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Chapter Eight Bhaktapur's Pantheon
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Taleju, Bhaktapur's Political Goddess

An integral part of Bhaktapur's Malla palace complex of buildings and courtyards[30] is the temple of the goddess Taleju. The temple is approached through an elaborately decorated outer "golden gate" leading from Laeku Square, and is built around a set of inner courtyards which are closed to non-Hindus.[31] Taleju was the lineage goddess of the Malla kings. As such, she was one of the many tutelary divinities of the bounded and nested units of which Bhaktapur is constructed, divinities chosen by individuals or "given them" by their guru s, lineage divinities, divinities of guthi and associations of various sorts, special thar deities, and so forth.

As the Malla king's lineage deity and located in his palace compound, Taleju became a dominant city deity as manifest in the various symbolic enactments centering on her temple, reaching a dramatic climax during the festival that most clearly and dramatically portrays the various aspects of the Goddess and their relations, the harvest festival Mohani. Taleju is the dominant goddess and, in fact, deity, of Bhaktapur in those contexts where the centrality of royal power is being emphasized. She has survived the replacement of the Malla dynasty by the Gorkhali Saha dynasty as, for Bhaktapur, a powerful symbolic representation of traditional Newar political forms and forces, one that persists alongside of the new symbols and realities of modern politics.

There are extensive legends about the introduction of Taleju into Bhaktapur combining aspects of history, myth, and explanatory speculation about local topography and about aspects of the symbolic enactments that are associated with Taleju. The sketch of a version of the story that follows is derived from a lengthy written version provided by a Bhaktapur Brahman who works as a public storyteller, and is based on his public stories. His account begins with a short summary statement situated within the secular realm, and having to do with power and politics. "The Sultan Gayasudin Tugalak," the account begins, "having gained power in Bengal, attacked the town of Simraun Gadh[*] . The king of Karnataka[*] , Harisimhadeva[*] , having been defeated by Gayasudin, ran away to Nepal with his soldiers and captured Bhaktapur from King Ananda Malla, who had been its ruler. Then Hari-


simhadeva[*] established the goddess Taleju in her [supernaturally determined] proper place in Bhaktapur. The place where the Goddess was ritually established is called the Mu Cuka [the main courtyard of the Taleju temple]. The goddess Taleju was brought by King Harisimhadeva[*] from Simraun Gadh[*] ."

Now the account abruptly shifts from legendary history to the mythic and epic realm of Hindu tradition. "Once the Yantra of Taleju had been kept in Indra's heaven. [The Yantra is the powerful mystic diagram that embodies the goddess in this account, and is the only way she is represented in this account aside from her appearance as an anthropomorphic form in dreams]. There the god Indra worshiped her properly [her proper worship is an issue in the account]." Now (to continue in a paraphrase of the account) Taleju was stolen from Indra by Meghanada, the son of Ravana[*] , the demon king of Lanka, in the course of Ravana's[*] attack on heaven. Taleju was taken to Lanka and worshiped there. When Ravana[*] was defeated in Lanka by Rama, the hero of the Ramayana , Rama took Taleju, in the form of her yantra , to Ayodhya, his capital in India. In time the goddess Taleju appeared to Rama in a dream and told him that be must throw the yantra in the river Sarayu, which flowed past Ayodhya because no one would worship and sacrifice properly to her after his approaching death. After five or six generations a descendant of Rama, King Nala, found Taleju's yantra in the water, and brought it to his palace, but he did not worship her properly (which would have been with blood sacrifice), and had to return her to the river. Subsequent kings of Ayodhya, Nala, Pururava, and Alarka, had the same experience, each finally returning her to the river. The kings of this dynasty, the Solar Dynasty, were finally defeated by the Mlechhas (non-Indo-Aryan barbarians).

Now the story's mode shifts into a sort of fairy tale, as it is recounted how through wondrous signs the goddess comes into Harisimhadeva's[*] possession, in a turn of events that will lead to Bhaktapur. Now, according to the story, King Nanyadeva, a king of the Solar Dynasty, had "lost his country" and become a servant of the Mlechhas. One day wandering restlessly here and there he happened to stop to rest at the bank of the Sarayu river. He dreamt there of a beautiful girl who said to him, "Oh, King Nanyadeva, your lineage god is in the Sarayu river. You must find her in order to worship her. I am she, your lineage goddess. Black insects will be flying around the surface of the river where I am hidden." The king awoke immediately and went to search for the goddess in the early morning. He found her by means of the black insects.


