A priest washing sleeping Vishnu of Narayansthan of Budhanilkantha. Photo by Author
For most Nepalis, Budhanilkantha is synonymous with the Hindu mandir of Narayanthan—or more correctly Narayansthan. Setting up home on the slopes above the hustle and bustle of the local shopping street made me want to learn more—about the temple, its etymology, and cultural significance. Why, I wondered as a non-Hindu, was a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu known as Narayanthan? That was easily answered: Narayan, or ‘Narayana’, combines two Sanskrit elements: nara (नार) and yana (यान) which together form the ancient Vedic name for the incarnation of Vishnu as Narayan, ‘the one who rests on water’ And than or more properly sthan prosaically means ‘place’ but with the more poetical connotation of ‘abode of abundance’. So Narayanthan clearly denotes the dwelling of Lord Vishnu.
As is so often the case, the answer to one question led to the posing of others. I started to come across initially puzzling references to the Char Narayan, or ‘Four Narayans’, of the Kathmandu Valley. Also referred to as the Four Cardinal Vishnu Temples, in ancient times, desiring Kathmandu to prosper, the rulers apparently ordered the positioning of Vishnu/Narayan shrines at all four cardinal points from which the god could watch and protect the valley and its inhabitants. Some scholars claim that the mandirs were founded in the seventh century on the orders of Vishnu Gupta, who controlled the Kathmandu Valley under the Licchavi king Bhimarjuna Dev. Licchavi kings being regarded as reincarnations of Vishnu/Narayan, there is a historical basis as well as rationale for this, although it is more fanciful to imagine that Vishnu Gupta was intent on perpetuating his own name through the foundation of these four temples. Others, while agreeing that the Four Narayans were founded as a unified concept, put the date several centuries earlier and under a different Licchavi king—Haridutta Varma (with many spelling variants).
What follows is the Four Narayans jigsaw puzzle as I have been able to piece everything together so far, still with some gaps, and a few ill-fitting pieces, but in spite of everything a vivid and intriguing picture overall.
The Four Narayans (Char Narayan) as they exist today are diverse in appearance and atmosphere in spite of their unified origins and religious significance. There is general—but not total—consensus as to which temples constitute the four and their cardinal positioning. Ichangu Narayan, the Narayan of the West; Changu Narayan, the Narayan of the East; Bishanku Narayan, the Narayan of the North; and Shesh Narayan, the Narayan of the South form the normal ‘tetralogy’. However, some errant commentators replace Shesh Narayan with Budhanilkantha’s Narayanthan; while to equate Bishanku Narayan with ‘the north’ is seemingly bizarre, given its location on the southern edge of the Valley. Maybe the concept of ‘cardinal points’ had some other spiritual rather than geographical significance at the time they were founded.
Changu Narayan, The eldest of Char Naryaran
Undoubtedly the most well-known of all the Four Narayans is Changu Narayan, one of the listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley. Situated at the end of an east-west running ridge over a hundred meters above the Valley floor, through the ages the site has been known by various names, including Champak Narayan, until finally becoming revered as Changu Narayan from the medieval period onwards.
The legend goes that Vishnu, in the midst of a fight with a demon, accidentally slew a Brahmin. The Brahmin’s guru was outraged and cursed Vishnu that he himself would be slain by a Brahmin. Vishnu was condemned to live in the trunk of one of the champak trees that grew on the nearby slopes, drinking in secret the milk of a grazing cow belonging to a local Brahmin. Curious and more than a little angry as to why his cow yielded less milk than before and hearing reports from the cowherd of a small black figure drinking the milk near a certain tree, the Brahmin took an axe to the champak tree (Magnolia champaca), at one and the same time beheading Vishnu in fulfillment of the prophecy whilst freeing him from the curse.
Changu Narayan, arbitrarily regarded by many as the most important temple in the Kathmandu Valley, is an acknowledged treasure house of statues, inscriptions, and paraphernalia and a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims alike.
Inchangu Narayan, The Naryana of the West
Similarly named, but totally dissimilar in terms of renown and location, is the Narayan of the West, Ichangu Narayan, situated in a quiet valley just a few kilometers to the west of the Swayambhu junction on the heavily polluted and congested Ring Road. Within minutes of the turn off a different world is entered, with quaint unpaved lanes and houses on the southern slope of Nagarjun, part of the Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park.
A seller of puja offerings in front of the mandir confidently told me that Ichangu Narayan was the youngest of the Four Narayans, Changu Narayan being the most ancient., seemingly debunking in one pithy sentence the idea of their being founded at one and the same time… or could it just be that she was referring to the existing structures rather than their actual foundation? Indeed, the little information available in the public domain supports that Ichangu Narayan originated in the fifth century, fitting in with the Haridutta Varma theory, but that the current structure largely dates from much later, the twelfth century. A particularly popular pilgrimage site during the highly auspicious full moon day in August, Shrawan Purnima, unlike its Changu Narayan counterpart, the temple is small and unpretentious, intimately attractive as it nestles in its small valley.
