Manjushri Park, near Chobar Gorge.
The story of Manjushri and the creation of the Kathmandu Valley can be regarded as a myth or even an allegory; a didactic tale meant to entertain and yet educate in much the same way as the myths of Ancient Greece or even the biblical book of Genesis which chronicles the creation of the world and all that is in it in a mere seven days. It is no easy matter to attempt to put the key events in context or even in order; to verify their accuracy; to distinguish fact from fiction. So all I can ask for in my retelling of the tale is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
Let’s start by looking at the facts: the Himalayas and the surrounding region, including Nepal, are geologically ‘young’ and the tectonic plates on which they are based were still moving dramatically in ‘recent’ geological time: on a smaller scale, that movement continues to be felt today in the frequent tremors and thankfully less common earthquakes which still rock the region.
It was over one million years ago that there was a major tectonic uplift of what we now think of as the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. This caused the damming of the proto-Bagmati River, which flows approximately north-south, from its source in the Shivapuri massif to the vicinity of Katuwal Daha, and the creation of a huge lake covering the whole area from, again in modern-day parlance, Budhanilkantha in the north to Lalitpur in the south; and from Balaju in the west to Bhaktapur in the east. It can be surmised that the surface of the lake was broken by small rocky outcrops and that it was circled by a ring of modest mountains.
The southern rim of the Valley rose at a rate of about three centimeters per year, fast in geological terms, tilting the lake slowly northwards. The surface level of the lake is estimated to have been around 1400m above sea level (ASL), putting it on the same level as modern-day Narayanthan, and had a depth of around 200m.
When the last Ice Age started to loosen its grip, the lake began receding some thirty thousand years ago. Geologists now believe that the draining of the primordial lake was not a single geological event, but took place in multiple phases. The body of water first eroded the soft limestone at Chobar, creating a channel which caused the lake to gradually shrink, isolating three smaller lakes at Gokarna, Pashupati and Kitini (near Godawari). These lakes later, in turn, carved their own gorges and emptied into the main lake and/or the developing riverine system, until finally dry land—predominantly in the form of ridges—emerged above the water, to be later separated by the tributaries of the Bagmati, like the Manohara River. In their turn, these rivers continued to erode the soft clay. To put this in context, the land where Gauchar (site of the airport), Madhyapur Thimi and Patan are now situated emerged thirty thousand, twenty-five thousand and eighteen thousand years ago respectively.
Once the Valley started to be inhabited by the Lichhavi and then Newar peoples, the settlers built their communities on these ridges, using the fertile slopes and lowlands for their farms. Their abundant produce, along with their location on the ancient trade routes between Tibet and India, provided a source of wealth which they invested to form their rich cultural and architectural legacy.
The next step is to link these (relatively) hard facts with the legend and see if and how they dovetail.
The Swayambhu Purana, the only Buddhist text in a cannon of Hindu scriptures, relates how, in ages past, the Kathmandu Valley was a vast primordial lake of great beauty and radiance. This is a substantiated geological fact. Then the myths start to creep in. The lake was said to conceal untold treasure and be inhabited by a variety of water sprites, all ruled by the snake gods, or Nagas, led by King Karkot. Due to their presence, the lake became known as Naag Daha, the Lake of Nagas.
Many great holy men and yogis visited the wondrous lake: foremost among them was the Vipasyin or Vipassi Buddha, regarded as the 22nd of the twenty-seven Buddhas who preceded Shakyamuni Buddha and/or the first of the seven historical Buddhas. One day, Vipasyin was meditating on the summit Nagarjun (2095m)—now part of the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park—when a lotus seed appeared before him. He caught it in his outstretched hand and then circumambulated the lake three times before hurling the seed into the air, where its arched path formed a rainbow before gently dropping into the water. As he did so, he made two predictions: the first was, ‘When this lotus shall flower, the primordial Buddha, Swayambhu, the Self-Existent One, shall be revealed as a flame’; while his second prediction foretold the coming of the great bodhisattva, Manjushri, the embodiment of supreme wisdom, who would drain the lake, thus creating a fertile valley in which people could live.
