Bhaktapur's greatest patron of the arts, King Bhupatindra Malla, probably had it built as a culminating edifice, a pagoda-type temple to outshine all others, a monument worthy of the goddess Siddhi Lakshmi and incidentally himself. So in the heart of ancient Bhaktapur in 1702, he had the towering Nyatapola built. Then it must have been a wonder of the times. Its five elegantly soaring tiers are set upon five ascending plinths, a masterpiece of proportion and artistry that gives to the massive building an impression of gem-like delicacy. The wood carving is superb, each one of the 108 struts illustrating the numerous forms of Bhagwati Mahishamardini and lesser deities. Doors, windows, recesses, are all lavishly carved and painted. Every tier is hung with wind bells. A golden finial crowns the temple.
Even the people of Bhaktapur are uncertain about the main deity of the temple. To many she is so powerful, so secret, she is nameless and without form. To most she is Siddhi Lakshmi, to others Bhairabi, the consort of Bhairab, Lord of Terror. There is known to be a beautiful sculpture of Mahishamardini in the inner sanctum but the temple is seldom open and only select priests are permitted inside.
Leading to the main door of the temple is a steep flight of stairs flanked by pairs of massive stone figures. In ascending order they are powerful human wrestlers, armed with bludgeons and shields, elephants, lions, griffins and the deities Simhini and Byaghrini. Each is considered to be ten times as powerful as the other, and as the wrestlers have the strength of ten ordinary men the culminating protective force is that of one hundred thousand men, or several armies of the time.
But all this pales before the legend. King Bhupatindra Malla, who was forever building and beautifying his city, had the important but not impressive temple to Bhairab largely extended. To the existing rectangular shrine he had two floors added, crowning the lot with a gilded roof and a row of golden finials. Rather than being grateful, the fierce god flew into a tremendous rage at being disturbed and caused, calamities unending to visit the land. There was drought and pestilence, earthquake and war. In great anguish, the king consulted his priests and astrologers who came up with an answer that must have gladdened the artistic king's heart. He must build without delay a temple to Bhairab's consort so beautiful that it would have no equal in the land.
From the forests about Bhaktapur were brought especially selected trees to which the proper sacrifices had been made. Kilns to produce the slender rose coloured bricks and the small russet tiles for the temple mushroomed about the city. Wood carvers, workers in metal and stone, craftsmen adept in fusing gold to copper, artists, thousands of labourers were kept constantly at work, the king striding among them, praising and coaxing, even lending a hand. It is said that to hasten the work, the king himself led processions of workmen, carrying bricks. The temple grew. It soared. Long before it was complete its stunning beauty became legendary. More wonderful, the rain fell, the restless earth grew calm, and the plagues and catastrophes that had bedeviled Bhaktapur ceased. The god Bhairab in his temple nearby was obviously satisfied.
Another version of this story has Bhairab angry, not because of being disturbed but because he resented a higher, more magnificent temple being built than his own. So he appeared to the king one night in a dream, demanding to know for whom the temple was being raised. If it was for any deity of lesser importance than himself, then he would destroy not only the temple but the town. So the king's advisers had him dedicate the impressive new temple to the all-powerful Siddhi Lakshmi, and Bhairab was content.
Ironically, a temple so impressive, so legendary, is never the cause for celebration. No great processions climb its guarded stairs, no worshipful crowds throng its plinths. It stands aloof, deservedly proud, very much the lovely woman of legend ordained by a god and perfected by a king. But there is hardly a festival in Bhaktapur that does not fill the square above which the temple soars. Religious processions, dancers, musicians, raths, funerals, marriages, they all pass by. Sometimes the square is an arena for impromptu bullfights. Crowds collect suddenly from nowhere. Children ride the temple's guardian beasts for a better view. At the festival of cows, a Bhairab made of straw dances before his temple. And now the tourists come, taking endless photographs and browsing in the small curio shops that stand about the square.
German restorers have built a cafe in the square from the remains of an ancient pilgrim's rest house. It is a work of art in itself, its carvings faithfully reproduced, its furniture adapted from old Newari styles. From its verandahs one can watch the city go by or romanticise that one sails a galley into centuries past. Even the young proprietor is understanding. When one sits and dreams in the shadow of the Nyatapola temple a coffee or Coke can be the slowest drink on earth.
(Excerpted with permission from
In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999.)