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A Sample of Kathmandu Buddhist Sites

NEPAL | Sunday, 10 November 2013 | Views [3304]

Kathmandu Buddhist Shrines, Caityas and Temples

Buddhist Kathmandu is built in the shape of an ancient sword, like the one the Bodhisattva Manjushri wields.   Manjushri is the patron bodhisattva of the Kathmandu Valley as he was the one who drained the lake that in prehistoric times, i.e., the Golden Age, covered the region.  There are four segments of the imaginary geographical sword and each has a number of Newari/Nepali Buddhist monasteries in them.  These monasteries are considerably different from Tibetan or SE Asian monasteries as they are smaller and the priests generally have more freedom to function in the outside world than the other sanghas do, especially as most of Newari priests are married with families. The general pattern of the rituals stays the same, but how they are enacted does differ, including in their music.

One of the unique Newari Buddhist musical instruments is a gumashi, which is basically a wooden log that gets struck 108 times to announce time for mantra recitation. We came across a priest playing the instrument at the Akshobya Temple in Itumbahal, which is next to the Talking Tara site.

This particular temple has a fascinating legend, which goes something like: Kashachandra became the ruler after his father died, but he was a spendthrift, gambler and drunk who lost all the money in the state treasury and had to go begging.  He went to Pashupati where he was worshipped Kyrti. In Ghagon he was given some rice, but it was rotten, so he left it out in the sun to dry.  Pigeons came along and ate the rice, even though he had asked them to leave him some. They didn’t and left only their dung behind.  Krity changed the dung into gold and Kashachandra was made rich.  He then dedicated the temple to Krity and Akshobya.  When he found the gold he also found a demon, Gurmapa, who he called uncle, because a relative cannot harm another relative.  Kashachandra promised to provide Gurmapa food  in the form of  dead children, but the demon became greedy and wanted live children as well.  The people of the region rose up and complained that their children were being eaten by the demon and Kashachandra had to do something to stop it.  So the ruler gave a large plot of open land to Gurmapa so that he would be happy in his new residence and not interfere with the local people.  Once a year in March the people of the monastery go to the site and offer the demon some rice.  In August they display a large thangka on which the story of Gurmapa is told.  They also display the Prajnaparamita Sutra on “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.” Gurmapa is said to have had two sons. One of which had two sons and the other eight. One of the images on the side of the building is Gurmapa with a tree eating some of the children.

Along the wall of the main building of the monastery are the lineage holders, which refer back to Sakya Vajrayogini.  There are 1000 sangha members, 200 Bajracharyas and 800 Sakyas, the two leading Newari Buddhist castes.   The monastery was created through the sponsorship of the wife from a very influential civic leader from Banepa over seven centuries ago.  There is now a beautiful specially polished black stone statue of what looks like a bodhisattva.  On a small chaitya nearby are four guardian deities at the base and four Dhyana Buddhas near the top with the Stupa shape.  The fifth is in the center of the 3-D mandala.

Next door is the Tarahani, a small courtyard with an image of Tara. It is known as Prajnaparamita Tara Vintya.  The statues were installed in 1382 after an outside king captured Kathmandu City and moved his armies into the center of the urban area.  He quartered his soldiers in the courtyard.  His wife, Jidistraja constructed the Tara Temple. The conquering king made an offering of the monastery to Dimkabuddha (a form of Adibuddha, the 1st primordial Buddha) before returning to his home city.

 The oldest Buddhist temple complex in the Kathmandu Valley is Swayambhunath, which is situated on a hill overlooking the old city.  There are a number of temples in the complex and each of them has their own history and legends. Next to the main stupa hill is the Manjushri Hill.  The legend of this hill has to do with the creation of the city as well as of the stupa.  Keith Dowman is a British scholar of the sacred sites and legends of the Valley and has written a book called “A Buddhist Guide to Power Places in the Kathmandu Valley.” This is what he recounts about the events related to Swayambhunath and Manjushri Hill:

 At first, when the Kathmandu Valley was still a lake, Arya Manjushi and his two consorts arrived in the Valley and failing to see how human beings could worship the Stupa in the middle of the lake, drained the water in three days.  Thereafter they took their seat upon this spot.  The relics of Majughosa and is two consorts, which remained after their spiritual return to the Five Peaked Mountain in China ){Wu Tia Shan in Shanxi}, are enshrined in a magnificent stupa there.

