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When a goddess played dice


DESMOND DOIG


The temple is the most majestic in all of Kathmandu. Its legends are the most romantic. When it was built in 1576, at the command of a king, it was required to be seen from the old city of Bhaktapur, some ten miles away, from where the resident goddess was brought. No other building was permitted to rise higher than its gilded roofs and golden finial. To attain its imposing height, it was raised on several receding brick plinths. The plinths alone would rival an Aztec temple and the mind boggles to think of how they were made, of how many people laboured to construct them, of the enormity of faith or discipline that inspired the builders.

Several small pagoda-style temples, housing the guardians of the eight directions and the Panchayan gods, are set symmetrically upon the plinths. They supplement, rather than detract from the soaring magnificence of the temple itself. A paved courtyard away is the old palace, its roofs pierced by many fine temple spires and pavilions, but the temple of Teleju surpasses them all as if proudly conscious that it enshrines the royal goddess.

Teleju Bhawani is a goddess from South India who well may feel far from home were it not for the great devotion lavished on her here. She was brought to Nepal in the early fourteenth century by Harisingha Deva, a Karnatak king who ruled over the small kingdom of Simroanghar in the foothills of present-day Nepal. When Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlak, who had marched on Bengal to suppress a rebellion, was returning triumphantly home to Delhi, he laid seige to Simroanghar. The royal family, the court and presumably the defeated army, fled northwards into Nepal. Here historical opinion is divided. Either the Malla king, then resident in Bhaktapur, fled before this unintended invasion and abandoned his kingdom to Harisingha Deva, who established a Karnatak dynasty in the Kathmandu Valley; or Harisingha Deva was hospitably received as a royal refugee by the Malla king and given the freedom of the Valley for as long as he cared to stay. His influence on the political and cultural scene was nevertheless great. It is believed by many to this day that the highly talented people of the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars, derived their name from the Naya who accompanied the Karnatak king, and remained to intermarry with the local people. One of the greatest Malla kings was of mixed Malla and Karnatak descent.

As soon as Ghiyas-Ud-din Tughlak tired of besieging Simroanghar and marched away, King Harisingha Deva returned home. He left behind him his son, who was to rule the Valley, several members of his court, and the precious gift of Teleju Bhawani. The goddess came to be greatly venerated by the kings of Nepal. The magnificent Teleju temple was built to enshrine her and here only royalty may worship except at Dussehra when the public is permitted to enter, to pray and make sacrifices.

Legend takes over. Some two hundred years ago a young Newari girl found wandering outside the palace claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Teleju Bhawani. When the news was brought to him, the king, thinking her to be an evil imposter, had her banished from the kingdom. Within hours, one of his queens suffered not only convulsions but delusions that she too was possessed by the spirit of the goddess. The worried king had a search made for the girl and finding her declared her to be the Living Goddess Kumari. The queen was immediately cured. A more colourful story has Jaya Prakash Malla, the very same king, playing dice with the goddess Teleju, who appeared to him as a beautiful mortal after his devotions. While they played, she advised him on affairs of state, a happy and helpful situation that would have continued had not the king one night looked lustfully upon the goddess. In great wrath she announced she would never come to him again. Worse, she predicted that both the end of his reign and the fall of his dynasty were at hand. When the king begged humbly for forgiveness, the goddess made a strange concession. The king was to select a virgin child from a Newari caste, proclaim her the Living Goddess Kumari, and worship her, for in this child she herself would manifest.

A third, more human story, has the goddess Teleju playing dice with King Jaya Prakash Malla as before, but herself succumbing to a very ungodly failing. One of the queens, growing suspicious of her husband's nightly disappearances followed him to his rendezvous where the goddess saw her peeping from behind a curtain. Mistaking the queen's curiosity for a betrayal of the king's vow never to tell anyone of their meeting, the goddess immediately vanished. Appearing to him in a dream that night she informed the king that she would never return, but he would find her if he searched, in the guise of a virgin child of the Sakya class.

Whatever the legend, the consequence is the same. A desolate and repentant king at once ordered a search for a suitable child. When she was discovered with the help of his advisers and priests, King Jaya Prakash Malla had a fine dwelling built for her close to his palace and within sight of the temple to Teleju.

There she was installed with great ceremony and jubilation and the king instituted a yearly jatra in her honour. Perhaps, in the midst of all this joyful activity he forgot something very important. The goddess Teleju Bhawani's prophecy; the loss of his kingdom and the fall of his dynasty.


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


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