Nepali Times
A courtyard to the Buddha’s memory


Permitting legend, it says, Gautam Buddha visited the valley of the gods to worship and teach soon after he attained enlightenment. That some of his disciples visited Kathmandu is recorded in Buddhist scriptures which mention an exchange of messages between the Buddha and Ananda. The barefooted disciples were so tortured by the rocky paths and the intense cold of the Kathmandu valley, they asked permission to wear shoes. This was granted by the Master after much apparent consideration. No record of his visit to the valley exists other than what hearsay attaches to incidents and hallowed spots. Like a small courtyard in Patan.

History would support Patan's claim to being a well founded city at the time of the Buddha. Legend has him received by the king of Patan with much rejoicing, festivity mid display of largesse. The saintly Buddha declined the gifts heaped upon him by the king and his nobles, but he accepted a simple gift of food from an old woman and blessed her for it. Humbled by this incident, the king forsook his royal living, and labouring for many days as a blacksmith gave his earnings to the poor. When the Buddha heard of this royal penance, he baptised and blessed the king who came to him as a poor craftsman and at the same time blessed and honoured the entire caste of blacksmiths. Disputed, but widely upheld, is the belief that he bestowed upon them his own name, Sakya.

There is in Patan today a small courtyard built about a Buddhist chaitya which is believed to be the spot where this memorable event took place. Kneeling at the foot of the chaitya and facing the door of a small chapel are the stone figures of a man and two women simply attired, their hands folded in homage. Could they be the king and his consorts? The courtyard is known as Dhum Baha and once a year the blacksmiths of Patan congregate here to celebrate, just as once a year a festival of feasting and worship centres about the place where the old woman blessed by the Buddha lived. I asked some people living in the courtyard about the history of the place. The two women sunning themselves said it was very important and wonderful but they couldn't remember what it was. A child thought the kneeling stone figures were his grandfather and aunts. I might have imagined the amused look on the face of the all-seeing Buddha on a stupa overlooking the courtyard.

So wondrous a story is surely built on fact, though there were scholars who cast doubt upon the Buddha ever having visited the Kathmandu valley. They would have us believe that the visit of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka centuries later is also unfounded, despite the fact that he is credited with building four stupas about the city of Patan to testify to its blessedness. They are still extant, three of them simple grass-covered mounds as they must have been when they were first built, and one encased in plaster with a painted spire. Interestingly, this embellished stupa stands close by the old bridge over which Tibetan traders came to Patan. One can imagine the offerings they lavished on so holy a shrine. Then there is the unshakeable story that Ashoka gave his daughter Charumati in marriage to a local prince. Between them they raised the city of Deopatan, a conch call away from the great temple of Pashupatinath. Charumati was also responsible for building a vihara and stupa at adjoining Chabahil. The existing vihara though ancient has certainly not seen two centuries, but the stupa, if it were to yield up its secrets, would surely remember the pious princess.

The heaviest concentration of Buddhists and Buddhist monuments is in Patan. The Sakyas are a prominent Buddhist caste. It is from among the Sakyas that the Virgin Goddess Kumari is selected. The Sakyas still shape wondrous images and work in metal. The sound of beaten metal fills many a Patan lane, but sadly the Sakya craftsmen are dying out. "There is not much future in the business," a young Sakya graduate told me. "The demand for fine arts and crafts is rapidly decreasing. Even the handmade household d utensils my people produced are being replaced by factory-made products. Our young are turning to the import-export business. Or doing jobs like I'm doing. I'm an agriculturist, with honours from foreign universities. When I have nothing better to do I take tourists around. I speak two foreign languages.'

The young man took me to a nearby temple being shuttered against the night. "Not long ago this place was open night and day. Now, even though we lock the gates there is the fear of thieves coming over the rooftops." Did he believe in the Buddha's coming?
"That's an awfully long time ago," he said.

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

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)