At the time of the Buddha Visvabhu (the third of the six Buddhas preceeding Sakyamuni) Arya Manjushri’s emanation, Vajracarya Manjudeva, who was endowed with the five extraordinary powers, came to Nepal from the Five Peaked Mountain in China together with Varada, an emanation of Sesini, and Moksada, an emanation of Upakeshini, in order to see the Swayambhu Dharmadhatu Stupa.  Seeing that beings without supernormal powers were unable to worship the stupa in the middle of the lake, he cut a gorge an drained the waters in four days, only a small lake remaining.  Then through that Great Master’s magical power the lotus, which was the sacred base of the attainment of the Swayambhu Stupa, was transformed into the stupa we know today.  At the time of the Buddha Kanakamuni, the fifth of the seve, the Great scholar Dharma Sri Mitra, lacking knowledge of the Twelve Syllables and on his way from Virkamasila to Manjushri’s Five Peaked Mountain for knowledge, found Manjushri himself in the form of Vajracarya Manjudeva and received initation into the Mandala of Dhamadhatu Vagiscari as the Swayambhu Stupa itself.  At the time of the Buddha Kasyapa (the 6th Buddha), Manjudeva, having accomplished his aim in the form of a Vajracarya, took the body of a god and vanished into the sky like a flash of lightning, and returned to the Five Peaked Mountain.  Santa Sri built a stupa to mark the spot where he had sat.  It is on the western side of the twin peaks of Swayambu Hill. (25)

 It is said that during Satya Yuga Dirmakara Buddha threw a seed into the primordial Kathmandu Lake, which after six months sprouted into a lotus.  Adi Buddha manifested as a light on the lotus.  After this came the other 6 Buddhas to worship the jyoti (divine light). In the beginning of Treta Yuga Manjushri came to worship and drained the lake to help humans worship Swayambhu as well. When King Prasandeva came to Swayambhu to worship he was afraid that the Jyoti would be damaged during the age of Kali Yuga and decided to cover the light with jadestone, then built a small stupa around it as protection.  Over the years, the stupa has grown in size. After building the stupa, he went inside to meditate, where he remains today.

All this is mentioned in the 15th C Swayambhu Sutra.

 Around the stupa are five golden shrines dedicated to the Dhyana Buddhas and four to the Arytaras.  In the East are Akshobya and Vaircana, with their elephant and mythical dragons respectively.  To the SE with lotuses on either side sits Mumagatara.  The Vasudeva temple is next and is dedicated to the protector of the earth.  Ratnasambhava has a horse and is looks South.  Amitabha is, as usual, facing West. Near him is the Harati temple. 

One version of her legend is as follows: During the time of the Buddha, Kubera had 18 sons. Harati was the wife of one of them, Pandikra, but even though he had 100 wives he did not have any children.  A wise man was called in and gave him tablets to give all his wives, but Harati stole them all and ate them. She gave birth to 500 children and in order to feed them all, killed the children of the local people.  The people asked Buddha to help control Harati and stop her from murdering their children.  Buddha then took her most precious son, and hid him so that she couldn’t find him.  When she went to Buddha to request help, he preached non-violence to her. She was initiated into the new ways and vowed to act as a Buddhist protector of children. Buddha told her to stay at Swayambhu in her protector role.

 She is also known to help smallpox victims overcome their illness.  Although, when one King’s son died of small pox her insulted her and her temple, which led to his almost immediate death.  The stone image in her temple is only about 150 years old as the older one was destroyed 250 years ago by the King whose son died.

