The White Buddha of Kathmandu

The brahmin of the temple

That British observer —perhaps, I do not remember well, Colonel Kirpatrick in the service of the British East India Company— dazzled by Nepal, emphatically assured that in Kathmandu there were as many temples as there were men populating the city with such an evocative and precious name.

And that's not counting those who are half hidden like this one from White Buddha, Seto Machendranath, one of the most symbolic in the capital, where the history of the bahal, of the buildings and their surroundings, of the small monastery that was once and in whose courtyard the temple stands, long before the image, with the lost origins of the sculpture itself.

It is not surprising that Google Maps looks clamorously unable to reflect them all...

Today, after the devastating earthquake of 2015, its ornate main entrance has been recovered, after the same effort as mystification, and allows an easier location of the pagoda that houses inside.

"The curious stumble upon the two-roofed pagoda halfway to the bustling bazaars of Asan and Indrachok squares."

Seto Machendranath idol effigy

This typically Nepalese double-roofed pagoda in the Kel Tol neighborhood, between the tourist centers of Thamel and Durbar, is halfway to the bustling bazaars that overflow the squares of Asan and Indrachok - once the very trade route that ran from India to Lhasa—, a place known as Jana Bahal: a quiet open interior space that can be accessed through four alleys that mark the cardinal points and that houses the image of Bodhisattva Avalokistevara, or simply Lokesvara (the term of Seto Machendranath, the white god of rain, is not frequent among the Newa community that cares for and venerates it, but rather used by the faithful of Shiva, for whom it represents a reincarnation of his: worshiped by Buddhists as well as by Hindus).

The courtyard of the bahal

Be Fantastic by Seto Machendranath

As is customary, on each side of the main entrance, facing east, two fantastic lions guard the bahal, currently deeply transformed by new high-rise buildings that have been altering the space that the site originally had.

Fortunately, there are some of these bahal o small newari monasteries in other parts of Kathmandu with its intact historical design, patio and constructions, and for which later there may be the opportunity to write in some detail an entry in this blog because here now this question is not pressing.

Chaitya of Jana Bahal from Kathmandu

From the grove of pillars, sculptures and chaityas (in Nepal, small votive stupa), around fifty, from different times, that within the courtyard surround the temple, there are some very unique elements with different scope and necessarily remarkable meaning.

La chaitya at the foot of the main entrance bay, the Kanak Muni Buddha, in a pre-eminent place proclaiming the memory of the site, it is the main one of them all: it is said to have been built more than two thousand years ago by direct relatives of the Buddha's mother.

The courtyard of the Seto Machendranath temple with pillars

Kanak Muni was one of "The thousand Buddhas" (predecessor of the current and profusely revered Sidarta Gautama), of great stature and long life, very long life, born into a family of Brahmins, all very common characteristics of the group of the thousand buddhas. It is still fervently worshiped here on specific dates of the lunar calendar.

Kanak Muni is also linked to the so-called monkey temple, the Swayambhunath Stupa, where one of the oldest living religious complexes in all of Nepal made a pilgrimage, west of Kathmandu. In some way too, like Seto Machendranath, he is linked with the water.

Alongside the Amithaba pillar rival those of the Taras, Green and White, considered feminine manifestations arising from two of the tears that the compassionate Avalokitesvara poured out upon seeing the miseries of the world and its persistence.

Likewise, the image of the white Buddha is flanked by two other images of him, small in size, although usually hidden, except during the main ceremonies in his honor, which remain on each side of his feet, accompanying him.

Olympian God Hestia in Seto Machendranath of Kathmandu

On the ground, in front of the Kanak Muni foundational stupa, there are two characteristic elements of the Newari temples: a large prominent lotus flower, embossed in copper, in the manner of an altar or altar [homa], over which rites are officiated, and a regular quadrilateral [kshetrapala], also made of copper, embedded in the pavement to conserve water, with a protective function of the surrounding space.

Another one of those unique elements of the bahal It is a sculpture from the Victorian era that represents one of the goddesses of the Greek pantheon: Hestia, the Olympian Vestal in charge of always keeping alive the flame of the sacred fire, brought here at the beginning of the XXth century, placed in the middle of the atrium in front of the temple and adopted without fuss in its new location.

There is no doubt that the wealthy family of the donor, identified in the inscription on the base, knew these mythological details.

The religious services of Jana Bahal and the Seto Machendranath temple are held by Newari Brahmin families of the clan of the sakhya (silversmiths and goldsmiths) and vajracharya. One of its members is in charge, according to a rigorous ascetic plan (stay alone in the reduced interior of the temple, a single meal a day, strict vegetarian diet without garlic or even onion, with rice as the main ingredient, which he must prepare himself), from the temple opening, from daily rituals, barefoot prayers around the temple and lying down of the deity at nightfall [nitya puja], for a month, until being relieved by another male from the same community: it is the so-called dyo shovel.

