By Razen Manandhar
After a ride along the road with old sporadic settlements and new bungalows for about 12 kilometres from the capital’s centre, the 1400 years old village of Bungamati becomes distinct from a height that gives you a fair picture of the clustered settlement with Bagmati river and the hill that goes to Dakshinkali in the background.
After you discover the rows of old houses, you come to know that you are in an ancient Newar settlement that has barely been influenced by the modern lifestyle. One can easily penetrate the settlement with narrow streets that lead you to the main shrine courtyard, where lies the temple of Red Machhindranath.
The houses are traditional and uniform — three floors and with a tilted tiled roof. Small doors and windows keep the mud-and-brick houses warm also in the chilly winter. They generally stand on stone steps, where the locals can sit and go for never-ending gossips in tedious afternoons. And several water ponds are there to let locally bred geese swim.
An inscription of Licchivi king Anshubarma (605-621 AD) proves that the settlement is at least 1,400 years old. In those days it was called "Bugayumi". In different times it was earned names like, Bugayugrama, Amarapur and so on.
The ancient settlement with around 3,000 population there is self-preserved and stick to the earth because it is the holy home of Rato Machhindranath, often considered as the god of compassion and rainfall. The relation between the locals and the deity is retrospective — either the locals nurtured the deity or the settlement is bestowed by the grace of the god.
The white-washed Shikhar temple of Machhindranath lies almost at the middle of the settlement. It is supported by wooden column that is common only in pagoda temples. A temple-house of Hayagriva Bhairav also lies in a corner of the courtyard. The Panjus and Shakyas are the priest and they take care of the temple.
The settlement is directly related with the local deity, whom the locals remember everyday and over every hard times they face. The red, fully-covered idol has obtained around a dozen names in last two millenniums. But the most popular among the locals is "Karunamaya", the compassionate one. Other Newars in the valley address the same deity as Bungadyo, the god from Bunga. Besides, Bungamati Lokeshwor, Avalokiteshowr, Aryavalokiteshwor, Lokanath are other names attributed to him. Specially among non-Buddhists, he is Rato Machhindranath, the Red god of fishes. They worship the deity as a supreme Hindu saint, the guru of Gorakhnath.
Regardless of being Buddhists or Hindus, the Karunamaya is the god of all and Bungamati is proud to house him for six months every year (the idol is taken to the core of Patan city during the other half of the year). People from Buddhist, Shaiv, Shakti and Vaishnav sects worship the holy idol in different forms.
No matter how important place he obtains in both Buddhist and Hindu religion, the history of Machhindranath is not clear. According to a legend, the early 7th century king Narendradev and his companion Bandhudatta brought the god Karunamaya form Assam to let Saint Gorakhnath stand up, who was sitting on nine serpents, causing a long drought. The king thought that Machhindranath being the guru, Gorakhnath would stand up to greet him. There oldest inscription so far found there is dated 1675 AD in the temple.
However, the settlement can no more be untouched from the clutches of modernization — concrete houses, snooker parlours, beauty parlours, VCD rentals etc. are found easily. Adding more storeys and rolling shutters in old houses have become a fashion among the locals. This new whim of desire to call themselves "modern" is a new threat to the village environment. Besides, this old vulnerable settlement has been a bull’s eye of art thieves, the negligence by the security department is to be blamed.
In times, the hard-working locals have made good names as a village of farmers, carpenters and carpet-weavers. Now, it is getting famous as a wood carving centre. There are over 60 wood carving studios, some of which even export the quality handicraft to European countries.
Though a favourate tourist destination, there is little facilities for the visitors. Tourist services like quality souvenir shops, coffee houses and toilets are need to be added to see tourists spending more hours in the quiet old village.
UNESCO has recently launched a programme to initiate Community Learning Centre with cooperation with the local village development committee. Hopes are high that the villagers would realize the significance of the ancient settlement and learn to be proud of being residents of Bungamati. That would inspire them to conserve cultural heritage of the area and develop it as a tourist destination in the near future.
[Kathmandu, Sunday, February 10, 2002 Magh 28, 2058.]