, used a pilgrimage to Svayambhunath as his excuse to leave his monastery, after he had been convinced of the need of his presence in Tibet.

The eleventh century saw the beginning of a stream of Tibetan seekers arrive in the Valley. One of the first, by name Kangsarpa, "gathered about him many yoginis and ascetic yogins who were residents of Svayambhunath and performed rites of tantric feasting on many occasions." Another known as Ralo, who later achieved renown as one of the great translators, became embroiled in scholastic disputes and contests of magic at Svayambhunath with followers of the Great God Siva.

In the year 1349, Svayambhunath, as one of the principal and wealthiest shrines of the Valley, suffered desecration and vandalisation by the troops of the Bengali Muslim invader Shams Ud-din. This major damage was not repaired until nearly twenty-five years later, when, perhaps, the stupa was rebuilt with the harmika, spire and pinnacle that characterises it today. The wooden central axis, replaced in this restoration, together with its attached spire and pinnacle, have required most attention in frequent subsequent renovations. Valley Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists alike, have organised these repairs, both patronised by the kings of Kathmandu. A notable pilgrim from Tibet, the Sixth Sharmapa, replaced the central axis in 1614, and also had the Meditation Buddha's shrines covered in the gilt copper repousse that still exists today. In 1750 Lama Kathok Rikdzin Chenpo, a Lama from eastern Tibet, a political emissary of the Dalai Lamas and a highly respected scholar and priest, was responsible for replacement of the central axis and other repairs and the stupa was reconsecrated in 1758 by the Seventh Pawo Rimpoche.

In 1816 a violent storm snapped the central axis and again the stupa fell into disrepair. The replacement timber, installed in 1825, is the axis that currently supports the spire and pinnacle. Line drawings of a dilapidated stupa made by the British Resident Oldfield in the nineteenth century attest that the stupa cannot survive many decades without restoration. In the early twentieth century the stupa was again renovated. Since then a serious threat to the continued existence of the Self-sprung Temple of Wisdom has arisen with the subsidence of the south-eastern corner of the hill-top. After the heavy rains of 1979 the weight of the plethora of structures on the top and the defoliation on the hill-side caused the earth and stone mound to begin falling away and only by the demolition of all but one building on that side of the hill, performed in the early eighties, has the subsidence been arrested.


At the top of the eastern stairway is the great vajra set upon a drum that has the dharmadhatu mandala inscribed upon its gilt copper top. It is said that this drum covered a well that reflected images of the beloved dead with such flattery that wives and husbands would throw themselves in and drown. Another story has it that the mandala covers a pit to the hells and the realms of the hungry ghosts. The drum plinth is decorated with the twelve animals of the zodiac. To the left is the Tibetan Bell

Beside the bell is the Pratapur sikara temple of Pratap Malla. When Pratap Malla thought to build this and its complement, Anantapur, as residences for Bhairava and Bhairavi, the guardian god and goddess that inhabit them, Svayambhu is said to have refused permission. Pratap Malla closed the Stupa to worship for six months to coerce the Authority, which eventually acceded to his request. Today these are the only shrines on the hill ignored by devotees. Both temples have basements full of weapons. When construction work was in progress in 1983, after the disastrous landslide, architects discovered that Pratapur was founded on solid rock.

Behind Pratapur is Vasupur, a shrine to the earth goddess and the goddess of fertility, Basundhara, and she is the principal image within. The elegant temple building was constructed after the landslide of 1982. This is the first of the shrines of the five elements, the Panchatattva, consecrated by Santikar Acharya. The five shrines are Vasupur for the earth goddess, Vayupur for the wind god, Agnipur a residence for the god of fire, Santipur or Akashapur for the Lord of Space, and Nagpur for the gods of water.

The other principal building on the south side, also rebuilt after the 1982 landslide, is the Newar's Agamche, the House of the Secret God. Its sanctity is strengthened by the story that Naga serpents are imprisoned on the second floor where the secret shrine is located. The naga's freedom would be the precursor of war and disaster.

The Bhutanese Drukpa Kagyu Gompa is located on the western side. The present Bhutanese queen mother spent some time doing devotions in the Valley and the previous King gave her this monastery as a boon. Several Bhutanese monks are in residence. For several years in the early 1980s this Gompa was used by Tamangs. In a small room at the north-east corner of the gompa are a group of interesting stone statues, notably of the siddha Virupa pointing at the sun to stop it in its tracks.

