Old City, Kathmandu
For the sake of clarity the following account of the old city of Khatmandu is divided into two sections. Here the name "Old City" refers to the area around Durbar Square and north thereof.Ancient Bazaar Street, cutting diagonally across the Upper City, creates delightful triangular open spaces, settings for colorful bustling markets and splendid temples. Leaving Durbar Square by its north-east corner the first such intersection is Indra Chowk, in which stands the Akash Bhairava Temple. A little further on a gateway off Kel Tole leads into the Jana Bahal, a monastery dedicated to Shveta Matsyendranath. Next comes Asan Tole, site of the vegetable market, over which Annapurna goddess of plenty presides from her extravagantly ornamented pagoda. Not far beyond Asan Tole, Bazaar Street reaches the boundary of the old Malla city. Here Pratapa Malla constructed the Rani Pokhari, a large water tank. Now changing direction follow the street bearing left from Asan Tole to Thahiti, a crossroads with a large stupa. On the way back from there to Durbar Square detours can be made to the Naradeva and Kankeshvari Temples.
The Chusya Bahal is considered the finest example of bahal architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. Two lions flank the entrance while above on the beautiful torana the Buddhist deity Prajnaparamita is portrayed. At ground level the buildings are open to the court, the one on the right containing a Mahakala shrine, the one on the left a shrine to Ganesh. Traditional brick paving has been preserved in the sunken court.Like the other shrines the temple facing the entrance is two-storied, its roof topped by a simple finial. Note in particular the magnificent 14th c. roof struts. All the various deities depicted are also named. In the court are two votive stupas, one an image of Tara, the other a statue of Vajrasattva. The two donors stand either side.The order of priests responsible for the bahal is now virtually moribund and only one or two members of the community remain. As a result the bahal has no income and no one to maintain it. The open halls on the ground floor are used as a school.
This monastery was founded in the 11th C and is one of the oldest of its kind in Kathmandu.
Akasha Bhairava Mandir
The important shrine in Indra Chowk Square is unfortunately not open to tourists. It is dedicated to a form of Bhairava identified with the Kirati King Yalamba, a hero of the Mahabharata. The legend tells how the King went to India to take part in the battle of the Mahabharata. When Krishna saw him he asked on which side he intended to fight. The King answered he would fight for the losing side, whereupon Krishna struck off his head with such force that it flew all the way back to Kathmandu. The King is worshipped as Akasha Bhairava, who mysteriously fell from heaven (akash). Every year this story is re-enacted during the Indra Jatra Festival.The gigantic blue Bhairava mask is located on the first floor of the rectangular building, positioned, as guardian deities often are, so as to look out on life in the busy square below. Bhairava however turns his eyes heavenward; were he to look down disaster would ensue. The ground floor of the temple is filled with little shops in front of which coolies and rickshaw drivers wait for hire. A remarkable number of flute sellers frequent Indra Chowk.
The Main Temple is a two story structure containing a painting of the 108 aspects of the deity. In the courtyard are sculptures and votive stupas.
Kathesimbhu means "Kathmandu Swayambhu". Not only is the stupa easily recognized as a smaller version of the one at Swayambhu, it also claims to have been built from stones and earth left over from the latter. Thus a walk around the Kathesimbhu stupa promises the old and lame the same blessings as a pilgrimage to Swayambhunath's hill.Although the present stupa dates only from the 17th c., the many chaityas with votive stupas and sculptures of gods from the Mahayana pantheon, show the site itself to be considerably older. The figure of Avalokiteshvara is 9th c. The Sigha Bahal recently became a monastery for Theravada monks.A second legend gives a slightly different account of the stupa's origin. It tells of a stupa built in the Indian city of Benares, and of the search for a Buddhist priest to consecrate it. Eventually the celebrated Vakvajra was persuaded to come from Nepal, blessing the stupa with a few drops of water from the river. This simple ceremony failed to satisfy the people, who placed no faith in its efficacy. Vakvajra therefore proposed that they move the stupa, which they attempted but proved unable to do despite enlisting the aid of an elephant. Vakvajra then recited a mantra, whereupon the stupa moved of its own accord, following him back to the Sigha Bahal in Kathmandu.