Shesh Narayan, The Narayan of the South
Shesh Narayan (or Shikhaar Narayan), is situated on a shady bend on the road to Pharping, not long after the turn-off to Dollu, both places of great significance in Vajrayana Buddhism: indeed, Shesh Narayan shares its site with Rigzin Drubte Ghatshal Gompa, the oldest monastery in the district. The gompa is unobtrusive and almost invisible in the shadow of the cliff against which it was constructed, and yet closer inspection reveals what a special place it is and why, it is believed, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) himself meditated in a small cave there, leaving the imprint of his head on the roof of the cave.
The name of this ‘Narayan of the South’ derives from Shesh or Shesha naga, the naga raja (king naga) or adhi naga, the primordial snake god who guards Narayan/Vishnu. On the cliff is a self-manifesting image of the naga, with only a little imagination needed to make out the distinctive ‘hood’ formed by its multiple heads. Just below the naga is a cluster of limestone stalactites which are the subject of legend: believed to be the udder of a cow, locals relate how once upon a time milk dripped from these teats.
And yet another legend: in days gone by a pandit at Shesh Narayan grew too old and frail to be able to walk down to the Bagmati River for water. He prayed to the gods to help him and miraculously a spring appeared. However, the flow of water was so great that very soon it formed a river between the pandit’s dwelling and the mandir. A pair of nagas, witnessing and pitying his plight, stretched themselves across the river to form a bridge. From that time on, the local people have annually commemorated the compassion of the nagas by selecting a forked tree branch and casting it into the largest of the temple’s ponds, Basuki Kund, where it is left to gather moss and slowly disintegrate.
Bishankhu Narayan, The Narayan of the North
The final and very much the ‘odd one out’ of the Kathmandu Valley’s Four Narayans is Bishanku Narayan, the oddly termed ‘Narayan of the North’. Situated on the slopes of Kotdada near Bandegaun, Godawari, here the object of worship is a small and indistinct self-manifesting image in a modest natural grotto protected by a wire grill. Only pandits are allowed to unlock the grill, while a hand-sized ‘hole’ allows devotees to throw money or other offerings inside. The legend goes that Shiva had rather unadvisedly given Bhasmasura—literally ‘ash demon’—the power to turn anybody into ashes by touching the top of their head with his hand. Bhasmasura arrogantly decided to test this power on Shiva himself, who, in panic, turned to Vishnu for assistance. Vishnu took the form of his female avatar, Mohini who then seduced Bhasmasura. However, she agreed to marry him only if he could exactly replicate her dance movements, thus tricking him into placing his hand on his own head. Bhasmasura turned into ash immediately and the resulting nearby hillock represents his remains.
Another oddity of Bishanku Narayan: immediately adjacent to the shrine is a narrow cleft in the rock through which those guilty of the sins of gluttony or pride are said to be unable to squeeze. While most people, including myself, accomplish this with ease, I also witnessed one man, clearly physically capable of doing so, but who yet adamantly proclaimed that he could not and refused to even try. Maybe the subconscious—and hence spiritual—element is all-powerful and ultimately the key factor in success or failure.
In the present day, as in times past, devout Nepalis are expected or impelled to visit all of the Four Narayans on Haribodhini Ekadashi, the day on which Vishnu is believed to wake from his four-month slumber, which had commenced on Shrawan Purnima, in order to preside over religious rites across the universe. The festival normally falls in late Kartik/early Mangsir in the Nepali calendar (November in the Gregorian calendar) after Dashain and Tihar are over, when the weather is starting to chill, and the landscape turns golden. For those unable to visit all four temples in a single day due to their geographic spread, a convenient alternative was made available: a one-off visit to the Char Narayan Mandir in Mangal Bazaar, Old Patan, next to the Krishna Mandir. Normally the temple is unlocked only in the mornings, but on Haribodhini Ekadashi it remains open late until the evening for the throngs of pilgrims who go there.
Narayanthan in Budhanilkantha
And so finally back to Budhanilkantha’s Narayanthan, which is also a focal point for devotees on Haribodhini Ekadashi. More easily accessible than Bishanku Narayan and Ichangu Narayan, more brashly imposing than Shesh Narayan, Changu Narayan is its only rival for renown. But Narayanthan has its own story, unique and yet intertwined with those of the Four Narayans, as it was none other than Vishnu Gupta who was responsible for both the creation and siting of the five meter sculpture of its Sleeping Vishnu. Often claimed to be the most important and impressive stone carving in the whole of Nepal, the sacred statue was fashioned from a single block of black basalt in the mid-seventh century and reputedly brought to Budhanilkantha on Vishnu Gupta’s command from Bhringareshwar (variant spellings abound), near Bungamati. Resting—or miraculously ‘floating’—in a thirteen meter stone pond, it depicts Narayan in a supine position, holding the symbols of his divine nature in his four hands: chakra (wheel, dharma); sacred conch shell (cosmic energy); lotus (beauty, spirituality, eternity); and club (primeval knowledge), buoyed by the shesh naga, its hood spread protectively. The statue, adorned with shining accouterments and bedecked with marigolds, is lovingly tended each day by the temple’s young trainee pandits.
The Four Narayans… Char Narayan Mandir… Narayanthan… They have taken me on journeys riding pillion on a motorbike, often along bumpy, dusty roads, and through lots of confusing information in the public domain. Like all of life’s best journeys, it is still not completed. I want to return to all of the Narayans in the light of what I now know, to look for more detail, to talk to the pandits and locals, to learn more… and more… and still more.
“Om Namo Narayanaya”.