He found a copper casket. Inside it was a smaller box of gold. On the golden box was an inscription saying that it contained a hidden treasure that had been Rama's and Nala's and was to be Nanyadeva's. The treasure, contained m the box, was Taleju's yantra , that is, Taleju herself. The story then continues in its wondrous mode to recount how with Taleju's council given in a dream, Nanyadeva has encounters with wondrous serpents, hidden treasure, twelve architects, a host of workers, and a female demon (raksasi[*] ), resulting in the magical construction in one night of a city that came to be called "Simraun Gadh[*] ". The legend begins to correspond to history here.[32]

The story goes on to recount that Nanyadeva worshiped Taleju properly, that is, with Tantric worship and with flesh-and-blood offerings, and that after his death she was so worshiped for another five or six generations. During the time of Nanyadeva's descendant Harisimhadeva[*] , however, the Muslims were expanding their territories and thus came to Simraun Gadh[*] . Then, following the orders of the goddess Taleju, King Harisimhadeva[*] , having fled Simraun Gadh[*] , entered Nepal through the forest carrying Taleju.

Now the story begins an attempt to explain certain aspects of Taleju's cult in Bhaktapur and to record and to account for her historical displacements within and near Bhaktapur. On their trip through the forest, Taleju informs Harisimhadeva[*] that if no proper sacrificial animal can be found, such as a goat, then it would be permissible to sacrifice a water buffalo, an animal that had previously not been acceptable to her—and that is now the main sacrifice, along with goats, offered to her during Mohani.[33] The king, having found a buffalo, then noticed a man defecating facing east (a sign that he was not of twice-born status) and selected him to kill the buffalo.[34]

Then, the story continues, Harisimhadeva[*] came to Bhaktapur and became king. He established the goddess Taleju in the "Agnihotra Brahman's" house in Bhaktapur. (This is her present site. "Agnihotra Brahman" refers to a particular Rajopadhyaya Brahman; see below here and chap. 9.) The story now moves backward a little in time to tell of the prior search for the proper location. Taleju has told the king that the proper place for the installation will be known when a hole is dug and the soil removed from it will, upon being returned to the hole, fill it exactly to the surface. The story tells of the various places where Harisimhadeva[*] tested the ground unsuccessfully. First he tried in the village of Panauti (just outside the Kathmandu Valley, to the southwest of Bhaktapur). "He dug there in the Dumangala Twa:." The soil did not


fill the hole. Nevertheless he established a temple to her there (from the point of view of Bhaktapur and this story, a secondary temple). "The people of Panauti still say that the goddess Taleju came to Dumangala from Simangala, which is Simraun Gadh[*] ." Next he began to dig in Bhaktapur, first at the Dattatreya temple area in northeastern Bhaktapur. This time the soil overflowed the hole. He then went to dig in a "garden," called "Megejin," but the replaced soil overflowed the hole. He went on to the Kwache(n) Twa: in eastern Bhaktapur (where there is now an important Bhagavati temple associated with Taleju), but this also proved not to be the proper place. Finally he went on to the home of the Agnihotra Brahman, in the area of the present Laeku Square. Here he dug, and the soil exactly refilled the hole. "Therefore the king established the goddess Taleju in that place."

The story now introduces another theme, which seems to echo some now obscure past events, perhaps the establishment of a new group of Royal Brahmans (see chap. 10). The Rajopadhyaya Brahmans who had lived in the place did not want to leave their homes. King Harisimhadeva[*] gave them money and a substitute house. This substitute house still exists; it is still called the palisa che(n) or palsa che(n) , literally "substitute house." The Agnihotra Brahman (whose name in the story is "Agnihotra") was a Tantric practitioner. He did not want to leave his family land, even if he were given money and a substitute home, he was not a greedy man. He always sat on Chetrapal Bhairava's stone (an area-protecting "stone god" in the Taleju main courtyard) which was then bordered by four stone pillars, each with an image of Ganesa[*] and Durga. The Brahman wanted to kill himself rather than leave his own ancestral home. King Harisimhadeva[*] finally chased Agnihotra away from his ancestral home by force. Agnihotra committed suicide in his temple there, a temple of Siva (Mahadeva), because he had lost his public prestige. Agnihotra became a ghost (preta ) because he had killed himself. The ghost gave Harisimhadeva[*] trouble every day. Thus, Harisimhadeva[*] had the Siva temple entirely destroyed. He then did the necessary pacifying rituals.

