My preface to Sylvain Levi’s Le Nepal

[An English translation of Sylvain Levi’s Le Nepal will be coming out soon.  The book is translated by Mary Harris and edited by me.  The remarks below are excerpted from my preface.]

This is an English translation of the monumental book, Le Népal: Étude Historique d’un Royaume Hindou, by Sylvain Lévi, a French scholar, who gained his fame as Indologist through the study of Sanskrit.  As a scholar of Sanskrit, Lévi taught at the Sorbonne, followed by his appointment of Professor of Sanskrit and Religion at the Collège de France.  Le Népal, in three volumes, has remained a standard work on Nepal. Its scope and breadth are ambitious because it encompasses everything—including geography, history, people, art, culture and religion—about Nepal.

Andras Höfer aptly observes, “[…] this pioneering book is unfortunately more often quoted than really read.”[1]  Like many scholars of Nepal, I too have quoted Lévi’s book, but have not fully read it.  The reason is simple.  It was not available in English translation when I was a graduate student in the 1970s and 1980s.[2]  Its English translations began to appear in small installments in a journal in Nepal in 1973.  But it took many years to complete the translations of all three volumes of the book, and they are scattered over a period of twenty years in many issues of Ancient Nepal, making it extremely difficult to access them.

Apart from these translations published in small installments, the translations are not published in a book giving easy access to scholars and students of the non-French speaking world.  So there is an utter need for a book that brings together the complete translations of Lévi’s Le Népal in English in a single volume.  The present volume is an answer to that need.

[1] Andras Höfer, “On Re-Reading Le Népal: What We Social Scientists Owe to Sylvain Lévi” in Kailash, pp. 175-190.

[2] The entire book was translated into English by the Department of Archaeology of His Majesty’s Government in Kathmandu, Nepal, and published in small installments in Ancient Nepal starting in 1973 and ending in 1990.  PDF files are available through Digital Himalaya.  Visit

It has come to my attention that Levi’s Le Népal has been translated into Nepali by the late Dilli Raj Uprety, a Nepali diplomat who was stationed in Paris.

[1] Andras Höfer, “On Re-Reading Le Népal: What We Social Scientists Owe to Sylvain Lévi” in Kailash, pp. 175-190.

[2] The entire book was translated into English by the Department of Archaeology of His Majesty’s Government in Kathmandu, Nepal, and published in small installments in Ancient Nepal starting in 1973 and ending in 1990.  PDF files are available through Digital Himalaya.  Visit

It has come to my attention that Levi’s Le Népal has been translated into Nepali by the late Dilli Raj Uprety, a Nepali diplomat who was stationed in Paris.

My two years of French, which I took to fulfill the language requirement for my Ph.D. degree, were not enough to enable me to read Le Népal effortlessly.  When it took more than 20 minutes for me to read and understand a page of Levi’s Le Népal, I knew it was time for me to retire the book forever.

Levi was an Indologist and a product of 19th century Europe.  His Le Népal is not easy to read.  His narrative is descriptive and relies heavily on vernacular and Sanskrit jargons.  But that narrative is rich with information on a given subject.  For instance, in one place he asserts that “Nepal’s medieval and modern history repeats the genesis of India, just as in a laboratory.”  Additionally, Lévi notes “that the plan hidden under the muddled mass of events in the process by which the Kathmandu Valley came to be populated, organized and policed and by which cults, languages and institutions slowly changed.”  Patriotic Nepalis who seek to detach themselves from India may not agree with his observation.  They may even find his statement offensive.

Although Nepal has enjoyed political independence since the beginning of time, it is deeply rooted in India’s culture and religion.  It is these cultural and religious roots that Levi is alluding to.  Only a man who has deeply understood the history and culture of a nation can make such a statement, and for that, Levi should not be condemned.

Sylvain Lévi visited Nepal for the first time in 1897[1].  But his love affair with Nepal did not end there.  He made two more trips to Nepal—one in 1921 and the other in 1925—even after his three volumes of Le Népal had already been published.[2]  This shows that he truly was captivated by Nepal’s art and culture.  During his second trip his wife accompanied him to Kathmandu and kept a diary of her own.

[1] Mahāmahopādhyāya Hara Prasād Sastri, an Indian scholar affiliated with the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and Cecil Bendall, professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University in England, made a research expedition to Nepal in 1898–99. A major objective of the expedition was to examine and catalog the palm-leaf manuscripts in the Durbar Library, many of which had been acquired by Mahārāja Sir Vīra Sumsher Jung Bahādur Rānā. According to Bendall, this collection, “as regards the antiquity of the documents,” was “surpassed by no Sanskrit Library known to exist.” This book, A Catalogue of Palm-leaf and Selected Paper Manuscripts Belonging to the Durbar Library, Nepal, came out in 1905 in the same year Levi’s Le Nepal was published.  The travels of Levi, Haraa Prasad Sastri and Cecil Bendall coincide within a year part.  It is possible that they may have encountered in Kathmandu while they were working there.

