History and establishment of the temple
Around the 12th century, during the rise of the Kirant invasion in the southern territories, the Shakyas of Kapilvastu were forced to leave their ancestral lands and seek refuge in the sacred Nepa Valley (now Kathmandu Valley). Among these migrants was Ananda Bhante, the principal disciple of Lord Gautam Buddha himself. Ananda Bhante specifically chose to settle on the banks of the divine pond that housed the Swayambhu Ratna Chaitya. This marked the beginning of human settlement in the area.
Subsequently, the residents dug a well to divert all the water from the pond, creating space for a proper Buddhist Bihar for the stupa. This gave rise to the establishment of the Kwa Baha / Hiranyavarna Maha Bihar. The water reservoir is believed to still exist beneath the central stupa chamber to this day.
The folklore behind the evolution of the temple
During the 12th century, under the rule of King Bhasker Dev from the Thakuri Dynasty, the chief priest of Hiranya varna Mahabihar, named Shree Chakreshwor Aaaju, used to regularly visit and pay homage to Goddess Guheshwori by the Bagmati river. One cold winter morning, while the land was covered in thick fog and dense jungle, he lost his way and stumbled upon a small hilly area. He found the ruins of the old dilapidated Pingala bihar, with only a single small chaitya visible at its center. This discovery fascinated him, and he started visiting these sacred ruins daily before going to Guheswori.
Legend has it that due to his unwavering devotion to the Buddha Bihar, the divine Buddha of the Pingala Bihar appeared in Chakreshwor Aaju’s dream. The Buddha informed him about a hidden Buddha Statue within the Bihar’s ruins and instructed him to bring it to his land and build a proper bihar for it. As Aaju couldn’t accomplish this task alone, he sought the assistance of King Bhasker Dev, who sent his troops to excavate and bring the majestic Shakyamuni Buddha Statue to Yala with a royal ceremony. They decided to build a grand temple to house the statue, along with the Swayambhu Ratna Chaitya, in the old fort area known as “KWATHA,” which later evolved into the name KWABAHAL. Consequently, the temple complex became known as Bhasker Deva Samkarita Hiranya Varna Mahabihara. The same Shakyamuni Buddha idol excavated from Pingala Bihar remains the main deity of the Majestic Golden Temple.
In an unexpected twist to this story, it was discovered that the Shakyamuni Buddha statue was brought to Nepal by an Indian Queen from the Maywad Region of India, the first wife of King Suddatta named Queen Pingala. She came to the sacred Nepa Valley on a pilgrimage due to her dissatisfaction with her husband’s second marriage. During her stay in Nepa Valley, she obtained special permission to build the Pingala Bihar (current Siphal Cutu Bihar), where she lived and preached Buddhism. However, King Suddatta, impressed by her devotion, eventually took her back to Maywad, and the Bihar was abandoned and turned into ruins, leading to the events mentioned in the earlier story of Chakreshwor Aaju discovering and excavating the Buddha idol.
As mentioned earlier, Hiranya Varna Mahabihar was initially established under the guidance of Shree Ananda Bhante, the principal disciple of Gautam Buddha. For many centuries, the prime priests of the Bihar were monks. However, as time passed, the Shakya Sangha took over the rituals, and they needed a man who strictly adhered to the PANCHA SHILA, which includes refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxicants. To address this need, young male Shakya boys under the age of 12 were selected to become the principal priests who would perform the rituals, as they naturally followed the Pancha Shila.
These young priests are referred to as “बापाचा” (BaPaaCha), which originates from the phrase “BA hale PAa ChwaniMA MAcha”, literally translating to “बहाल मा पालो बस्ने मान्छे” (“those who reside in Bahal”). Uniquely, the male children of the Shakya Sangha who undergo their Chudakarma/Bratabanda at this Bahal are obligated to serve as a BaPaaCha for one month in their life. During this time, they commit to living at the temple and performing the daily rituals, guided by a more experienced young member of the sangha for assistance.
Architecture of the Golden Temple
During the Malla Regime, Lalitpur served as the hub for the flourishing of creativity and artistic expression across various mediums, including stone and metalwork. This exceptional artistic talent is showcased in all its splendor right from the moment you approach the sacred Pragya Paramita scripture of Hiranya Varna Maha Bihar. In fact, if you were to closely examine the intricate details, it can be quite overwhelming.
As you enter through the main Eastern Gate, you’ll be greeted by an extraordinary display of stonework crafted by the master artist and stonemason of the 18th century, Krishna Bir. Two magnificent lions stand guard at the passage, leading to a small courtyard. Here, you’ll find some of the most remarkable stone creations in the entire region, featuring various idols of Buddha, Bodhisattva, and Aryatara meticulously arranged on a toran and mounted on the walls. For those with an appreciation for art, it’s a genuine delight.
Moreover, the entrance is fortified by an imposing metal gate. When closed, this gate forms the fierce countenance of Bhairab, the formidable and demonic manifestation of Shiva. This gate, known as “BHELUKHWA DWAKHYA,” symbolizes the harmonious coexistence and fusion of Hinduism with the core Buddhist practices of the shrine.
The exterior of the main temple complex boasts intricate 18th-century handcrafted metal carvings, which adorn the facade beautifully. As you approach the entrance of the Hiranya Varna Mahabihar, which leads to the primary Shakya Muni Buddha statue, you’ll be greeted by some of Nepal’s most exquisite metalwork. In contrast to the temple’s overall golden appearance, the metal used on this artistic gate shines in a silvery-white hue. The auspicious symbols of KALASH (water vessel) on the door’s sides, as well as the meticulously hand-carved Pancha Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the TORANA arch above the entrance, are the masterpieces of 18th-century metal artists from Lalitpur.
The primary temple complex is devoted to Shakya Muni Buddha and is positioned at the western side of the courtyard. The impressive gajur, or pinnacle, of the Hiranya Varna Mahabihar, has a three-tiered structure with corners that turn upward. It boasts three slanting copper roofs, each adorned with small birds perched at the corners and metal banners hanging below. At the apex of the gajur, there is a bell-shaped feature with four snakes whose bodies extend upwards to support an umbrella. What makes this temple unique is that it includes thirteen small stupa structures, each crowned with an umbrella, situated at its center. Additionally, four metal dhwajas, or banners, dangle from the uppermost roof’s edge, extending towards the courtyard. The temple’s façade is lavishly adorned with intricate metal carvings.
The term “Golden Temple” is somewhat misleading because it originated from the appearance of the three-story main temple complex that houses the statue of Shakya Muni Gautam Buddha. Contrary to what one might think, King Bhasker Verma did not initially construct the temple in this manner. Instead, it evolved over time as the Sangha associated with the bahal continued to grow. Many prosperous members of the Sangha engaged in trade with Tibet and China, accumulating wealth in the process. In a gesture of gratitude and adherence to their obligation to care for the bahal, these affluent Sangha members donated funds to cover the temple complex in gilded copper. This transformation took place sometime between the 14th and 18th centuries.
However, as tourism began to surge in the 19th century, guides and locals found it convenient to refer to the temple as the “Golden Temple” to facilitate communication with visitors. Consequently, this name became widely adopted and has since stuck.