Sunday, February 17, 2002

Buddhist interpretation of Saraswati

Temple of Manjushree

By Razen Manandhar

People, tired of chilly winter long for some fresh winds and warmer sun as the Spring approaches. All over the world, people worship the god of spring in different ways. In Nepal, the fifth day of lunar Magha (17th February this year) is celebrated as Sri Panchami, is the day of Spring festival. On this day, people worship Manjushree and Saraswati, the god and goddess of education, wisdom and intelligence. Among the most visited Saraswati Shrines in the Kathmandu Valley, one lies at the western knoll of the Swayambhu hill, that is known as the shrine of Manjushree.

The temple is in the form of a white-washed Buddhist stupa. Guarded by stones on both front and rear sides, the temple has now fenced with iron bar. On the top of the stupa, there is a metal crown with eyes on four sides and thirteen-circular plates. The whole stupa-temple is covered by an open metal roof (Ilaan or Chanduwa) in the form of a Mandala that is hung over the stupa, which gives the shrine an appearance of a temple.

On the eastern side of the stupa, there is an artistic stone gate. And it has a stone torana which has images of Bagishwar, the form of Manjusri, flanked by Ganesh and Buddha on both of his sides. It is an unique example of the combination of Buddhism and Hinduism in one Torana which is rare among the thousands of Toranas scattered in the Kathmandu Valley.

A stone lotus on a small platform, possesses two relief feet with eyes on them. These two feet are the centre of devotion of thousands of Buddhists and Hindus. The eyes are believed to be of Dharma Shri, a disciple of Manjusri. One day, he neglected Manjushree in a religious gathering as the guru was in filthy dresses. Later, as he bent down to greet the guru, his eyes fell on Manjushree’s feet, as a punishment to the sin he committed.

The legends say that the Manjushree came to the Kathmandu Valley from China thousands of years before the Buddha was born. He worshipped the Swayambhu on a thousand-petaled lotus and drained away the water from the lake and make the valley suitable for human habitation. Another legend states that that Kind Prachanda Dev of Gaud (Bengal) came to Nepal and built the stupa of Swayambhu and Manjushree in the date beyond the history can trace. The shrine is now covered with painted iron roof that also has clumsy fringes around it.

Behind the main stupa there are several small stone stupas, which has also been surrounded by iron bar with praying wheels. A score of small and big idols are pasted on a wall with stone texture.

A recently renovated sattal is there opposite of the temple which is now filled with graffiti. Writing holy name of the Manjusri and Saraswati on the temple wall on the day of Sri Panchami is a popular tradition among the young students that is believed to help people obtain sharp mind.

Due to its legendary origin, the date of the temple’s construction and its original shape is unknown. But the temple in the present form is said to be established in the 17th century. The oldest found inscription shows that the temple has been there since the year 1784 AD. A Buddhist monk named Jayapatidev renovated the temple in the present form of a Buddhist Stupa.

The hill of Manjusri is a part on the hill of Swayambhu. It is surrounded by green trees and a naked cliff in northern side. Stone steps from Kimdol Bazaar leads directly to the shrine but can be reached from the top of the hill also.

Manjushree was a prehistoric saint but was given a god’s form as the tantraism gripped the Buddhism of the Kathamndu Valley. He is more commonly depicted as a god of transcendental wisdom and lord of speech, Bagishwor or Dharmadhatu Bagishwor. In his simplest form, he carries a book of Pragyaparamita and the divine sword with which he drives away ignorance and illiteracy.

In the shrine of Manjushree at Swayambhu, his identity and cult are merged with that of Saraswati a Hindu goddess, whose attributes are similar to Manjushree. The merge can also be interpreted as a confusion. Another reason of the confusion is their names., Dharmadhatu-Bagishwor, with Saraswati’s alternate, Bagiswari.

The heritage of the Kathmandu Valley remains live until both the Hindu and Buddhists worship the god or goddess without asking about whether a particular shrine belongs to a Buddhist or Hindu theology. And looking at the mass of people on the day of Sri Panchami, we can proudly say that the tradition of merge, confusion or harmony between Manjushree and Saraswati will continue forever.
[Kathmandu, Sunday, February 17, 2002 Falgun 05, 2058.]