 If one takes a taxi up the hill to the back gate rather than taking the front stairs, one can either go left up Manjushri Hill or right up to Swayambhu Stupa.  On the way up to Swayambhu is the Santipur site. The following is what the “Swayanbu” booklet says about this fascinating structure;

“On the northwestern summit about one hundred yards down from Agni Pur is an oblong building surrounded on three sides by many chaityas with nitched walls containing many images.  This pur is named, “Shanti Pur” after the bhiksu Shantikacharya who is credited as going before King Gunakara Deva requesting the construction of Swayambu Stupa. This greatly accomplished meditation master is considered by many to be still living in this Pur – a period of approximately 1500 years.  Originally, Shantikacharya was a king of Guar,  now West Bengal, named Prachendra Dev, who having heard of Swayambu’s greatness from Kasyapa Tathagata came to Swayambu to pay his respects.  He left his kingdom and in Nepal sought priestly ordination from Bhiksu Gunakar, a grat pundit and disciple of Manjushri.  He acquired great skill as a Tantric Master, skilled in the use of mantras and mandalas to evoke spirits.  He is said to have attained a longevity Samadhi known as Ashpanik, giving him the ability to live indefinitely.  A legend sys that when he entered Shanti Pur for the last time he stated that he would come out when there were no more Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley, meaning that since there are so many Buddhists in the valley he wasn’t needed.  ….

During the 11th C drought, when King Gunakam Deva was reigning Shantikarcharya was asked by the king to perform a ceremony that would bring rain to the valley.  By means of Tantric ritual Shantikarcharya succeeded in attracting nine serpent kings and their wives.  With these serpents he was able to bring rain.  Before allowing them to return, he requested that each of them donate some blood so that in the future he could make a  Nag Mandala.  With their blood he painted the Nag Mandala (Dragon Magic Circle); then he requested the serpents to promise to create rain as soon as the mandala would be exposed to the sun.  Shantikarcharya then put the croll in a copper tube and retired again into retreat in the last room of Shanti Pur.  This residence cannot be entered by anyone and has remained completely closed off since Shanitkarcharya first went into meditation retreat, except for when King Pratap Malla entered during the drought of 1657-68. The King’s subjects were starving and in order to help them, King Pratap Malla entered the cave.  Arriving at the residence of this great Tantric Master, the King found a skeleton-like form with little flesh sitting in the meditation posture.  The King requested to see the Nag Mandala, Shantikarcharya simply raised his hand pointing to the copper scroll above his head.  The King took the scroll outside and exposed it to the sun.  Immediately rain fell.  The King the returned the scroll.  After returning and coming outside the King saw his headless shadow falling on the stone.  The King then prayed that if his head be restored he would offer a gold coin every year to this shrine. His head returned and to this day the tradition of offering a gold coin has continued, except that now Guthisanthan rather that the King offers the coin.  The King in a work called ‘Bristichintamanistotra’ ( a hymn to rain at will) with his own pen relays how he saw Shantikarcharya still alive and gives a description of the dwelling place.

The history of this Tantric Master goes from the reign of King Brikha Dev in the 5th C, when he was active in the construction of the stupa and in pursuit of Tantric meditation skill under the guidance of Gunakar, the great Vajrayana priest to the time of King Pratap Malla in the 16th C.

 Keith Dowman’s book relates slightly different versions:

“within the confines of the path which encircles the sacred area of Swaymabhu are one hundred temples.  In the temple called Santipuri Manjughosa’s emanation, the Dharmaraja Amsuvarman, met Vajrasattva’s emanation, the Scarya Santikar, who had obtained the Body of Immortality.  Herein is the mandala drawn in the heart blook of the Eight Great Nagas.  Further, here is a temple-place of Mahadeva and Ganapati.

   There once was a king of Gauda (in Bihar), an emanation of Vajrasattva called King Prancada Deva, who decided to make a pilgrimage and leave his kingdom in the hands of his son, Sakti Deva.  Having arrived at Swaymabhu her took ordination and began the ascetic practices of Vajrasattva.  His religious name was Santi Sri/Shantikar.  In order to protect the Dharmadhatu Vagisvara Swaymabhu Stupa he covered it with earth and produced the form of a stupa.  Also, as an indication of Manjudeva’s power, he built a stupa at the place where the Bodhisattva had sat for so long.  Thereafter it was called Manjushri’s Stupa.  Then he built the five shrines of Shantipuri (Akasapuri), Agnipuri (fire), Nagapuri (water), Vasupuri (earth) and Vayupuri (air). In a year of great misfortune, after no rain had fallen for seven years, the King Gunakamadeva entered Santipur and met the Acarya Santi Sri, begging him to make rain.  Santi Sri propitiated the Nagas, summoning them with mantra and forced them to bring rain.  Opposed to this Newar account is the false Tibetan belief that Nagarjuna was the siddha who propitiated the Nagas to bring rain.