Then, the story concludes, the four pillars with the Ganesa[*] images were sent to various places. One, a dangerous form of Ganesa[*] , was placed at the left side of the Golden Gate (the entrance to the Taleju temple complex). Another is at Bidya pitha (Tripurasundari's pitha ). Another was brought to the Indrani[*]pitha .[35] (Our story doesn't mention the fourth pillar.) Then, the story concludes, "In the Beko courtyard (the courtyard just outside the inner gate and compound of the Taleju


complex) the Bhairava Chetrapal stone where that Brahman used to sit exists, still, until now."

It seems likely that Taleju had, in fact, been introduced to the Kathmandu Valley from Mithila, although not by Harisimhadeva[*] , who never reached it (chap. 3), and that the pressures of the Turkish Muslims on Mithila with the consequent movement of Maithili Tantric Hindus into Nepal contributed to the subsequent importance of the goddess and of Tantrism to the valley. Slusser summarizes the historical evidence as follows (Slusser 1982, vol. 1, p. 318):

That Taleju's cult in the Kathmandu Valley antedated Harisimhadeva[*] is documented history . . . but Taleju appears to have been held in high regard in that country [Mithila], and it is not improbable that she was the tutelary of Nanyadeva's dynasty. She was almost certainly well-known to Harishimha's[*] queen, the omnipotent Bhaktapur refugee, Devaladevi. It is abundantly clear that Taleju was favored by Sthitirajamalla [Jayasthiti Malla] and with his subsequent eruption into the affairs of Nepal Mandala[*] , the goddess was apparently raised to an eminence she had previously not enjoyed in Nepal. As we know, on Sthitimalla's visit to Patan, the fractious nobles made haste to please the new Valley strong man by restoring the run-down temple of Taleju. . . . That many of the Newars associated with Taleju's cult claim Maithili descent [as do the Rajopadhyaya Brahmans of Bhaktapur] is also suggestive of the deity's ties with Mithila.

Whatever its historical relevance, the story as it is still told in Bhaktapur also suggests some special aspects and qualities of this particular goddess in the domain of Bhaktapur's goddesses. She is located first in a traditional Hindu heaven, in contrast, say, to the members of the Nine Durgas troupe whose legends identify them first as forest-dwelling demonic figures (chap. 15). She is the favorite goddess of a particular god; as a divinity's divinity, this places her in a hierarchy—her devotee is a figure remembered as the "king" of the gods. Her subsequent history is associated with invasions, thefts, and dynasties, and with politics and power struggles. From the start she is embedded, available for use by humans and quasi-humans, in a concrete form, a diagrammatic representation on a piece of metal. The form when properly worshiped is protective. The proper worship is Tantric with blood sacrifice. This captured divinity, with its history and functions relating it to power, belongs to a political dynasty, a legitimate form of power. The legend associates it not only with Indra, but with Rama, an avatara of Visnu[*] , a divinity closely associated with Newar (and Hindu) royalty and with


civic moral order. When Taleju was established in Bhaktapur, she necessarily took precedence over other deities with similar political claims, which may perhaps be part of the significance of the displacement of the Agnihotra Brahman, the destruction of his Siva temple, and his suicide.[36] We may note that in contrast to other forms of the Goddess, Taleju is not conceptually related to and in a sense dependent on Siva, but is the Tantric goddess as independent and self existing and fully powerful.

Taleju is kept in a secret inner part of the Taleju temple. The nature of her image is also secret. Only a very few Rajopadhyaya Brahman priests from households traditionally providing Taleju Brahmans, and who have special initiation are allowed to see the image. Outsiders generally follow the description in the legend and assume that it is a yantra . Hamilton was also told at the beginning of the nineteenth century that "there is no image of this deity which is represented by a yantra " ([1819] 1971, 210f.).[37] In worship in the Taleju temple, Taleju is represented by various forms—yantra , the metal vase-like container called the Thapi(n)ca (or alternatively Ku(n)bha, a vessel that also represents the true Devi pitha goddess, Guhyesvari), sometimes by a metal vessel with a pouring spout (a Kalas), and sometimes by an anthropoid image.

