Kathmandu Valley, a well-known repository of medieval art and architecture also houses the largest conglomeration of medieval Buddhist monuments in the form of monasteries or Vihars- locally known as Baha in Newari dialect. In addition to religious sanctity, these Viharas or Bahas offer a living testimony of Buddhist Art flourished since medieval times. Architecturally, a Baha usually consists of a square central hall or courtyard enclosed by small rooms or cells, with the main shrine opposite the main entrance.
The deity enthroned inside the main shrine is called Kwapa-dyo, an image of the Buddha sitting in Vajrasana and showing the ‘Bhumisparsa (earth touching) ‘gesture. The courtyards contain at least one Chaitya. Other common features of a Baha is a ‘Torana’ (tympanum) over the main entrance and the main is entrance guarded by two stone mythical lions. From the inside, the main entrance is flanked by two Hindu deities Mahakal and Ganesh as the Guardians. The Baha or Bahis have a finial or a small tower on the roof above the main shrine. Although in the mediavel times, the Bahas were used to house communities of celibate monks, presently the Bahas are inhabited by the descendants of the monks who returned to common family life. They are known as Vajracharyas and Shakyas. There are said to be 356 Vihars (Large and small) of which only a few of the famous ones are listed below as representative guides to visit this marvelous Buddhist heritage.
Kumari Baha or Kumari Chen :
Located just opposite the famous Gaddi Baithak in the eastern part of Kathmandu Durbar Square, the complex of Kumari Baha also house the goddess of Kumari – the Royal deity. The Baha or Vihar consists of a three-storeyed structure built around an enclosed courtyard and the main entrance is guarded by two huge stone lions. The external facade and inside facade facing the courtyards are embellished with exquisite wood-carved windows and doors. The main shrine is directly opposite the entrance and there is a stupa / Chaitya in the courtyard. Aside from serving as a Vihar, this is primarily the shrine of the living goddess ‘Kumari’ a Buddhist girl – chosen and worshipped as an incarnation of the Hindu mother deity.
This is situated in the northern part of Kathmandu in Tha-hiti a few minutes walk from the famous Thamel locality. The shrine is a three-storeyed building surmounted by a small cupola. An artistically decorated by wooden frames, the door of the main entrance is flanked by the images of Sariputra and Mandgalyana two principal attendants of Lord Buddha.
Inside the courtyard are an ‘Ashokan Chaitya’ a stupa structure of an earlier period and a common small Chaitya on a pillar. The steps leading to the main shrine are flanked by two metal lions.
Located in Jyatha adjacent to Tha-hiti, this Baha is one of the few typical Baha structures left intact. The entire building is of two stories. The main deity (Kwapa-dyo) is an image of Aksobhya facing north and the main door of the shrine is guarded by two stone lions. Wooden carved struts support the entire tiled roof structure.
A few minutes walk down the road from Masya Baha is Dhwakabaha is a a spacious courtyard with the shrine of the main deity ‘Aksobbya’ located in the southeast corner facing north. Although the vihar has not been able to retain its original structure – due to the severe damage in the great earthquake of 1934, there are three stupas of which two stupas date back to the Licchavi period testifying the antiquity of the place. Historians have ascribed the origin of the Vihar to not later than the 7th century A.D.
Located in Jyatha Tole – a minute’s walk down the road from Musya Baha, Chusya Baha, probably is the finest example of Baha architecture. Directly opposite the entrance is the shrine of Akshobhya the Kwapadyo, facing north. The entrance is flanked by two elephants. One of the most striking features of the Baha is the series of beautifully carved struts supporting the courtyard. As the struts are ascribed to the fourteenth century A.D., it is believed the origin of the monastery could be dated even earlier.
Situated a little west of Kilagal Tole, Itum Baha is one of the largest and oldest of Vihar complexes. It is a large, rectangular courtyard and surrounded on three sides by residential buildings. Although three other subsidiary vihars adjacent to the main courtyard comprise the vihar complex, the main shrine is located in the second subsidiary courtyard. Over the entryway to this courtyard is an exquisitely carved wooden torana depicting an episode from Lord Gautam Buddha’s life and is believed to belong sixteenth century A.D. or an even earlier period. The main deity or the Kwapa dyo is an image of Aksobhya facing east- the main entrance. The Baha shrine is marked by metal lions and stone lines flanked by large temple bells. In the centre of the courtyard is a Chaitya (Stupa) and to the east of this a stylised stupa with large Buddha figures believed to be dated between the eleventh or twelfth centuries.
