Sunday, May 12, 2002

Gunakar Mahavihar

Heritage Tour
Razen Manandhar
Out of hundreds of Mahayani Buddhist monasteries, only a few are in proper condition in the Kathmandu Valley. The negligence of the concerned families, people’s tendency to encroach and government’s indifference are to be blamed. But at least a few have proud stories of conservation to tell. The Gunakar Mahavihar (or Chhusya Bahal as locally it is called), at Jyatha, Thamel is one worth mentioning.

The small quadrangle shaped building in a brick-paved courtyard at the middle, has been standing there for the last 353 years. It was a Lhasa merchant named Gunajyoti Bajracharya from the neighbouring monastery of Hemakara Mahavihar (Dhwakha Bahal), who donated a major part of his treasure to have this monastery "renovated" in 1649 (Nepal Era 769). The related inscritption indicates that there had been a small shrine there where the Mahabvihar stands today. King Pratap Malla graced the ritual consecration ceremony performed in 1669 (Nepal Era 787), whom the maker donated a golden crown.

There are two giant lions guarding the main entrance. The torana over the main door bears the image of Pragyaparmita, the goddess of perfection of wisdom. The Mahavihar is a two-storeyed building made of bricks and roofed with tiles. The roof is supported by carved wooden struts with figures of deities on them. The stone plinth is made all round the buildings outside and inside the courtyard.

The central room of the ground floor facing north is the sanctum of the prime deity Akhsyobhya (Kwapadyo in local Newari language). There are four wooden staircases to reach the upper floor. The rooms in the upper floor are dedicated to worshipping of traditional esoteric deities and for the chief worshipper. Other rooms consist of reading room of sutras and reading room of figures of deities. The main entrance and lobby has an open space on either side that can give you a wide view of the courtyard.

When you look at any corner of the couryard, you can find images or the Mahayani Buddhist deities. There are figures of Dhyani Buddhas, five protective goddesses, seven deities representing the planets, six wrathful goddesses, ten wrathful Bhairavs, six Paramitas, six Adi-Buddhas, six Taras, four Maharajahs, twenty one lunar mansions and many more in the struts alone, supporting the roof. On each wing, there are heavily decorated windows, in sets of five or three. They can remind you of the beautiful courtyard of Kumarighar.

The torana at the room of traditional secret deities on the upper floor is decorated with an image of Bajradhara. Only initiated or trained ones are allowed to enter the room. A Buddha Mandala made of wood carving is placed on the ceiling of the shrine. The rooms of central part of the mandala is filled with symbols of gods and goddesses. Apart from Akshyobhya ("Kwapadyo"), there are images of Akshyobhya, Manjushree, Amithabh, Simhanada Lokeshhwor, Harihara Lokeshowr, Amoghpas Lokeshwor, Mahamanjushri, two lions and four inscriptions are found there.

Everyday, the priest washes the face of Kwapadyo, offers him water, tika, flower, rice and incense sticks, rings bells, shows mirror, comes out with the gambasin (a hollow wooden rod) and beats for 08 times, reciting mantra. He then holds a Yak-tail fan and worships the Tathagata with oil lamps.

In the courtyard, one can find figures of Hanuman, two Mahakals, Sariputra and Maudhakalyan, Gunajyoti and his wives, Chaitya, Padmapani Lokeshwor, Dharmadhatu Bagishwor, a pair of elephant guards and a small but beautiful temple in Sikhar style at the middle. Among others, the Mahavihar possesses a rare holy book of Pragyaparamita, which is displayed to the public during the Buddhist festival of Gunla that falls in August.

The priceless monument took a drastic change along with the urbanisation trends some three decades ago. The caretaking families started consuming the ancient monastery as their assets and also used it for private and financial purposes. Obviously, there was nobody to take care of it, and it started decaying slowly. Unaware of the significance of the cultural heritage, the "owners" started adding new windows and doors. The result is that many idols were lost or stolen from the courtyard.

But it was never too late to do something good. The monastery was renovated by 1996 wtih the contributions from IUCN, Nepal Heritage Society, local ward chairman, locals, Department of Archaeology as well as the Federal Republic of Germany.

Expert of Newari Bahals and Chaityas Niles Gutschow helped as a supervisor for the restoration. The completion ceremony was performed on Basanta Panchami on February 17, 2002. The empty monastery is now being utilised as a training centre for the Buddhist ritual and religious dances, etc., according to the Bajracharyas associated with the Monastery trust. Hope, priests of other delapidating monasteries also take lessons from Chhusya Bahal and pull up their shocks to renovate them too.
[ Kathmandu, Sunday, May 12, 2002 Baishakh 29, 2059.]