Girl bored with the Ceremony…

SYNOPSIS:  About a Saturday morning at the Kumbeshwar Vishnu temple and an afternoon at the Changunarayan Vishnu temple; my last excursion with Birendra.  Two sets of images.  Keep scrolling.

Even though Patan is mainly a Buddhist community, two Hindu temples caught my attention.  One was the Kumbeshwar Temple in Patan, dedicated to Vishnu.  It was just around the corner from Cosy Nepal and I decided to visit it several times during a Saturday, the only day off work in Nepal.  The other was a mountain temple, a few miles away which Birendra and I visited the following day.

The best time to visit any temple if you like to experience the living Hindu religion as it is practiced, is between 6 and 8 AM.  Then, temples are buzzing with puja activities, particularly on Saturdays.  Hindus are pretty generous letting non-Hindus visit and photograph their activities, even though the main images inside the shrines and the temple are typically off limits.  Old and young, men and women, people dressed in their jeans or in their weekend finery, flock to the temples with small gifts for the deities.  They prepare plates full of rice and flowers which they distribute at the various shrines.  They also come with a variety of yellow and red powders which they sprinkle over the deities, mixed with some liquids, and then apply to their own forehead.

Just like in Buddhism, circumambulation around the shrines and trees is a common form of worship.  People proceed from one shrine to the next and at times, given particularly popular shrines, have to stand in line for their turn.  Contrary to what we are used to in the Western traditions, there are no sermons, and there is no communal activity unless there is a festival  Everyone proceeds at the their own pace.  Some people circle a shrine just once, others multiple times; some don’t leave even the smallest shrines unattended; others may just proceed right to the main shrine to receive their blessing.  Each of the shrines has an attending priest or priestess who administers the blessings and puts the colorful tikli on people’s foreheads. These priests are not necessarily trained professionals like a rabbi or a pastor.  But some of these services are rotated through the community and performed by lay people.  Cell phones are not prohibited, and it struck me as particularly odd when even one of the priests picked up the phone and talked to… who knows who instead of focusing at the tasks at hand. 

Shrine areas are sizable complexes typically with a major shrine, various subsidiary shrines, holy trees, niches with images, and areas for prayer and blessings by various men and women who make themselves available.  Shrines are also used for various ceremonies and festivals.  Today, a private wedding ceremony was in progress in one corner of the temple, however the ceremony was screened off from outsiders’ views.   But  because of the wedding, the temple buzzed with extra activities.  Several groups of people affiliated with the wedding party had hired some of the holy men to conduct special blessing ceremonies using rangoli.  Rangoli are mystical diagrams drawn on the ground in various colors using perishable materials.  Once the diagrams have been created by the priests, the patrons gather, sing and pray together and donate money and goods to the temple and the wedding couple. 

In the afternoon, activities die down a bit, but there is always somebody around to pay homage to the gods, even if it is just a nod, or a rubbing of some of the images at the entrance door on the way home from work.  Temples are considered the abode of the god.  And just as you would say hello to a neighbor when you pass their house, gods here are greeted like good old friends.

The Changunarayan Temple, also dedicated to Vishnu, was high on my list.  When I mentioned it to Birandra, he was up for a visit.  He had never gone to the temple, but his favorite guru, Sri Shivapuri Baba had chosen this area as his home right after he had visited this temple and recognized its importance. 

A scenic road took us past a brick producing area, rice paddies, and up a mountain rim overlooking the lush Kathmandu Valley.  This mountain temple is located at the far end of a small community which was visibly hit by the earthquake.  The main street of Changu Village leading to the temple is a conglomerate of souvenir stalls filled with everything from metal works to tangkha paintings.  What is missing this time of the year are the customers, as you can see on the weary looks of the store owners who sit all day, likely without making a single sale.  A lone visitor like me can’t make up for the hundreds of tourists that will flock here during the tourist season and buy stuff.  I tried to avoid eye contact or even looking at any of the things on display in order not to raise false hopes.

Seeing the devastation of the village, I feared the worst for the temple.  Indeed, it had been hit.  But the main shrine of the main temple as well as much of its two-tiered superstructure had survived, or perhaps by now been rebuilt.  Many of the smaller shrines had taken a hit but some of the most famous images were there.  I lost track of Birendra as I started to walk around in amazement.  Why was I here?  This temple is the oldest in Nepal and among art historians considered the peak of the artistic achievement in the Kathmandu Valley.  I was not sure if I could tell the difference, since I am not familiar with the subtleties of Nepalese art, but the superb quality of the art was plain obvious.  The struts, the cornices, the wood carvings, the stone reliefs, the metal embossings were simply superb. 

As I made the rounds, I eventually stumbled on Birendra again, who sat in meditation.  I knew that meant an hour or more, and so I kept strolling.  When he “woke up” he asked what I had been up to.  I looked, I replied.  Do you know that these are the best carvings you have anywhere?  Birendra seemed somewhat baffled by this concept.  I come here to worship, he said.  I don’t look very much.  I invited him to come and see.  I took him around, showing him some of the images, and explaining some of the iconography.  He was familiar with the stories.  But as busy as he was getting to the shrine to receive his blessings, he had not even noticed the carvings, or the two small gilded royal figures of Bhupalendra Malla, King of Kantipur and his queen Bhuwan Lakshmi, now protected by a metal cage.  They are among the finest metal figures anywhere. 

When Birendra and I parted that evening, I thanked him for all the excursions we had done together, and the many things I had seen, thanks to him.  And he made my day when he said that I had taught him how to look and that from here on out he would approach temples in a different way.  I am leaving a little bit of myself behind.  That made me happy.

My time in Patan has come to an end.  But there was one more town… 

I will see you there.