Sunday, 5 December, 2021

The Bhairavs Of Kathmandu

Aashish Mishra

A majority of Nepalis are Hindus. Perhaps this is why foreigners and even some Nepalis put us in the same category as Indians. But this is unfair because while we do share a lot of religious similarities, we also have a few distinctions that are unique to Nepali Hinduism. For example, the concept of Kumar, Ganesh, Bhairav and Kumari as living gods does not exist anywhere outside Nepal. Another example is Bhimsen, who, in India, is first and foremost remembered as one of the Pandavs while in Nepal, he is primarily the god of trade and the patron god of merchants. Bhairav too is not just worshipped as the fierce form of Shiva but also a host of other things by Nepalis.
For instance, the Kal Bhairav near the old royal palace at Hanumandhoka is worshipped as the god of court. Kal Bhairav is believed to be highly intolerant of lies and deceit and hence, for a long time, people accused of crimes and dishonesty were brought in front of its 12-foot-high idol and told to confess or deny their deeds. If they spoke the truth, nothing would happen; but if they lied, they would get violently ill or even die. In the Malla and early Shah period, civil servants were also made to take their oaths in front of Kal Bhairav, swearing that they would not cheat, steal or accept bribes.
The priests of Pashupatinath Temple were required to take a similar oath in front of the idol of Unmatta Bhairav.
Similarly, the Akash Bhairav in Indra Chowk is considered the protector of the sky. That is why its image is featured on the planes and the logo of the Nepal Airlines Corporation. It also has pre-Hinduism links in that it is believed to be the head of the Kirant King Yalambar. But, Yalambar again is an important person for Hindus as he is taken to be Barbarika of Mahabharat.
Akash Bhairav perfectly encapsulates the multidimensional synchronisation of Nepali Hinduism. A Shaivite deity representing a mortal pre-Hindu king who, at the same time, plays an important role in one of the greatest Hindu epics. Such fusion of different cultures is rarely found in any other form of Hinduism and any other religion in the world.
Bhairav also links Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal. Rato Machhindranath, worshipped both by Hindus and Buddhists, travels around the city of Lalitpur every year on a chariot whose wheels are taken to be four different forms of Bhairav – Kundi Bhairav, Tika Bhairav, Lubhu and Harisiddhi Bhairav. The mask on the long wooden beam used to steer the chariot represents the Hayagriva Bhairav of Bungamati.
In Lalitpur, people worship the child form of Bhairav – the Batuk Bhairav. Likewise, as mentioned above, Bhairav is also one of the living gods of Nepal and just like Kumari, is present in human form in Kathmandu. And just like Kumari, the worldly representation of Bhairav is selected from the Buddhist Shakya community to serve as a Hindu lord; further emphasising the key role Bhairav plays in developing and maintaining the unique harmony we see in Nepal.
All across the Kathmandu Valley, there are numerous temples, shrines and spaces dedicated to different manifestations of Bhairav, believed to carry out different functions. But Bhairav is just one of the many unique gods and goddesses we have in Nepal. We Nepalis have a unique flavour of Hinduism that incorporates aspects of animism, Shamanism, Kirant, Buddhism and many other cultures and religions that existed and continue to exist in the country. Nepali Hinduism is inclusive in a way that other faiths of the world are not. Our religion is not binary and accepts that there can be multiple ways to look at the same thing à la the Bhairavs of Kathmandu.