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Patan's Buddhist Sites

NEPAL | Sunday, 10 November 2013 | Views [4575]

Patan Sacred Sites

We started the day’s exploration of Buddhist goddess sites a bit outside of Patan City proper in Chabagaun.The Vajravahari temple at Chabagaun is locally called Duetcho, which is an indication of some of the confusion that sets in with understanding and researching these sites.  The names change based on local/neighborhood culture, whether the site is using a Sanskrit, Newari, Nepali or Tibetan name, or whether the name is used to describe the goddess as is the case with this Sanskrit version of the goddess. Vajravahari is one of the central figures in the Kathmandu Valley Mandala, with the Eight Matrikas (Mothers) surrounding the region as protectors.

 This temple plays an important role in some of the local Vajrayana rituals.  For example, after the Chakrasambhava initiation all of the initiates from Lalitpur (one of the districts in Patan City) must come to this temple.  During the initiation they receive her mantra, mandala, and recognize that she is a form of Vajrayogini.  She is a part of the Anutara Tantra, which the initiates study before their initiation. During the initiation they must recite her mantra at least 1000 times. 

 Vajravahari is depicted with a sow’s face, one hand holding a knife and the other a skull.  This 17th C temple is one of many constructed by the Malla kings.  As is often the case, there was a simple stone statue prior to the construction of the temple.  The Eight Matrikas (Mothers) plus Simhini, Baghini and Baliava are golden images that are placed beneath the major stone statue of the goddess. There is a legend that says she was placed here because Muslims will not go to a place where pigs are.  By placing an image of Vajravahari in their village, the local people kept Muslim invaders away. Today the temple is in a beautiful park where people come to picnic and play.

There are also a number of new Tibetan monasteries, at least five, that have sprung up in this neighborhood within the last decade and from the looks of things, more are on their way.

 From the Vajravahari site, we then proceeded to a few of the Eight Mother Goddess sites.  The first was dedicated to Bramani.  On the way there we passed a small pool with a large new white Sakyamuni statue with the Naga protective covering.  The funds for the statue came from the Swayambhunath Restoration Society and the work was done by local villagers.

 Around Patan there are five villages, three of which have power places that are key to the life of their villages.  The Bramani Temple is the one for the village of Tetso.  As with the others, it was constructed during the Malla reign in 1725 according to the inscription near the entrance.  (To identify Nepali dates one needs to add 880 to the regular ones and deduct 57 from the ones listed as B.S.) As with some of the other mother goddess temples, the stone image was in place before the temple was built around it.  The temple also has an annual masked dance festival (Dathu) celebrating the goddess.  The dancers are all men, although they take the role of the eight goddesses.  As in Commedia dell’Arte, the roles are passed down through family lines.  Once every 12 years the dancer/goddess must feed the entire village as well as perform the role extraordinarily well. 

The goddess’ image is installed on the first floor and she is only visible first thing in the morning.

 The next site was Araciti, and on the way we passed by a number of recently built high-rises.  I have no idea who thought this was a good idea in an area the regularly has earthquakes and where there are no construction codes.  This is a disaster waiting to happen, even though the buildings are attractive from the outside.  As it was a fairly clear day, we could also see Mt. Chuchogi where people say the third  Buddha was seen offering flowers to the self-arising first Buddha when Kathmandu Valley was still covered by a lake.

 In Jalade Village we walked around the Harasiddhi Temple.  People have the belief that this is a very auspicious temple and they don’t eat meat anywhere near the temple; chickens and pigs aren’t allowed in the village. The caretakers must wear traditional clothing, cut their hair and remain vegetarians.  There is a legend that once every 12 years, Harasiddhi expects a human sacrifice, although this has not been performed any time during the past few centuries.  But as she expects human flesh , she is said to be a very powerful goddess.

There is no image of Mahaswori, Shiva’s consort, but instead three vessels relating to 1) Mahaswori, 2) Vajrayogini and 3) Kumari.  The combination of the three form Harisiddhi.  This temple and the dancers are Hindu, although it is used by people of both religious traditions

 While we were looking around a fellow came out with a book in Nepali and English with articles about the annual dance that is performed at this Temple.  The article is written by a scholar from the University of Washington and is quite informative. It was good to find out more about the site and this particular dance as an indication of what some of the others in the area are like.

 We next went to Khokana, Lalitpur which lies 6 km from Patan’s Durbar Square and is one of the most popular villages in the Kathmandu Valley. The village is famous for making mustard seed oil.  The temple here is dedicated to Indrani and the annual dance highlights her conquering a demon. It is one of the earliest Malla temples, constructed in the 16th C soon after the founding of the village in the late 15th. As with the other sites, this masked dance is only performed by men. During the festival, people sacrifice goats and hens to the goddess as well as buffalo blood. The dancers are allowed to eat the meat from the sacrifice after they have performed their dance as they have “become” the goddess. In addition to the eight Matrikas, there are dancers representing Ganesha, Kumar, Simhini, Baghini and Vicahobha(? I’m not sure about this name.).  In order to prepare themselves for the dance, there are set rituals that the performers must conduct, including staying in the temple for two full days, cutting their hair, and following all the traditional rites. Indrani is one of the most powerful goddesses as power was needed to overcome the demon.

