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Bhairava and the Eight Charnel Grounds On the History of a Monumental Painting at the Jayavag TsvarT Temple, Kathmandu

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Bhairava and the Eight Charnel Grounds On the History of a Monumental Painting at the Jayavag TsvarT Temple, Kathmandu

by Gudrun Biihnemann

The focus of this paper is the large mural of Bhairava on the northern wall of the JayavagTsvarT Temple in Deupatan, Kathmandu.

A recently discovered artist’s sketch shows that the colourful painting, far from being a modem creation, is the product of a tradition of renewal dating back to at least 1755/56 CE.

The paper also analyses the representation of the Eight Charnel Grounds in the painting, which features a directional guardian, a Mahasiddha with a female attendant, a Mother Goddess, a bhuta tending a funeral pyre, a caitya, a sivalinga, a tree and a characteristic animal. Such a detailed representation is rare in Saiva works of art and was possibly modelled on Buddhist iconographic practice

The Layout of the Temple

The temple of JayavagTsvarT1 (Fig. 1) in the western part of Deupatan (Deo-patan) is located up the hill from the Pasupatinath Temple in Kathmandu on what is now the busy Ring Road. It dates at least from the last part of the seventeenth century.2 The nineteenth-century chronicle BhasavamsavalT (vol. 2, 94)

reports that Nrpendramalla of Kathmandu (r. 1674-80 CE) renovated the temple. Regmi (1965-66, vol. 3, pt. 2, p. 9 [fol. 21] and vol. 2, p. 94) provides evidence that the Harasiddhi dance was performed on the temple’s main platform by a troupe from Harasiddhi village (near Patan) in Nepala

1 The name is sometimes written as Jaibageswari. Jayabagesvari. Jayabageshwori or even Jayabhagesvari.

2 Rao (1984: 243) writes that the temple dates from the sixteenth century but does not provide any supporting evidence.

Berliner Indologische Studien | Berlin Indological Studies 21 • 2013: 307-326

samvat 800 (which corresponds to 1680 CE). Records in the Newari language document elaborate ritual activities that took place at the temple in December of 1755 CE, including purification rites, the coating of the image of Jayavagisvari with gold and silver and the ritual of infusing life (prana-pratistha)

(SHAKYA 2001: 30, 37-38, 47). It is thus evident that in the eighteenth century the Jayavagisvari Temple was being accorded the respect due to an important shrine.

The sanctum houses three statues.

The one in the centre, with a now grey but what was originally likely a white face (said to be of clay and renewed and repainted every twelve years)3 is worshipped as Jayavagisvari. A commercially reproduced photograph of the statue put up on the wall of

3 Michaels (1994/1: 81, 95) reports that the feet of the statue are made of stone and that the parts which are made of clay and the statue’s robes are replaced every twelve years, at the same time the Bhairava painting is touched up.

the temple’s bhajan hall labels the goddess alternatively as ‘Swet Sarash-woti’ (i.e., Svetasarasvati, the white Sarasvati). The statue is draped with a long robe and scarves. Only one of the hand-held attributes is discernible: the sword in the upper right hand. One of two pendants suspended from the

temple’s roof, however, features a medallion displaying a miniature representation of the goddess holding a sword and shield in her upper pair of hands and a hammer (or knife) and mirror in her two lower hands

On the statue’s pedestal (but according to MICHAELS 1994/1: 94, on the statue’s stone feet) an undated Licchavi inscription was found (VAJRACARYA 1973:

124), possibly dating from the late fifth or early sixth century. It mentions one Guhasoma as the donor. The inscription was not discernible during my visits to the temple in June of 2011, since offerings were then regularly being placed in front of the statue.4

A pendant suspended from the temple’s roof with a representation of Jayavaglsvari. Photograph: G. Bilhnemann To Jayavaglsvari’s proper right is a smaller statue with a disproportionately large head. The priest-in-charge refers to it as NTlabhairava,5 but this is

likely based on no more than the statue’s blue face. Tandan (1996-99, pt. 1: 570) and Shakya (2008: 209) call it Svetabhairava, the white Bhairava, perhaps because the statue in the middle goes by the name Svetasarasvati. The smaller statue to the goddess’s proper left is said to be an unusual form of

5 A commercially reproduced photograph hung in the temple’s bhajan hall labels the statue ‘Nil Bhairav’. Rau (1984: 243) renders the name as Bilabhairava, which must be a misprint for NTlabhairava.

