History Through Art

By:Shaguni Singh Sakya

    (History and Heritage writer)

                   The Birth of Kathmandu

By Rajina Sinkhwal, under the guidance of samudra Man Singh Shrestha

             Concept by Shaguni singh Sakya

History is an interpretation of one's own conceived truth. It may be completely true or partially true. But nevertheless, it is the story of "who we are, where we came from, and why we are the way we are.” Has to be told and retold for posterity. Art has always been a powerful medium to convey knowledge of historical significance.

Nepal's history before 3rd century AD does not rely on concrete evidence but was passed down orally and then subject to distortion. However, one of the first written historical records also dates back to 3rd century in the form of an inscription in Changunarayan made by Licchavi King Mandev. But this country's history goes further back. One of our oldest historical documents "The Swayambhu Puran" which records the development of the Kathmandu Valley and the Swaymabhu stupa was orally dictated for centuries. It was only in the 14th century AD that it was written down in Nepal bhasa (Newari). The book was translated to Nepali in 1978 and finally in English back in 2004. The translation is the outcome of 22 years of extensive research by Pandit Hem Raj Shaky, a noted Nepali epigraphist. Then Min Bahadur Shalcya translated it into English. Oral history therefore, has to be acknowledged as they are the only source of our legends and folktales that have been passed down from generation to generation.

This artwork is based on the Swayambhu Puran which explains how Kathmandu Valley was once a holy lake named Nagdaha (the abode of serpents) as it was inhabited by Nagas (serpents). The lake had luminous gas flames and was worshipped as divine. From a scientific point of view, the flames can be explained as methane gas burning in the lake. The brightest flame burned atop Swayambhu hill and was worshipped as the representative of Adi Buddha (the primordial Buddha).

Adi Buddha is the first of the 29 Buddhas, the ones who attained enlightenment, Gautam Buddha being the most recent. It is believed that the third Buddha, Bipaswi planted lotus seeds in the lake and during the period of the fourth Buddha, Biswabhu; Manjushree, a prince from Wu To Shan, China came to Nepal. He conceived the idea that such a divine place should be habitable for humans and encircled the valley three times to research on the best way to drain the lake. He convinced the Nagas to shift to a new lake, Taudaha, which was formed from the draining of the main lake.

Four gorges around the valley were cut - Chobar, Gokarna, Kuruwa and Suryaghat. When the water started receding, a hill with the beacon of the holy flame emerged as if it were self-created and hence named Swayambhu (self-born). A town around the Swayambhu area named Manjupattan was built and Dharmakara, Manjushree's disciple was crowned the first king of Kathmandu. The holy flame was covered some years later with a chaitya (stupa) by King Prachandeva, King of Guada, India to preserve its sanctity and possible destruction by non-believers. The Swayambhu Chaitya is believed to be the oldest stupa in the world.

The painting depicts the main characters who were involved in the formation of the valley - Manjushree, his two wives, Dharmakara,and Nagaraj Karkotaka who agreed to shift the entire Nag population to Taudaha. In honour of the Nap who bestowed us the city we live in today; Kathmandu valley inhabitants celebrate Nag Panchami every year. This festival is celebrated to this day and the existence of Taudaha is an indication that there is some truth behind the legend of Manjushree and how Kathmandu valley was formed.

The painting is a semi- mythical and semi -realistic attempt to describe what we presume the situation to have been like back then. The location is Chobar gorge, the most famous of the four gorges. The characters with Manjushra are depicted in Chinese style clothing as they obviously would be wearing clothes of their home country. Nagaraj Karkotak must have been a fictional character that evolved with the passing of folklore. In reality, the serpents must have simply been washed away along with the water. Their significance arose with the need to worship creatures that were relocated. The burning flame in the distant is the light atop Swayambhu hill.

Nobody is sure how far these legends are based on actual events. Maybe there was just a big earthquake that led to the formation of gorges that drained away the water and humans entered the valley to settle down. But what we can safely say is that Kathmandu was once a vast lake.

"This artwork is based on the Swayambhu Puran which explains how Kathmandu Valley was once a holy lake named Nagdaha (the abode of serpents) as it was inhabited by Nagas (serpents). The lake had luminous gas flames and was worshipped as being divine."