Towards the south-west of the Kathmandu Durbar Square, at dawn, the entire settlement of the Gods enjoys a perfect glow of grandeur. The sunbeams dance and dart from the draped gilded bronze pinnacles to the carvings on wood, from the carvings on wood to the stone idols. Finally it rests upon the red-hued temple walls until there is a flawless arrangement of illumination which quite dazzles one’s gaze. And in this very moment, the radiant sunlight lends an appeal to the experience of observing the temple of Kasthamandap. It is believed that understanding the architectural genius of the Newars requires a definite extent and tone of light. And when a perfect network of brightness helps the view, the temple disturbs the entire equilibrium of one’s senses. Kasthamandap is within a moment, grand and intimate; perhaps one of the most intriguing structures on earth. Beneath a cloud of dust and physical activity, it stands, at the south west end of the Kathmandu Durbar Square like a dignified old man, gloriously erect and defying change. While New Road, Mecca for shopaholics, pulses with a frenetic buzz, just beyond it, the past is everywhere in the serene Kathmandu Durbar Square. But perhaps it is only when one comes face to face with the massive wooden arrangement of Kasthmandap that one gets an instantaneous glimpse of medieval Kathmandu.
While its architecture, purpose and appeal denote that Kasthamandap could belong to none other than the Lichchhavis, its origin and its creator remain ambiguous to this day. An historic account of 1107 AD mentions the existence of the temple of Kasthamandap in its current location. This is a period which falls close to the reign of the Mallas in the Kathmandu valley. However many Lichchhavi inscriptions name religious buildings as mandaps existed during their reign which could very well make Kasthmandap, a product of the Lichchhavis. The temple of Kasthamandap is perhaps one among the world’s most historic buildings that permanently displaces the very idea of ownership. A visitor becomes its owner and it commands exploration of its many layers that fill the senses with staggering chromatic textures. It is also unclear what the purpose of Kasthamandap really was apart from being a mandap whose sole purpose is a Yagna. The main God of the Vedic Aryans was fire (Agni), and Yagna, the worship of fire was made in a pit. The purpose of a mandap has always been for the protection of this pit and at other times to create a spiritual atmosphere to conduct this ritual. The structure of the temple of Kasthamandap exudes the very style of mandaps famous during the time of the Lichchhavis. Kasthamandap’s main sanctum which is a little further away from the actual centre on the ground floor has a statue of Saint Gorakhnath. It is set upon a platform and right in front of it on the ground is the Shiva Lingam, the sacred phallus buried and only a tiny bit of its top is visible now. The Gorakhnath statue within Kasthamandap is however bewildering because elsewhere Saint Gorakhnath is normally manifested not as an idol but as footprints. It has now been determined by historical documents, which consist of architectural diagrams, accounts and paintings that the temple of Kasthmandap, before the 16th century had the shrine of Gorakhnath and it only had one large roof supported by 4 central pillars. The middle roof was added after the 16th century by the Malla King, Laxmi Narsingha.
In a world where metaphors and praise consistently exhaust superlatives, the temple of Kasthmandap makes other temples emerge only as pale replicas. That is to say, that while many structures in the Kathmandu valley are magnificent for a variety of reasons, Kasthmandap usually eclipses and effaces them owing to its splendor, legacy and significance. In order to reach Kasthamandap you have to look between the three vast squares of Basantapur to the south-west, dodging people, motorcycles and a crowd of busy people in Maru Tole. This giant three storey wooden temple commands a cloistered tranquility that is ironically contrasted by the chaos and physical drama along its outer perimeter. The structure of Kasthmandap is like any other mandap style structure, the one where sixteen pillars support the upper floor. However, the central square is formed by the inclusion of four large pillars. It has balconies on all four corners. These mezzanine (neither on the ground floor, nor on the first floor) balconies could be accessed by the public during the temple’s heydays. You can find images of Ganesha (the elephant God) at each corner and the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are illustrated around the first floor cornices of the building. The ground floor covers an area of 65 square feet and the entrance is guarded by two bronze lions. This denotes similarity of structure in comparison to other temple styles of the Mallas in the Kathmandu valley. The lions portray the structure to somewhat resemble a chariot of God, a style used in almost all the temples in the Kathmandu valley. This could have been a feature that was added later after the 16th century. But it is these same features that make Kasthamandap a unique blend of the Lichchhavi mandap style and the Malla tiered multi roofed temple structure.
When one thinks of Nepal as a country built upon folklores, myths and legends you can experience centuries of traditions without encountering man made reasons and logic. It is a vast treasure that has scattered from one generation to another and had Nepal under its sway for a very long time. Legend has it that the entire structure of Kasthamandap was built by the wood of a single Sal tree. An interesting story backs this claim. In the days of the old, Saint Gorakhnath attended the chariot procession of Machhindranath, in human form. Unfortunately a tantrik recognized him and cast a spell to imprison Gorakhnath for eternity. The price for freedom was a deal in which Gorakhnath had to provide enough materials to build a temple of solid wood. Desperate for release, Gorakhnath agreed and immediately a giant tree sprung up from the earth which was chopped off to build the temple of Kasthmandap. It is also a widely held belief that the city of Kathmandu derives its name from the temple of Kasthamandap. The temple’s historic journey has covered almost a millennia but its religious significance remains intact to this day. Kasthamandap has witnessed the reign of different dynasties, ritualistic ceremonies as well as the famous era of the hippies in the 70s. Incidentally the Kasthmandap is mellifluously positioned at a place which was made famous by the hippies as “Pie Alley”. The epic song “Dum Maro Dum” from the cult classic Bollywood movie Hare Rama Hare Krishna (a movie about the surreal world of the hippies) was filmed at Kasthamandap. Kasthamandap’s three storey structure glints above the years, indicating evanescent ascendancy of every famous era that goes down in the pages of history and it remains there for many more generations to come.
In the squinting Kathmandu sun, when you try to catch a breath after walking around the bustling and chaotic New Road, an eventual stroll around the Kathmandu Durbar Square makes up for a small amount of serenity that one can’t help desire. It is place that is immediately affable and easygoing; with a stimulating blend of the exotic and the historic, packed together in a world that sometimes seems otherworldly. It is a broad expanse of history filled with dazzling beauty and captivating enchantments, from heavenly tiered temples to the breathtakingly vast square. And its high-spirited people—right through history live life with incomparable, fervent enchantment. And there hidden behind a conglomeration of temples and houses, Kasthamandap quietly stands waiting for the centuries to telescope into each other. Civilizations come and go but we absorb that stillness through Kasthamandap. Its magnificence, its wooden pillars hold the mixed glories of the ancient and the medieval. It symbolizes generations of people with their indigenous beliefs and ceremonies which are surrounded by the graceful large silhouettes of religion, devotion and faith.