Nepali Times
On the banks of eternity itself


A teller of tales or a priest from any of the temples crowding the ghats would have said that gods and goddesses came to bathe unseen at the confluence known as Shankhamul.

The lovely city of Patan is so old its origins are largely forgotten. Legend has the Buddha visit it with his beloved disciple Ananda. The great Mauryan emperor Ashoka built four stupas about the city to testify to its blessedness. From Patan, almost certainly, went the Princess Brikuti to marry the famous Tibetan king Tsrong-Song-Gompo. It is said that she took with her as her sole dowry the begging bowl of the Buddha and through her own indomitable faith caused Buddhism to take firm roots in Tibet. She comes down to us through history as the charming Green Tara, subject of countless statues and paintings.

To the Nepalis, Patan was Lalitpatan or Lalitpur, city of beauty. To Tibetan traders it was Ye Rang, which means eternity itself. The beauty remains, despite the passing of corroding centuries, destructive earthquakes, wars and the attention of vandals who sacrilegiously have wrenched some of its finest detail from the magnificence that still remains.

Down every lane, in every courtyard and in the great squares are jewel-like memories of the past which, I like to think, serve as inspiration to the large number of artists and workers in wood and metal who inhabit the city. They were known to be there, feeding a flourishing Indo-Tibet trade route, when whatever there was of the ancient city was rebuilt by King Veera Deva in the year AD 299. It is not known whether he built the wall about the city that remains only in the briefest snatches or whether it was there already, a bastion not only against invasions but nocturnal intruders. The city also had the protection of a river, more holy than protective since there are seasons when it is almost dry.

It is across this sacred river, at the confluence of the Bagmati and the Manahara, that traders and visitors from the north came, over a medieval bridge of stout wooden beams, brick and earth. It still is easy to imagine their awe and amazement at first sight of the city with its piled pagoda roofs, golden finials flashing in the sun, its stupas and temples across the river. If they had a teller of tales travelling with them, or met a priest from any of numerous temples crowding the ghats, they would have been told that gods and goddesses came to bathe unseen at the confluence known as Shankhamul. One knew they were there when the water suddenly stopped in its glide southwards and sometimes even reversed direction. A couple of years ago an adventurous truck tried to cross the ancient bridge. I was assured by a garrulous priest that it must have chosen just the moment of the celestial dip to profane the happening. The old bridge fell apart in anguish and no one has bothered to put it together again.

Dominating this particular approach to Patan?there is another downstream where a new bridge and highway obliterate the old crossing between Kathmandu and Patan?is the temple of Jagat Narayan, nineteenth century new, and not very attractive except for four powerful images that face its entrance. Three of them, massively carved in stone as if they intend to sit out the centuries, are under metal canopies. They represent Ganesh, Garuda in his human form, and Hanuman. I have yet to find someone who will date these images that to me appear much older than the temple whose courtyard they occupy. Perhaps they were already there, open to the elements, adding their blessings to the sacred confluence. Perhaps they graced a far older temple long since destroyed and swept away. For, to me, they have the same quality as the colossal statues of Garuda and Bhairab in Kathmandu. Behind the kneeling Garuda, atop a tall stone pillar supported on the back of a stone turtle, is a gilded Garuda, bird-faced and horned and wearing a plume of flames. He crouches, which is unusual, giving the impression of immediate flight on golden wings. A small boy who watched me sketch and claimed that his name was Amitabh Dharmendra, seemed to have the same idea. As I drew the perched Garuda he clapped his hands and shooed loudly as he would a wayward chicken. "If he flies away," he said, "you cannot sketch him." If he flies away, I said in reply, we will both die of shock. The boy ran off to share his joke with a group of other children, no doubt called Zeenat, Hema and Mithun.

The temple was built by Colonel Jagat Shumshere Jung Kunwar Rana, brother of the famous Prime Minister Maharaja Jung Bahadur, in 1860. Ten years ago he had accompanied his brother to England and Europe and by doing so had disregarded the taboo of crossing the kala pani. Some believe he built this temple to Narayan to atone for his sin, while others see it as an attempt to keep up with his famous brother who was planning to build a temple at Kal Mochan in Kathmandu. Perhaps he was merely gifting to Patan a new temple as the culmination of a great deal of building and rebuilding he had done in the area. Several smaller temples and an imposing stretch of burning and bathing ghats owe their origin to the pious colonel, whether easing a guilty conscience or attempting to immortalize himself. Certainly the four handsome images will perpetuate his name. t

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

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)