The wizards of the temple

Dubby Bhagat


It is safe to say that no device old, middle-aged or modern has failed to find a place in Patan’s Uku Bhal, also known as Rudra Verna Mahavihara. Two huge rampant lions above the outer entrance gate remind strongly of the British coat-of-arms. The doorknockers are lion heads holding heavy bronze rings in their mouths. There are other lions, small and big, doing things like holding pendents or acting as mounts to shapely goddesses. A Malla king kneels in prayer before the main shrine with a garuda on a pedestal immediately behind him. On the first tire of the two-roofed building is a group of plaster stupas. On the second is a line of handsome, gilded chaityas. The struts supporting the first roof depict the five Mahabuddhas and date of 1653 when they were donated to the shrine. No one knows exactly when all the other offerings were made. As an elderly gentleman said pointing to an ancient lady, sunning herself in a doorway, “She has seen much, but even she is unknowing of all this.” “Oh no,” she countered, wheezing alarmingly. “I remember the prime minister being put here. It took a lot of deciding where he should be placed. He gave much money to the monastery.”

The other story has the prime minister donating a likeliness of himself in recognition of some divine indulgence, regardless of company he would keep.

Though looking fairly modern, particularly because of its European lions, Uku Bahal is alleged to have been built by the Licchavi king Siva Deva in the sixth century for the performance of his initiation rites, a custom followed by several later Licchavi kings of Patan. For reasons that have failed to survive the centuries, the practice was discontinued until King Rudra Malla revived it in the thirteen century. Some of the exquisite wood carving, like several struts depicting willowy goddesses standing upon dwarfs or demons, date to the early fourteenth century. So does a torana over the main door of the temple, which enshrines an image of Gautama Buddha. Apparently Patan’s master woodcarvers, metalworkers and sculptors in stone contributed their skill to this incredible monastery, a gesture apparently discontinued for lack of patronage or perhaps out of consideration for space. There is hardly room for another peacock or legendary beast.

All about Uku Bahal are the homes and workshops of metalworkers, tap-tapping out household utensils, and the vessels of worship. There also are image-makers using the ancient lost wax process. Many are now mass-producing gods and goddesses for foreign markets, which unfortunately shows in the finish of their creations. But there still are the master craftsmen, too few for lack of discerning demand, who labour over the most intricate designs. Any of them could reproduce the fantastic figures of Uku Bahal, or the huge metal arch of entwined leaves and flowers that rises in front of the temple, above goddesses riding lions that in turn ride elephants. In the many atelier shops about the monastery are enticing caves of treasure still being produced by the artisans of the city of artists. If one had the inclination and money today, there is no doubt at all in my mind that the craftsmen about Uku Bahal would raise an equally stunning if not more grandiose masterpiece. Instead, they lament the passing of foreign demand and the near collapse of local patronage. In an effort to utilise the skill of Patan’s metalworkers, a couple of well-known entrepreneurs took on the manufacture of objects quite foreign to Nepali design. An Egyptian cat. A Greek horse. For a while the rejects found their way into local curio shops. Then they disappeared because, no doubt, the demand dried up. It is a pity that examples of this period in Patan’s creativity weren’t enshrined in Uku Bahal. As an elderly gentleman observed, “People are not as rich or generous or pious as they were.”’ Amen.