Mandirs in Nepal

(Continuation of Guilt Over Money and Jeans)

In between the shopping experience, the family took me around Patan and we saw the Durbar Square and Krishna Mandir. This might be a good time to take a brief sidetrack and talk about mandirs or “temples” in Nepal and the unique architecture of the country.

Before the Kathmandu Valley became a sprawling metropolis, it was actually the home to three distinct kingdoms housed in three areas of the Valley: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and thus there is a “Durbar Square” or palace complex in each area. The palace complexes and surrounding temples are a great example of the beautiful architecture of Nepal, which is both different from the country’s massive neighbors (India and Tibet/China), while also incorporates elements from each.

Left: example of South Indian temple; Right: example of North Indian temple

I’m not an expert in temple structures, but even a novice can notice the difference between certain geographical temples. For instance, South Indian temples are known for their tall almost pyramid type structure and their ornate outer decorations, while in north India, many temples have a bit less ornate beehive type style. North Indian style temples can be found in Nepal, such as the Krishna Mandir, but more often than not, one would find Nepali styled temples which have a more East Asian pagoda look to them, often made of brick or wood. Nepali temple and palace structures also have intricate wooden windows occasionally with lattice work across the frame, and one can buy replicas of these in various sizes as souvenirs in the marketplace.

Examples of temples in Nepal: left top: Patan Durbar Square; right top: Kasthamandap; left and right bottom: Bhaktapur

Things have changed a bit recently with the political issues in Nepal—due to large scale protests and pressure from the Maoists, in 2006 the king was forced to abdicate the thrown. The only Hindu kingdom in the world was suddenly officially secular. My first visit to Nepal to see P’s family was pre-2006, while it was still the “Hindu Kingdom,” and one of the stipulations of this was that non-Hindus were not allowed to enter Hindu temples. Somehow I heard about this rule before traveling to India, and confused the other people in my program during the abroad orientation when I asked a bunch of questions about whether or not we would be allowed into temples during our trip (I think others thought my questions were kind of stupid, why wouldn’t we be able to go into temples? Wasn’t that a draw for foreign tourism?). While in India I didn’t really run into instances where I couldn’t enter temples (although occasionally I would run into a sign, usually on a Jain temple, that noted menstruating women were encouraged not to enter), so I started thinking that perhaps I had heard wrong about Nepal. But when I was in Patan, the first temple Mamu and J Phupu tried to bring me into I saw a notice posted on the wall stating, “Hindus Only.”

While on the subject of architecture I wanted to post a picture of one of the durbar square doors, since I find them really interesting and beautiful

I told J Phupu it was okay, that I would stand outside, but she insisted. They wanted me to go inside the Krishna Mandir and see it. Despite my protest (I didn’t want to offend people or create a scene by going somewhere I wasn’t supposed to with my non-Hindu-ness), J Phupu gently pulled my hand and brought me inside. We left our shoes, passed the “Hindus Only” sign and climbed the stairs to the second story of the temple where Mamu offered coins to a surprised priest, who in turn gave us tikkas while Mamu rang the bell.

The following day P’s dad, cousin and Kakabua took me to Bhaktapur to see the Durbar Square and temples there. Kakabua was a little less inclined to break the religious rules, and when he went into a temple he explained to me that I had to wait outside. Later that day we went to Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu temples in Nepal, and one of the largest and holiest Shiva temples in the world, on the shore of the Bagmati River. Pashupatinath is also the place where Brahmins and Chetris cremate their dead. Again Kakabua went inside and I waited outside with P’s dad and cousin, walking among the many small stone Shiva linga mini temples on the opposite side of the Bagmati from the main Pashupatinath temple itself. I could see the smoke rising from a few funeral pyres across the river and thought about the fact that the smoke was coming from the flesh of recently deceased people, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I thought I would be more disturbed, and it was an odd feeling to think about, but it was also kind of natural. When Kakabua returned he stoically told me, “The only thing certain in life is that we die, and I know that this is where I will be burned.”