The principal object of worship of contemporary Newars devotees is contained within the pagoda temple shrine to the north-west of the stupa. Within an exquisite temple dedicated to Mahamanjusri is an image of the Mother Goddess Ajima Hariti, also known as Sitala, protectress of children. The Yaksi Hariti was present at a sermon given by Sakyamuni Buddha on Gopuccha Prabat. She promised to serve the dharma, protect the stupa and guard prepubescent children. This is the reason that her temple is seen by the Svayambhu Stupa.

On the north side of the Bahal is an area full of votive stupas from various centuries. Dominating this area is a large standing Buddha made in facsimile style of the 12th century although its date of carving remains obscure.

The path descends to join the top of the steps ascending from Pulan Svayambhu and on the left is the temple of Santipur. This temple is the abode of Shamvara, a secret Newar ishtadevata, and the most mysterious of the powerful shrines on Svayambhu Hill. The great southern door is flanked by lion and tiger headed dakinis and a standing Buddha to the right. The wooden door itself and its fame is ancient, done in excellent wood carving. A wooden torana surmounts it with the Adibuddha Vajradhara at the top and the Five Buddhas underneath. Inside the vestibule the murals illustrate the history of the stupa according to the Svayambhu Purana. Inside is the mandala of the Sixty Buddhas of the Shamvara mandala.

In the north-east corner is the Tibetan Karma Kagyu Gompa, Karmaraja Mahavihara. This was built by the venerable Tibetan Lama Sabchu Rimpoche in the 1960s and during the minority of his reincarnation it is the seat of his regent, Sharmapa Rimpoche.

At the centre of the hill is the Self Created Stupa, the Svayambhu Vagishvara Dharmadhatu Stupa, itself. The great Svayambhu Stupa consists of a simple dome built on a drum plinth with the Five Buddha shrines and the shrines of the four Taras, their consorts, attached to it. The dome is surmounted by a square harmika upon which the eyes are painted, with four toranas on the four sides, and above it is a stepped spire with a canopy above the wheel and a lotus and jewel ornament as finial. The entire stupa is ringed with prayer wheels. The shrines of the four Buddhas - Akshobya (east), Ratnasambhava (south), Amitabha (west) and Amoghasiddhi (north) - are found in the cardinal directions and the four Taras in the intermediate directions. The fifth Buddha MahaVairotsana, who belongs to the centre of the mandala, is found in the east beside Akshobya's shrine. The shrines of the Buddhas are elaborately decorated with gilt copper repousse, their roofs graduated to the jewel ornament on top. On each side of the iron grilled shrines are Arhat devotees; below them in stone are the animal vehicles of the Buddhas. At the base of the dome repeated stone reliefs of the garlanded stupa are inset.


Pashupati is the principal residence in Nepal of The Great God Siva. Pashupatinath, a name of the Great God, is the Protector of the Kingdom and the Royal Deity. Moreover, as Svayambhu and Boudha link the Valley through myth and history to the entire Buddhist world, so Pashupati is a major destination for Hindu pilgrims from all over the Hindu world. Located to the east of Kathmandu, in the small town of Deopatan, to the south of a gorge carved out by the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath resides by the river above sacred bathing ghats.

Myth and Legend

In days of yore, in vedic times when the gods were young, when the Kathmandu Valley was a wild jungle, in Mrigasthali above the banks of the Bagmati, the sky-god Prajapati was intent upon copulation with his daughter Ushas, Goddess of dawn. Mahadeva in his wild and dangerous form of Rudra, the hunter, interrupted Prajapati's incestuous activity by shooting arrows at him. A lingam arose on that spot representing Siva as Pashupatinath, Lord of Beasts.

A later legend tells of a time when Siva Mahadeva as Vishvanath Baba was overwhelmed by the adulation of his devotees in Kasi, Banares. Fleeing from Banares, Mahadeva transformed himself into a gazelle and lived in peace on the Mrigasthali hill. Visnu, Brahma and the other gods, unable to tolerate Mahadev's absence from Banares, came to fetch him back. They caught the gazelle by the horn, but in so doing the horn broke. Thereupon Siva declared himself Pashupati, Lord of Beasts, and Visnu erected the broken horn as the original Pashupati lingam and all the gods worshipped it.

Much later, the first human being to walk the forests of the Valley was called Ne, the progenitor of the Nepali people.

He was a cowherd and tended his herd in the pastures of Mrigasthali. On occasion, a milking cow would not give him milk, but would wander away by herself in the forest. Following her, Ne discovered that she would water a certain spot with her warm milk. Digging at that spot Ne uncovered the original lingam of horn, and setting it up worshipped it as Pashupati, Lord of Beasts.