Ganesa as a child, before he had a trunk. A trunkless Ganesa has never been heard of, but since it is not possible to enter the sanctum and examine the

statue closely and without its robes, it remains unclear what deity it may actually represent. A commercially reproduced photograph hung in the temple’s bhajan hall labels it ‘Adhi Ganesh’. These two smaller figures appear not to be full-length figures but rather heads placed on parts

of torsos covered by garments. The nineteenth-century chronicle edited by WRIGHT (p. 127) refers to an image of Bhairava Navalingesvara (perhaps named after a locality?) and of Gajakarnaka (i.e., Ganesa) in connection with the ‘village goddess’ (gramadevl) Jayavaglsvari. It is possible that the two

smaller statues currently flanking Jayavaglsvari in the temple represent these two deities, even though they may have replaced statues of what were originally different deities.

A stone serving as a stair step to the temple’s entrance (Fig. 4) features a well-known Buddhist motif, the flaming wheel flanked by two couchant deer.

According to Slusser (1982/1: 178), it was originally “the halved plinth of a Licchavi caitya.”

The top part of the tympanum features a [[Garuda] with a human face holding an amrtakalasa in his two main hands in front of his chest and clutching

two winged nagas with his claws. The tympanum’s sides bear images of Surya (proper right) and Candra (proper left) and two makaras. The centre shows three forms of Durga, each with four visible heads:

6 For a sketch of the historical development of the three manifestations, see Brown 1990: 132-154. Mahakali, Mahalaksmi and Mahasarasvati are worshipped successively at the time of the recitation of the Devimahatmya or Durgasaptasatl, a text ascribed to the Markandeya-Purana (ca. 500-600 CE). The goddesses are associated with the colours dark, red and white respectively, with the qualities (gwwa) darkness (tarn as),

passion (rajas) and purity/goodness (sattva), and with the cosmic functions of reabsorption, maintenance and creation, which are usually attributed to Siva, Visnu and Brahma. The text of the Devimahatmya does not contain descriptions of the goddesses. They appear later in the Rahasyatraya, a text of unknown date, which is appended to the Devimahatmya and is considered an integral part of it by commentators. These

iconographic descriptions are also found in Devlbhagavata-Purana 9.50.65-72, which is part of a section of the Purana assigned to the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries (Brown 1990: 225). Contemporary editions of the Devimahatmya prefix the iconographic descriptions of the goddesses to the three mam sections of the Devimahatmya, as explained in more detail in Buhnemann (2000-01, vol. 1: 186-191). The verse describing

Mahakali precedes the ‘first account’ (prathamacaritra) of the text, the one addressing Mahalaksmi precedes the ‘middle account’ (madhyamacaritra), and the one on Mahasarasvati is inserted before the ‘final account’ (uttamacaritra). However, the descriptions do not agree in every detail with the iconography of

the three goddesses on the tympanum, especially in the case of Mahasarasvati. The iconography of Mahasarasvati on the tympanum also differs from that of the statue in the temple.

larger figure of Mahalaksmi on a lion in the middle, and a smaller figure of Mahakali on a corpse to Mahalaksmi’s proper right and of Mahasarasvati on a peacock (instead of a goose) to Mahalaksmi’s proper left. According to an inscription below the three figures, the tympanum dates from the month of marga in N.S. 980 (1859 CE).

On the front (or western) side of the temple, wooden carvings of the charnel grounds can be seen, three on either side of the entrance. They feature Bhairavas, funeral pyres and characteristic animals. Though recent works, they may have replaced similar carvings from an earlier time. The four wooden

struts on this side of the temple display Mother Goddesses and, on their lower parts, Mahasiddhas with their female attendants. These struts are also new but again may have replaced older ones with similar carvings.

An adjacent shrine on the south-western corner of the temple houses ancient stone sculptures of the Mother Goddesses (Michaels 1994/1: 95, pl. 28); animals are sacrificed there regularly. One of the sikhara shrines in the temple compound currently houses an image of Surya on a chariot pulled by seven horses.