The origins of the three-storied Kankeshvari Mandir date back to the founding of the city by Gunakama Deva. He brought the goddess Ratna Kali from Dakshin Kali, installing her here by an ancient river crossing on the Vishnumati. A 7th/8th c. relief testifies to the great age of the site. Like Dakshin Kali this particular temple has acquired considerable notoriety from its association with the blood-thirsty deity. It was the scene of the ritual stone-throwing which, on the instructions of Kumar issued in a dream, was instituted by Gunakama Deva. The participants were boys, probably representing the various districts. The unfortunate losers received terrible injuries and were sacrificed to the goddess. The ritual was only abolished at the time of Jung Bahadur when the British Resident, Mr Collins, was accidentally struck by a stone. He though managed to escape sacrifice. (Under the 1816 Segauli Treaty, Nepal was obliged to accept a British observer stationed in Kathmandu).
A hundred meters (328 ft) or so north of Thahiti Square lies the Kwa Bahal or Maitripura Mahavihara. In contrast to the Musya Bahal and Chusya Bahal, alterations and new building have destroyed its architectural unity. But Kwa Bahal is interesting for other reasons. One is that it has its own Kumari, chosen from among children of the Vajracharya family in accordance with the same criteria as the Royal Kumari. Unlike the Royal Kumari the Kwa Bahal Kumari is held to be the incarnation of a purely Buddhist deity, Vajradeva as opposed to Durga. The Kwa Bahal is also linked in legend with Vakvajra and the Kathesimbu Stupa (on the south side of Thahiti Square). Vakvraja is said to have mysteriously transported the stupa from Benares to Kathmandu before retreating to the Kwa Bahal to meditate. There he reputedly lives on in a room where his body has long since disintegrated. In order not to disturb his meditation, no one ever enters.
Houses, some new among many more traditional, encircle the spacious courtyard of the Yetkha Bahal or Bhaskarakirti Vihara. A large stupa occupies the center of the court. Over the entrance to the bahal's interesting shrine is a 12th c. carved wooden torana, showing seven people with Buddha preaching in their midst. The Himalayas are symbolized in a manner typical of early iconography by large rocks above the figures. Lower down are two inward-facing makaras. Note the splendidly carved window frames on the floor above. The magnificently carved wooden roof struts, reminiscent of the Yaksini struts in the Itum Bahal, have recently had to be removed for safety reasons.
Little has been preserved of the old Dhwaka Bahal or Henakara Mahavihara. The shrine in the south-east corner was reconstructed fairly recently, perhaps after the 1934 earthquake.In front of it are three votive stupas, of which two, dating from the Licchavi period, are among the most important examples of Buddhist sculpture in the Kathmandu Valley. The first consists of four standing Buddha figures (Buddha Shakyamuni, Maitreya, Vajrapani and Avalokiteshvara) each with a meditating Buddha seated above. The second dates from the time of the Licchavi King Narendra Deva and is inscribed with the guiding principle of Buddhism.
Shveta Kali Naradeva Mandir
The large triple-roofed Shveta Kali Naradeva Mandir ("Temple of the White Kali"), said to have been founded by Gunakama Deva, is located on what used to be Kathmandu's principal north-south thoroughfare. The painted roof struts depict the eight Ashta Matrikas. Every twelfth year the temple is the venue for the Pisach Chaturdasi, the spring festival inaugurated at the time of Amara Malla (1530-38). During the festival a masked dance is performed on the podium opposite the mandir. The performance ends next morning with the sacrifice of a buffalo, the dancer drinking the animal's blood.
Amidst the busy fruit and vegetable stalls in Asan Square stands a little triple-roofed temple dedicated to Annapurna. As an aspect of Lakshmi, goddess of plenty, much attention is showered on her temple; it is in consequence exceptionally richly embellished. The goddess is represented by a silver kalasha (vase) in a Naga's embrace, a symbol of cornucopian abundance. The cult of Annapurna originated in Varanasi; the goddess was greatly revered by the Shahs and Ranas in the 19th and early 20th c.
Dedicated to the patron deity of merchants, Bhimsen Mandir stands beside the old Tibetan trade route near the Vishnumati crossing to Tahachal. It has the rectangular plan traditional in Bhimsen and Bhairava temples, with the shrine occupying the first floor. On the ground floor there are shops. The temple was probably endowed at the time of Pratapa Malla who is known to have worshipped Bhimsen.
A legend claims that the 15th c. stupa in the center of Thahiti Square stands over a well from which pure gold flowed. The little Nateshwar Mandir is dedicated to the dancing Shiva; its embossed metal decoration depicts Shiva's musicians with a variety of instruments.
Near Thahiti are two Buddhist monasteries, the Musya Bahal and the Chusya Bahal, very similar in both appearance and plan.