Marigolds for a god at rest
Four miles north of Kathmandu, below the hill of Shivapuri is one of the largest, most handsome stone images of the God Vishnu. Despite his massiveness he reclines with natural ease on a bed of entwined serpents, their hoods raised to form a canopy above his head. The image, carved from a single great rock, seems afloat on the water of an encompassing pool. A play of ripples from a spring in one corner makes it seem that Vishnu breathes and that his eyes may at any moment flicker.
I wonder at the fourth or sixth century master who created him; who knew instinctively how that larger-than-life-sized but lissom body would appear in perfect proportion to centuries of worshippers; and how his magnificent creation would seem to float as delicately as a lotus on the water.
I believe that the image once adorned a larger pool, which was so controlled that it lay empty while the master worked, and was then filled to exactly the right depth so that the snakes were buoyed upon it, and, more remarkably, the entire profile of the Sleeping God was reflected to make it appear that what lay under water was exactly the same as on top. Certainly the pool and its surroundings are not original. Whatever was there before was buried for centuries under a great landslide from the hill above. Then, one of those miracles that so often happen occurred. A farmer digging his field struck stone which, as he uncovered it, took divine form. In his mortal haste to free the image from the earth he damaged its nose and blood flowed from the wound. Here, of course, we enter the realm of legend, which also has a king of the time seeing the image in his dream and ordering it excavated.
Yet another legend has an old Brahmin ascetic by the name of Nilkantha having the image installed. It has been named after him ever since, which only aggravates the confusion that exists over the identity of the image. Undoubtedly it is a Vishnu or Narayan, but why is it called Nilkantha, which is another name for Shiva?
It was Shiva who after churning the oceans swallowed the poisons they contained and sped to the Himalayas to cool his burning, poisoned blue throat, with icy water. So, it is Shiva of the blue throat, not Vishnu or Narayan. Which makes the story of the Brahmin giving the image his name readily acceptable.
No ruling king may visit Budhanilkantha because, according to tradition, king Pratap Malla dreamed that if he or his descendents did so they would die. Far more likely is the considerations that Nepal’s kings are Vishnu reincarnate and therefore should not be brought face to face with this first likeness of themselves. And so later kings commanded two similar but smaller images placed in pools in the gardens of Balaju and the royal palace at Hanuman Dhoka.
Though degraded by modern construction and a rash of ceramic tiles, Budhanilkanth retains its enchantment. Attending priests vermilion the eyes and lips and jewellery of the god and set patterns of flowers in his crown. Devotees offer food and coins and flowers. Bright marigold chains float on the water, which is often red with vermilion.