“There are nearly as many temples as houses, and as many idols as inhabitants.” These were the words used by British emissary Colonel William Kirkpatrick in 1811 to describe Kathmandu Valley in his 'An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul'. In those days, some other travelers/academics had even stated that, in Kathmandu, there were more shrines per square kilometer than anywhere else around the globe. Does this statement stand true today? How many shrines are there in Kathmandu Valley, exactly? Interesting questions, one would think, and pretty difficult to answer. One source has conjectured the valley as having 2500 shrines and temples. Well, it’s one number: how near the mark it is, or how ridiculously far from reality, is something for the more curious to dig out. For now, let’s talk about one place in the valley, Panauti, where we have a fairly accurate idea about the number of temples located in it.
Situated about 32 km southeast from Kathmandu, Panauti is the fourth most important heritage town in the country after Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. It is one of three municipalities in Kavrepalanchok district, the other two being Banepa and Dhulikhel. Panauti is believed to stand on one massive rock, which is the reason that no earthquake till date has been able to inflict any damage on the town. How solid is this fact is another mystery to be discovered by the more curious. Anyway, coming to the number of temples in this earthquake-proof town, the number is a little more than forty. Now, you have to look at it in the correct perspective: the town is only one kilometer long, so it’s a large number, you’ll agree.
A 15-minute walk on an uphill track to the north east of the town takes you to Gorakhnath Hill (2000 ft), from where you’ll notice the peculiar fish-like shape of this small town, which is not even a kilometer in length from east to west. You’ll also observe the profusion of pagoda-style temples. Two rivers, the Roshi and Punyamati, flow from west to east and converge at the town’s eastern end, that is, at Triveni Ghat, which has a score and more temples dedicated to various gods and goddesses, including Badrinath, Kedarnath, Bishwanath, Tulsinath, Mukteshwor, Shiva Narayan, Madhav Narayan, Brahmayani, Saraswoti, Krishna, and Ram, Sita, and Laxman.
One of the more eye catching temples (a classic example of Newari craftsmanship) is the three-tiered Indreshowr Mahadev Temple, which stands in the center of a large brick-paved courtyard. Its elaborately carved wooden windows, doors, struts, and beams are testimony to the skills of the valley’s Newari artisans, and these are also very much evident in the other temples located in the same courtyard, that is, Unmata Bhairav, Krishna, and Ahilya Temples. Across the Punyamati River are still more temples, two of which, Brahmayani and Krishna Narayan, are especially noteworthy.
Indeed, Colonel William Kirkpatrick could well have been describing Panauti when he wrote, “There are nearly as many temples as houses, and as many idols as inhabitants.” Made of terracotta, the pagoda-style temples have gilded roofs and lots of beautiful wood carvings. The courtyards around the temples are generally spacious. Aside from the Hindu temples, there are half a dozen Buddhist stupas, three dyo-chens (communal houses with a deity on the top floor), and a bahal (Buddhist shrine). Also scattered around the town are a number of patis (public resting places), dabalis (where dramas and dances are held), dhunge dharas (stone water spouts), and chowks (public squares)—all very much in character with a traditional Newari town.
Panauti has a lot going for it as a touristy heritage site, one that has the added charm of being surrounded by lots and lots of green paddy fields. It also has its fair share of historical glory. One such glory is yo-mari, a delectable ethnic Newari delicacy made once a year during a festival called Yomari Punhi. Made from a mixture of treacle and sesame seed wrapped in stupa-shaped rice dough, yo-mari was the result of an experiment with a fresh yield of rice by a local married couple many, many, years ago. Everyone in the village loved it and they named it yo-mari (tasty bread), which went on to become a valuable addition to Newari cuisine and culture.
Panauti is also the birth place of King Ansuverma, the greatest of the Licchavi rulers, as also of Prince Mahasatwo, who became a saint due to his great deed of supreme sacrifice in feeding a starving tigress and her cubs with his own flesh in the nearby jungle of Namobuddha. It is now one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country, and there’s a stone slab in which is etched the story of the prince and the tigress. While we are on legends, it must be mentioned here that, besides the Roshi and Punyamati Rivers, it is said that there is another, the Lilawati, which flows into the above rivers. However, it is not visible to ordinary folk, rather, you got to be among the awakened to be able to see it!
Well, reading all this, your curiosity must surely have piqued somewhat, and you’ll certainly want to visit this fascinating town. A town that has a lot of beautiful temples, and naturally, it must follow that there has to be a lot of festivals, too! Twenty-eight, to be exact; that’s right, there are 28 major festivals celebrated every year, of which many are the same as those celebrated throughout the country. Some are, however, unique to Panauti, and these include:
Jya Punhi (Panauti Jatra): Held in May-June, this boisterous festival is a three-day post-harvest festival, during which chariots bearing various deity figures are taken around the town, starting from the durbar square, and on the third day, the chariots are banged against each other. Lots of action, lots of spectators, lots of revelry, and perhaps, lots of inebriated chariot bearers!
Makar Mela: Held once every 12 years at Triveni Ghat, this month-long festival is well attended by tens of thousands of pilgrims from near and far who come to attain atonement for sins committed by talking a dip in the holy rivers.
Yomari Punhi: Held in December every year (this year, Dec 6) to celebrate Panauti’s great creation, the yo-mari, as also to thank Goddess Annapurna, the goddess of grains, for a fine harvest.
Namobuddha festival: Held to commemorate the great sacrifice of the noble Prince Mahasatwo.
Devi Nach (masked dance): Held on the same day as the great festival of Indra Jatra in Kathmandu, this famous masked dance is said to have its origins in Panauti. During this vigorous dance, deities, demons, animals, etc. are depicted through colorful masks.
That’s it then, you now know a lot about one town in the Kathmandu valley; you know how many temples there are in this town, which was our starting premise, if you remember, for this article. You’ll appreciate this knowledge all the more when you realize that it is next to impossible to keep count of temples and shrines in other comparable towns in the ‘Valley of the Gods’!