Likewise, the families separately, their head of the family specifically, dressed as a guru, performs his own offerings and rituals in the courtyard in front of the temple, touched by the crown of the five buddhas [rignga], a folding contraption that confers a special dignity within Tantric Buddhism.

But this site is not conceived only as a place of worship and prayer, where to surround the religious building, make offerings, burn incense, turn the prayer mills and meet a small ring road or pilgrimage, Jana Bahal is also a neighbors yard and small businesses through which they pass, cross and coexist with their own and others. Stalls of innumerable gadgets, completely strange to a foreigner, with what a Nepalese requires to provide himself and satisfy his obligations of worship, shops of thangka, more positions for the manufacture of mattresses and cushions, an improvised sculpture workshop during the rehabilitation of the access portico, street vendors from sayapatri mesh (marigold rosaries). And above all the perfect sunny spot to meet your neighbors.

Seto Machendranath Temple

From the memory of what must have been the original temple in early medieval times, during the Lichavi dynasty, which was the link between India and Tibet, when the population was mainly Buddhist, there is only one imprecise location in the vicinity of the current district of Jamal. That same temple would later be, just beginning the fourteenth century, to which the invading king went straight Ripumalla, of the Khas dynasty, followed by the other two main ones in the city, Pashupatinah and Swayambuná, to take possession of Kathmandu and impose Hinduism, in a strong symbolic act.

Here the legend enters and makes the image emerge, well completed in the fifteenth century, at the end of the flourishing reign of the King Yaksa Mesh. The site was dismantled and turned into a rice paddy, a farmer who was doing agricultural work in the area discovered an effigy at the bottom of a well. Pulling it out, a sculpture of Avalokiteshvara, which he did not hesitate to take home. To that subject that night in dreams the divinity indicated the location that he should provide from now on: the confluence of two rivers at the point now known as Indrachok. Thus the decision that the historic Bahal Kanak Muni welcome the appeared idol was finally taken.

Another version replaces the farmer with a gang of potters in search of clay who, lucky in their prospecting, rescue the sacred image and with undeniable euphoria link with the very guna kamadeva, founder of Kathmandu (AD 723), who would have commissioned it directly, and contemporary of the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, of capital importance throughout this history, as will be seen below.

And so the construction of a new building will begin, which will be completed or expanded by your son. Ratna Mesh, in line with the emergence of the independent kingdom of Kantipur, of Newaris roots, founded by him in 1484, with capital in Kathmandu. The lost cult of Avalokiteshvara and links to the dynastic political power of the Malla family and its trade relations with Tibet.

But during the raid and pillage of Kathmandu by the king of Palpa, Mukunda SenaIn the first third of the XVIth century, the building was razed, as some historians claim. It is not difficult to imagine how the temple ends up being renovated and magnified by its successors.

The keys to the Seto Machendranath temple

The current keys to the temple

Seto Machendrenath, as it is known today, with a double stepped roof with a single pinnacle [gajura], typical of patios of greater or lesser square proportion, covered with its characteristic small double-fin tiles [aenpa], still visible and resistant in other parts of the Kathmandu Valley, it seems that it responds to an original work undertaken in the mid-seventeenth century, on horseback from the reigns of Laxmi Narasimha Mesh and his ambitious son Pratap Mesh (His second wife was a Tibetan princess with whom a brother of hers, a prominent guru, also settled at court). During the government of the latter, known as the king of poets, its constructive history is filled with the transfer of the image of the white Buddha to this place.

Subsequently, it has been the subject of different interventions with the unique Rana dynasty in power, throughout the late XIXth century until the beginning of the next century, such as the substitution of clay for golden copper on its covers, respecting the structure that we can continue to recognize today, with different beautification criteria (if excludes the closure made not so long ago that it constricts it and makes it extremely ugly), case of the subsequent incorporation of numerous bannerssingle piece or suspended metal banners [ halampau] along the perimeter of both eaves, which display embossing with the effigies of Buddhist ascetics and deities. And also long banners made of plates or articulated banners [pataka], some of which cross the entire façade from the pinnacle on an axis with the main door and others do not go beyond the upper overhang, an equivalent of Jacob's Ladderof Christianity to connect heaven with divinity and mortals, kind of spiritual walkways.

With the same criteria, very noteworthy, later, it is the right one replacement of white tile commanded to embed in the lower sides of the building during the government of the king mahendra, mid-twentieth century, by a collection of embossed brass plates, to shine in that arrangement on allegorical lotus flowers and dorjis at the bottom the complete, well-aligned series of up to 108 manifestations of the compassionate divinity of Lokesvara.

The work, of undoubted appeal and merit, was commissioned by the Newari community itself from a renowned artist from Patan according to the iconographic plan of an ancient temple priest. For its illustrative value, there may be an opportunity to reproduce on another occasion in full with its description separately in this same blog.