There is another legend establishing Siva as Mahadev, Great God and also First Lord of Gods. When Siva, Visnu and Brahma were rivals for the title of Lord of Gods, Siva transformed himself into a pillar of fire, or a lingam of light (jyoti-lingam), challenging his rivals to climb to its top to establish their primacy. Visnu was soon left behind in the climb by Brahma, who on his way down assured Visnu that he had reached the top. Descending, and showing Siva a flower that he had brought from the top of the lingam, Siva called him a liar, since his lingam had no end. Brahma thus proved himself unworthy of worship and Siva became undisputed Mahadeva. His lingam of fire was capped by the original four-faced lingam and became worshipped as Pashupati, Lord of Beasts.

The Bagmati river at Pashupati is as sacred as the Ganges itself. To bathe at Pashupati on particular phases of the moon is to ensure translation to Siva's Paradise, Kailash. To be burned at Pashupati on the banks of the river is certain release from rebirth. The gorge here cuts through a ridge that would have contained a lake spreading east to Sankhu. This gorge was cut by the Bodhisattva Manjushri.

The Names of the Deity

The general names of the god are Siva, "The Peaceful One", Mahadev, "The Great God", and Mahesvara, "The Lord of Great Power". The manifestation in Nepal is Pashupati, "Lord of Beasts", or Pashupatinath, "The Lord of Pashupati". Pasu, however, also means "fetters", so, esoterically Pashupati is also "The Remover of Fetters", "The Saviour".


The myth of the gazelle points to Pashupati's origins as an indigenous pastoral god. With the advent of Siva-worship into the Valley, first brought perhaps by ascetics and sadhus from the south, the indigenous deity was identified as Siva. This identification may have been made centuries before the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha, in pre-history, before the era of the Kirati dynasty. In the Mahabharata epic, Siva assumes the guise of a Kirata, to give Arjuna a weapon called Pasupata. By Licchavi times, when according to inscriptions Pashupati received the lion's share of royal patronage, Pashupati was the pre-eminent form of Siva in the Valley, and probably the most revered of the Valley's deities. The legendary Licchavi king Amsuvarman began the custom of Nepali Kings to style themselves "Favoured by the Feet of Pashupati", and "Laden with the dust of Lord Pashupati's Lotus Feet".

Pashupati's significance was enhanced during the tantric period by its inclusion amongst the twenty-four pre-eminent power places of the sub-continent. The essential mark of these places was their association with both Siva and Sakti, the Father and Mother principles of tantric metaphysical reality. The legend that established these locations is popular wherever Siva is worshipped. Dasharatha, Siva's father-in-law, gave a once-in-a-lifetime Ten Horse Sacrifice (dashasvamedh), and spurning his ascetic son-in-law, Siva was not invited. Shamed to the point of death, Siva's consort, Sati, Dasharatha's daughter, immolated herself on a pyre. Siva took up her corpse and in mad despair flew with her in his arms all over the world. Parts of Sati's decomposing body began to fall off, and wherever part of her landed became a shakti-pith, a place of power and devotion for all tantric initiates.

The place where her anus, or some say her vulva, fell was at Guhyeshvari, at the northern end of the Bagmati gorge (see below). Grihadeva, The Mountain God, or Pashupati, was the abode of Siva always associated with a shakti-pith.

Although Mahadeva has always been worshipped by lay people, pre-eminently he is the deity of ascetic yogins and itinerant sadhus. The ten schools of saiva monks established by Sankaracharya in the eighth century are his principal devotees. During the early part of the tantric era, perhaps in the sixth century, Pashupati became the ideal of the Pasupatha sect of left-handed ascetic yogins, living well outside the pale of Hindu society. With the establishment in the Valley in early Malla times of the Nath school of yogins, founded by the Buddhist Siddha Gorakhnath, this popular school of yogins has had a high profile presence at Pashupati. Today, sadhus of the Ten Schools, the Naths, and various aghori sadhus, left-handed tantric practitioners, maintain the ascetic saiva tradition at Pashupati.

Buddha-dharma at Pashupati

For Newar Buddhists, Pashupati is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara. Both Avalokiteswara and Siva are known as Lokeswar, Lord of the World, and this identity in tantric consciousness is easy to sustain. But Newar Buddhists believe that the original form of Pashupati is a Buddhist deity. This belief may relate to an atemporal metaphysical reality, but it may also have historical roots. Buddhist priests had rights at Pashupati into the sixteenth century, and still, once a year, Buddhists place a Bodhisattva crown upon the Pashupati lingam and worship it as Avalokiteswara, or as the Five Buddhas.