[2] Riccardi, Theodore, Jr., “Sylvain Levi: The History of Nepal.  Part I,” in Kailash: A Journal of Himalayan Studies (ISSN 0377-7499), p. 8.

[3] Mahāmahopādhyāya Hara Prasād Sastri, an Indian scholar affiliated with the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and Cecil Bendall, professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University in England, made a research expedition to Nepal in 1898–99. A major objective of the expedition was to examine and catalog the palm-leaf manuscripts in the Durbar Library, many of which had been acquired by Mahārāja Sir Vīra Sumsher Jung Bahādur Rānā. According to Bendall, this collection, “as regards the antiquity of the documents,” was “surpassed by no Sanskrit Library known to exist.” This book, A Catalogue of Palm-leaf and Selected Paper Manuscripts Belonging to the Durbar Library, Nepal, came out in 1905 in the same year Levi’s Le Nepal was published.  The travels of Levi, Haraa Prasad Sastri and Cecil Bendall coincide within a year part.  It is possible that they may have encountered in Kathmandu while they were working there.

[4] Riccardi, Theodore, Jr., “Sylvain Levi: The History of Nepal.  Part I,” in Kailash: A Journal of Himalayan Studies (ISSN 0377-7499), p. 8.

Although Levi was a linguist, he considered himself a historian.[1]  He believed that a researcher first must understand the history of a country before he can understand its people, culture, society and government.  While he was in Kathmandu as a guest of Maharaja Sri Sri Sri Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana[2] he studied the ancient and current histories of Nepal.[3]

Lévi’s Le Népal is an account of the country based on his maiden voyage. During his stay in Kathmandu, Lévi also culled information from authors before him.  His research resulted in three volumes.  The first volume, published by Ernest Leroux, Paris, came out in 1905.  Volumes two and three were released in 1908 by the same publisher.  Because volume three is a compilation of various inscriptions found throughout the valley, the present translation does not include it.  Readers interested in inscriptions are referred to the translations contained in Ancient Nepal.[4]

The first two volumes are divided into six broad sections: I.  Introduction, II. The Kingdom, III. The Documents, IV. Culture, V.  History of Nepal, and VI. Two Months in Nepal.  They contain most of the materials that I consider the meaty part of the book.  Packed with Nepal’s ancient and current histories up to the time of Maharaja Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana with reference to people, art, culture and religion, they provide a solid foundation of the country and help in understanding the ethos of Nepal.  Although Le Népal is somewhat historiocentric, it is filled with passionate discussions of the origins and meanings of art, culture and customs of Nepal—the portrayal of which comes as a nation in flux with a character of its own albeit having Indic roots.  In short, the book has a wealth of information about the origins and the making of Nepal as a nation.

[5] Op.cit, Ancient Nepal, p. 196.

[6] To show his appreciation to his guest, a photo of the Prime Minister has been printed on the first page of the book followed by a dedication in Sanskrit.

[7] Obviously Levi was a guest of the royal palace and he was treated as such.  In addition to assigning a retinue of staff including a pundit, a palace administrator and porters, Levi was given full access to archives, libraries and museums for his research.

[8] See Digital Himalaya, op. cit.

The following two articles by Deepak Shimkhada are excerpted from


Many sensational articles have recently appeared in the Western media, some with titles such as “Kumari in Peril,” “Kumari Sacked from Her Throne,” “Nepal’s Living Goddess Retires,” and “Nepal’s Living Goddess May Die Soon.” The last title may prove to be prophetic because Kumari, as a tradition, is about to become extinct, if elements of Nepal’s new government and some Western human rights groups have their way.


The temple of Kumari, a living embodiment of the Hindu goddess Durga, has been a significant shrine of national importance in Nepal for over three centuries. Ever since Nepal was thrown open to the world with the abolition of the Rana dynasty in the mid twentieth century, the temple has also increasingly become a popular tourist attraction. The admixture of politics and religion is not a new phenomenon in the history of Nepal, but for ages the Valley has also been an exemplar of Hindu-Buddhist unity. The blatant attempt by the new government to eliminate a popular religious and cultural institution is both unnecessary and unwelcome.

While the temple itself is only three centuries old, the tradition of worshipping the goddess in a virgin form in South Asia and among the Hindus is over two millennia old. Not only was the ancient shrine to her at Kanyakumari (the virgin maiden) at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent well known to the Romans, but the worship of a virgin girl is an essential part of the autumnal worship of the goddess Durga. Nowhere is this religious festival more important than in Bengal among the Bengali speaking Hindus where a virgin girl is the center of the celebration. The Maoists of Nepal should note that the Communists who have been ruling West Bengal for over two decades have not abolished the tradition.



