When I first came upon the gardens some thirty years ago, they snuggled naturally into the mountainside they were built upon. Clear water tanks fed from mountain springs were full of carp, some so large they must have been there for years. They glided about in the most subtle of greys, greens, blues and silver, rising in splashing excitement to be fed by visitors. At the time of the bathing festival in April, when the area is crowded with vividly dressed pilgrims, the fish gormandise. But they alone do not make Balaju. The gardens, built by a Malla king who apparently craved peace and solitude, are famous for their twenty-two carved stone fountains, that stand in a line below the tanks, emptying themselves into a long, shallow bathing pool. The central fountain is enormous and bathers battle the force of its gushing water. All are carved to resemble water monsters with curled trunks, staring eyes, ferocious teeth and tongues aflame. It is explained that the sculptor responsible for these handsome water spouts had never seen the crocodiles he endeavoured to portray; an amusing story that dismisses an artist's creativity too glibly.
I can remember lawns as natural as forest clearings, and a pilgrim's rest house hidden behind willow trees. Also, a small sacred tank, untouched, in which a large stone image of Vishnu reclines on a bed of snakes. It is a fairly faithful replica of the great Lichhavi image at Buddhanilkantha, north of the gardens, but lacks the serenity and perfect proportions of the original. It is said that a Malla king had water channelled from the sacred pool at Buddhanilkantha to the palace in Kathmandu. On the very night that the water splashed into a palace pool, the monarch had a dream in which Vishnu of the blue throat appeared to him.
The god warned that not only the king but his descendants would die if ever they went to see the reclining image at Buddhatiilkantha. So the king had a replica of the image made and installed with due ceremony at Balaju. Here the kings of Nepal may worship without fear, for it is generally believed that were the king to die as a result of looking upon the Buddhanilkantha image, great and terrifying would be the misfortunes that would befall the kingdom.
Today this garden carved from the forests that cover the sacred mountain of Nagarjun, have been landscaped with an elaborate use of concrete. There are flowerbeds and pools shaped like fish and clubs and diamonds and spades and hearts. Usually the new pools are stagnant and their fountains refuse to play. The flowerbeds try valiantly to battle the press of people. At one corner of the gardens is a modern swimming pool, which is a source of great pleasure to locals and visitors. I am being romantic and outdated, I know, but I love the natural levels of the old gardens, the forests all about and the trees full of birdsong. It hardly matters. Balaju is essentially a place of pilgrimage, and pilgrims and Saturday bathers have their ablutions firmly in mind. Beauty is secondary.
The whole of the Balaju area is sacred. The mountain Nagarjun that rises in great folds about it is associated with the Buddha. It seems that when he visited Nepal and intended to journey into Tibet the forces of evil in that country were so strong the Buddha was advised not to go. Instead, he climbed the Nagarjun hill from where, facing the great barrier of mountains that separate Nepal from Tibet, he delivered a sermon to the Tibetan people. As a result, it is a spot of deep significance to Tibetan Buddhists who have erected a stupa on the summit of the mountain. Close by also is the sacred hill of Mhaipi from which clay was taken to build the temple of Machhendranath in Patan. It is known to be the abode of powerful witches and spirits who had to be subdued by tantric priests before the earth could be removed. And just across a shallow river from Balaju is the hill top retreat of Guru Nanak, the great saint of Sikhism, who cured a Nepalese monarch of unsound mind before disappearing into Tibet.
None of these considerations prevented Balaju from becoming a modern industrial area, where almost everything is manufactured from silk and watches to Coca-Cola. The town spreads alarmingly below Nagarun but stops short at the forest wall. The trees and the still comforting peace of gardens will surely remain. There are still fat carp in the water tanks, sailing idly through the clear water. And though some of the fountains threaten to run dry, there will always be pilgrims and weekend bathers to use them.
If only the modern fountain would play.
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999.)