In recent centuries, since Pashupatinath became the Rajguru of the Gorkhali dynasty, Tibetan pilgrims have found no easy access to the inner shrine of Pashupati. However, Pashupati has been a major destination in their Guides ever since they began pilgrimage to Nepal. For them Pashupati is well-known from their tantric texts on sacred geography as an Upachandoha power place which is counted amongst the Twenty-four Pithasthanas of the principal mandala of sacred tantric sites of the Sub-continent. The primordial symbols of Father and Mother Principles of tantric metaphysics are recognised as Sambara and Nairatma and also other Tantric deities and their yogini consorts.

However, the lingam of Pashupatinath is also recognised as a representation of Mahadeva Iswara, and Pashupatinath is known as the Power place of Lhachen Wongchuk. Mahadeva is an important Protector of the Buddha-dharma in the Red-Hat school's mandala. As one of the four major Protectors of the Sakya School, frequently to be seen painted on the rear walls of Sakya Gompas, and as a Nyingma Protector, he is depicted standing naked with his consort Uma or Parvati, his phallus erect as in Yogeshvara, Lord of Yoga.

The Tibetans recall the legend of the siddha Jalandharipa (Gorakhnath's Guru) who with his psychic energy burst the Pashupati lingam apart. Long ago the Siddha's curse is said to have destroyed it and that the fragments were enshrined in a wooden Buddhist stupa to preserve it.


Pashupati's shrine is located in the town of Deopatan. This small town, now a suburb of Kathmandu, is said to have been built by the Indian Maurya Emperor's son-in-law. This place has its roots in the second century before Christ and is certainly one of the oldest settlements in the Valley. Deopatan formerly included the village of Chabahil which is the residence of Chandra Vinayakaa, a form of Ganesha, who is one of the gatekeepers of Pashupati. Offering there will assure the devotee's satisfaction at the shrine of the Great God. Another keeper of Pashupati is Bhandaresvara on Siphal Hill. He is the Treasurer of Pashupati and he is also visited en route to the main shrine.


The temple compound of Pashupatinath is reserved for Hindus and Buddhists of certain castes. This exclusivity was established by the Ranas only a century ago. Pashupatinath, himself, is not sectarian or discriminating. The term "non-Hindus" is caste-based and racial, not a religious appellation. The custodians and pujaris of the shrine are Bhatt brahmins with their lineal roots in South India.

The temple itself is a square two-roofed Newar design last renovated in the eighteenth century. Richly decorated in silver its wealth is self-evident. Doors in the four directions reveal the four faces of the lingam. The large four-faced lingam (chaturmukha-lingam) is covered by a silver sheath surmounted by a crown of Bhairava. As proof of the tolerance in Newar religion, the four faces of the caturmukha-lingam of Pashupatinath are generally believed to represent Siva, Surya, Visnu and Buddha. Orthodox Brahmins, however, believe that the four faces represent the four vedas. The original Licchavi lingam was broken by the Muslims during their raid of 1349, but its replacement erected some years later was probably a fair replica, since the present image has faces similar to dated Licchavi lingams.

The courtyard and its adjuncts are full of shrines, sacred symbols, votive offerings and inscriptions. The giant gilt monolithic sculpture of Nandi, Siva's mount, visible from the western gate has been sufficiently impressive through the ages to have gained the legend of a non-human origin. The gilt trident (trisul) about 25' high standing on the north side, like the Nandi, is said to be a gift of early Licchavi kings.

ARJE GHAT/ ARYA GHAT: Arje Ghat is immediately below the Pashupati Shrine; this is the ghat upon which the Kings of Nepal, Pashupatinath's most prestigious votaries, and the twice born, are cremated. In one of the small temples on Arje Ghat is an exquisite image of "Three-Eyed Siva" called Virupaksa. This black stone, highly polished, Licchavi image is sinking into its earthen foundation, and it is said that the kaliyuga will end when the image has disappeared.

SURYA/SURJE GHAT: Tilopa and Naropa's Caves: A hundred yard up river from Arje Ghat, accessible by paddling across the river or by a tortuous path down from Kailash, is Surje or Surya Ghat. Above this ghat are several caves carved from the living rock. This place of solitude has been the home of yogins down the centuries, and some of the caves are still inhabited by contemporary successors. Legend names two of these caves after the great Buddhist mahasiddhas Tilopa and Naropa, sadhu-yogins of the tenth century, and progenitors of a lineage of Buddhist tantra that became the Tibetan Kagyu school of the Karmapas.


