Nepali Times
The light of many suns


He remembered Queen Victoria being crowned empress of India, and had seen the first train in India.

n the beginning, when gods walked the valley of Kathmandu, there was a mound where the temple now stands, and to it daily came a cow to offer her milk. A bewildered cowherd who watched this incredible happening in great awe and fear, at last found the courage to dig at the spot. He had hardly begun when he was consumed by a light like that of many suns emanating from a linga with faces of Shiva carved on all four sides. So terrifying was one of the faces that an early invader of the valley looked upon it and died.

There ends the myth and history tentatively begins. Pashupatinath, however small the original shrine, was there when the first settlers raised a perishable town of wood and mud about it on the banks of the sacred Baghmati. The earliest remains are Licchavi, from AD 300 to 800. Licchavi rulers were in close relationship with Gupta India, so Sanskrit was the court language with a growing interest in Hinduism.

Chinese representatives of the time, visiting the Kathmandu valley, described the fabulous court, carved and ornamented with pearls and gems, as being near the holy temple of Pashupatinath, where the king daily worshipped the deity that protected him.

Long before, when the Mauryan king Ashoka visited the valley, he married his daughter Charumati to a local prince and they founded the city of Dev Patan, close to the most sacred shrine. In the fourteenth century the temple was shattered by the invading army of Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlak: three hundred years later it was eaten through by termites.

King Pratap Malla, in atonement for having seduced a minor girl, added a courtyard filled with Shiva lingas. The last Malla king of Kathmandu stripped the temple of all its gold and had it melted down to finance his war against the invading Gorkhas. Such is the power of Pashupatinath, believe the devout, that he lost the battle.
Pashupatinath, as Shiva in one of his many incarnations, is a protector of animals, so there are no sacrifices at this great shrine. Appropriately, throngs of gossiping monkeys swarm through the temples, feasting off votive offerings and sometimes exploding into violent battles that zoom to and fro across the river, up and down stairs scattering pilgrims, along the ghats, and through rows of temples. They live on the wooded hill which is part of the temple complex which reaches the airport, until recently called Gaucher, the meadow of cows.

When I first came to Kathmandu, a famed mystic, the Shivpuri Baba, lived on Pashupati hill in a small hut that seemed part of the forest. I went to him and was enchanted by a jovial old man with a flowing beard who claimed to be 150 years old. Lest I doubted him he said he remembered Queen Victoria being crowned empress of India, and had seen the first train in India.

Today, Pashupatinath is a two-tiered pagoda temple with heavily gilded roofs, heavy silver doors that are closed to non-Hindus, and is the centre of a vast conglomeration of temples, shrines, dharamshalas, bathing and burning ghats held together by an aura of religious fervour and the smoke from funeral pyres. Here is beauty commissioned by art's greatest patron, religion, so that hardly a stone is unchiselled or wood uncarved. The windows of even the humblest dharamshalas are ornamented with wasp-waist deities and intricate floral designs. Temple spires writhe with golden serpents, and on two of the platforms on which the dead are cremated are sixth century stone carvings of rare beauty.

Two festivals blaze in Pashupatinath more brightly than the others; Shivaratri, when thousands converge on the temple from all over Nepal and India, thronging the area, day and night, and raising shelters and shops wherever space permits. Devotional music is everywhere. At Tij, women from all over the valley walk to the great shrine, married women in their vivid marriage saris and unmarried girls in their brightest best, singing and dancing as they go to bathe in the sacred river and pray at the great temple: the married women for their husbands, the girls for a good and kindly match.

They pour from the temple down the stairway to the river like a burst of scarlet sequins overflowing the ghats and spilling into the water. In their midst, on a stark stone slab, her feet in the water, an old woman in white lies dying. No one apparently bothers but that is what Pashupatinath is all about, destroyer and protector, both. The eternal riddle of life and death. Every morning Radio Nepal opens its programme with a prayer to Pashupatinath and when the king, himself a reincarnation of Vishnu, addresses his people, he calls upon Pashupatinath to bless and protect them all.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)