Time passed until, in the time of the second historical Buddha, Shikhin, the seed began to germinate in the silt at the bottom of the lake, gradually rising up through the water until finally surfacing and blooming with countless petals studded with diamonds, pearls and rubies and other precious stones. Most miraculous of all was the flame that glowed in its midst, the manifestation of the Adi Buddha, Swayambhu Jyotirupa or ‘Self-manifesting Jewel of Light’. The prism shone in five colours—white, blue, yellow, red and green—representing the quintessence of the five tatagathas or Transcendent Buddhas: Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Vairochana, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi.
Yet more time passed until the third Buddha, Vishvabhu (or Vessabhu), came with his disciples and, standing on the summit of Pulchowki, at 2755m the highest point in the Kathmandu Valley today, he not only worshipped the sacred flame but confirmed the imminent coming of Manjushri.
At that very time, Manjushri, meditating on Mount Wutai (Wu-tai-shan), currently in Shanxi Province and one of China’s Four Sacred Mountains, saw the manifestation of the Adi Buddha and the Self-manifesting Jewel of Light far away across the Himalayas. A more geographically plausible version of the story has him already resting on Mahamandap Hill to the east of Bhaktapur. Whichever version you believe, Manjushri went to see the marvel for himself, assuming the guise of the vajracharya (tantric master), Manjudeva.
Manjushri is reputed to have then made three circumambulations of the lake, walking on the surface of the water itself; followed by an additional circumambulation on dry land, leaping from mountain top to mountain top—including Nagarjun, Pulchowki and Champadevi—each in a single stride, before going to stand on the crest of what is now known as Swayambhu Hill or Sengu Hill to pray to the sacred flame. .
Let’s pause here and compare this with the geological facts. The story seems miraculous but the altitude of Sengu Hill is given in most sources as 1414m ASL, meaning that it could conceivably have been slightly protruding above the surface of the great lake (the mean altitude of which, as stated above, was an estimated 1400m ASL).
Whatever the case, and whether the Self-manifesting Jewel of Light was already resting on Sengu Hill or whether Manjushri plucked it out of the water and placed it there, the bodhisattva decided that he must find a way to enable all of mankind to come and worship this primordial flame. His mega plan involved draining the lake: to achieve this he created four gorges with mighty blows of his swords at, again in modern-day parlance and from north to south, Gokarna, Ghaurighat, Chobar, and Katuwal Daha. All of these places link exactly with the geological facts given above: Chobar, the location of the first channel in the limestone which started to drain the lake; Gokarna and Ghaurighat (Pashupati) the sites of two of the three smaller lakes which resulted after the main lake started to drain; Katuwal Daha, the site where the proto-Bagmati River was dammed when the tectonic plates started to shift then tilt. Only Kitini (Godawari), the location of the third small lake, seemingly has no role to play in the Manjushri legend.
Most people are familiar with only one of Manjushri’s four gorges, Chobar Gorge, situated in Kirtipur District and possibly semantically derived from kot-bar, or ‘sword cut’ In the vicinity today are two Manjushri Parks. One is at the gorge itself, where a trail leads as near to the gorge as it safe to go, enabling visitors to clearly visualize how the water had gushed through to drain the Valley, while the other is at some little distance away and boasts an impressive statue of Manjushri positioned in a rather drab and unkempt garden. A small entrance fee is charged for both parks.
The most northerly of the gorges, Gokarna Gorge, is situated just below the famous Gokarneshwor Mandir, most closely associated with Father’s Day or Gokarna Aunsi, whilst a little lower down on the Bagmati River the second gorge runs from Ghaurighat through to Aryaghat at Pashupatinath itself.
The lowest gorge—and reputedly the first to be created by Manjushri—is at Katuwal Daha, several kilometers off-road from Dakshinkali and visited by only the most passionate followers of the Manjushri legend. (Katuwal is yet another candidate for being semantically derived from kot-bar/sword cut. Although it can be clearly seen that here the Bagmati River finally leaves the Valley and enters the mountains ready to push its way down to India and become a left bank tributary of the Ganges, the site, with its suspension bridge crossable only on foot or by bike, has sadly become a favorite with junkies. Although there are religious shrines at the location, they are all connected with other stories and gods, none with Manjushri.