The dogs [defect], or beam heads that look out and support the cornices, are topped by figures of mythical birds, skeletons and fantastic beings, all of them different from each other. Perhaps they correspond to the final work of the seventeenth century, to the decorative plan of that time rather than a historical carving, one might think. Along with the elaborate series of dogs, we must mention the four corner braces [kusala]. And likewise, of the first times will be the toranasthe pediments, the temple and the main entrance (disappeared in a raging fire in the early twentieth century, later replaced).

Buddhist monk makes offering at the entrance of the temple

The white Buddha image

Of no more than one meter high without its base, is made up of a copper piece to which two more are added separately for each of his forearms and hands. The effigy, far from displaying a special artistic finish, is a representation of Seto Machendranath, Karunumaya or Bodhisattva Padmapani Lokeshvara, one if not the most important of the deities of the pantheon tantric Buddhism, in his manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Buddha of compassion, who in turn is an emanation of Amitabha, the oldest of the five cosmic Buddhas or Panchabuddha.

«In Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism, Panchabuda, the Five Tatagatas o Five cosmic Buddhas or the five wisdoms of the dharma, are representations of the 'first Buddha' Vairocana ».

When King Pratap Malla decided to build the great Rani Pokhari [Queen's Pond] memorial pond in 1667, and undo the Hamhal Monastery To fulfill its plans, the image is moved here, to its current and final location.

Image of Avalokitesvara Seto Machendranath

If the construction history of the temple is confusing and incomplete even more so is that of its titular image. Until the date of the transfer, of the previously venerated carving, perhaps made of wood, perhaps also the one that tradition links to the destiny of the King Yaksa Mesh that it would lead to the construction of a new exclusive religious enclosure for their worship, there is no news.

This other sculpture, standing, with the characteristic stance tribune, what in the West we would call contrapposto, draw a funny that: a slight movement with the zigzag turn of the shoulders, hips and knees, a thousand-year-old reflection of the classic Indian dance, accompanied by the play of hands and their mudras:

right hand in mudra  (charity gesture) and the left could originally have held a lotus flower, its unfailing iconographic reference. He wears the crown and ornaments of a Bodhisattva.

"The Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of him and considered by Tibetans and followers of Lamaism as the main earthly manifestation of Avalokitesvara."

After the ritual bath of Seto Machendranath

All of this is only noticeable during the annual ritual bathing ceremony because during the rest of the calendar, as seen in these photos to the side, she appears profusely covered in clothing, symbolic jewelry and fresh garlands replaced daily by her devotees as an offering.

If for the story of the founding or re-founding of the temple the legends are tinged with nationalism and identity, in the case of the origins of the image, magic floods everything to feed the cult and its propagation.

The cult of Avalokistevara is unfailingly linked to the political idea of ​​expansion of Tibetan power, personified in the emperor Songtsen Gampo, introducer of Buddhism in Tibet in the XNUMXth century (married to two Buddhist princesses, the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti Devi, and the Chinese princess Wencheng, considered reincarnations of the Green and White Taras). then amplified by padmasambava.

The temple brahmin cares for Seto Machendranath

They are the traditional Tibetan stories where the story of The four glorious brothers (o The Four Exalted Brothers, the translations are very diverse), from when the emperor had a divine revelation while he was meditating so that he would go to locate and rescue Avalokistevara.

The emperor sent a monk to Nepal to bring a picture of Avalokistevara. In the Kathmandu Valley he finally found a forest with a magic sandalwood tree permanently watered with the milk that the cows that grazed there released to feed it. Identified, when the guru was going to cut him by the foot, the sandalwood spoke so that he would do it slowly and four carvings of Avalokistevara were detached from the trunk, which with their own voices were naming the destinations to which he should take them. (There are narratives that leave in three and others that lead to five).

Together with prodigious miracle The plan was running to spread their news and faith, each of them distributing them at different points: one should deposit it in Mangyul (from the temple it was taken to Dharamsala near the Dalai Lama, where it remains today), a third to Patan / Bungamati (the popular Rato Machendranath), another to Patan as well, the one that he would leave in the hands of his emperor in Lhasa, where an image is still preserved in one of the Potala chapels, and the one that stars in this post.

The image leaves the temple, with great pomp and ceremony, on two occasions, coinciding with the subtle influence of the last winter full moon and the first spring full moon successively.

The initial celebration consists of the execution of the ritual bath, known as nhawan, And later renovation of the white paste cover that completely surrounds the idol, all of it celebrated within the courtyard of the temple. And during the second Machendranath Jatra Hedge, takes place a motley procession that travels in a carriage, amazing for its great proportion in height, the old town of Kathmandu, until after days the image is reintegrated into the temple to worship there the rest of the year. ✑REGION


    1. Thank you very much for your kind comment. The website still needs some adjustments, but the basics of the blog will continue along this path. I hope to bring new posts soon. And comments like yours too ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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