|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
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
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