Sunday, June 11, 2023

Nepal Yathra - Part 1 - Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

Visiting Nepal temples had been on the cards for me for a long time now, even before the massive earthquake of 2015 that damaged many temples across the Kathmandu valley. Similarly, I have known Balaji Davey of Mantra Yatra, ever since he was recommended by a mutual friend for a proposed Bhutan trip, but I never got around to actually going on a trip with them.
So when I saw an announcement for Nepal Muktinath Yatra from Mantra, I had to get on it. It was my first ever time on a group tour and we were very happy with the manner and pace in which the entire trip was rolled out. I look forward to sharing the details of the temples visited through this series, which is not a paid promotion, but genuine feedback after a happy tour.

Our first stop was in the capital city of Kathmandu, that roughly translates to wooden house. True to its name, the ancient temples of the Kathmandu Valley are mostly made up of wood. The city serves as the gateway to the Himalayas and the first point of entry for ambitious trekkers with dreams of conquering the Everest. The city of Kathmandu is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the Pashupatinath Temple Complex, Boudhnath stupa and the Durbar Square. 

1. Pashupatinath Temple

Pashupatinath Temple Complex

Our first stop for the trip was an the Pashupatinath Temple. With one main pagoda and over 518 shrines, this is one of the largest temple complexes in the world, spread out over 246 hectares. The main shrine, built in the typical pagoda style is for Lord Pashupatinath. It has a two storied roof that is covered with copper and plated with gold. It has four entrances with silver-covered doors. The roof has a golden spire that extends from the top.  

Golden Spire on top of the Pashupatinath Temple

The legend of Pashupatinath finds several versions, the most common being Lord Shiva and Parvati coming down to earth in the form of deer and grazing on the banks of the Bagmati river. Enchanted by the serene beauty around them, they lost sight of time and lingered there. The Gods, worried by the Lord's absence, came down to Earth and went looking for them. When they eventually found them and requested them to return to Mt Kailash, Lord Shiva was reluctant. Not knowing what to do, a Gana caught him by his antler, in a attempt to take him back forcibly. The antler broke in the tussle and came to be worshipped as the first ever version of Pashupatinath. The antler stayed in the forest for centuries, until the divine cow Kamadhenu found it and started showering its milk upon it. The locals then discovered the divine site and the first temple structure came up in the 5th century CE. Since the word Pashu also refers to animals, the Lord came to be known as Pashupatinath. 

While this is the most widely believed version, my thoughts when I visited the temple were that it could possibly also refer to Shiva worshipped as Pashupati by the Pashupatha cult of Shaivism. Here, Pasu refers to the world and Pathi, the creator. Nath refers to the Lord and also a mediaval form of shaivism in India and Nepal which combines Buddhism, Shaivism and Yogic culture of which Lord Shiva is considered as the principal guru. In Pasupatha shaivam, Lord Shiva is worshipped as the destroyer of birth, and the devotees smear ash from cremated bodies on themselves to denote this. Even today, the Bagmati river is the biggest site for cremations in Kathmandu. It is believed that people who are cremated here are not born again in any form other than human, and when bodies burn, there is no malodor but one can only sense the aroma of spices. Locals even say that people come here in the last days of their lives with the expectation of being in the presence of the Lord and being cremated here. They stay at the Panch Deval complex for old people by the river, waiting for their time to come.

Aerial view of the temple complex (Photo Courtesy: Balaji Davey)

The main deity Lord Pashupatinath is a four-faced Mukhalingam  installed in 1360 CE. Gopalraj Vamshavali mentions that the first form of the temple was built by King Supushpadeva of the Lichchavi dynasty.  Kings Manadeva and Amshuvarma (605-621) are mentioned in numerous inscriptions of the temple that show the significant contributions made by them to the temple. King Amshuvarma even took the title "blessed by the feet of Lord Pashupatinath" before his name which shows that by the 7th century, Lord Pashupatinath had come to be worshipped as the Lord of the nation. In 1349 CE, during the invasion of the Kathmandu valley by Shamshudin Iliyas Shah, the founder of the Sultanate of Bengal, the temple was heavily damaged and the main Shivalingam was mutilated. Gold and silver that belonged to the temple were plundered. A few years after this attack, the temple was reconstructed by Jaisingh Ramvardhan, the Mahamatya of the then King Arjun Malla. Subsequently, the version of the temple that exists now was developed in the year 1754 by King Bhupalendra Malla. 

Front View of the temple complex (Photo Courtesy: Balaji Davey)

The priests in this temple are from South India. While it is commonly believed that Adi Shankaracharya had contributed to converting this temple from Vamacharya worship to Sathvik worship and because of this the priests continue to be from South India, there seems to be no conclusive evidence to this claim, although it is believed he visited the temple in the 9th century and there is still a shrine in the temple for him and his followers. According to Historian M. Chidanandamurthy, who has done extensive research of the linkages between Karnataka and the Pashupatinath temple, it was King Yaksha Malla, who decided to invite Bhatta Brahmanas of the Sringeri Mutt to the temple in the 15th century. There are four priests from Sringeri Mutt who perform the daily rituals at the main shrine, with a Chief priest who oversees their work.

Entrance to the temple (Photo Courtesy: Balaji Davey)

Photography is strictly prohibited within the temple. One can witness policemen in blue uniform swoop down upon anyone who attempts to take a picture of the shrine or its deities and confiscate the phone. There is a huge gold-plated Nandi on a pedastal in front of the main sanctum. He is flanked by images of erstwhile kings of Nepal, seated on high platforms, so that they are able to view the main deity at all times. 

A glimpse of the sanctum and the huge Nandi from outside.
Watch out for Balaji with the Mantra Orange cap leading the way 

The temple is open from 4 am to 9 pm, with a couple of hours break in the afternoon. Mondays and Saturdays are extremely crowded and the wait time to have a glimpse of the Lord can be long and winding. There are special darshan tickets too which cost approximately Rs.2000 for four people. This allows a shorter queue and some more time in front of the deity. Along with sandal prasad, rudraksha malas are also given to those entering through the special queue. In other shrines giving 100 Indian rupees would entitle one to receive a Rudraksha mala as prasad. The temple also has a huge corridor with hundreds of Shiva lingams of various sizes that the devotees can visit.

The most important festival at the temple is Shivaratri, where thousands of devotees from across the world gather here, considering in the Skanda Purana, the Lord himself mentions this temple among the 64 Mahakshetras to be worshipped at least once in a lifetime. Every evening, the Pashupatinath Aarti happens at 6 pm on the banks of the Bagmati river. 

While in the temple, beware of monkeys that jump all around you, trying to grab eatables or dangling bags. Also if you are visiting on a Monday or Saturday, do take care of your precious belongings or better still avoid carrying them with you. Jai Pashupatinath!


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for enlightening me about Pashupatha Shaivism. This is the first time I am hearing of it. But I vaguely remember the concepts of the bodies burning without a mal odour and how the ash signifies Shiva as the destroyer of Birth from my visit to this temple in 2011. Kathmandu is full of great shrines from the Kala Bhairav at the Kathmandu square, Narasimha nearby to the floating Budnilakanth perumal. I hope that you got to see them all.