The Newar chronicles speak of a King Gunakamadeva who entered the inner sanctum of Santipur to meet Santikar to make rain.  Gunakamadeva is said to have been a puppet of Amsuvarman, an interloper who seized power at the beginning of the 7th C and became the greatest of the Nepali Kings of the Licchavi period.  The Gunakamadeva of the chronicles is a king of the dvapara yuga.  An historical Gunakamadeva reigned between 987-990, but if Shantikar was his contemporary the Acharya could not have established Tantra in the Valley; the 9th C is the latest that Tantra arrived.

There was another later king, who entered Santipur to make rain.  He was Jaya Pratap Malla (r. 1641-1674), whose inscription upon a stele outside the inner door of Santipur proclaims that he entered in 1658 to bring out into the sunlight the Naga Mandala drawn in the blood of the Eight Naga Kings, together with the Mahamegha sutra, in order to bring rain.  The King caused a map to be drawn describing his peregrinations beneath Santipur.  The map shows four levels to the temple. On the ground floor are six empty rooms into which “His Majesty, King of Kings, Lord of Poets, Jaya Pratap Mall Deva entered with puja materials, a fish, black soya beans and cow’s milk.” There is no indication of a way down to the first subterranean level, and no way out of the room into which he entered on that level except a small niche in the wall.  However, in the central room of the first floor he found the Mahasambaratantra, a painting in a copper cylinder, two swords and the Sunyakaru Yantra, and here he discovered the presence of Sri Sri Sri Mahasambara himself.  All the other rooms on this level were empty.  The King proceeded alone, since “the gubarjus (priests) would not go any further as they couldn’t see the way”. Through a stone door and down into the second subterranean level.  In the first room “bats as large as kites or hawks came to kill the light.”  In the second room “ghosts, flesh-eating spirits and hungry-ghosts came to beg.  If you are unable to pacify them they clutch at you.”  In the third room: “If you cannot pacify the snakes by pouring out milk they chase and bind you.  Having pacified them you can walk on their bodies.”  In the central room, “The King met Santikar Acarya, who had become a siddha, sitting in Samadhi.  He was alive with no flesh on his body.  He gave the King instruction , and here the King found the mandala, written in the Naga Kings’ blood, which he took out to make rain”. In the next room he sat and meditated and”all things were shown unto him”.  In the last room was “a whole through which the water of a fathomless lake could be seen ( at a third subterranean level). “The waters splash and ripple and the wind blows.” The King was below for three hours, and his entourage waited impatiently and in fear for their King who dared to go where no priest dared.  Tigers roared and the earth writhed, but finally the King returned and the rains came.  The harvest of 1658 was plentiful.

“In Shantipuri there is an entrance to three tunnels: a tunnel to Swayambhu Stupa; a tunnel to the Naga Realm; and a tunnel to the realm of obstructive spirits (bgegs).  At present there is a six foot square stone covering the entrance. The sixteen volumes of the Prajnaparamitama written upon lapis lazuli paper with ink of gold from the Jumbu river brought from the Naga Realm by Nagarjuna is to be found in the Thang Baidhari of Kathmandu (Thamel Bahal).

Nagarjuna was custodian and King Amsuvarman was patron… Santapuri was Nagarjuna’s place of meditation. In each of the four cardinal directions of Swayambhu is a treasure trove.  These treasure troves were hidden by Nagarjuna for the future restoration of the Stupa. ….

Yet another version says that: Santipuri is so called because the Vajracarya Santi Deva (God of Peace) called down the god of space (akasa) and pacified him, and when he remained calm and quiet this place was known as Santipuri.  The Santapuri temple was founded during the lifetime of the Acarya Vagisvarakirti, this being the place where the Acharya obtained Rainbow Body and where he remains to this day.  The temple has two lover levels, and I have heard that in the deepest of the levels is an image and mandala of Sri Kalachakra… (Although this must be mistaken as there is no other reference anywhere to a Kalachakra here, but there is of Chkrasambara Tantra.) (21-24)

 There are a number of other temples and shrines on these two hilltops, each with their own stories.  The area has recently been renovated with funds from the Tibetan Nyinmga Meditation Center in Berkeley, CA. and looks considerably cleaner and more modern than it did when I was first here thirteen years ago.  There is now also a small but good museum on the site and many many more tourist shops.

