Where a god lies sleeping

Dubby Bhagat


It happened some 14 centuries ago. Dislodged by a powerful earthquake, a part of the mountain called Shivpuri came crashing down; a vast and terrifying tumble of rock and earth that bore down upon the settlement below, completely burying it. Little could survive. Temples and houses were made of perishable mud and wood. Even memory was destroyed.

The rains fell during their season and grass and forests grew. In time, men returned to clear the land unaware of the history below their feet. A farmer snarled his crude plough against a buried rock and when he chipped at it, it bled.

In troubled awe, he cleared the soil away to uncover first the carved head of a stone colossus, then a reclining body and then a bed of coiled serpents on which it rested. Water began rising from the earth as he dug deeper, until it seemed the huge image floated on the surface of a pond.

People heard and crowded to worship this strange god that had risen from the ground. It was recognised as Vishnu, but confusingly it was named Buddhanilkantha, which suggests Shiva.

There are other legends. When an earthquake ravaged the mountain, the image had only recently been consecrated. In fact, the anonymous Lichhavi master who carved it from a single enormous rock had hardly laid aside his tools when disaster came.

Were the gods displeased? Did such perfection, daring to transcend the bounds of mortality, arouse divine rebuke? Later, and even legend hesitates to say how long afterwards, the buried god appeared to King Dharmagat Dev in a dream so vivid that he was able to direct a search party to the spot where it lay. But the image was hardly uncovered when the mountain fell again and the reclining Vishnu was once more buried.

When it was being excavated for the second time, a workman accidentally clipped the divine nose and it bled. But one remembers that almost every early sculpture in the Kathmandu valley suffers a broken nose, a relic of the short-lived but savage assault by the forces of Shams-ud-din Ilyas of Bengal in the early 14h century.

Legend also has an old Brahmin ascetic, Nil Kantha, responsible for having the image installed. But why, one wonders did he give his Shaivaite name to an image of Vishnu?

There are always flowers banked above the crown of the image, and vermilion on its forehead, about its eyes and mouth and outlining the clothes and jewellery it wears. Vermilion stains the water of the now stagnant pond.

Devotees mount a ramp to touch their foreheads to the massive feet, collecting some fragment of offerings made by others before them. In turn, they offer flowers and rice and coins that others will collect. Pujaris bathe and anoint the great face. More vermilion. Dramatic touches of saffron. There are always pigeons to accept the rice that is offered.

Yet another legend attaches to Buddhanilkantha. King Pratap Malla, who ruled in the 17th century, dreamed that if he or any of his descendants gazed upon the face of the reclining Vishnu, they would die. So no ruling monarch may visit this famed place of pilgrimage, but to allow them some idea of what they are forbidden to see, two similar but much smaller images were made and installed in the water garden at Balaju and in the grounds of the old Malla palace in Kathmandu.

Both lack the brilliance of the Lichhavi original and the magic of its surroundings: the ancient rest houses and the hamlet of Buddhanilkantha and the fields strewn with black boulders like enormous cannon balls that fell from the mountain called Shivpuri.

From another, a Buddha image that stands unattended and hardly known in a field not far away. What other treasures lie buried beneath the great swell of earth that was once a landslide, we may only guess at. Nepal’s leading public school and a rapidly growing suburb of Kathmandu reach across it. Perhaps someone digging a modern foundation will strike rock, and the rock will bleed.