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  • 28 April, 2022

The Changu Narayan Temple: Legends, History, and Architectural Value

The Changu Narayan Temple: Legends, History, and Architectural Value

The Kathmandu Valley features a unique coexistence of Hindu and Buddhist religious sites with symbolic and artistic values that are closely associated with legends, rituals, and festivals. Changu Narayan is among seven UNESCO sites in the valley and includes a traditional Newari settlement and a Hindu temple complex. The monument dating back to the fourth century is widely considered to be the oldest Hindu temple still in use in the Kathmandu Valley (and one of the oldest in Nepal, too).

There are several legends about the origins of the temple. One of them says that about 400 years ago, a well-known warrior in Nepal named Changu challenged and defeated Pranjal, another famous warrior. The temple was therefore built as a tribute to the victory of Changu.

Another tale tells the story of a Brahmin and a Gwala (a cow herder). They both got angry when they saw a small boy drink the milk of their cow, and rest in the shade of a champak tree every day at noon. When they took revenge and cut down the champak tree, fresh human blood came out of the tree. They believed they had committed a crime, but Lord Vishnu emerged from the tree at that moment. He told them that they beheaded him when they cut the tree and thus set him free from his sins. After hearing this, Brahmin and Gwala established a small temple in the name of Lord Vishnu in the place of the champak tree.

Similarly, a different historical source says that the temple’s name also derives from Champak, the daughter of the Kashmiri king, who married the prince of Bhaktapur. The then newly built temple on top of a hill near Bhaktapur was dedicated to her.

Nowadays, the monument in Changu Narayan is defined by the unique cultural traditions of the Newars. They have built elaborate structures with intricate ornamentations displaying outstanding craftsmanship in brick, stone, timber, and bronze, some of the most highly developed in the world.

The main temple is a two-story pagoda dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is mainly made of fired brick with mud mortar and timber structures. The roof is covered with small overlapping terracotta tiles as well as gilded brass ornamentation. Shrines of other deities are also found within the temple compound and celebrate Lord Shiva, and Krishna, among many others.

Wherever you look, the temple’s decoration features intricate carvings. The collection of statues surrounding the temple is also one of the best in Nepal; including stone sculptures and ancient inscriptions dating back to the Licchavi era (400 CE to 750 CE). They have immense archeological, historical, and cultural significance.

Similarly, the diagonal beams supporting the temple roof are decorated with delicate carvings representing the ten incarnations of Vishnu and various multi-armed Tantric goddesses. The windows, doorways, and roof struts, all have rich ornamental carvings. Additionally, elaborate stone lions, griffins, elephants, and sarabhas (part-lion, part-bird creatures from Hindu mythology) guard the temple’s entrances and are valuable pieces of art.

You will find multiple representations of Vishnu in the temple complex. For example, next to the west door of the temple is an old Garuda statue — the legendary bird that served as Vishnu’s mount. Next to it, in the northwest corner, is another image of Vishnu riding his faithful mount Garuda. Other statues also show Vishnu in his various incarnations or avatars. In some cases, Vishnu is seen as Narsingha (the man-lion ripping a man apart with his fingers) or Vikrantha (the six-armed dwarf who transformed into a giant).

In the west side corner of the site, one can admire the oldest stone inscription in the Kathmandu Valley — something not to be missed in Changu Narayan. The description includes a message dating from 464 CE, telling the tale of how a king convinced his mother not to die by suicide after her husband’s death.

The temple complex in Changu Narayan is, without a doubt, a remarkable historical monument near Kathmandu. Hence, it is worth a trip for its unique architectural and decorative features and the natural countryside surroundings representing the typical Nepalese lifestyle. Whether explored as a day trip from the capital or paired as a side trip from Bhaktapur, Changu Narayan is a gem featuring outstanding architectural and ornamental features. 

For those seeking to take the time to get a closer look around the Changu Narayan area, here’s an easy hike that takes you around the place: Changu Narayan to Nagarkot Hike.

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