 Not too far from Swayambhunath is Mhepi, one of the oldest power places in the Valley.  There is an ancient inscription which mentions that Yogambara, one of the highest tantric deities, was installed in the temple, and this is one of the few places where Yogambaran initiations can occur.

One of the legends from this site is that Santipur wanted to establish Yogabara and the deity told him to sacrifice the person who was coming up the steps behind him.  This ended up being his son. He completed the sacrifice and the son was then reborn as Machendranath in Assam.  The mud from the hill is very important to Newari Buddhists, and it is the only mud used for making statues of Machendranath.

 We visited a number of other temples in Kathmandu, some of which are in the photo gallery, and I won’t describe all of them.  I do want to share the stories from at least  one other temple, though, especially as it deals with a text and was quite near the hotel I stayed at .  Manish explained the story of the Thamel Bahal as follows: “Dharmacitra was a 9th C scholar and teacher but he found he couldn’t explain the 12 syllable mantra on dependent origination.  He decided to go to China to find Manjushri so that he could explain it to him.  On his way, he found Manjushri in Kathmandu, where Manjushri gave him the 12 syllable initiation and in his honor Dharmacitra founded the Thamel Bahal monastery.  One of the images has Manjushri with 12 arms for the 12 steps of dependent origination. The temple also houses the Namasangita Sutra, written in gold and displayed once a year.  The sutra is recited every day in the morning by the priests and congregation.  There is wooden person in the window on the pagoda roof who is supposed to be a monk overseeing the activities of the monastery.

Keith Dowman’s version is as follows: The Prajnaparamita in One Hundred Thousand Slokas lies in Thamel Bahal.  The sacred manuscript text written in gold which Arya Nagarjuna brought from the Naga Realm is to be found in the Bahal Temple.

“The sixteen volume Prajnaparamita written on paper of lapis lazuli with ink of gold from the Dzam bu River and brought by Nagarjuna from the Naga Realm is to be found in the Thang Baidhari of Kathmandu.”

The temple of Stham Vihara was founded by Jowo Atisa; Pandit Bibhuti Candra lived and taught there; and Savari dbang-phyug taught there; Panchen Nagsrin (Vanarama) also stayed there for some years.

Additionally according to the Dharmaswammin folio 6b: “ Every evening a light glowed upon a stupa (First Vihara) and when Jowo Atisa saw it he asked everyone what it was but received no information until an old woman told him that it was the red powder of the mandala constructed by the Buddha Kasyapa.  Jowo Atisa erected a temple in which to worship the stupa.  In front of this stupa is a golden image of Sakyamnui called Lord Abhayadana.  Indians call this place the Dharmadhatu Vihara.

Atisa visited the Valley in 1041, and although he was certainly responsible for establishing the Tham Vihara as a center of reformed monasticism in a tantric climate, it is certain that there was some foundation there in preceding centuries.  Dharmaswamin visited Nepal in the 13th C. For his Tibetan monks, Atisa later evoked this vihara as a model of discipline and study.  Throughout the centuries a strong link has been maintained with the Tibetan reformed schools, their pilgrims using the Vihara as a resting place.  It seems that the Gelugpa school had the same relationship with Tham Vihara as the Kagudpas with the Kimdol Vihara.”  (34-5)

It is fascinating to sift through the various versions of the legends, but at the same time it is a bit frustrating.  The changing names and different versions can be somewhat overwhelming, as is the remarkably similar iconography for different gods and goddesses. But I guess this is a scholar’s problem, not a practioner’s.  The people who worship at the sites may or may not know more than one version of the story; they may just be coming to worship the deity represented in the stone. And worship occurs at each and everyone of these sites all day long. These are not ancient ruins, well yes they are, but ones that are active sacred sites with deities that the people hope and believe hear the prayers and wishes of the faithful.





The flat image of a woman giving birth is known as Taratimati.



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