Although the worship of Kumari was officially instituted by King Jayaprakasha Malla (1736-1768) of Nepal in 1757 by building a permanent shrine for her in the heart of the Kathmandu Durbar Square, Kumari’s origin can be traced to King Trailokya Malla (1560 –1613) of Bhaktapur in the sixteenth century. According to a popular legend, it was this king who instituted the tradition of Kumari after forfeiting the right to see Durga in person. [1] However, the Goddess Taleju, who was believed to have been brought to the Kathmandu Valley by King Hari Singh Deva in 1323 from Simrongarh, [2] remained a tutelary deity of the Malla dynasty as well as of the Shah Kings. Taleju was recognized as a form of the Goddess Durga, who appeared in human form in front of King Trailokya Malla every night. The king and the beautiful goddess played a game of dice (tripasa); this continued for some time until one night, overcome by desire, the king made sexual advances toward the goddess. When this happened, the goddess disappeared. The king then felt remorse, but Taleju appeared in the king’s dream and told him that she would appear in the body of a virgin girl of the Shakya caste, a Buddhist by faith, who would bless him every year. The Kumari in her present form is the embodiment of the Goddess Durga. As can be seen, the Kumari tradition not only has historical and religious foundations, but embodies a clear attempt by a ruler to bring Hindus and Buddhists together in harmonious coexistence.

Kumari Ghar

Every September during the Kumari chariot festival (Ratha Jatra), the Malla king would go to Kumari’s residence to receive her blessings. With her blessings the king was given the mandate to rule for another year. Kumari’s Ratha Jatraactually coincides with the Indra Jatra, the festival of Indra (of Vedic origin) to signal the end of the monsoon season. In the Kathmandu Valley the monsoon brings more rain than necessary, and therefore the end of the rain is a welcome sign. There is no better way to celebrate this than with a festival dedicated to Indra, the Vedic God of Rain, and to Kumari, the Living Goddess, who assures prosperity.

Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha in West Nepal, the founder of the Shah dynasty that was deposed in 2008, vanquished the Malla kings, [3] but retained the custom of worshipping Kumari, making the goddess the protector of his own dynasty. Prithvi Narayan Shah, technically an outsider, was smart enough not only to recognize the wisdom of continuing an established tradition that fostered unity among the two religious communities but also contributed to his own legitimacy.


From the time of the Malla kings in the sixteenth century to the time of the Shah Kings in the twenty-first century, Kumari has played the role of the protector of Nepal’s rulers. However, as Nepal assumes a new identity as a republic, and the role of the king comes to an abrupt end, [4] should the new changes abolish some of the age-old traditions that are neither burdensome to the state nor harmful to society? The Maoist party, which has taken a lead role in the forming of a new government, believes in principle neither in organized religion nor in religious institutions. The Maoist lawmaker and winner of a seat in the constituent assembly election, Janardan Sharma, recently declared, “All institutions associated with the royal family and feudalism will have to be changed. The Kumari is not an essential institution for the new Nepal.” [5] Since Kumari is intimately associated with the royal house of Nepal, she falls into the category of institutions to be abolished. But Kumari is not the only religious institution that is closely related to royalty. What about Pashupatinath and even Macchendranath?

President in
Kumari house

It should also be noted that the new Nepal governemnt is not monolithic in regard to the question of the further existence of the Kumari, and Janardan Sharma’s views are not shared by all elements of the government. When the Constituent Assembly elected Rama Baran Yadav as the country’s new president – a new post which replaces some of the king’s role as head of state – one of his first acts was to take darshan and blessings of the Royal Kumari, which he did on July 22, 2008.

President Yadav also went some days later “with full state fanfare” to witness the showing of the bhoto of Macchendranath at Jawalakhel in Patan, another duty of the king in the past. This act was the subject of a critical article in one of Nepal’s major English dailies, The Kathmandu Post, whose author opined: “Political parties have to be more progressive, forward looking and consider just how they can manage to keep the top job of the secular state free of any attachment to religious traditions.” [6]


Today, in the name of modernity, some members of human rights groups and the newly elected government are proposing that the Kumari tradition be abolished for good. Although the tradition of a living goddess is also known in India, the personification of Goddess Durga’s maiden virginity in a Buddhist girl and the annual festival associated with her is unique to Nepal. The roots of the Kumari tradition and why she has become a pawn in the power struggle are significant phenomena to examine. In this short paper I will argue against abolishing the Kumari tradition from cultural, social, and economic perspectives.

Present context

My interest in this subject was sparked by a BBC report. [7] I was so much moved by the news that I wrote a letter to the Kathmandu Post, which published it the same week. Scott Berry, an American writer who coauthored the book From Goddess to Mortal with Rashmila Shakya, [8] a former living goddess, emailed me in support of my position on the issue.