This image, locally known as Surya-Narayana, is not likely to be the original one. Numerous complex goddess figures are found on the outer facade of the

shrine, which may indicate that it was originally dedicated to a goddess. A sculpture of Dhanvantari is found in the sanctum of another shrine located near a sunken stepped fountain on the other side of the road.

The Bhairava Mural

The northern wall of the temple bears a large colourful mural of a Bhairava-like figure surrounded by the Eight Charnel Grounds (Fig. 6). It is covered by a protective screen, already visible in photographs taken by John C. Huntington in 1970 (Fig. 7).7 Below the painting is a wooden shrine of Nasadya, the

god of dance, identified in Nepal with Siva Nataraja, and to its sides, paintings relating to the theme of witchcraft, featuring women leading their husbands on a leash to a sacrifice. One rather similar painting is seen in Patan’s Momadu-galli (“the lane of Chinnamasta”). In an appreciation of the Bhairava painting, Ronald M. Bernier (1978: 139) wrote,

The mural on the outside of the temple is another unusual feature. Recent in date, the painting is very large, covering an entire projecting wall from base to cornice. It shows a large figure of a fierce god encircled by flames and many attendant figures. The figure, which is bright blue in color, appears to

represent Bhairava, who is associated with the goddess for whom the temple is named. The implements held in the god’s many arms suggest this also. Several Shiva symbols are also found around the structure, but the large exterior painting of Bhairava is by far the most outstanding iconographic element as well

as one of the most colorful exterior temple paintings in Kathmandu Valley. Like the lithographed holy pictures that flood Nepal from India, the mural has universal appeal no doubt. The mural is indeed quite unique, as I will show below.

An informant8 reported the following legend about the mural’s origin.

8 Interview with Mukunda Vaidya, who oversees the temple’s bhajan program, on June 19, 2011

the goddess was very beautiful he started following her. When Jayavagisvari noticed this, she ordered her son Ganesa to deal with him. Ganesa cut off the

Bhairava’s head and peeled the skin off his body. The mother and son affixed the skin to the wall of the temple and it turned into the Bhairava painting. In conformity with this legend, a photograph displayed in the temple’s bhajan hall (Fig. 8), which reproduces the mural without a protective screen, labels

the Bhairava ‘Tusal Bhairav’. MICHAELS (1994/1: 81-82) records a slightly different version of the legend, according to which Jayavagisvari requested protection from Siva, who proceeded to tear the skin off of the Bhairava. Michaels does not record the name Tusal, and refers to this Bhairava as

Nilabhairava. This is likely a popular name given to the deity because of his blue complexion. As noted before, this label is occasionally also applied to the blue-faced Bhairava inside the temple’s sanctum. However, the name Nilabhairava does not seem to be attested in manuscripts or printed texts, the name Kalabhairava being the common one.

The mural is renewed every twelve years. MICHAELS (1994/1: 81, 96, fig. 29) describes a renewal in 1989/90 which lasted about six months and during which period the outer walls of the temple were covered with white

cloths . That the tradition of renewing the painting was already in place by V.S. 1904 (1848 CE) follows from a decree of Surendra Vikram Sah, which guaranteed that those involved in the process were released from unpaid labour (text and translation in MICHAELS 1994/1: 156, 349). A sketch prepared

for the mural (Fig. 11), which I recently discovered in an artist’s sketchbook in the Newark Museum ( 82.253), allows us to push this date back by almost one hundred years.

The mural was photographed by John C. Huntington in 1970 (Fig. 7), by Axel Michaels in 1981 or 1982 (Michaels 1994/1: 81, pl. 19; Michaels/ Tandan in Hutt et al. 1994: 190) and by myself, most recently, in 2011 (Fig. 6). When one compares the photographs, which show the mural in different cycles of

renewal, it becomes clear that the iconography has changed little over time. In the mural photographed in 2011 three of the eight matrkas and five of the Mahasiddhas appear in different charnel grounds, and some of the characteristic animals are found in different spots. Unlike the sketch, the mural as

photographed in 2011 features various species of trees, and the bhutas can be distinguished on the basis of the hand-held attributes. One should, however, keep in mind that painters have the freedom to add details not outlined in a sketch.

