Nepali Times
The mystery of the Black Bhairab

One of the piquant qualities of the great black Bhairab in Kathmandu's Durbar Square, is that no one knows where it originally came from, the temple or even the town in which it stood, who the craftsmen were or to which age they belonged. It was found lying face down near a royal forest where a MaIla king was constructing a garden. To many it was miraculous, as all statues that 'rise from the earth' or 'fall from the heavens' are. The other great stone statue that was similarly 'found', is the image of Buddhanilkanth, the sleeping Vishnu, which belongs to the fourth or fifth century AD.

The black Bhairab is more crudely carved, but its power matches the overwhelming might of its subject, a six-armed god standing triumphantly upon a demon, cloaked in human skins and garlanded with human heads. He wears an ornate golden headdress, snakes writhe from his ears instead of earrings and coil about his neck, and in his hands holds an upraised sword, a chakra, a trident, severed heads and a bowl so reddened with vermilion it might contain blood. Carved flames dance about the tableau.

Purists would have the statue cleaned of its colour but here it is unnecessary, the black figure hung with red arid yellow and white against a raw cobalt sky in which are set a vermilion and yellow sun and moon with human faces, projects a stunning force no ordinary stone could achieve. There is sacrificial blood on the figure which appears necessary for so powerfully primitive a god who instils majesty with fear and protects with terror.

From dawn till late evening there are worshippers at the spot, mostly women wrapped in shawls and making offerings of rice, vermilion, incense and oil lamps and flowers.

How so massive a statue was brought to where it now stands in the old palace square, miles apart from where it was discovered, is yet another riddle that attaches to the image.

When it was raised in its present position, guarded by two stone lions and attended by a panel of ashtamatrikas, it took on a new quality.
People accused of cheating or lying were brought before the Bhairab to swear their innocence. If they lied, they would surely die of a mysterious bleeding. Modern justice has discontinued the practice, but it is possible that in dark ceremonies no passersby see, oaths are still taken before the frightening presence.

Bhairab represents the awesome, destructive forces of Shiva who, if properly propitiated, becomes the omnipotent guardian. As such he is venerated throughout Nepal, making him the most popular of all deities. His image is everywhere, often just a head because legend is fitted with stories of how Bhairab was decapitated.

One tells how Bhairab came from Kashi, Benares, in India, to visit the New Year festivals in the guise of a man. People soon grew suspicious of a tall, handsome stranger in their midst and informed their priests. Using tantric rites the priests soon discovered that the stranger was indeed Bhairab, so they plotted to bind him with spells and keep him in the valley Bhairab, finding himself trapped, tried hurriedly to sink into the earth and escape, but as he disappeared the people cut off his head, which they enshrined and have worshipped ever since.

Perhaps the children who told me that the great black Bhairab had come from heaven were right. Their reasoning might surprise scholars, for they had him so gorged on the wicked and on demons that he could no longer fly Why did he not fly away again when he was empty? Because the people of Kathmandu keep him happy, they said, and there is, if you look long enough at that wide-eyed, grimacing face, a scarlet smile of pleasure.

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

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)