Patan Kumari

The BBC article reported that the petition to the court to abolish the Kumari tradition was filed last year by a human rights group on the grounds of exploitation and psychological damage suffered by the girls selected as Kumaris. Chunda Bajracharya, a researcher on Newar culture, told the BBC that the tradition has not affected Kumaris’ individual rights. In fact, it has elevated their status in society as “someone divine, someone who’s above the rest.” The court in its wisdom asked that a committee consisting of experts on Kumari be formed. This body has been charged with coming up with recommendations. Based on these recommendations, the court will deliver its verdict. While the petition is pending in the court, the controversy has escalated because the political climate of Nepal has suddenly changed. What effect this will have on the fate of the Kumari is not hard to guess, given the temperament of some parties of the government. Hopefully the judiciary will remain neutral.

Bhaktapur Kumari

It is true that the girls selected to be Kumaris are separated from their families and are required to live in the Kumari House until they complete their term. The fact that these young girls, who would otherwise be in school playing with their friends, are suddenly removed from a conventional social environment and kept in a controlled environment may indeed be an issue for discussion. However, we have to weigh the other benefits accorded to the young girls, such as special care, veneration, security, and home schooling, which they otherwise would not likely receive. Also, let us not forget that the girl’s parents are often allowed to live with the Kumari at her residence to avoid any emotional problems. Although she may not have the freedom to go out to play or do chores like any normal girl of her age, she is kept sufficiently occupied in her residence by her caretakers. The human rights group has charged that the Kumaris have been exploited, but they failed to explain exactly how and by whom.

Such terms as “exploitation” and “psychological damage” are loaded with ambiguities. Have members of the group really researched the situation of the Kumaris? Have they interviewed the Kumaris to see how they feel about this issue? What is the actual percentage of girls that do not marry after they leave the Kumari House? What is their mental health while they try to lead a normal life? If there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that they indeed suffer emotional damage because of social discrimination and cultural victimization, then we need to find ways to rehabilitate them by providing vocational training, jobs, and a retirement package so that they may be reintegrated into mainstream society. Doing away with the Kumari tradition is not the answer.

Royal Kumari

In the book authored by Rashmila Shakya, the former Royal Kumari, and the two recent documentaries on Kumari produced by Western filmmakers that I have seen, [9] there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that any former Kumari felt that her experience was a negative one. In open interviews, all former Kumaris, including the oldest surviving Kumari (Hira Lal Shakya, who was said to be eighty-five years old when the documentary was made in 2005), enjoyed their role as a Kumari and never regretted it. So what is the fuss? They all felt empowered and special, even if only for a few years. If the Kumaris do not feel that they have been exploited, isn’t the human rights group acting as Big Brother? Is this really such a significant social problem of Nepal that it requires court intervention?


Nepal has many social problems. Here are a few: Girls are being sold into prostitution every day. In some parts of the country, girls who are barely thirteen years old are being married to much older men. These girls tend to become pregnant at a young age, exposing them to birth complications and even death. Most girls are not given the opportunity to get an education. Instead of attending school, many underage girls are forced to work. These are not practices essential to Nepali religious tradition. Abolishing the Kumari tradition will not solve these more serious problems.

Kumari Ghar

By doing away with venerated, age-old customs, elements of the new Nepali government and some human rights organization may be going down the path to wiping out their culture, history, and identity as Nepalis. Cultural identity is more important than political identity. As we move toward assuring essential human rights for all, we should preserve those customs that make us who we are. As a Nepali, I certainly hope that the newly elected government in power will think twice before abolishing cultural traditions that add value to the country’s heritage and prestige, and bring financial gain to the country through tourism. Although Kumari was traditionally associated with the throne, she does not have to disappear just because Nepal has voted to abolish the monarchy. Judging by the situation on the globe all heads of states could do with the blessings of a living goddess. The people of Nepal, who need and seek peace, harmony, and reconciliation, need Kumari’s blessings more than ever.

On August 18, after this article was written, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that the Royal Kumari should be able to go to school. The court ruled that “there are no historic and religious documents that say Kumaris should be denied their child rights guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child”. The court further said that the there should be no restriction on the Kumaris from going to school, on their free movement and enjoying health related rights.A few days later, the present incumbent Kumari, Preeti Shkaya (granddaughter of one of Nepal’s most famous religious artists, Siddhimuni Shakya) started to attend school.

The court did not address the continued existence of the tradition of the living goddess, but confined itself to ruling on the restrictions that had been placed by tradition on the movement and education of the Kumari.


Setting the Stage
The paintings under investigation come from Mohan Chowk in the Hanuman Dhoka palace, and they are neither dated nor signed. Additionally, there are no literary, historical and oral accounts giving information about their existence. In the absence of this information, how does an art historian find out when they were painted and by whom? In this paper, I go one step further like a criminal investigator as to why they were painted.

