By Kalinga Seneviratne
Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until it was declared a secular republic in 2008. But, the historic Patan area – which is literally the center of the Kathmandu Valley – is dotted with Buddhist temples and small stupas in every street corner. Locals say that some of the ancient temples here go back to the time of Emperor Ashoka’s Buddhist kingdom in 3rd century BCE.
Patan is a treasure hub of rich Nepali architecture and despite two devastating earthquakes of 1934 and 2015, the city still retains much of its culture, religion, art and history. At the center of Patan is the Durbar Square that was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. This is basically the former Royal Palace complex which is now a restored cultural museum with 3 major Hindu temples at the center – the five-roofed 14th century built Kumbeshwar is dedicated to Lord Shiva, along with the beautifully crafted 4-story Krishna Mandir and two-roofed Visvesvara temple.
This square is a major gathering place for Kathmandu residents both young and old, but foreigners have to pay a fee to enter the area. Surrounding the square is also a market place of clothes, souvenirs, food and other consumables. In the evening this is a fascinating collection of people – especially women in their colourful sarees and dresses – and musicians sometimes accompanied by folk dancers.
When I visited Patan at the end of August and early September, the Nepalis celebrated two colourful festivals – the Buddhist festival of Gunla and the Hindu festival of Teej.
Gunla marks the end of the rains retreat in the Buddhist tradition and the local Newari Buddhists in Patan gather at temples to sing and worship. Their singing groups go from temple to temple singing Buddhist songs (Video clip ).
The three-day Teej festival is celebrated by Hindu women. They dress in their red wedding saris and gather at temples to sing and dance. On the final day the women came to Durbar Square which turned into a colourfu “reddish” spectacle of singing and dancing by women accompanied by male drummers.
There are 4 Buddhist monuments at the four corners of Patan that is believed to be dating back to the time of Emperor Ashoka. Most of the Buddhist in Kathmandu valley come from the Newari community – who are also connected to the Sakya clan from which Prince Siddartha came. He was born in Lumbini, which is in modern day Nepal today. Thus, they carry the Sakya name and have an unique practice of Buddhism that is non-monastic in nature and the monks are part-timers and non-celibate.
Newari temples and rituals seem a synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism. As one devotee told me at a Buddhist temple in Patan: “Many Hindus come here to worship and they think they are practicing Hinduism. In fact they practice our Buddhism”. That is why many Buddhists in Kathmandu claim that about 50 percent of residents there are Buddhists, though official census figures show it much lower. In Patan, the Buddhists could be in the majority, if you are to judge by the Buddhist shrines and stupas dotting the area.
Golden Temple, just around the corner from Durban Square is the major Buddhist temple here. This extravagant temple with golden roofs dates back to the 12th century. The temple reflects a history that is connected to the lucrative trade between Tibet and Nepal over the centuries. It is said that two rival families that became very wealthy through this trade competed in decorating the roof of the temple in gold thus creating many layers of the roof, before the Prime Minister had to step in to stop this competition.
Another Buddhist temple is Ukul Bahal that boasts a gilded pinnacle on its upper roof and chaityas (small Buddhist stupas) adorning the courtyards. When one walks along the narrow streets of Patan, you would notice numerous such small stupas in street corners and courtyards. Some of these are adjoining small temples or shrine room adorned with statues of Hindu deities and the Buddha, which reflects the close synthesis between Hinduism and Buddhism here. Most temples do not seem to have either Brahmin Hindu priests or Buddhist yellow-robed monks.
Between 8th to 12th centuries when Mahayana Buddhism moved from India to Tibet it went through Kathmandu Valley, and left their imprint here. But when it was traced back, it was totally different, “either you call it syncretism of Hinduism and Buddhism or just Hindu encroachment into Buddhist philosophy, the result is, what people now broadly term as Newar Buddhism,” says Razen Manandhar, a journalist with the local Buddhist Bodhi TV.
A unique feature of Newari Buddhism is that the temples are built as courtyards surrounded by a two-story building usually hosting a shrine room. The courtyard would have many shrines, bells, etc that resembles more a Hindu temple. Thus, there are hundreds of such historic temples in Patan area of various sizes. The monasteries do not have resident monks, that makes them different to both Mahayana and Theravada monasteries.
A devotee at the famous Golden Temple told me that there are about 500 members (of Sakyas) who are members of the temple, and 1 family is responsible for a month to run the temple. They provide 1 child to become a monk for that period. Monks wear white robes and they perform rituals that are similar to Theravada ceremonies.
Newari Buddhists also have a strong musical tradition where temples have musical groups and they sing songs that are very similar in rhythm and presentation to Hindu bhajans (devotional songs). Instead of the ‘paritta’ (Pali chanting of sutras) you normally hear at Theravade temples, the Newari temples are more akin to a Sikh temple, where singers accompanied by a traditional orchestra sing Buddhists songs for a hour or more before puja (worship) times. It has an entertaining element to it. One member of a musical group said that through their songs – which are sung in Nepali or Newari language – they sing about the “teachings of Sakyamuni (Buddha) or the good things you can do”.
Mukund Bista, President of the Golden temple said that most of the Newaris of Kathamndu valley are middle class and fairly well to do. Thus, Buddhism thrives in the valley.