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The golden mask of the White Bhairab

DESMOND DOIG


One of the most dramatic sights in Kathmandu, heightened by the fact that it is revealed only once a year and then only for a few days is the great golden mask of Seto Bhairab, in the Durbar Square. For those who remember J. Milton Hayes' poem, the Green Eye of the Yellow God, thought by many to be vintage Kipling, this vast and pleasantly terrifying Bhairab is the kind of image the mind associates with the frivolous whim of a colonel's daughter and the irreverent exploits of Mad Carew. Commissioned in 1769 by King Rana Bahadur Shah, a great builder who in anguish caused more temples to be destroyed than he had built, its purpose apparently is to protect the old palace by warding off evil influences. Normally the mask can barely be glimpsed behind a carved wooden screen. But during the days of Indra Jatra and the coinciding festival of the Living Goddess, it is open to public view, its golden crown of serpents, skulls and rock-sized jewels half hidden by floral and paper decoration: the petrified smile on its golden face heightened by black, red and white paint: awesomely colossal: too magnificent to be terrifying, though its white teeth suggest sacrificial hunger and its angry eyes were designed to strike fear into evil hearts.

Young boys sit beside the scarlet mouth as if tempting providence, collecting offerings and giving prasad in return. Crowds form and disperse. Individuals or families perform elaborate pujas before the god. Tourists visibly stunned by so incredible a sight go wild with still and movie cameras. The best is yet to come.
After being drawn through the streets of Kathmandu on her gilded rath, the Living Goddess, attended by her young escorts Bhairab and Ganesh, pauses before the great mask of the Seto Bhairab. Crowds by now are so dense it seems the Kumari's chariot will never move again. It is one of those fantastic sights that wears an aura of disbelief. The old palace on two sides, its temple towers filled with scarlet cloth, the scarlet Hanuman under his ceremonial umbrella beside a golden gate framed by statuary, stout palace pillars carved with green, writhing snakes; soldiers in old uniforms, clouds of incense, showers of flowers and coins on the three raths, the great grimacing mask of Bhairab reflecting the flames of votive lamps, and temples crowding the other side, among them a golden statue of a Malla king and his four sons on a stone pedestal.

The Kumari, her forehead painted red and gold, her eyes accentuated with kajal, crowned elaborately and dressed in cloth of gold and scarlet silk, sits serenely on a gilded throne, glancing with ill concealed interest at the dwarfing mask beside her rath. Basketfuls of prasad are dumped about her. Then a shout goes up as the ropes go taut and the chariots roll.

The Seto Bhairab is now the sole focus of attention as from a tube protruding from his mouth, blessed rice beer begins to flow. The crowd scrambles, shoves, vaults each others' backs, is held up briefly by helping hands, to get a mouthful of the sanctified liquor. Some are expert at taking long swigs without seeming to swallow. Others are liberally drenched. All hope that they will catch the live fish tiny enough to pass through the tube, that has been placed in the barrel of liquor behind the mask. It portends great luck, but though I have waited long to watch the scramble, night darkening all but the lamp-lit mask, I have yet to see the fish caught.

Hundreds of Bhairab masks are exposed during Indra Jatra. A favourite legend has a great Nepali king of old, Yalambar, journey to India to witness the epic battle of the Mahabharata He went disguised as Shiva in his terrifying Bhairab form, wearing a silver mask. When Yalambar and Krishna met on the battlefield, the god of love asked the Nepali king on which side he intended to fight. Yalambar replied that he would join the losing side, whereupon Krishna, fearing that such a move might turn the battle, swept off Yalambar's head with such force that it soared through the air and landed in the Kathmandu valley. It is exposed to this day, a handsome silver mask, known as the Akash Bhairab. It too is honoured by a visit from the Living Goddess. The countless other Bhairab heads exposed throughout the valley have as many tales attached to them that explain the reason for the god's decapitation. I have found none that explain how the handsome Seto Bhairab lost his body.


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


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