In a criminal investigation, the following factors are taken into account: time and location of the crime, modus operandi, type of weapon used, motive and the identity of the perpetrator. Although an art historian is not a criminal investigator, he does set out to gather three sets of information to aid his investigation of the work of art in question, namely 1) the subject matter, 2) the style in which the work is executed, and 3) the place where the work is found. Because the Mohan Chowk paintings are comparable with the works of the 19th century, we can confidently place them in that era, although it would be good to narrow them down to a specific year. They are mural paintings, and we know exactly where they are located. But we do not know their patron and their purpose. These are the challenges to which I will propose my solutions here.

The Palace Under Attack

A palace stands on the right hand corner of a sprawling landscape (fig.1, right side). It is fortified with high walls, built to thwart enemy attacks. Nevertheless, the enemy soldiers manage to gain access to the palace from the south side and mount a fierce attack. The Kolavidhvamsin soldiers, brandishing swords, gain control of the palace unopposed, even though they are inferior in numbers and strength to those of the kingdom they are attacking.[2]

A man is seen fleeing from the palace, riding on a horse. This is King Suratha, the ruler of the kingdom, who has chosen to flee rather than fight the Kolavidhvamsins, for reasons I will explain later. This is the scene from a wall painting in Mohan Chowk of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Kathmandu, Nepal. The paintings are executed on the walls of a room where Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah, king of Nepal, may have spent his last days. I will come to this later. But first, information on the location of the paintings is in order.


Mohan Chowk
Mohan Chowk is a small courtyard tucked away within the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex, the seat of the Malla Kings for a long time. After the Mallas, who were deposed by the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1769, the palace complex was used by the Shahs for ceremonial purposes. In one of the rooms of Mohan Chowk the murals from the Chandi are painted. The Chowk also contains one major stone sculpture from about the 8th century of the Lichchavi era of the boy Krishna killing a cobra, called Kaliyadamana.[3] So even today the courtyard is considered sacred, and it is therefore kept hidden from public view.[4]


Devi Mahatmya
The last room on the second floor of Mohan Chowk is painted with scenes from the Devi Mahatmaya, popularly known as Chandi in Nepal. The antechamber, through which one must enter the room where the Devi Mahatmya murals are painted, contains an additional number of paintings of the major Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha and Krishna. Because we are interested in connecting the Chandi murals to King Rajendra Bikram Shah, I will leave the individual paintings for later, although they might have been painted during his time.

The Chandi murals are especially important because they tell the story in a narrative fashion. The subject matter of the Mohan Chowk paintings is the Devi Mahatmaya, a section taken from the Skanda Purana that narrates the exploits of Goddess Durga and her glorification in the form of Shakti. Given the subject matter of the theme, a narrative style here is not only suitable but required to tell the story in a flowing manner. The story culminates in a mighty battle between the Goddess and the demon Mahishasura.

It is an epic story that is depicted in the paintings, one that incorporates stories within stories:

In the beginning, before the creation, there was nothing but water. Everything was covered with water. An ocean in the cosmos stood still. In the middle of this vast ocean slept God Vishnu on the bed of Naga Ananta, the endless serpent. From Vishnu’s navel a lotus stalk rose and on top of it Brahma sat absorbed in meditation.

Two demons—Madhu and Kaitabha—appeared from nowhere and attacked Brahma.[5] Intent on bringing the god down from the lotus seat (fig. 3) they shook the lotus stalk. Brahma was taken by fright. Brahma’s prayers finally woke Vishnu, who fought with the demons for five thousand years until they were killed.[6]

According to the frame story which begins the Devi Mahatmaya , King Suratha was overthrown by his own ministers who colluded with his enemies. Under the pretext of going hunting, the king entered a dense forest to hide. Quite by accident, however, there in the forest he entered the ashram of Sage Medha, where a man named Samadhi, a Vaisya by caste, was already sitting (fig. 2, left side).

Samadhi and King Suratha were in similar situations. Samadhi was disowned by his family even though he was kind to them and provided lavishly for them. Immediately the king and the Vaisya Samadhi became friends and took their problems to Sage Medha, who then narrated the greatness of the Goddess Durga—how she was invoked by the gods following their humiliating defeat and how they subsequently gained their power back by the Goddess’ grace. The Rishi’s purport in narrating the story of Devi Mahatmya to these men who have lost their fortunes seems to have been to instill in them the greatness of the Goddess. Faith in her will bring back their happiness. So in essence, she is the goddess to be invoked in times of difficulties.

In his narration, the Rishi paints a picture of the cosmic struggle for power between the gods and the demons, each representing as the diametrically opposing force.

In the beginning, before the creation, there was nothing but water. Everything was covered with water. An ocean in the cosmos stood still. In the middle of this vast ocean slept God Vishnu on the bed of Naga Ananta, the endless serpent. From Vishnu’s navel a lotus stalk rose and on top of it Brahma sat absorbed in meditation.

