The shrouded history of Kathesimbhu and its contested ownership

Jan 07, 2018 |

Text & Photo : Kai Weise

Walking from Thamel passed Thahity square towards Indra Chowk, one passes a concrete gate to the left with terracotta and marble cladding. An inscribed marble plaque presents this as being the gate to “Shree Gha-Shanti Ghat Bhajradhatu Mahachaitya”. Looking through the gate one can see down a long alley the outline of an impressive mahachaitya, possibly the third tallest in Nepal. This used to be off the beaten track of most tourists, but the tentacles of Thamel tourism has now spread into this courtyard. The entrance passage and parts of the inner courtyard are lined with curio and souvenir shops.

The courtyard and the chaitya are referred to in several publications (Protective Inventory 1975, John Locke 1985, Niels Gutschow 1997); though as with most names in Kathmandu the spellings in English vary greatly. The chaitya is called Srigha Chatiya, Santighata Chatiya or Kathe-simbhu. Kathe-simbhu refers to the fact that this ensemble is a replication of the Swayambhu Mahachaitya within the old town of Kathmandu. The chaitya is located in Sighah- or Sigha-baha. This is where the Gha-vihara or Shanti-ghata Chaitya Mahavihara monastery is located. This part of the city is called Nagha or Nahga Tole, named after Nahgabaha which is near the main road just south of the entrance. The various names are linked to histories that are shrouded in the euphoria of oral transmission.

The story of the creation of the mahachaitya is retold in various forms however there is a central thread that is constant. Legends have it that Acharya Vak-vajra of Kwa-baha (near Thahity Chowk) when on pilgrimage along the Ganges was asked to consecrate a large chaitya built by the great Buddhist king of Benaras. Vak-vajra went down to the Ganges River to obtain some holy water which he then simply sprinkled over the monument. This rather short and simple ritual was however questioned. To show his powers Vak-vajra then sat in meditation. He lifted the chaitya and transported it to its present location in Kathmandu.

There are several variations to this story with lots of embellishments. There is reference to this competition being with Jain worshippers showing the dominance of Vajrayana priests with their mystical powers. There are also alternate stories showing Vakvajra being less hot-headed. The people were convinced of the powers of Vak-vajra, however it was found that the location where the chaitya was built was not auspicious and therefore had to be moved. Since the people could not move the chaitya even when using horses and elephants, Vak-vajra came to the rescue. He tied five different auspicious coloured threads around the monument and using powerful mantras or incantations he raised the monument into the sky. The chaitya was transported to the Kathmandu
Valley to be installed in Shanti-ghata where a sacred water pot (ghata) was enshrined. The Shakyas of Ason Tole took charge of the chaitya and established the Shanti-ghata Vihara.

With this feat Vak-vajra is named Samanta-bhadra, the “universal worthy”. Another version ascribes this title to the priest from Tachhe Bahal (near Ason Tole) Gubhaju Samantabhadra. In any case, the establishment of the chaitya and the monastery is linked to Samanta-bhadra, a bodhisattva known for his prowess through meditation and closely linked to Gautama Buddha and bodhisattva Manjushri: the Shakyamuni trinity. This ascertains the importance of the chaitya for it has direct links to the historic Buddha and the Bodhisattva who takes a pivotal role in allowing the Kathmandu Valley to be made inhabitable.

There are several references to this site in inscriptions which provide a basic chronology. The earliest mention is an inscription from 1552 (Nepal Sambat N.S. 762) certifying the donation of a golden finial for the chaitya by Megharaja in memory of his deceased son and the establishment of a guthi to perform annual commemoration. The guthi was closely related to the priests of nearby Kwa-baha, which links back to the founding legends. There are references to repairs that took place during the reign of the eccentric king Pratap Malla (1624–74 CE). In 1647 the chaitya was de-consecrated and then after the restoration works again re-consecrated by Vajracharyas in 1653. There are further references of a votive chaitya being established in 1762 and in 1890 further repairs were carried out and a statue of Vajrasattva was erected. Some of these dates seem to vary in the different documents, possibly due the confusion of the different calendars, and would therefore need to be taken with caution.