Pashupathinath, left picture, the main temple; right top, the cremation area; right bottom, the Shiva Linga mini temples behind P and I during our recent trip

Meanwhile, on the subject of mandirs, I previously mentioned the Buddhist stupas, but didn’t post any pictures so I thought I would include a few since stupas are also a common site in Nepal. The two most famous stupas in Kathmandu are Swayambhunath and Boudhanath (which is depicted in my signature blog banner). Stupas, prayer flags and prayer wheels are a much more common sight in the mountains than in the valley or the Terai. Along our trek in Sargamatha National Park there were prayer wheels and mani stones in almost every village.

Swayambunath pictures from our last trip, including a shot of me trying to get a picture of one of the "Monkey temple" monkeys

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12 responses to “Mandirs in Nepal

  1. The pyramid like gopurams of South Indian temples are filled with idols of saints, angels, demi-gods, demons and scenes from mythology

    As such they are similar to catholic cathedrals that have gargoyles and saints and angels

    All over south India, the non-hindus banned sign is present in most big Hindu temples

    There are several reasons
    These temples aim to attract Hindu pilgrims and donations from Hindu pilgrims. They are really not meant for gawking non-Hindu tourists

    Next there is the concept of ‘ritual pollution’,
    which needs to be explained, even if feelings are hurt.

    Brahmins being vegetarian are considered ‘ritually pure’ and for that reason are employed as cooks and priests and allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum

    Other Hindus are allowed to enter outer parts of the temple

    Dalits being historically beef eaters , were historically forbidden from entering temples until recently

    Abrahamist religions were historically classified in the caste system as ‘Mlecha’, which sort of means ‘foreign barbarian’ and even more than Dalits forbidden from entering temples

    During British rule, the puppet Maharajas had to shake hands of the Viceroy or British royalty and they wore gloves to avoid direct contact since technically the british were ‘Mlecha’ and caste rules demanded a bath after contact with a Mlecha

    Until recently Hinduism did not accept converts and every white person was classified as a christian and hence banned from Hindu temples

    Even now, the Puri Jagannath temple does not accept white Hare Krishnas

    The Tirupathi Balaji temple accepts non-Hindus if they sign a ledger affirming faith in the local deity

    Another problem is that Christian missionaries used to enter Hindu temples and denounce false gods and idolatry. This still happens and leads to reprisal riots

    Whether a white person can enter a temple usually depends on your local contact being able to vouch for you to the local priest

    • I didn’t know about the temples in South India also having “Hindu Only” signs. I assumed it was kind of a Nepali thing, since I didn’t really encounter it in North India. Although now that the king is gone, foreign tourists are allowed in the most temples in Kathmandu. I still didn’t go into Pashupatinath over the summer, but I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t allowed, or if P’s family prefer I not go in out of respect.

      • Each temple has a different rule for non-hindus, ask your local contact

      • Some temples in Kerala, even consider western style clothing as ritually polluting
        One has to switch to dhoti and bare chest to enter and women have to wear saris, no salwar

      • These days, Hindu priests in India are aware that there are several thousand white Hindus and those white people dressed in Indian clothes and wearing Tilak are most likely not stopped from entering

  2. Besides ISKCON there are several orders of mainstream white Hindu monks and considered legitimate

    All of them, had a local native initiator as the intermediary

    And in Nepal , Assam and north east India, and south east Asia, there are millions of oriental looking Hindus considered legit

  3. ^Regarding Dalits: I thought the reason they weren’t allowed in temples was because they practiced tanning.

  4. Before tanning they eat the carcass of the dead cow

  5. Inside the house, the puja room and kitchen are considered to be sacred spaces and subject to same ritual pollution rules as temples, and having a non-Hindu daughter in law is very stressful for a Hindu mother-in-law

    The Mlecha concept is more directed to religion than race

    One way around this is that when a christian visits, they are fed in silver plates, because Silver, being a noble metal is immune to pollution

  6. Most of the big temples in Nepal are run by South Indian priests and they probably brought along their ritual pollution ideas from South India

  7. @shyamsunder: pashupatinath is the temple where the head priests are south indians. I do not know where you got your data from, but it is totally false that most temples in Nepal have south Indian priests. However , having a free boarder between Nepal and India and having a common tradition among the people of these two countries, it is possible to have some priests of one country in another country.

  8. Many christians are ignorant of the significance of silver plates and think it is a great honor, wheras it is more like silver-bullet for werewolf

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