Two demons—Madhu and Kaitabha—appeared from nowhere and attacked Brahma.[5] Intent on bringing the god down from the lotus seat (fig. 3) they shook the lotus stalk. Brahma was taken by fright. Brahma’s prayers finally woke Vishnu, who fought with the demons for five thousand years until they were killed.[6]

The Rishi further recounted the story of the appearance of an exceptionally powerful demon, Mahisasura, who could take the form of either man or buffalo and who had received a boon from Brahma that no man could kill him. He attacked the heavens, and managed to defeat the army of the gods led by Lord Indra.

The defeated and humiliated gods, led by Brahma and Indra, go to Vishnu and Shiva for help (fig. 4). When Vishnu and Shiva hear their plight, they instruct the gods to invoke the Goddess residing within them.[7] In the following scene (fig. 5), all the gods gather in heaven to invoke the Goddess to manifest herself. The Goddess is not separate from the gods. She is their energy. As energy, she resides in them. To make her manifest, the gods form a giant circle and project their shaktis in the center. The gods’ energies appear in the form of laser beams and gather in the center. These million points of light coagulate into a ball of fire from which emerges a beautiful young goddess in all her majesty with 10 arms, carrying a different weapon in each of her hands. She rides on a fierce lion that roars like thunder.

When she appeared before them, the gods were awestruck and overjoyed. They stood praising and saluting her with their hands folded (fig. 6). This is the birth of the Goddess, even though she was already to this point existing in an unmanifested form.

“Now that you have invoked me to appear, how can I help you?” the Goddess asked the gods.

When she heard the sad plight of the gods, she went into action to defeat Mahisasura, the buffalo demon. A fierce battle then ensued between the armies of Mahisasura and the Goddess Durga (fig. 7). As the Goddess killed the armies of Mahisasura, a river of blood flowed. Finally, the buffalo demon Mahishasura is slayed by the Goddess (Fig. 8).

After narrating the story of the Goddess, Rishi Medha instructed the king and the merchant to worship Mahamaya, the great Goddess of compassion and delusion. Under the guidance of the sage, the two men did puja of the Goddess, and their luck returned. Messengers from the household of King Suratha and of merchant Samadhi came to invite them back with the full honor and privileges they deserved. Both of them received what they had lost: The king got his kingdom and the merchant got his property and family.

This sudden U-turn in these men’s lives was seen as a result of the grace of the Goddess Mahamaya. At the end of the Devi Mahatmya text Suratha and Samadhi returned home and lived happily ever after. The story has a fairytale tone to it, and the story’s happy ending seems to have appealed to a great many Goddess worshippers. And because Nepal is a home to the Goddess, the Devi Mahatmya has remained there to be immensely popular.

Why mention this story here? As I will demonstrate, this story has a direct connection to the person who lived in the room where the scenes of the Devi Mahatmya are painted. I argue that it was Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah who lived in the Mohan Chowk portion of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, and consequently it was he who commissioned the murals of the Chandi to be painted there.


Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah

Fig. 9
King Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah (fig. 9) was born in the Hanuman Dhoka Palace and was crowned as king in 1816 at the age of three after his father Girvan Yuddha Bikram Deva Shah died. Because he was a child king, his mother, Lalit Tripura Sundari, served as his regent and ruled Nepal until her death in 1832. Upon the passing of his mother, Bhimsen Thapa, his prime-minister, became regent. As regent, Bhimsen Thapa kept the young king in utter isolation, allowing very little freedom of movement. In all likelihood, the king was a prisoner in his own palace. When the young king came of age, however, he took the power from the prime-minister and ruled the kingdom without any outside intervention. Exercising his authoritative power, the king removed Bhimsen Thapa from the post of prime-minister. Shortly thereafter the youngest son of Rajendra’s elder queen died. This gave the king the opportunity to take his revenge on Bhimsen Thapa for all the restrictions that the latter had imposed on him; the king had Bhimsen Thapa arrested on the charge of poisoning the prince.

After a number of palace intrigues that led to the bloody Kot Massacre of 1846, the general who was involved in the Massacre took the power into his own hands and became the prime-minister. This person was Jung Bahadur Rana. After usurping power, Jung Bahadur Rana quickly sent the king and his wife, Lakshmidevi, into exile in Varanasi, India. But the king did not stop attempting to regain his rightful throne. When Jung Bahadur learned of Rajendra’s plans, he acted quickly. He forced the king to abdicate in favor of his son Surendra Bir Bikram Shah. When the king refused to comply with Jung Bahadur’s demands, Jung Bahadur sent a special battalion of his trusted army to arrest him. The captured king was brought to Bhaktapur in 1847, and was placed there where he remained under house arrest. Does this sound familiar? If we compare the life of King Rajendra Bikram with that of King Suratha in the Devi Mahatmya, we find striking parallels in the situations and circumstances.


The King Returns
This is where the story and details get even more interesting. First, the king was banished to Varanasi by his own prime-minister as was King Suratha in the Devi Mahatmya story. Second, the king was brought back to his kingdom by the special forces of his country. The difference is that King Suratha returned with full honor, whereas King Rajandra returned as a prisoner.

