Picturesque Nepal/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Black and white photograph of two statues of mounted elephants on plinths either side of a narrow set of steps. A building with ornate arches and columns fills the background.





Situation—Its Isolation—Legend of the Foundation of Nepal—The Valley of Nepal.

Nepal is an Independent State wedged in between India and Tibet, and occupies a parallelogram 450 miles long and 150 miles wide, running almost east and west. Clinging on the north to the Himalayas at their highest point, it slopes down at the south into the flat rice fields of Hindustan. In its small width of 150 miles it can boast of such diverse conditions as the eternal snows of Mount Everest and the hot languid temperature of the plains of India. On the eastern border is the State of Sikkim with its high road into Tibet, and within a few short miles is the populous European station of Darjeeling, the summer capital of the Bengal Government. Its western limit is in close proximity to the hill-station of Naini Tal, the seat of the United Provinces Government in the hot months of the year. Between these two centres of European influence with their offices and clubs, theatres and secretariats, rinks and regattas, and everything that is associated with English life, stretch the 60,000 square miles of Nepalese territory, in the greater part of which the foot of white man has never trod. This unexplored condition is mainly due to two causes. The first is that a considerable portion of the country is composed of inaccessible mountains, but the second and principal reason is that Nepal is the most independent of Independent States.

Here it may be necessary to define an "Independent" or, as it is sometimes called, a "Native" State of India. Briefly it is a foreign territory in the midst of the King's dominions. In the administration of its internal affairs the British Government, as a rule, is bound not to interfere. No British police serve within its confines, nor is it garrisoned by British troops. British supervision is represented by a single political officer, whose moral influence is the slender thread that ties the State to the protecting British Power. Approximately one-third of the Indian Empire — included in India but excluded from the title of "British India" — is composed of territories coming under the head of "Independent States." Some of the largest and most important of these are Hyderabad, Kashmir, and Mysore, and, to give an idea of their size, Mysore State alone is greater in area than Greece. Nepal, regarded broadly, is of the size of England and Scotland combined, but its population, being about five and a half million, is thus only one-seventh of that of Great Britain.

It will be seen that one important condition of its independence permits the State of Nepal to manage its own internal affairs, and a feature of the State policy has been the strict preservation of this "splendid isolation." Poised on the natural bastions of the Himalayas, entered only by a few tortuous mountain passes, which could be, and have been, rendered impregnable by a handful of guerillas, it is not surprising that Nepal can lay claim to being a State which has been least affected in all India by modern Europeanization. By this it must not be understood that Nepal has not taken advantage of the many improvements that an enlightened age has demonstrated as being beneficial. Its excellent system of water-supply, and the resultant decrease of the cholera scourge, is only one of a number of well-conceived schemes which a progressive administration has carried out for the welfare of its people. But this aspect of the country, however interesting, is outside the sphere of a work which proposes to deal mainly with its artistic and picturesque features.

The foregoing brief sketch of the country endeavours to depict Nepal as a great corrugation of mountain ranges, with a narrow strip of cultivated land where these mountains slope down to the plains. This represents a general bird's-eye view of the State, but if it were possible to actually regard it from this imaginary height, in the confusing array of mountains one comparatively small oval space, almost in the centre, would at once arrest the vision. This is what is known as the Valley of Nepal. The one flat place in the whole of the tossed and tumbled configuration, like a green oasis in the midst of a rolling waste of mountains, this verdant piece of land typifies the very heart and soul of the country. Here is situated the life and activity of the State, almost what might be called the kingdom itself, for round it on all sides is but the wildest and most inaccessible region in the whole range of the Himalayas.

The origin of this striking formation in the midst of the mountains is the subject of several legends, but the one describing four divine visitations, as related in the Swayambhu Purana, is the most popular of these traditions. In substance this is as follows: That formerly the Valley of Nepal was of circular form, full of very deep water, and that the mountains confining it were clothed with the densest forests, giving shelter to numberless birds and beasts. Countless waterfowl rejoiced in the waters. The name of the lake was Naga Vasa; it was as beautiful as the lake of Indra. In the lake were many sorts of water-plants, but not the lotus. After a time, Vipasyi Buddha arrived, with very many disciples, at the lake of Naga Vasa, in the course of his customary peregrinations. Vipasyi, having thrice circumambulated the lake, seated himself at the north-west side of it, and having repeated several mantras over the root of a lotus, he threw it into the water, exclaiming, "What time this root shall produce a flower, then, from out of the flower, Swayambhu, the Lord of Agnishtha Bhuvana, shall be revealed in the form of flame; and then shall the lake become a cultivated and populous country." Having repeated these words, Vipasyi departed. Long after the date of this prophecy it was fulfilled according to the letter.

The legend then goes on to state that after Vipasyi came Sikhi Buddha with a company of followers. He walked thrice round the Naga Vasa, and, having done so, thus addressed his disciples: "This place shall hereafter, by the blessing of Swayambhu, become a delightful abode to those who shall resort to it from all quarters to dwell in it, and a sweet place of sojourn for the pilgrim and passenger: my apotheosis is near at hand, do you all take your leave of me and depart to your own country." So saying, Sikhi threw himself into the waters of Naga Vasa, grasping in his hands the stalk of the lotus, and his soul was absorbed into the essence of Swayambhu, i.e. the self-existent.

