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Changu Narayan Temple

The Benign, the Glorious,
Changu Narayan is enshrined in the largest of the Kathmandu Valley’s pagoda temples.
Changu Narayan Temple

In the cold season, in the early morning, only a few hilltops protrude from the mist-wrapped Kathmandu Valley. Near the Valley’s eastern rim the full burst of the rising sun catches one such hilltop and illuminated the sanctuary of Changu Narayan. Already the priest in the inner shrine is performing the rites of daily worship, and devotees from the surrounding village of Changu are bringing their offering of fruit and flowers to Narayan, the Lord of Men, the Creator, the Preserver. For more than half a million mornings Changu Narayan has received this same oblation from his faithful adherents.


The Benign, the Glorious, Changu Narayan is enshrined in the largest of the Kathmandu Valley’s pagoda temples. Last restored in the eighteenth century, this Newari-style jewel of temple architecture stands in a wide courtyard surrounded by pilgrim shelters and small shrines. The two-storey brick pagoda incorporates some fine woodwork, particularly in the roof struts, and the western doorway is sheathed in finely-worked repoussé copper and canopied by an extraordinary repoussé tympanum. However, this evidence of devotion of patron and artisan in recent centuries is overshadowed by masterpieces in stone, still in situ, sculpted by masters of earlier times.

The original shrine of Changu Narayan was built by king of the Lichhavi dynasty (c. 330-879 AD.), kings of a race of conquerors from the south. For them and their successors the concept of the Supreme God was much larger than the Valley, even cosmic in extent and was expressed by their sculptors’ portrayal of the majesty of divinity and the benevolence of the universe in stone. The size of their images, the ambition of their themes, and the grace and power of their execution place their work amongst Asia’s most magnificent artistic achievements.

The image of Changu Narayan in the inner shrine is of Vishnu (for Narayan is Vishnu himself) riding his mount Garuda, the old sun-god, bird with human face. A ninth-century replica in the courtyard portrays a divinely distant yet benevolent Vishnu, evoking a past as removed as Tutankhamen. A later portrayal from the Malla period shows the softening of the notion of god and a more intimate deity. Garuda by himself is celebrated outside the shrine, in a massive yet delicate portrait of devotion. His face, so it is said, is that of the great Lichhavi King Manadeva, the king who declared his triumphs on the inscribed pillar that stands close by and which was probably erected to hold the Garuda aloft, although a later earthquake brought him low.

The benign presence of Vishnu, the Savior, is incarnate in many forms, called avatars, to deliver both men and gods from the power of ignorance. In the courtyard are shrines to Krishna, sometime solace to women everywhere and moderator of Armageddon; to Narasingha, the man lion who tore to pieces a usurping demon; and also to Vishnu Vikranta, the Striding Vishnu, incarnated as a Brahmin dwarf to counter the threat of a tyrant demon. Granted the boon of possessions in three steps, the dwarf returned to his cosmic form and strode around the universe in two strides and with a third brought the demon to hell. This difficult theme is represented in the Changu courtyard in a powerful ninth-century relief, perhaps the most impressive of its type in the subcontinent.

At the start of an ancient Indian Armageddon, Arjuna the charioteer lost heart at the prospect of wreaking death and destruction upon his kith and kin. He sought comfort and strength from Lord Krishna, his driver and Vishnu’s avatar, who enheartened him with a vision of his ultimate, all-encompassing nature. This vision is known as Vishwarupa, the Cosmic Form. In Changu’s courtyard is a relief sculpture of this theme that shows late Lichhavi art at its most magnificent. The work is too small to be devotion and minute examination of the extra-ordinary detail of the netherworld inhabited by nage serpents, the middle world of elephants and a noble mankind, and the heavens, all of which are included in the vision of Vishnu’s nature. The god himself stands, ten headed, passive and benign, triumphant and transcendent, above and beyond his creation.

The power place of Changu Narayan will be claimed by the devotees of Vishnu. But, in a small temple close by, the highly significant Kileswor Mahadev resides in a lingam, the representation of Lord Shiva. Buddhists worship here, and call the deity Avalokiteswara. Tibetans come here pilgrimage and even tourists are permitted into the sacred surrounds. When the sun sets and leaves the golden roofs in darkness, Changu Narayan, the Lord of Men, has preserved the universe for all mankind for yet another day.

By Keith Dowman

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