Like most of Bhaktapur's component organizations the Taleju temple has its esoteric internal ceremonies and public external ones related to the larger city organization. The internal functions center around the worship of Taleju by her attendant priests[38] during the course of the year. Many of these take place during city-wide calendrical festivals, but there are some thirty-five important annual internal worship ceremonies unconnected to external urban events. Many of these commemorate Taleju's functions as the Malla kings' lineage goddess. These acts of worship or puja s are called tha (Kathmandu Newari tha ) puja , or tha taegu , "elevation worship," or "elevation producing and maintaining" acts. Tha taegu is thought of as a kind of initiation, dekha (chap. 9). It lacks some features of a full Tantric initiation, and is sometimes thought of by those who have such full initiation as a baga dekha , a "half-full" initiation. Those tha puja s that commemorate the Malla king and, in fact, treat him as if he were still present, take the Malla king (represented by a priest) through three successive levels of initiation, during each of which he is presented new mantra s, new secrets, and new instruction on ritual procedures. There are other tha puja s as well as full initiations given at Taleju, all necessary for Taleju temple's internal functions. These are necessary not only for the staff and for the


"king" but also for all those for whom Taleju is in one way or another a special deity. Descendants of the Malla kings, that is, members of the present Malla and Pradhananga[*]thar s, have Taleju as their lineage goddess, and male thar members have some of their initiations at the Taleju temple, although they do not receive the highest levels of initiation in Taleju's mysteries. Those are reserved to the chief Taleju Brahman. He is considered to be the surrogate for the Malla king in many rituals, and the king was entitled to higher levels of initiation than his male kin and descendants (who are furthermore now considered by the priests to be no longer "pure Mallas"). The Taleju principal priests who were the king's guru s, had even higher levels of initiation than the king himself, a fourth level, one beyond the Malla king's three. Taleju is also the object of special devotional rituals of the other temple priests. She is considered a sort of lineage goddess for them, in the limited sense that the temple priesthood is inherited in their families' lineage. All these priests also have in all other contexts another Tantric lineage divinity, for ordinary family rituals and rites of passage (see below and chap. 9).

In addition to the two thars of Malla descendants and three priestly thar s attendant at the temple, there are about twenty thar s throughout the macrostatus system, some of whose members (as we have noted in chap. 5) have some special assigned ritual function at some time or other during the year at the Taleju temple. Many of these people must be given tha taegu initiations, in which they must swear secrecy about their duties and about what they see in the temple.[39]

Taleju's external function is uniquely important to the Tantric component of Bhaktapur's symbolic system. Through her priests and by means of her mantras , she is understood by initiated practitioners to empower all city-level legitimate Tantric procedures in Bhaktapur.[40] The Brahman Taleju priest is in this context considered the ultimate guru of all who have Tantric power. Some of this power must be transmitted annually. For the rest, the great majority, such as the special knowledge and efficacy of various Tantric priests (chap. 9), or the effective ritual knowledge of the people who make religious paraphernalia, it is said that the special knowledge, initiation, and mantras were originally given to ancestors by a Taleju priest, but then passed down within the family or the thar from father to son or guru to student in repeated internal initiations.

Taleju's external relation to the city is manifested and enacted at length in the course of the harvest festival, Mohani. In the course of this festival Taleju, as we shall see (chap. 15), is brought into relation with


several forms of the Goddess—with all the Mandalic[*] Goddesses, with Kumari (as another deity than the similarly named Kumari of the Mandalic[*] group of goddesses), with the Nine Durgas group of deities, and with the Goddess Devi herself in her form as Bhagavati. In this festival Taleju is seen as participating in the basic myth of the Dangerous Goddess and, in fact, temporarily becoming Mahisasuramardini herself (chap. 15). During Mohani, Bhagavati/Taleju represents the maximally powerful and full form of the Goddess. This maximal Taleju then becomes manifest in certain ways, controlled and mediated by her temple priests. She possesses a maiden to become manifest in the form of Kumari, in which form she can give oracular advice to kings. She provides the mantra that empowers the partial forms of the Nine Durgas troupe to begin their annual nine-month cycle of manifestations of the Goddess throughout the city. Taleju is a central focus in the interrelated set of symbols and symbolic enactments associated with the dangerous deities of Bhaktapur.[41]

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Chapter Eight Bhaktapur's Pantheon
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