The third Buddha to visit the lake of Naga Vasa was Viswabhu, and his pilgrimage to this attractive spot seems to have been made a considerable time after that of Sikhi Buddha. Viswabhu is reported to have observed: "In this lake Prajna-surupa-Guhyeswari (literally 'Creation') will be produced. A Bodhisatwa will, in time, make her manifest out of the waters: and this place, through the blessing of Swayambhu, will become replete with villages, and tirthas, and inhabitants of various and diverse tribes." Having thus prophesied, he thrice circumambulated the lake, and returned to his native country. The Bodhisatwa above alluded to was Manju Sri, whose name is revered all over Nepal as the original founder of the country. After the coming of Viswabhu Buddha to Naga Vasa, Manju Sri, whose native place is very far off towards the north, meditating upon what was passing in the world, discovered by means of his divine science that Swayambhu the self-existent, in the form of flame, was revealed out of a lotus in the lake of Naga Vasa. Again he reflected within himself: "Let me behold that sacred spot, and my name will long be celebrated in the world"; and on the instant, collecting together his disciples, comprising a multitude of the peasantry of the land, and a Raja named Dharmakar, he set out upon the long journey to Naga Vasa. There having arrived, he began to circumambulate the lake, beseeching all the while the aid of Swayambhu in prayer. In the second circuit, when he had reached the central barrier of mountains to the south, he became satisfied that that was the best place whereat to draw off the waters of the lake. Immediately he struck the mountain with his scimitar, when the sundered rock gave passage to the waters, and the bottom of the lake became dry. He then descended from the
Black and white photograph of a mountain range. Half of the image is filled by the side of a mountain in the foreground, slanting down to the right. In the background, further faint mountain slopes can be seen. At the very top of these, at the furthest distance, are white, snow topped mountain peaks.


mountain, and began to walk about the valley in all directions.

So runs the legend, and the cleft in the mountain caused by Manju Sri's sword is called the Kot-bar or “sword-cut” at the present time. It constitutes the pass or channel between the Phulchoah and Champadevi hills, through which the Baghmatti River leaves the valley. This ancient and artistic fancy differs very little from modern scientific fact, for there is little doubt that this part of Nepal was in remote ages a mountain lake, enclosed in the hollow of the same circular range of hills by which the valley is surrounded at the present day. "It is probable that in consequence either of one of those subterranean convulsions common to all mountain districts, or of the gradual but continuous elevation from its bottom, or from both causes combined, the lake burst its boundaries on its southern side, and that a large portion of its waters escaped into the lower hills through the channel which is now the bed of the Baghmatti River. At the present day the continuity of the mountain barrier around the valley is so perfect, that were it possible by any means to block up that one pass through which the Baghmatti river flows towards the plains, not one drop of water could escape by any other channel, and, in the course of time, the accumulation of its pent-up waters would convert the valley again into a lake" (Oldfield).

In fulfilment of the traditional prophecy of Vipasyi Buddha, therefore, the lake has become "cultivated and populous," and the site it occupied is now the vital centre of Nepal. Here, within an area the size of the Isle of Wight—for the valley is but 20 miles long by 15 broad—all the principal interests of the State are concentrated. Here are the seat of the government, the palaces of the king and nobility, the temples and shrines, fishponds and gardens, rivers and burning-ghats, its ancient and modern capitals; here in this small hollow in the Himalayas, 4500 feet above the level of the sea, is all that appertains to the life, constitution, and history of this remarkable country.

Surrounded as it is by mountains, it is an easy task to scale one of the lower ranges,
A black and white photograph of a figure standing on a round base, surrounded by an ornate arch. The right arm raised with palm forward at chest level; the left arm held by its side.


(Height, 23 inches.)

and thus place oneself in a position to see the valley spread out below like a map. Towards the centre of this oval a tall pillar-like erection may be observed from most situations, forming a useful landmark or fixed point by which the principal objects in view may be located. This is the tower of Bhim Sen, known as Bhim Sen's folly, and arises from out of the brown roofs of Katmandu, the modern capital. A number of large white buildings are to be seen intermingled with the more neutral coloured pagodas, and these mark the new palaces and residences of the royalty and aristocracy of the State. The general shape of Katmandu can be defined, which tradition has likened unto a sword, indicating that it is a long narrow city in the rough proportions of a weapon of that nature. Eight miles east of this is Bhatgaon, one of the old seats of the kings, and its round compact shape is not dissimilar to the chakra or “quoit” of Vishnu, the mythical form after which this city is supposed to have been built. A ruddy conglomeration of buildings among the green cultivation about two miles south of Katmandu reveals the ancient capital of Patan, the legendary outline of which is said to follow the peculiar curves of the sankra, or “shell,” another attribute of the same popular divinity. Three shallow streams can also be traced meandering past the towns and through the rice fields. These are the Baghmatti, the Vishnumatti, and the Manchra, which, flowing from north to south, before leaving the valley, unite and pass through a gorge in the south, ultimately joining the Gandak River in the plains of Hindustan. These are the main features of the valley, but many other interesting places are plainly visible from any commanding station in the surrounding hills. The position of some of the more important of these may be noted. About two miles east of Katmandu a conspicuous hill will be observed surmounted by an edifice with a gilt finial which glistens in the sunlight. This is the Buddhist temple of Shambu-Nath, one of the holiest shrines of Nepal. West of the same point and distant about eight miles, a somewhat similar hill and crowning structure marks the Hindu temple of Changu-Narain. The famous burning-ghat at Pashpatti, visible by the pagoda turrets rising out of a wooded knoll, the great watchful eyes of the temple of Bodhnāth, and the garden and fishponds of Balaji, can also be located from most points. Almost every ridge or elevation has its hamlet—at least sixty of these being distributed throughout the valley—while isolated pagodas are to be observed on all the “high places,” each of which marks some consecrated spot associated with the religious history of the country. When it is understood that within this small area there are 2733 shrines, the sanctified character of the Nepal Valley may be more fully realized.