Walking down river from the lower of the two bridge, passing the small Jalasayana Visnu (18th/19th c.) on the left, the all-caste burning ghats are reached. A dark, cavernous sadhu's kuti on the right, where a succession of left-handed tantric yogins have had their seats (asan) is presently occupied by Pagalananda of Aghori lineage. One hundred yards beyond the ghats is a seductive, slight but elegant, standing Buddha of eleventh century execution, evidence of a less sectarian Pashupati. Just beyond the Buddha is Anahavrateshvara, a giant lingam on a walled pier jutting into the river. This fourth century highly polished but exfoliating hard black stone with a flat top, sitting in its giant single piece jalahari base is evidence of the larger spatial concepts of that early age. Nearby is an empty Licchavi shrine with simple flat stone roof on four pillars, probably a shrine cover for a lingam.


East of the Bagmati River is a forested hill covered with medicinal trees. Here Siva lived as a gazelle, and here the father of the Newar race grazed his cows. On the river bank are ghats. Opposite Arje Ghat, above the level of the Temple itself, is a tourist deck and promenade. At the northern end of this area the magnificent fifth century one-faced (ekamukha) lingam is located. Sadly neglected, the nose of the statue has recently been vandalised. In the row of statues at the back of the deck is a remarkable Uma-Maheshvara from the ninth century.

Opposite the burning ghat, above the ghats on the east side of the river, is the Ram Mandir compound. The Ram Mandir itself is a Rana era domed temple covering a divine-sized image of Para Visnu flanked by small images, identified as Visnu's avatar Ramacandra and his sons. This image is said to be a seventh century Licchavi masterpiece portraying King Visnugupta, the patron of the sculpture, and his sons. The black, heavily oiled, image is painted in folk style and covered by chintzy cloth and rough copper repousse ornament so that the stone is all but invisible. Large statues of Garuda, Ganesha and Hanuman on a pillar stand outside the shrine.

KAILASPURI, SIVAPURI: on the hill at the top of a flight of monumental steps is a collection of temples, and dharamsalas. The principal temple of these, marked by a gilt trisul, is the Gorakhnath temple enshrining the mahasiddha's footprints in stone. The Nath math or monastery is to the west of it.

GAURI GHAT: At the top end of the gorge, where the Bagmati plunges into its chasm, is a stone formation washed by the river, guarded by river nagas. Gauri is the name of Siva's prospective consort. Siva was a brahmacharin yogin and was loathe to marry, but obeying his parent's wishes he was betrothed to Gauri, who he promised to marry consequent to her purification. For twelve years Gauri practised purification yoga (tapasya) on this stone, and then in a state of beatitude was married to Siva on Kailash, his Holy Mountain Paradise.

BHUBHANESHVARA: In the centre of Deopatan, at the first crossing, is the Bhubaneshvari temple compound. This temple of Siva's Consort Durga or Bhagavati is a large, rectangular, two-roofed, pagoda temple, recently restored. The wooden torana shows Mahesasuramardini, Durga, destroying the buffalo demon. In font of the temple is the open shrine of Bhubanesvara Mahadeva represented as a four-faced (chaturmukha) lingam, finely carved, probably in the transitional period.

BANKALI: The principal, home-residence of Bankali, the dreadful and terrific Kali of the Forest, blood-drinker and flesh-eater, lies to the south of Deopatan, east of Gokarna in the remnants of the forest that was once thick and jungly on this side of Pashupati. These words are put into the mouth of this Kali: "I shall eat the asuras... and eat them up; then my teeth, hair, body and weapons will all become red with their blood and for that reason they will call me in the world as Rakta-Camunda." Once an open pith shrine, the simple image of this dreadful Mother Goddess depicts in an eight-armed form dancing upon a human corpse. Time and a surfeit of blood and other offering has taken its toll on this stone image probably dating from Licchavi times. King Sivadeva I (590-604) caused the image of Bankali to be dug up after she had been buried "in the reign of Raja Dharmadatta, when she ate up an army and concealed herself in a wood, the flesh of the human army still sticking to her teeth." King Mahendra Shah renovated the site and built the present enclosure. The torana shows Ganesha, a four-armed matrika, and Kumar.

Sarva Mangalam!
May all beings be happy!