The sketch in the Newark Museum contains the following five lines of text in the Newari language:

(Text inscribed on Bhairava's lower right leg:)

\siddhi sign] goraya jayava geseriya phuta da yakam taya jura

(Text inscribed on the right arm of the corpse on which Bhairava is standing:)


“Hail! The representation (phuta) was made for Jayavagisvari (‘Jayavageseri’) of Gola (‘Gora’, i.e., Deupatan).

Hail! Samvat

It is quite possible that the unknown artist made the sketch before the mural was first painted on the northern wall of the temple, although it could also be that the drawing was used when the mural was renewed in

As noted before, records in the Newari language attest to complex ritual activities conducted at the temple during exactly this time period (SHAKYA 2001: 30, 37-38, 47).

The sketch features an eight-armed Bhairava with flame-like hair standing in a militant stance on a male corpse which rests on a lotus. Bhairava holds a sword and shield along with an elephant hide in his upper (posterior) pair of hands; a rattle drum and a skull-topped staff (khatvdnga) in the second pair

of hands; and a trident and the severed head (of the god Brahma) with four faces in the third pair of hands. His lower (front) right hand holds a skull cup (kapalapatra) and the lower left displays the bindumudra. The bindumudra is the mudra of offering as libations (tarpana) - by flicking the fingers of one

hand - drops (bindu) of a liquid (an alcoholic beverage or blood) contained in a skull-cup held in the opposing hand. Bhairava’s body is adorned with snake ornaments and a garland of skulls. Two smaller emaciated figures holding a skull cup and flaying knife stand near his feet. Their complexion is specified

as ni (nila, dark blue) and ra (rakta, red). These figures are attendants who commonly serve Bhairava or other wrathful deities.10 In the background are seen the Eight Charnel Grounds, four on either side. In the version of the painting photographed in 2011 (Fig. 6) they are separated

by a river containing makaras. All charnel grounds feature a directional guardian (dikpala) seated on a mount; a Mother Goddess (matrka) standing on an animal mount; a Mahasiddha with a female attendant; and a characteristic animal. In addition, in each of them there are an unspecified

9 For the term Gola/Gvala referring to Deupatan, see Michaels 1994/1: 24-25 and 2008: 42-43.

10 For a Nepalese painting (whose date corresponds to 1754/55 CE) of a similar Bhairava figure flanked by two attendants in a charnel grounds setting featuring two funeral pyres, scattered bones and skeletons,

naked bhuta, labelled as sii (grey), tending a funeral pyre; a caitya; a shivalinga; and a tree. While some texts specify the names of the charnel grounds and the names of the entities that inhabit or occupy them, including caityas, trees, lakes with nagas, mountains and clouds, the sketch does not do so.

Only colours are occasionally indicated, using the following abbreviations:

ku: kufikuma - golden

ni: mla - dark

pi or vi: pita - yellow ra:

rakta - red

rd or la: launa, Newari - ‘flesh colour’, light red

sii: siyu, Newari - grey

to: toyu, Newari - white

The Eight Charnel Grounds

In the sketch, the figures of the dikpalas in the charnel grounds enable us to determine the cardinal directions. Accordingly, the east, presided over by Indra, who is mounted on an elephant, is off to [[Bhairava’s] lower right side.

Proceeding clockwise we then arrive at the following arrangement:

1. East ([[Indra])

2. South-east (Agni)

3. South (Yama)

4. South-west (Nairrta) .

5. West (Varuna) Bhairava

6. North-west (Vayu)

7. North (Kubera)

8. North-east (Isana)

The individual charnel grounds are inhabited by the following types of beings:

1. Eastern charnel ground

Directional guardian: Indra, ku (golden), on an elephant

Mother goddess: Brahmani (called Brahmayani in Nepal), pi (yellow), on a goose

Mahasiddha: Indrabhutipa; with attendant, rd (light red)

Characteristic animal: crow

11 I have discussed texts on and artistic representations of the charnel grounds in Buddhist and Saiva sources in Buhnemann 2007. For descriptions of charnel grounds in Buddhist texts, see Meisezahl 1974, Tsuda 1990 and English 2002: 136-143, 347. For an art-historical study of the charnel grounds in early Tibetan mandalas, see Neumann 2002.

