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A victim of the Mahabharatta


DESMOND DOIG


In the heart of Kathmandu, where streets old and new meet in a small square known as Indra Chowk, is a temple of uncertain date dedicated to Akash Bhairab, or the Bhairab of the sky. The present structure, but for its powerful embellishments, is much like an old Nepali house; tiled, two storeyed, with a row of shops on the ground floor. The square is a meeting place for just about everybody, from Kathmandu, the surrounding valley and the distant mountains, and well-known to visitors from India who pass it in their perambulations between the modern shops and supermarket and the small but enticing shops in the old Asan bazaar where Tibetan traders sell goodies from Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Until recently, the two handsome metal lions on either side of the entrance door used to provide convenient display for a fruit vendor who innocently hung bunches of bananas from the gaping jaws or tied a shading umbrella to the mane or tail. She has been tidied up and in the effort has deprived tourists of a splendid photograph. But rickshaws and thelas, happy porters from the hills and tentative pavement shops that bloom between the coming and going of policemen, lend a busy charm to Indra Chowk. Within reach are a shimmering bead market, shops selling pashmina shawls of every quality, fruit and flower vendors, and flute men. These unsung musicians, some of them quite brilliant, stand under trees made of flutes stuck into bamboo poles enticing passers-by with the latest Hindi film song or the most popular tunes of Radio Nepal.

The actual shrine is on the first floor, at its centre a large silver mask of God Bhairab stained with the vermilion and yellow of endless anointing. Always there are flowers and usually the much beloved marigold. The eyes of the god are turned upward giving emphasis to the incredible story connected with the deity.
It is told that the first Kirati king, a great warrior by the name of Yalambar, was anxious to take part in the epic war of the Mahabharata then being fought on the plains of India. He went suitably attired in the armour of the times and upon his face wore a dazzling silver mask representing Bhairab, Lord of Terror. And with him went a seemingly invincible horde of Nepali warriors. One can imagine his appearance on the battlefield; a mighty figure at the head of a terrifying army even among the warring gods and epic mortals about him. Indeed, so powerful was his presence that Lord Krishna appeared before him to ask whose side the king and his army had come to join. Yalambar grandly said that he would ally himself to the losing forces. Whereupon, Krishna fearing that Yalambar would join the Kauravas, decapitated the king with a blow so powerful that his masked head flew across the lower ranges of the Himalaya to come to rest in Kathmandu.
There is another version of this story which has the beheaded Yalambar beg of Krishna that his eyes be permitted to view the battle until its end. Many versions of the ancient books, the Puranas, record that this heroic request was granted and only when the war ceased did Yalambar's head return to Kathmandu. The existing temple in the old bazaar fails in its humble way to match so stupendous an act, so immortal a deed. True, the windows through which the image can be glimpsed are beautifully carved and four large gilded gryphons, outside the windows, appear to be hurling themselves into the sky. There are rows of prayer lamps along the balcony of the first floor and the fa?ade is tricked out with a variety of porcelain tiles, which at a glance appear incongruous but grow on one so that it is difficult to imagine the temple, placed as it is at the meeting place of old and new Kathmandu to be any different.

Once a year at the time of the Kumari Jatra which coincides with Indra Jatra, the great silver mask of the Akash Bhairab is enthroned in the square below the temple. Thousands come to worship and feed the god so that his silver face almost disappears beneath countless garlands and bouquets and votive offerings.
Aptly, the mask of the Akash Bhairab has been adopted as the symbol of Nepal's flag carrier Royal Nepal Airlines. And I like to think that the god is pleased that his epic journey is commemorated every day by the Kathmandu-Delhi Kathmandu flight.

(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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