The story about the origin of Kathmandu Valley

The story about the origin of Kathmandu Valley

The hustling and ever-busy metropolitan of Kathmandu certainly wasn’t always like how it is today. Thousands of years ago, it was said by the old grandmothers to their grandchildren that Kathmandu valley wasn’t even here. It was all submerged in the waters of a vast lake called Nagdaha. Archeologists confirm this because the valley’s soil is fertile and lacustrine, extremely suitable for growing crops and vegetations and growing various foliages. Kathmandu is one of the oldest towns in the country and can be traced to the period between 167 BC and 1 A.D.

The story goes that Manjushree Bodhisattva, a Demi-God, came to Chobhar Hill and cut the hill open with his flaming sword, draining the valley’s water away. When one visits the site of Chobhar Hill, the gap between the mountains does look like it’s been sliced with a swords. It’s a clean cut. The emergence of land after the water drainage led to people moving in and starting agriculture and building up settlements in the Kathmandu area.

As the valley grew, Manjushree is said to have worshipped Swayambhu on the hillock where the present Swayambhu temple is located. He also founded the city of Manjupatan, which today lies within the current Kathmandu Metropolitan area, located between Swayambu and Gujeswari.

He even declared his disciple ‘Dharmakarma’ as the ruler of that city. The reign of the Abhir dynasty (cowherds) and the Kirants are said to be the proper settlers of Kathmandu and are said to have come initially from the northeastern hill region of India around 700 BC. Their succession of 29 rulers reigned here until the Lichchhavis came into power. The Lichchhavi period is the golden period in medieval Nepal because of the vast amount of reforms of development that happened during this time.

There was the erection of the first government building, The Mangriha, and the introduction of the first coins, The Mananka by King Mandev, during the Lichchhavi period. Temples were being constructed, new improvements were being developed, and as a result, the Kathmandu valley increased its population as more and more people migrated into the valley for trade and settlement. The barter system was eliminated, and the method of money was brought in, which significantly improved the international trading system between medieval Nepal and its neighboring countries of India and Tibet.

The four stupas around the city of Patan, near Kendra Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (called “Patukodon”), 5 kilometers away from Kathmandu, is said to have been erected by Charumati, attests to the ancient history.
Charumati was a daughter of the Indian emperor Ashoka through a concubine and the adopted daughter of his wife, Empress Asandhimitra. She was trained in nursing by the Empress. She was married to a Nepalese prince Devapala Kshatriya in Kathmandu. She is credited with having founded the monastery of Chabahil (called Charumati Vihara), one of Nepal’s oldest Buddhist monasteries. On the other hand, Emperor Ashoka was the Ruler of India at medieval times and visited Lumbini in Nepal, and there, he erected the Asoka pillar near the Mayadevi Temple.

During the reign of the Lichchhavi dynasty (400-750 A.D.), two adjoining settlements, Yambu or Thahne (‘Yambu’ in Nepali means “the field of Kathmandu” and ‘Thahne’ means “northern land”) and Yangal/Kone (‘Yangal’ in Nepali means “depressed area” of Kathmandu, Kone means “southern land”) formed Kathmandu, also known as Kilogram. The Kilogram is believed to be the settlement of Koliyas, some of whom migrated to Kathmandu valley after Mahajanapada era. The Lichchhavi king Gunakamadeva (see “The Legend of the Bhoto Jatra” on our blog for another exciting story!) founded a city in between these two settlements on the bank of the Bishnumati river called “Kantipur.” The town was formed in a Chandrahrasa (Manjushri’s sword) mentioned in the Swayambhu Purana. The fortification of the city was done with eight barracks that Ajimas guarded.

The Ajima is a group of Goddesses of the Newari pantheon. The Goddess represents the female ancestors of a Newar. These Goddesses are respected by all sects and castes of Newars irrespective of religion. (The word “Ajima” comes from two Nepali words, “Aji” meaning grandmother and “Ma” meaning mother. This deity represents all the female ancestors of Newar who have been digitized). According to folklore, Gunakamadeva dreamt of finding Laxmi (or Kanti) city, so the town was formed in her name, Kantipur.

According to Nepal Sambat, the city is believed to have been founded on the auspicious date of Yenya Punhi, with the founding stone laid by Gunakamadeva at Maru Tole, which is still present. To appease relations between the citizens of Yembu and Yengal, the king is believed to have started a festival where the Majipa Lakhey dance of Kone (Yengal) and Pulukishi dance of Yembu (Thahne) were performed together along the main road of the newly formed city connecting the two settlements (now called Gunakamadeva Marg). The festival is still celebrated as Yenya or Indra Jatra today, but the festival’s primary focus has shifted to Indra and Kumari over a long period.

According to Tantric traditions, a marketplace was formed in a circular shape at the city’s center (Chakrakar). A temple dedicated to Bhimsen, the god of merchants, was built at the center of Bhimsenthan to attract merchants. There were 48 Lichchhavi rulers, including Mandev I, who ruled from 464 and had been referred to as their greatest ruler. A connoisseur of art and architecture, he introduced the Pagoda roofed architecture, erected exquisite sculptures, and built the temples of Changunarayan, Vishabjynarayan, Sikhomanarayan, and Ichabgunarayan. The reclining Vishnu of Budhanilkantha, the gilded roof of the Pashupatinath Temple, Hanuman Dhoka, and the Basantapur Tower, the Uku Bahal in Patan, and the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple at Panauti are all credited to Mandev.

A whole array of dynasties ruled over the valley after the Lichchhavis. Modern History of Kathmandu recites that after the unification of Nepal by King Prithvi Narayan Shah (a whole story in itself), the Shahs established their rule over Gorkha, and dictatorship ensued, with the Ranas becoming all-powerful. During this period, Shahs as Monarchs were figurehead monarchs, while the real power rested with the Ranas.

The time has passed on significantly, and Kathmandu valley is what it is now, incorporating modernization while still having the history of its origins intact along the pitched roads and massive commercial buildings.

Photo Credit: Tundikhel in 1921. Photo: Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya archive.

About Author

Balaram Thapa

Balaram Thapa, an executive director at Nepal Hiking Team had a long journey before making NHT one of the revolutionary tour operators in this competitive field of Tourism. He finished his Bachelor’s degree in Travel and Tourism from Tribhuwan University in the year 2000.


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