2. South-eastern charnel ground

Directional guardian: Agni, ra (red), on a goat/ram

Mother goddess: Mahesvari, to (white), on a bull

Mahasiddha: Dombipa/Dombi Heruka, riding a tiger; with attendant, rd (light red)

Characteristic animal: snake

3. Southern charnel ground

Directional guardian: Yama, on a buffalo

Mother goddess: Kauman, ra (red), on a peacock (2011 mural: Vaisnavi?) Mahasiddha: Virupa; with attendant, rd (light red) (2011 mural: Kukkuripa) Characteristic animal: dog

4. South-western charnel ground

Directional guardian: Nairrta, rd (light red), on a corpse

Mother goddess: Vaisnavi, va (green), on Garuda (2011 mural: [[Varalli] on a buffalo)

Mahasiddha: Luipa, ni (dark) (2011 mural: unidentified Siddha); with attendant, rd (light red)

Characteristic animal: jackal

5. Western charnel ground

Directional guardian: Varuna, to (white), on amakara

Mother goddess: Varahi, ra (red), on a buffalo (2011 mural: [[[Wikipedia:Matrikas|Kaumari]]]] on a peacock)

Mahasiddha: Nagarjuna, with snake hood, pi (yellow); with attendant

Characteristic animal: horse (2011 mural:[ horse]], elephant and crow)

6. North-western charnel ground

Directional guardian: Vayu (often called Vayavya in Nepal), va (green), on a deer/gazelle

Mother goddess: Indrani (called Indrayani in Nepal), on an elephant (the paper is slightly broken off)

Mahasiddha: Ghantapa, rd (light red); with attendant, rd (light red) (2011 mural: Virupa?)

Characteristic animal: lion

7. Northern charnel ground

Directional guardian: Kubera, pi (yellow), on a horse

Mother goddess:Camunda, ra (red), on a corpse

Mahasiddha: Kukkuripa, rd (light red); with attendant rd (light red) (2011 mural: unidentified Siddha)

Characteristic animal: vulture (The edge of the paper is broken off.) (2011 mural: no animal)

8. North-eastern charnel ground

Directional guardian: Isana, to (white), on a bull

Mother goddess: Mahalaksmi, ku (golden), on a lion

Mahasiddha: Saraha (or Savaripa), vi (yellow); with attendant rd (light red) (2011 mural: Luipa)

Characteristic animal: boar

As noted before, all charnel grounds feature a caitya as well as a sivalihga. As I have shown in Buhnemann 2007, the combined appearance of these two prominent objects of worship became popular in Buddhist as well as in Saiva texts and images in mid-seventeenth-century Nepal. Older Buddhist sources

describe or feature merely stupas! caityas as part of charnel grounds, and Saiva sources merely sivalirigas. The earliest example of the combination of caityas and sivalirigas in such representations in Newar Buddhist art is in a paintedmandala of Cakrasamvara (reproduced in PAL 2003: 219) whose date

corresponds to 1648. PAL (1975: 97, pl. 64) ascribes a group of metal figures (featuring entities situated within the charnel grounds, including 1 ingas and caityas) to the fourteenth century or even earlier. This date, however, is far too early and should be reconsidered.

The series of Eight Mahasiddhas consisting of Indrabhutipa, Dombipa, Virupa, Luipa, Nagarjuna, Ghantapa, Kukkuripa and Saraha is the one found in many

Buddhist mandala paintings (Luczanits 2006: 88-89), especially those ofCakrasamvara prepared by Newar artists (Huntington/Bangdel 2003: 267; Buhnemann 2012: 67-68, 154-155). These Mahasiddhas can be discerned clearly, for example, in a paubha dating from ca. 1812 CE (Huntington/Bangdel 2003: 287).

The Brahmanical group of the Eight Mothers (matrikas) which inhabits the charnel grounds came to be accepted in Buddhist circles in Nepal early on but is not included in descriptions of the charnel grounds in Buddhist texts from India or Tibet.