 From Indrani we continued on to Vishnudevi’s site which lies SW of Lalitpur.  There is a platform outside the sanctuary with two iron pits for initiation rites. When we arrived there was a young girl of maybe ten doing meticulous puja in front of the goddess’ stone.  Around the inside of outside wall are niches with statues including one of a male and female multi-armed Bairabha.

 The Eight Matrikas form a circle around Patan with its center Durbar Square.

In the East is Balkumari

SE Bhairava

South Mahalaxmi

SSW Vishnudevi

SW Bramani

W Mahaswori

NW Indrani

N Bahari

NE Chamundra

This is a different placement than that in the Bhairav Mandala which starts clockwise from the south. that placement has Vishnudevi, Indrani, Mahalaxmi, Chamundra Barahi, Kumari, and Brahmani, with Maheswori in the end and starting point, the south. This  is again different from the order when the Dance of Astamatrika is performed in Durbar Square, called Gan Pyakhan. During this dance the goddess performers come out in the following manner: Brahmani, Maheswori, Kumari, Vishnudevi, Barahi, Indrani, Chamundra, Mahalaxmi.  There is clearly no set order for the configuration of the Eight Matrikas, but there does seem to be a relationship among and between them.

The Matrikas perform some of the same functions as the Mahavidyas from the Hindu tradition.  Chinnamasta, however is fairly unique in her black magic role as a manifestation of Kali/Durga/Parvati.  When Manish was a boy, he walked by the Chinnamasta shrine on his way to school. There is a picture of a man in a dog like posture on a leash being led by a woman.  He was told that the man was being sacrificed to the goddess by his wife and that the goddess made women very powerful and that men/boys needed to watch out.  The Newari name for Chinnamasta is Moomada, the god without a head.

 Brief History: From the Middle Ages to the 16th C, the Kathmandu Valley was ruled by a King in Bhaktapur.  In the 16th C. the kingdom was split into three, with Patan having a governor reporting to Bhakatpur and Kathmandu with its own king.  The king started receiving blessings from the living Kumari goddess no earlier than the 17th C.  There was a tradition of the goddess Kumari, but not of her as a living deity.  In Newari tradition, all pujas must end with the Kumari puja, so perhaps that was the impetuous for the change. Kumari pujas are done in a secret place within the house and is for her as a form of Vajrayogini.

Patan has fifteen main Buddhist monasteries.  The Ratnakaram Vihar, is part of a Baha tradition monastery and is part of the complex that houses the Patan Kumari.  The current Kumari was chosen three years ago and is a beautiful little girl.  She is kept in a room on the first floor and tourists and the faithful can go up to be blessed by this ‘Living Goddess.’  Her mother keeps watch outside the room to make sure she is safe.  I was told that she does have tutors that come to her each morning so she is getting some education, but it must be difficult for her.  She will lose her status as a goddess once she has her first menstrual cycle at which time she will be expected to resume normal life.  But as a former Kumari, it is really never normal.  A number of good studies have been made on the Kumaris and they can be found through any Google search. 

The adjacent monastery has 10 senior ‘asus’ – priests who rule the sangha and who ensure that all the daily rituals and rites are performed accurately.  The monastery was moved to its present location after the palace in Durbar Square was enlarged; originally it was where the city's  museum now is. When the sangha received permission to relocate the monastery the King said that all the members would be bajracharyas and that they should work in gold; even today many of the sangha are goldsmiths.

Once a year there is a ceremony in front of the Palace in Durbar Square with objects and images from the monastery.

 Patan craftsmen, like the goldsmiths from the Ratnakaram Vihar, have  been exporting their wares to Tibet since at least Tsongsten Gampo’s marriage to Princess Brikruti of Nepal in the 7th C. (I won’t get into the debate on her in these pages.) Many of the metal prayerwheels that are found throughout Tibet are made in Patan as were many of the ancient Thangkas and Buddhist statuary. 

 The last temple we visited during the day is perhaps the most famous, The Golden Temple. This temple has many names but is locally known as the Hiranya Varna Mahavihar It was first constructed in the 11th C., but has undergone many renovations since then. Today it has the largest congregation in Patan with more that 3,000 members, incl. Manish. Artistically, this temple is a treasure trove of statuary. There is a Dharmadhatu mandala with Manjushri in the center above the entrance in the ceiling. There are four monkeys in the corners of the courtyard, signifying the story of the monkey, Janakara, giving fruit to the Buddha.  There are two large elephants by the entrance, four mythical dragons on the center temple and innumerable buddhas etc on the walls. The central shrine also has a number of  108 Lokesvaras (Nepali forms of Avalokitesvara) on its walls.

The monastery upstairs is reminiscent of a Tibetan prayer hall and is used for teachings. The place where the Buddha is installed is called the Tamagara and is the central room. There was a lively exchange between this sangha and Tibetan monasteries and the influence is clearly visible with the prayer wheels, painted walls and traditional seating arrangements.  This is now the only temple/monastery in Patan that still keeps the entire set of traditional rituals for their officiating priests, including eating only once a day before 1pm, not eating meat, and not leaving the monastery.  It is a very Hinayana set of practices amid a Vajrayana setting.

 Patan is just across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu, but has a distinct heritage that can still be felt in the temples, monasteries and central Durbar Square.  It is well worth spending a few days just in this city in addition to time in Kathmandu.  There is simply a lot to see and learn about here.





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