The old trade route from Tibet to India cuts diagonally through Kathmandu. More truthfully, Kathmandu grew about the trade route now called Asan. At one end is a tank, many elephants deep, constructed by a king. At the other is the glorious complex of the old royal palace, teeming with history, temples and statuary. Every here and there the narrow street, if it can be called such, widens into a square dominated by temples. One of the most beautiful temples is the one dedicated to Annapurna.
At first sight, particularly if the sun is right, the temple appears to be made from solid gold. Its three pagoda roofs are heavily gilded, as are its finial, its richly fashioned doorway, the decorative birds, the metal frills, the divine faces on the ribbed roofs and the ornate torana over the door. Obviously, much expense and devoted labour was lavished on its construction. Instead of an image, there is a silver purnakalash, wound around by a silver serpent and draped with a silver scarf. Gilded lions guard the entrance.
Temple records are dated 1839 and show that the building required renovation by the end of the nineteenth century. Here tradition takes over. Known as Asan Maju Ajima, the grandmother goddess of Asan, Annapurna is the goddess of plenty. Once dwelling in either Benares or Calcutta, she grew restless for the mountains and begged to be brought to Kathmandu. There she was installed under a tree, the stump of which can still be seen in the temple. She faces west and perhaps in those distant, uncrowded times no buildings or pollution obstructed her view of the magnificent mountains that bear her name.
Many years ago in Calcutta I sketched an ancient temple to Annapurna, daughter of the Himalaya, which stood crumbling beside the Diamond Harbour Road. If I remember rightly, the property belonged to the Roy Choudhury family of Barisa. Mr Pratap Roy Choudhury spoke of the times when much of what is now Calcutta belonged to his ancestors. They had leased the villages of Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kalikata to Job Charnok and had helped to build the Kalighat temple.
There was no image in the picturesque ruin of the temple. A banyan tree grew luxuriantly out of the pillared building, holding it together rather than destroying it. Could this have been where Asan's goddess Annapurna once dwelt and longed for the hills? A pleasing thought even if unsubstantiated by fact.
Today, Asan is a bustling square clamourous with people, street vendors, rickshaws, cars that can hardly budge, cows and even the occasional elephant. Devotees pause before Annapurna or perambulate around the temple, making offerings and receiving prasad in return. Perhaps in acknowledgement of the goddess of plenty the government sets up a supply shop in time of kerosene shortage almost under the golden roofs. People carrying tins and plastic containers queue snake-like about the temple. Close by are shops selling Nepali candles that ease periodic power cuts.
Modern houses of no particular architectural style or beauty crowd behind the gilded temple. The goddess herself gazes across the square to a gilded Ganesh temple imprisoned in thoughtless electric pylons. Will she grow restless again for freedom? I doubt it. There can be no more fascinating a square anywhere as Asan. Even for a goddess.
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, Harper Collins, 1994.)