Nepali Times
A temple to a secretive goddess

atan's temple to Balkumari is beautifully located on the outskirts of the town. The city hasn't reached it yet, and the track that leads to it, a country lane, is uneven, dusty, and flanked by wild hedgerows. Great old trees tower above the building on one side, shading it in summer, and in winter providing a screen of filigree through which rolling countryside, village, the valley wall and high snow summits can be seen. In days gone by it must have been a lonely, isolated spot, probably forested, a place where travellers halted briefly and made offerings for a journey begun or ended. A temple grew.

The pujari of the temple told me that the original image was of stone. Then, presumably miraculously it supported images of Balkumari on one side and Bhairab on the other: it's still there, in a small pit below the more recent metal image. I asked him if it was true that Balkumari was a consort of Bhairab, or a female mani-festation of the god of terror. He answered that she was married but her husband's identity was a closely kept secret. He knew of course, but he must never divulge the information. The goddess' husband is just one of the mysteries surrounding the goddess. Apparently, she is deeply shrouded in them, mysteries that the temple priests alone see in rare visions. At least one of my books, which to a page are strangely silent or hesitant about the Patan Balkumari, do say she is one of Bhairab's many consorts but the pujari greeted this information with a look of exasperation and fairly rude noise.

Why, I asked him, did the exquisite gilded image of her in the temple represent her riding a peacock? Why was there a peacock on a high stone pedestal facing the temple? That apparently was a fairly modern interpretation. She was originally a stone goddess; presumably, though he refused to say it, one of the early mother goddesses. Then why Bal? If she was a mother goddess, with a secret, powerful consort, why was she represented as a girl? My Nepali friends and I were obviously trespassing upon the mysteries. The pujari wore a beatific smile which could have been one of long suffering.

'She has sisters,' he volunteered. 'Younger sisters. Mahalaxmi and Sikhabhai.' An intelligent young man standing nearby suggested that Balkumari was one of the astamatrikas, but the pujari snorted again. Her companions in the temple are Ganesh, Bhairab, Dakshin Kali, Mahalaxmi and Bhairabi. Asked their significance, the pujari gathered himself up and walked away. 'She is a goddess of sickness,' said the intelligent young man. 'Her powers are particularly efficacious in the treatment of dysentry and diarrhoea. People who worship her and live under her influence seldom suffer these diseases. She is also propitiated by the newly married and young men straight from their thread ceremonies.'

To sketch the early seventeenth century temple, set in a small sunken courtyard, its four approaches guarded by large stone lions, I climbed atop a nearby building where interference from passers-by was minimal. One of the inevitable old men who crouch about temples either as their official or unofficial guardians asked my driver what the American was doing. Had he perhaps come to steal the image? Apparently his suspicions are well founded, though why he got them confused with Americans I can't think. There are three Bal Kumari images in Patan. The main one is in the temple of my sketch, another is in a prayer house that once belonged to a Malla king, and the third is in a potters' colony. The latter has remained untouched. The one from the Malla prayer house has been stolen and recovered twice. The temple deity has also been stolen twice but never recovered: the present image, of a lovely woman riding a peacock, her head slightly inclined, her slender hands in a prayerful mudra is the second replica. The handsome Ganesh image that stands besides it is also comparatively new, the original having been stolen.

As I sketched the temple, a small procession arrived carrying a gilded image of Balkumari that looked exactly like the one in the shrine. It was dumped without much ceremony against a pillar, where passers-by, mostly women, paid obeisance, or children tinkled the small bells that are part of the image.

The image has been stolen several times. The first time it was stolen it was recovered from the customs before it could leave the country. A devotee from Patan who happened to be there at the time instantly recognised the goddess. Strangely, the image is light enough for a single priest to carry easily. Yet, in its box in the customs shed it had assumed magical weight.

The second time this lovely image was stolen it disappeared for a year. When the three persons responsible for stealing it fell out over its disposal, the police got to know and it was found in a private house buried in the floor. Legend or coincidence; as the image was uncovered, Patan was rocked by an earthquake. Perhaps divine intervention also prevented the beautiful gilded finial being stolen quite recently. A sudden high wind unseated the thief as he dislodged his golden prize from the temple roof so that he fell with an alarming clatter and broke his leg in the bargain. Easily caught, he was bound to a post supporting the temple bell and given a sound beating. Ah yes, the finial he attempted to steal was not the original. That had been stolen ages before.

The moral behind the story of this lovely temple in sylvan surroundings is surely that treasures should not be kept in temptingly isolated places. Not in today's crass world of image lifters.

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

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)