History books mention that the king was arrested by the special forces of Jung Bahadur Rana and was brought to Kathmandu. The king is said to have been placed under house arrest in the Bhaktapur Palace.[8] Historians are silent with regard to the last days of the king. Did he perish there or was he moved to another location? This is an important question, and the Mohan Chowk murals seem to shed light on it. According to my theory, as demonstrated below, King Rajendra Bikram, after a brief stay in the Bhaktapur Palace, was brought to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace and placed in one of the rooms of Mohan Chowk until the latter’s death. And these paintings, in my opinion, were executed under the guidance of the deposed king who desperately wanted to get his kingdom back with the help of the Goddess Durga.

In the eyes of Jung Bahadur Rana, Rajendra Bir Bikram became a threat because of his growing desire to take the throne back. So Jung Bahadur, a shrewd prime minister and general, would have done everything in his power to keep the king under his control—both under his watchful eyes and within the reach of his hands. Because the royal throne of Nepal rested in Basantpur, it was considered the major hub of activities during this time. And thus Bhaktapur, located some 12 miles away from Basantpur, might have been seen as distant and out of reach. As a result of these considerations, Jung Bahadur might have thought it necessary to keep the ambitious king within his grasp. What better place would there be than Basantpur?

Although historians are silent about Rajendra Bikram’s last days,[9] it is my theory that the king was moved to Hanuman Dhoka from Bhaktapur to be close to Jung Bahadur Rana just prior to Jung Bhadur’s official visit to England and France in 1850. He would not have left an ambitious king unattended for a year while he was traveling in Europe. Jung Bahadur must have feared the possibility of palace intrigues, coup, revolt and hostile takeover during his absence, especially in light of the Kot Massacre. So Jung Bahadur must have taken all the necessary measures to keep Rajendra Bikram under his iron grip as he was preparing for his visit abroad. In all probability, Rajendra Bikram was covertly moved to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace for safe keeping between 1847 and 1849.

Referring again to the palace where he was born, the king might have made a formal request to Jung Bahadur to decorate the room in which he was living with the images of Hindu gods and goddesses. The motivation for his desire to do so is clear; he wanted to be in the presence of the Goddess, the granter of power and success. If Rajendra was unable to get back his power by military might, then he could at least resort to divine intervention. Of course Jung Bahadur had no clue as to what Rajendra Bikram was up to. And how could Jung Bahadur say no to such a humble and righteous request for religious images right before his overseas travels? Religious sentiments in Nepal at this time must have been high given the large number of donations and patronage which were recorded as being given at this time to temples and religious organizations. With the approval of Jung Bahadur, without whose authorization nothing could be done, the work must have begun as soon as the king took residence in Mohan Chowk.

Why was the mural of the Devi Mahatmya painted and not that of any other stories—religious or otherwise? While Rajendra Bikram and his wife were exiled in Varanasi, India—the center of Hinduism—he had time to devote himself to the study of sacred texts. Although we do not know exactly what he did or what texts he may have read, we can speculate with confidence that he must have spent a significant portion of his time in devotion to the gods, especially the Goddess. We know of a number of donations he made to the temple of Guhesvari, one of the major seats of the Goddess in Kathmandu. That he was a devotee of the Goddess was by no means a secret.[10]

The stories contained in the text must have resonated with Rajendra because of his parallel circumstances with the mythical king Suratha in the Devi Mahatmya. After hearing the story of King Suratha in the Devi Mahatmya, King Rajendra may have very wellidentified himself with the legendary king. As King Suratha was able to regain his kingdom back by the grace of the Goddess, Rajendra may have likely believed that the Goddess would bestow upon him a similar grace.

So what better way to honor the Goddess than by bringing the stories of the Devi Mahatmya alive in his puja kotha (home shrine), where he could perform his daily worship in front of the images of the Goddess Durga? Getting a daily Darshan of the Goddess was empowering for the king. Seeing the image of the Goddess is called darshan. Speaking from a practical point of view, this is a two-way street. Not only does the devotee see the image of the Goddess, the Goddess sees the devotee. Between these exchanges of glances, something important happens—transformation of some sort. The devotee might gain extraordinary power or insight from the darshan.[11]

After finishing the painting, the king might have called a priest to perform the Avahana ceremony where the goddess is invoked to descend on the image of her. This makes the image active and potent. The king then would have worshipped the image every morning as instructed in the text of the Devi Mahatmya, keeping in mind how King Suratha regained his kingdom by the grace of the Goddess after losing it to his enemies.

A deliberate choice to paint the stories from the Devi Mahatmya in a room in the Mohan Chowk at a time when the king had lost all his powers gives me every reason to believe that the murals were commissioned around 1855 by the deposed King Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah. Whereas King Suratha in the Devi Mahatmya got his kingdom back, King Rajendra Bikram died in 1881 without regaining his throne, despite possibly commissioning the work.**



Coburn, Thomas B. Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: SUNY, 1991.