One episode inevitably follows on from the draining of the lake: the fate of the nagas who were living there. Realizing that their abode was being destroyed, they approached Manjushri who explained to them that although he wished them no harm, the lake had to be drained for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the knowledge that the presence of the nagas was beneficial for the future of the Valley, he implored them not to leave, offering them new homes in ponds—‘daha’—he would create: Taudaha and Nagdaha. He assured the nagas that people would come and pay homage to them in these ponds for aeons to come. That, as they say, is another story, as is Manjushri’s erotic yet esoteric encounter with the goddess Guhyeshwari, which also involved him using his vajra (Diamond Thunderbolt)—perhaps commemorated in the mammoth vajra which pilgrims see today as they mount the long flight of steps up to Swayambunath—to subdue a powerful whirlpool which was beginning to form as the waters subsided.
After that, Manjushri took his beloved disciple, Shantikar or Shantashri Acharya, to a cave on Sengu Hill, passing on to him the teachings he had himself received from Guhyeshwari, making him the first Vajra master of the Valley. He, in turn, then initiated others into the rituals under a vow of strictest secrecy, thus establishing a lineage of vajracharya in the Kathmandu Valley. It is believed by the faithful that, in the form of either a rainbow body or an image of Chakrasamvara—a wrathful deity—Shantashri Acharaya still inhabits the caves deep inside the Shantipur Temple on the north side of Sengu Hill, which connect with the chorten’s sacred inner core.
Of course the name ‘Kathmandu’ still had not emerged in those far off days. After the waters of the lake had completely drained, leaving behind immensely fertile land, Manjushri’s disciples flocked to live in such an auspicious place, resulting in the bodhisattva founding a city or citadel—or possibly a great vihara or monastery—for them. Some say it was at the confluence of two holy rivers—the Bagmati and the Vishnumati—where Teku is today; others that it was in the vicinity of Balaju, and thus right at the foot of Sengu Hill. Either way, it was supposedly constructed in the shape of the sword with which he had cleft the mountains to create the four gorges.
Manjushri named the place he had founded Manju Pattana (‘Pleasing or Beautiful City’) and enthroned one of his devotees, Dharmakara, as king. He is then accredited with teaching the people all the basics of civilization: farming and animal husbandry; culture and religious rituals; respect for the spirits of the forest so they could be propitiated before felling trees for timber; carpentry and the art of wood carving; and the use of red clay from the Valley floor to form and bake bricks with which to build simple yet strong dwellings. According to legend, he even instructed them in how to make roof tiles that resembled the scales of a naga; how to place dragon heads at the roof corners; and how to adorn the cornices with fabulous beasts, all for the sake of immortalizing the fact that the Valley had emerged from a primordial lake. And last but definitely not least, he instructed the people in the art of metallurgy: gold, silver and bronze.
One can only assume that ascribing all this to Manjushri is a way of accounting, through myth, for the burgeoning of the new and rich culture which historically emerged here, especially the religious culture, in which temples were adorned with elaborately carved friezes of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, while the exquisite images of the gods themselves were cast in gleaming bronze.
After completing his mammoth tasks of creating the Valley, peopling it with his devotees and equipping them with the skills needed to establish a great civilization, Manjushri was finally ready to return to his abode in Wu-tai-shan, but only after enshrining an image of himself on the western side of Sengu Hill, specifically known to this day as Manjushri Hill.
He left behind him a blessed realm that in future centuries attracted the deities of the Himalayas to come and dwell awhile among its inhabitants as well as renowned tantric masters like Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) who encountered his future consort, Shakyadevi, at Swayambhu.
‘Om ah ra pa tsa na dhi’: ‘Amidst the chaos, everything is pure by nature’ is Manjushri’s potent mantra. One can only wonder what Manjushri would make of the current state of chaos in the Kathmandu Valley were he to return today, and if he would still be able to identify its inherent pure soul.
All photos by the author except the google earth photo.