Various festivals still continue even though their origins might have been forgotten. A festival on the full moon of Asoj (September – October) is held mainly by the Shakyas of Ason. The sangha is said to consist of five elders and a hundred initiated Shakyas from sixteen families who are responsible for the chatiya. They have however stopped carrying out their duty as per the prescribed order. As with most guthis, they used to have a lot of land and income however that has been reduced to a small plot north of Chhetrapati. There is furthermore a ritual carried out by the Vajracharyas of Kwa-bahal on the full moon day of Magh (January – February) at the shrine of Shantipur located to the west of Singh Baha where the Shanti-ghata is said to be enshrined. This ritual links back their said lineage to Vak-vajra, the legendary founder and Samantabhadra.

The Srigha Chatiya or Kathesimbhu seems to be a replica of the Swayambhu Mahachaitya, however built on a pedestal with two levels. The chaitya has a gilded copper tower of circular rings, ornamental umbrella and eyes painted on the harmika, all clearly reflecting the design of Swayambhu Mahachaitya. The chaitya, as in Swayambhu has the four shrines in the cardinal directions at the base of the tumulus for the four Dhyani Buddhas with an additional one to the southeast for the often forgotten fifth Dyani Buddha Vairochana representing the centre. The transformation of the form of the chaitya over time through the phases of restoration is not clear; however we must understand that even Swayambhu Mahachaitya would have gone through similar alterations over time.

The Sighah- or Sigha-baha, as with all the courtyard monasteries is a structure located to the south, with the shrine of kwapa-dya. The kwapa-dya is Akshobhya, one of the primordial Adibuddhas who usually faces east, however in this case is facing north. This building has been rebuilt several times most recently after the 1934 earthquake and then again using a concrete frame structure, losing all its original features. It however still retains the intricately carved wooden torana above the entrance to the shrine with Buddha Akshobhya flanked by dharma (Prajnaparamita) to the right and sangha (Sakaksari Lokeshwara) to his left.

The courtyard is scattered with numerous chaityas, shrines and sculptures from various periods. The earliest seems to be a Padmapani Avalokiteshvara from the 9th or 10th century. Some earlier fragments were said to have been lost though this could not be confirmed. Many of these shrines and chaityas are said to have been only brought there very recently, within the past century. Many of these are Lichcchavi chaityas which would be from an even earlier period. There is also a tiered Harati Temple to the northwest of the chaitya as is the case in Swayambhu. A Manjushri shrine is located to the southeast of the chaitya.

Today the monuments, chaityas and shrines try to retain the ancient history of the site as the surrounding context changes. A school has been established to the west of the courtyard while various new monasteries have been established to the north. The Theravada monastery Dharmakirti Mahavihara was funded by rich devotees from Ason bringing back the legendary and historic linkage. There has however been further development with a Tibetan Monastery or Gompa Drubgon Jangchup Choeling being built on the north-eastern corner of the courtyard. As I ask a Newar shopkeeper what this implied he was clearly against the construction of a gompa within a baha. This new development has led to conflicting claims to the historic and religious site.

The expression of this struggle to possess the site can be seen in the partially coloured chaityas and statues. The Newari tradition does not allow the paint of natural materials be it the façade of buildings, carved wooden or stone elements or stone votive objects. The Tibetan tradition however is very different and particularly important objects are often intricately coloured, be it mural paintings or thankas. When the monks of the gompa went about painting the chaityas and statues, they were quickly stopped by the local guthi. This was however after the Buddhas had already received blue hair and red lips.

This chaos mingles with the ongoing reconstruction of buildings using concrete. I visited the site on a recent election day and concreting was going on clearly evading the authorities. Material from the demolished structure was piled up next to the main chaitya and the mixing of concrete took place between the smaller chatiyas. The workers hung their jackets disrespectfully over the chaityas allowing Buddha only a small slit to peek out from.

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