How does the Bhairava mural on the northern wall of the temple fit in with the statue of Jayavagisvari in the sanctum and the representations of the other divinities in the temple complex? The chronicle of Padmagiri (p. 25) and Wright’s chronicle (p. 130) report that Jayavagisvari came to Nepal from

Manasarovara (in Tibet), crossing the Sila (i.e., the Gandaki) River. It is clear that she is not a regular form of Sarasvati but rather a form of Durga, namely Mahasarasvati as described in the Devimahatmya. As Durga, she can then be associated with Bhairava. However, given the eclectic nature of the

Jayavagisvari Temple complex, which contains shrines and elements from different religious groups and time periods, it may be pointless to try to find such a connection.

The Bhairava in the centre of the mural displays his characteristic attributes, but the detailed representation of the charnel grounds is rare in Saiva works of art, and possibly adopted from Buddhist iconography. It is also possible that Bhairava’s iconography was conflated with that of a Buddhist figure

such as Mahakala. Mahakala, who can be represented as surrounded by the Eight Charnel Grounds, is also known as Mahakala-bhairava in Nepal, where Bhairava is a common element attached to the names of wrathful male divinities.

That Bhairava and perhaps Mahakala were conflated in seventeenth-century Nepal can be assumed from a paubha previously in the possession of S. Lienhard (Macdonald/Vergati Stahl 1979: 130, pl. 99). Details of the inscription with its date (said to correspond to 1689 CE) cannot be discerned in the published

photograph. It features an eight-armed wrathful deity, identified as Bhairava by Macdonald/Vergati Stahl,12 surrounded by simple representations of the Eight Charnel Grounds, four on either side. All charnel grounds feature a caitya and a funeral pyre, and all have identical features. Given the

representation of the five Buddhist figures in the top register of the painting, however, and of the Siddhas Virupa and Luipa further below, it is likely that the figure in the centre is actually a Buddhist divinity, possibly a form of Mahakala.

12 Si 1AK YA (2008: 210) reports that he saw a similar painting in Bhaktapur in 1990. It was likely because of the presence of the charnel grounds that SHAKYA assumed that the figure in the centre is ‘Masana’

Tibetan prayer-flags now decorate the mural at the Jayavagisvari Temple, perhaps indicating that some Buddhists worship there, too. If so, they may perhaps consider the central figure to be, or confuse it with, Mahakala.

The representation of charnel grounds in the painting may ultimately have been inspired by the burning ghats of the nearby Pasupatinath Temple, on the route to which the Jayavagisvari Temple is located. It is said that women committing sati changed their clothes and offered their jewellery at the

Jayavagisvari Temple on their way to these ghats (Slusser 1982/1: 178, note 86; Michaels 1994/1: 151). A song in the Newari language (Lienhard 1974: 119-121,230-232, no. 95) narrates how Queen Bijyalaksmi, in the eighteenth century, made an offering to Jayavagisvari before committing sati.

The painting can be compared to two large well-known Bhairava murals on the outer walls of temples or shrines in Nepal: the wall painting outside the Candesvari Temple, Banepa (Slusser 1982/2: pl. 368) and the one of Tika Bhairava near Lele village (ibid.: pl. 361). These paintings, however, do not

feature the charnel grounds. The monumental seventeenth-century stone sculpture of Kalabhairava on Kathmandu’s Darbar Square, although only sixarmed and stepping in the other direction, also comes to mind, but again, no charnel grounds are represented.

Thus the mural at the Jayavagisvari Temple with its detailed representation of the Eight Charnel Grounds is quite unique, and the artist’s sketch is an important find proving not only that the tradition of the painting goes back to at least 1755/56 CE but also that the iconography has changed little over the centuries.


I would like to thank Kashinath Tamot for help with the Newari material and Govind Tandan, Mukund Vaidya and Manik Bajracharya for providing useful information. I am indebted to Gerd Mevissen for suggestions on an earlier version of this paper and Katherine Paul for permission to reproduce a line

drawing from the collection of the Newark Museum. Special thanks are extended to Axel Michaels and John C. Huntington and The Huntington Archive at The Ohio State University for providing photographs.

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