A City of Many Names
The city of Patan is the earliest known Buddhist city in Nepal and one of the oldest settlements located in the south central region of the Kathmandu valley. Known also by other names such as Lalitpur and Yelade, it is believed that the city was originally built by an individual named Lalit Ganshi who came from the forests of Lalit, hence the name Lalitpur the name of the city deriving from its creator.[i] In the Newari language of the Newar people, Patan is known as “Yela de”, which translates into “lovely city”.[ii] The Newari village of Yupagrama was one of the largest of the Newari villages later to be coalesced into the city of Patan. The word Yupagrama translates from Newari to mean, “Village of the sacred pillar”.[iii] The city was also a major trade center during ancient times and as a result it was called Pattana, which literally means “trade center”, Pattana being the original word which the word Patan derives and abbreviates from. The city also seems to owe its namesake to the magnificent beauty of its unique architecture. The Indian word ”Lalit” translates into English as beautiful or lovely, while “Pur” translates into city.[i]
Mythical Origins of the Kathmandu Valley
The history of Buddhism among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley begins in ancient legends. According to the Svayambhu Purana, the Svayambhu Stupa located in was erected many eons ago in order to commemorate the miraculous draining of the Kathmandu Valley by the celestial bodhisattva Manjushri. Legend states that the entire valley was once filled by an enormous lake, out of which grew a lotus. Manjusri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley possessed the potential to be a good settlement and in order to make the site more accessible to pilgrims, he cut a gorge at Chovar. The water then drained out of the lake, leaving the valley in which Kathmandu now lies. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the flower became the Swayambhunath stupa.[i] The city of Patan is defined by four great stupas at the points of the compass located outside the boundaries of the city and a fifth stupa located in the city’s center. The dates of the Stupas’ constructions are somewhat uncertain, but their initial construction must have predated the Hindu dominance that began in the fourth century, indicating an early Buddhist influence.[i] In addition, according to legend, the design and layout of Patan was intended to resemble the Buddhist “Wheel of the law”.[ii] The construction of these stupas is credited by Tibetan historians to be the mandate of Emperor Ashoka, the first Buddhist emperor of India who according to Tibetan Buddhist historians founded the royal city of Patan together with its four great stupas each to one of the four cardinal points.[iii]
Construction of the Mahaboudha Temple
The temple of Mahaboudha is also referred to as, “The Temple of a Thousand Buddhas”, its nickname being attributed to the 1,000 Buddha figures of various sizes carved into the temple’s terracotta bricks which adorn every side. The temple is made out of these clay bricks comprising 9,000 in total. Located southeast of Patan’s Durbar Square, construction of the temple began around the year 1584, inspired by an individual known by the name of Abhaya Raj, who was a priest of Patan although he was originally from the area of Bodh Gaya.[i] During the sixteenth century, Bodh Gaya was a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site in the region. Bodh Gaya was believed to be the location where the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. After returning from a three year pilgrimage, Abhaya Raj was so inspired by the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya that he sought to construct a similar yet slightly smaller version in Patan, dedicated to the Buddha, his life and his teachings. Legends state that Abhaya Raj’s inspiration to construct the temple was due to the Lord Buddha Himself appearing in his dream commanding him to do so. Other Hindu legends claim that Abhaya Raj’s fifth son was going to give up on completing the temple when he received a vision of the Goddess Bidhyadhari, who commanded him to finish the construction.[ii]
The Mahaboudha is the only major stupa in Patan that does not have Napalese influence in its architecture. The architectural style of the temple is among the early Shikhara style monuments in the Kathmandu valley. The surface of the temple is covered with terracotta tiles, many of which depict Buddha in the meditative posture where he is touching the ground, indicating that even the earth is witness to his efforts in meditation.
Ritual Practice and Worship
Good and diligent practice is the highest form of Buddhist worship, however Buddhists can perform Puja at the temple in order to venerate the Buddha. Puja refers to acts of daily ritualized worship which is reflective to that of Hindu temple worship. Puja offerings can be as simple as a handful of flowers, the burning of incense, delicious foods, musical sounds, dancing and the recitation of sutras.[i] Located at the front entrance of the shrine is a pyramidal stand on which numerous butter lamps can be lit by devotees and visitors as a form of prayer and reverence. Buddhist monks and devout practitioners travel to Patan’s shrines, stupas or temples, such as the Mahaboudha, daily, while the average Buddhist layperson may only visit to perform ritualistic devotion during important holidays or festivals in order to receive good fortune or good luck. This temple is a popular site of pilgrimage especially for Tibetan Buddhists, the busiest time of year for the temple is around the time of festivals celebrating the birth of Buddha.