Studies in Form: The Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, Patan

Ah, Patan. The glories of this magical Newari city are too numerous to do justice. I could only spend a few hours when I visited earlier this year, but even after all these months, thinking about the place and its gorgeous Durbar Square sends a shiver up my spine.

It isn’t often that you get to visit a place this old and this richly decorated which is also a part of a living city. Under the shadows of the deliciously carved eaves and under the magnificent spires of its splendid medieval architecture, people sit and pass the time of day; children on the way back from school spend a few truant minutes, old men chat and lovers whisper. Although, historical sources suggest that Patan (or Lalitpur as it was previously known) had been a bustling town anteceding even the Kirata dynasty of the early 1st millennium AD, as well as the Lichchavi dynasty of the 3rd to 9th centuries AD (when it was called Yala); it was only under the Malla dynasty of the 13th to 18th centuries that the city saw an efflorescence in art and architecture, that remains even today. The historical part of the town, with its centre at the Durbar Square is a marvellous warren of medieval wooden houses and linked courtyards, punctuated by intricately carved water reservoirs called hiti.

Too numerous are the wonders of Patan, so I will restrict myself to just one, the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, or the Kwa Baha- a Buddhist monastery more commonly known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the older extant temples in the city, dating back to the 11th century AD. One of the most ornate monasteries that I’ve ever seen, it is a temple of Vajrayana Buddhism or the ‘Diamond Way’, the great Tantric Buddhist tradition that began in India, especially in Kashmir and Bengal, but died out along with the great Buddhist universities of Bengal and Bihar in the 13th century. Some of its teachings and worldview survived in the mother country in the works of Saiva and Sakta Tantrics, along with the Vaisnav Sahajiyas and the Bengali Sufi tradition. However, as a living tradition, it continues to this day in Newari Buddhism.

Like in all Vajrayanic temples, the priests here are called Vajracharyas, householder monks who are the last Buddhist community whose liturgical texts are in Sanskrit. Echoing the final development in Indian Buddhism between the 9th and 12th centuries, the ideal Vajracharya is a Siddha or a Realised One. Like most of the main Newari temples, both Hindu and Buddhist, it is built around a courtyard.  Again like all Vajrayanic shrines, it has multiple deities representing Buddhist history at it’s three main stages of philosophical and religious development. There is the Sakyamuni, representing the oldest Theravadic origins, the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana and Vajrasattva and the other Tantric deities of the Vajrayana.

The principle and non-Tantric deity, called the kwabaju, is Sakyamuni Buddha, is housed in the main shrine across the courtyard from the beautifully carved doorway. Before it is the ceremonial caitya arguably the most important object in the courtyard, probably older than Kwa Baha itself, with its own elaborate temple. This is a thing of beauty, with carved images of the five Buddhas as well 12 amazing metal-cast sculptures of various Lokeshvaras, some of them distinctly Tantric ones. The main Tantric shrine, this one to Vajrasattva is on the first floor of the monastery. He is identified with the Adibuddha representing the Absolute, but also as the ideal Siddha or Vajracharya. He holds the bell and the vajra or thunderbolt of wisdom, the chief symbol of the Vajrayana.

In Kwa Baha, there is also a Tibetan shrine modeled on a classic gompa on the first floor devoted to the eight-armed Amoghapasha Lokeshvara, one of the 360 forms of Avalokiteshvaras (or Lord of the World)  popular in Nepal and Tibet. Indeed, all around the courtyard, you can see sequences of the Tibetan prayer wheels, very recent in origin, which speaks of the growing importance of these Newari shrines to the Tibetan population, who first came to Nepal as refugees following the Chinese invasion. Standing in the courtyard, surrounded by Tibetans, as well as Newaris worshipping these Buddhist deities who first came into being in northern India, I felt strangely ecstatic in the middle of this modern confluence of a flow of traditions that has been going on between India, Nepal and Tibet for over a thousand years!

The other object of reverence at the Kwa Bahah is an old Sanskrit manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, properly called the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Probably the greatest Mahayanic sutra, composed in India around the 2nd century AD, the Perfection of Wisdom is often ceremoniously read at the monastery for merit as well as for worldly gain. The earliest historical record is that of a monk called Ananda Bhikshu who first copied the manuscript to preserve it in 1225 AD. Legend has it that it was brought to Nepal from India by a Brahmin widow sometime towards the end of the 1st millennium AD. The goddess Prajnaparamita, a form of Tara, is worshipped here.

The entire courtyard is like a public art gallery, full of beautiful things which stand testimony to the highly advanced aesthetics of the Newars, from metal cast sculptures to ones made of gold and stone. Here’s a slideshow of the courtyard. (Press Pause to see it at your convenience)

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