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The gorge of the flaming sword



In the high wall of the Kathmandu Valley, at a place called Chobar, is the gorge of legend. For here, when gods walked the earth and miracles were commonplace, the Mongolian saint Manjushri cut the mountainside with his flamingsword to drain a lake that filled the valley. His two wives, who he sat atop nearby summits, watched the awesome feat, matched only perhaps by the dividing of the waters of the Red Sea by Moses. Manjushri\'s motive was to reach and worship a lotus of incomparable beauty that floated upon the lake. Perhaps he also realised the rich potential of the valley that would result, for legend has him leaving his followers behind to found a city called Manjupatan.

That would be the end of the fable except that, like all fables it varies at every telling and is still in the process of being spun. So it was not Manjushri but Krishna who made the gorge by striking at the mountain with a thunderbolt. The thunderbolt assumed the shape of Ganesh, and is there below the gorge today, enshrined in a golden roofed temple, a strangely-shapeless deity, and yet distinctly a Ganesh without a trunk. Fable comes forward immediately to explain, that before the temple was built, an innocent farmer while harvesting his corn, sliced off the trunk of the sleeping Ganesh.

There was a long time not long ago when it was Kathmandu\'s favourite picnic spot. Stood under tall old trees above the river that thundered through the narrow fault, there was the whole Kathmandu valley spread out below one, a bowl of emerald or gold or tawny green according to the season, and beyond the misted city with its gilded spires and pagoda roofs, the high steps of mountain ridges reaching to the snows. A wondrous sight one never tired of seeing. On the Kathmandu side of the hill were the loveliest rocks that may have been fashioned by a Japanese craftsman. Indeed the entire area, with its trees and shrubs gnarled and shaped by the winds that buffet the gorge, could have been designed by a Japanese master gardener. One spread one\'s picnic among the rocks and having fed, lay back to watch the changing light transform the valley and the towering snow summits with fleering designs and colours: a temple roof vying briefly with a snow pyramid, the river Bagmati running silver though a purple landscape while the snows turned to gold.

Now a cement factory below the gorge is greedily eating the hill of fable. The beautiful rocks have been chewed to gravel. Many of the lovely trees have gone and often a pall of smoke or dust or both hangs over the area. One does not a picnic anymore, but there is still the fantastic gorge to explore, narrow as a knife cut and as deep as the thrust of a powerful blade. Carved into its rocky walls, which themselves are masterpieces of natural sculpture, are numerous caves which legend has leading to a temple on top of the hill, to the city of Kirtipur, to the great Buddhist stupa of Swayambhunath which grew where the lotus settled, and to Tibet. I once happened upon a Nepali Brahmin sat beside a cave, which he assured me was full of treasure. He had seen it himself, piled about a pool deep inside the hill. He was prepared to share his discovery with me but observed that it was getting dark and he had no torch or tapers to light the way. But if I came during the day he would gladly conduct me inside.

Everyone knew him. I had only to ask for Bhagwan. Somehow, the lure of treasure and the sight of a sacred pool, lost its appeal in the fetid smell of bats that behind from the dark cave with a regularity, that suggested an air conditioning plant somewhere deep down inside.

A geologist friend explained that the Kathmandu valley was indeed once a lake: he used all the arguments of rock formations, types of soil, glacial traces and erosion that he emphasised with jargon to make impressive sense. The levels of its surface had been traced and the long process of its draining away recorded. He agreed that there were places more apparently vulnerable than Chobar, where centuries of erosion could have breached the valley wall, but obviously Chobar was at fault. We laughed at the pun. But far more acceptable to generations of the superstitious and devout, are the stones of divine intervention, and what followed. When the waters of the Take receded, there were thousands of angry serpents left high and dry, the king and queen of the Nagas among them. I hey sought refuge in a small lake called Taudaha that formed below the Chobar gorge, and some believe they are still there. More fascinating is the story that Karkor Nag, the serpent king who had been entrusted with the care of the priceless treasure which the demon Densur had stolen from Indra, the Lord of Heaven, hid it in Taudaha Lake. So powerful was the legend that the first Rana prime minister, lung Bahadur, is said to have had the lake repeatedly dragged in search of this heavenly wealth, but not even a sign of the snakes was found.

Now there\'s the cement factory belching pollution and one wonders how, in a thousand or more wars time, it will be absorbed into legend.
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods,
HarperCollins,1999)


LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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