Nepali Times
A house for Shiva and Parvati


The wooden images of Shiva and Parvati rest on the window rail, looking out over the passing scene in a manner suggesting interest in all they see.

It is important to remember that Kathmandu is the valley of the gods. If deities no longer descend in disguise to watch festivals, their favourite pastime, they pose as virgin children or the masked religious dancers who represent them on special occasions. I have often seen dancers so agitated by the divinity in command of them, they have had to be held by people on both sides.

In ancient Bhaktapur, the mysterious nine Durgas contrive to make themselves appear inhuman, in masks smeared with vermilion, saffron and sacrificial blood. Their gait, the exaggerated way they breathe and talk, their collective sense of secrecy set them apart. After centuries of familiarity, they are still held in awe. Kathmandu is no exception. Indra's elephant dances in streets at Indra Jatra, as do Bhairab and two attendants, also the demon Lakhe and the demoness Dogani. Should Lakhe and Dogani meet they would fight to their death, so great care is taken to keep them apart.

In the artists' city of Patan, at Dasain young men impersonating the eight mother goddesses, the ashtamatrikas, are worshipped as real goddesses and lavishly fed. So colourful are these ceremonies that often blaze in the darkness of night, it is no wonder the gods are often tempted to drop by. It seems the great Lord Shiva himself made a habit of coming to see the divine dances held in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. At first he came alone but it was not long before his consort Parvati pleaded to be taken along.

King Rana Bahadur Shah decided to build a pavilion befitting the pleasure of Shiva and Parvati, and so, on a raised plinth that has a grandstand view of all the many excitements that fill the old Palace Square, he had a suitable house constructed. A house it is despite its elaborate decoration. In the heavily ornamented top floor, the middle of its nine window frames are carved and painted wooden images of Shiva and Parvati in mortal form, a unique representation.

They rest on the window rail, looking out over the passing scene in a manner suggesting interest in all they see. And what wondrous things they look upon. Just across the square from them is the house of the Living Goddess. She can be seen occasionally at her gilded window or being taken in vivid procession. They have witnessed numerous coronations, two divine people in a confetti-bright crowd that fills every inch of space in the square, to watch the newly crowned king walk to pay homage at a nearby Ganesh shrine, then come by on elep- hant back, his queen at his side, leading a glittering procession bit of wonderland.

Did they recognise other gods and goddesses masquerading as mortals in the crowd? Did they wonder at the Victorian baithak khana added to the old Malla architecture of the place by the Rana maharajas? Were they amazed by the first automobiles, surprised by the first foreigners and startled by the coming of the hippies?

Not far from their pavilion is a temple on a towering plinth which became a favourite abode of hippies, a smoker's paradise, a rent free rest house. The hippies went, the huge coaches with London-Constantinople-Tehran-Delhi-Kathmandu, the more frequent Kathmandu-Goa, the extraordinary Chapati Express, they all went. The trippies, the budget travellers, came.

Colourfully dressed women selling Jaipuri minor work, old clothes, old saree borders set up shop below Shiva and Parvati. So also curio dealers, and a bicycle hire shop. Shiva and Parvati have watched them all, have posed for endless photographs and starred in many films. What they'll see next is anyone's guess. Like all capital cities, Kathmandu changes fast. But the festivals and processions will always be the same.

Women with votive offerings, men leading a sacrificial goat or playing old fashioned musical instruments will always come by at dawn and dusk. Sometimes, even in the late of night. Then unnoticed, just two people among a worshipful crowd, Shiva and his consort might leave their ornate pavilion and walk the streets of Kathmandu again.

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

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)