Regmi, Dilli Raman. Modern Nepal. New Delhi: Rupa and Company, 2007.

Slusser, Mary Shepherd. Nepal Mandala. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Whelpton, John. A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Wright, Daniel. History of Nepal with an Introduction of the Country and People of Nepal (Translated from the Parbatiya by Munshi Shew Shunker Singh and Pandit Shri Gunanand). Delhi: Adarsh Enterprises, 2000 (reprinted).


1. I express my sincere thanks to Ian Alsop,’s editor, for his editorial help to bring this article to its present form. I also am indebted to my senior graduate students at Claremont School of Theology where I am an adjunct professor. It so happens that I am teaching a course called “Visions of the Divine Feminine: Goddess Traditions in South Asia,” using the Devi Mahatmya as a primary text. Because the students have read it they are able to see many forms, metaphors, symbols and issues in the story which a native like me take for granted. Their insights have helped form my views about the goddess. For this opportunity I thank my entire class of eleven students. I especially thank Jamie Mills, Michael Reading and Sinnamon Wolfe for their many contributions to the class and to this article.

Finally, a very big thank you is due to a man who set me on the path of studying Nepal’s art history. That man is Dr. Pratapaditya Pal. When I received a Fulbright grant in 1971 to study art history in the U.S., I was in contact with him in California. It was he who advised me to study Nepal’s ancient tradition of mural painting. So during my hunt for mural paintings of the Kathmandu Valley I was led by the late Chandra Man Maskey to discover the Mohan Chowk Chandi mural.

2. Devi Mahatmya: 1.5. For English translation of the text see Thomas B. Coburn, Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and A Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: SUNY, 1991, p. 32.

3. Slusser, Mary Shepherd, Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley, Vol.1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 194, 249, 259-361.

4. After Hanuman Dhoka palace stopped serving as residence for Nepal’s rulers, the Mohan Chowk has been closed. Although the Hanuman Dhoka palace, as a museum, is open to the tourists today, no one is allowed to step into the Mohan Chowk courtyard. It has always remained private and hence a sacred ground for centuries. The room that contains these mural paintings has been locked with a huge padlock called Bhote Talcha. After many months of letter writing and meetings with the authorities, I received permission from the then King Birendra Bikram Shah in 1971 to photograph the murals. The doors were flung open for the first time since the earthquake of 1934, and I had the first glimpse of the room since that time. I was shocked to see the amount of dust and cobwebs that covered the rooms. It was a deja vu of an Indiana Jones movie. It took a couple of days for a crew of four to remove the dust and cobwebs before I could begin photographing. I am the first person to have gained access to the Chandi murals, and I consider myself fortunate. So no other person to the best of my knowledge has photographs of the Mohan Chowk Chandi murals in the Hanuman Dhoka palace.

5. According to the Devi Mahatmya text, the demons arose from the dirt in Vishnu’s ears. See Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation by Thomas B. Coburn. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1991, p. 36, 1.50.

6. My version of the story is a summarization of the Devi Mahatmya; it is by no means a line by line translation of the text. Just as the artist has used a certain freedom of expression to illustrate the story, I have taken the liberty to paraphrase the text for narrative effect.

7. [You are] the cause of all the worlds; although possessed of the three qualities (gunas), by faults you are not known; [you are] unfathomable even by Hari, Hara, and other gods.

[You are] the resort of all, [you are] this entire world that is composed of parts, for you are the supreme, original, untransformed Prakriti.
Devi Mahatmya: 4.6.

See Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation by Thomas B. Coburn. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, p. 48.

8. Whelpton, John. A History of Nepal, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 247.

9. Although some believe that the king died in Bhaktapur palace where he was initially deposited after his arrest, evidence provided by the Mohan Chowk mural indicates otherwise.

10. The fact that Goddess Taleju, a form of Durga, is a tutelary deity of Nepal (Nepal Rastra and hence Rastradevi), Goddess Durga suggests that she must have played an important role in the life of King Rajendra. That he was a devotee of Durga is made clear by the donations of a bronze lion statue and a Simhadhvaja he made to the temple of Goddess Guheshvari, followed by a royal order that brought the fourteen Kusles and Damais to play Gujarati and Panchabaja music at the temple. Another piece of interesting information, albeit not directly related to Rajendra, is that a sword of Guheshvari was bestowed upon a legendary king of Kathmandu. This sword was later given to King Jayaprakasha Malla, and with the help of this sword he was able to regain his throne after having lived in exile for twelve years. See “Goddess of the Secret” by Axel Michaels in collaboration with Nutan Sharma, Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal edited by Axel Michaels, et al. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1996, p. 328, 329, 339, 340. This is not merely a perception but living proof that with the grace of the Goddess Durga one could regain a lost kingdom, or a throne in Rajendra’s case.

11. For a discussion of this concept see Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India by Diana L. Eck. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.