Nepali Times
A decapitated God and an


No one knows exactly how old the temple is. It probably began with a small shrine to Bhairab, the god of terror, and slowly, as the city of Bhaktapur grew, it was given the status of a temple. Tradition has it originally a large, single-storey construction, which could account for three otherwise inexplicable finials where the ground floor meets the first. Its importance is never in doubt, whether as a small shrine, a single-storey temple or the present majestic edifice that occupies one whole side of an important Bhaktapur Square. Because, if legend is to be believed, the temple originally enshrined was not a metal or wooden replica, but the actual head of the god himself.

It seems Bhairab came from Banaras where he is identified with the Shiva of Kashi Viswanath, to watch the famous festival of Bisket disguised as a mortal. A tantric priest of unusual perception recognised the god, and wishing to keep him in Bhaktapur began binding him with powerful spells. In desperation, the god began to sink into the earth but not before the tantric quickly cut off his head. A trophy so sacred required a suitable shrine, so it was carried, dripping blood, to the temple in Taumaudhi Square where it was installed with great rejoicing. Wherever the blood had fallen was marked with large stones that were worshipped as shrines. They are still in the streets today, reddened with vermilion, but no longer so sacred they may not be stepped upon or driven over. Medieval Bhaktapur grows suddenly modern and its religion moves with the times. Restoration, for instance, must forget taboos like unbelievers not entering the holiest precincts. Purification ceremonies are conducted and the work goes on.

Records suggest that the Bhairab temple was commissioned by King Bhupatindra Malla (1690-1722), a connoisseur of art and a great builder, but there is another, more romantic story. The king, never tired of beautifying his city, felt that the existing Bhairab shrine did little credit to its unique importance. So he ordered two more floors to be added to the temple, to be topped with a gilded roof and golden finials. Instead of being pleased by all this royal extravagance, the god grew angry at being disturbed. He caused earthquakes, drought and pestilence to threaten the city. The worried king consulted his astrologers and soothsayers and they finally came up with extraordinary advice. To appease the furious deity, the king must build a temple for Bhairab's consort that must be of singular beauty and size. Only then would the god be satisfied.

It was done at last. The temple was built, the angry Bhairab appeased. At least until 1934, when a severe earthquake that devastated Bhaktapur made a ruin of the temple. It has been faithfully restored, so that few if any looking at it today would doubt it being centuries old.

During Bhaktapur's spectacular Bisket festival, the image of Bhairab is drawn through the streets in a heavy wooden rath. All of Bhaktapur turns out to watch or take a turn at pulling on the ropes. Or they help raise an enormous pole at the beginning of the festival and lower it at the end. The pole and the festival recall an amazing story. There was in Bhaktapur an insatiable princess who demanded a new lover every night. Normally the men of the city would have felt privileged to oblige, but strangely no man, however strong, survived the experience. Every morning there was the sad procession of mourners taking away a son or brother or husband. The city became muted with grief. At the speed at which they were dying there would soon be no men folk left in the city.

One day, in the very best tradition of fairytales, a handsome stranger rode into town. Unknown to anyone, he was naturally a prince. The stranger, seeking shelter for the night, happened upon an old lady convulsed with grief who between her lamentations told the prince the story of the demanding princess. That very night her only son was to present himself to the palace and the next morning she would go to collect his body. The prince gallantly promised to take her son's place, and did.

The princess was beautiful. It was love at first sight, but the prince was as clever as he was handsome. After the princess fell asleep, he quickly hid himself in a corner of the room, sword in hand. To his horror, two serpents writhed from the princess's nostrils, growing larger all the while, and obviously in search of their prey. In a flash the prince was upon them, severing their evil heads from their bodies. In the morning, when the old woman leading a procession of mourners came to collect his body, there was the prince happily hand in hand with the princess. Great were the celebrations. Bisket was born, and Bhaktapur lived happily ever after.

The wheels of the great Bhairab chariot are stacked under the eaves of the temple. Sometimes, when the crowds at Bisket grow boisterous, battle looms in the square. At other times processions converge on the temple, pujas are performed, a knife flashes and a sacrifice is made. A tourist rides a guardian lion to be photographed. Something is always happening. Like models from Singapore showing the latest fashions from Rome and Paris. Or a film unit filming an epic. Life about the temple is so interesting that one begins to scrutinise handsome strangers. Could one of them possibly be.?

(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)