A few walks from Itum Baha is another Baha in the Yatkha Tole. Although it does not bear any common features of a typical monastery anymore, this Baha is noted for a large stupa, in the centre of the large courtyard – surrounded by residential houses. The main shrine building is of the recent renovation. However, the wooden ‘Torana’ is of unusual depiction of seven Buddhas and probably dates back to the twelfth century A.D. The central stupa is reminiscent of the famous ‘Swoyambhunath’ Stupa.
The Baha is situated off Asan Tole – one of the busy bazaar areas of Kathmandu. The entrance to the shrine is marked by two stone lions each flanked by large temple bells. Over the doorway is a metal torana depicting Mahavairochana – the first of five celestial Buddhas. The main deity of the Vihar is an image ‘Aksobhya’ facing north. In the courtyard are an ‘Asoka’ chaitya and three other votive chaityas.
A famous courtyard or a locality in Kathmandu is located in the eastern end of New Road. Although the salient features of a typical Baha is virtually missing it is assumed the compound comprises two Bahas in medieval times. One of the main shrines ‘Kwapa dyo’ is situated among the buildings along the western side. The second ‘Kwapadyo’ is located in the center. The compound is more renowned because of other religious shrines and historic stupas existing here. Among others, within the complex are the house of a deity called ‘Sankata’, the shrine of ‘Bhadrakali’ Chen (or the residence) two highly popular Shakta deities of the Kathmandu valley. In addition, the open area also houses several Licchavi – period stupas – chaityas. Historians attribute this area as of high historic importance and ascribe the origin to the 5th century A.D.
Located in Kel Tole, this Baha is one of the most famous of all the Bahas of Kathmandu. Hundreds of devotees throng to these places from early morning to early afternoon. Also every evening, religious prayers are sung at the main entrance of the courtyard to the tunes of traditional devotional music. Culturally, this Baha is most well known as the home of White – Matshyendranath or Jana Baha dyo or Karunamaya – the compassionate one. Although the Baha does not possess typical Baha architecture (original structures were destroyed in a 1917 fire), the importance of the courtyard is enhanced by the shrine of Jan Baha dyo. The shrine is a two-storeyed elaborately decorated temple. The whole facade of the temple is decorated with a great array of Buddhist figures.
Directly in front of the main door of the shrine is a small chaitya – known as Kanak Chaitya (presently the shape of a white dome). In addition, the courtyard is filled with an array of stone images and thirty-one votive stupas.
Situated in the Naghal Tole – a few minutes walk from Thamel is a Sigha Baha also known as Kathe Swoyambhu – a large courtyard with a huge stupa – reminiscent of the great Swayambhunath. The dome of the stupa rests on a white-washed pedestal. Above the dome or Garbha is a four-sided harmika with all-seeing eyes similar to those at Swayambhu. In the courtyard around the main stupa are a number of votive Chaityas. shrines including mother Harati and deities from Mahayan Pantheon. Offer important feature is a stone-standing Padampani assigned to the ninth century A.D.
The local Buddhist community of Kathmandu refers to the famous Swoyambhunath shrines as Syangu dyo – and it is assumed there existed a Buddhist Baha in the olden times, However, the whole complex is dominated by the all-famous “Swoyambhu Mahachaitya” – the huge white dome towered by harmika in each cardinal.
Also known as Bhagwan Baha, Tham Bahi is one of the best-preserved complexes of its kind. Located in the northern part of old Kathmandu township the famous area of Thamel drives its name from Tham Bahi. The Bahi/monastery is only a stone’s throw from the main bazaar of Thamel. The main shrine is located through an entryway which opens to the courtyard proper. The main shrine is directly opposite the entrance and is of three stories with a large cuppola. The shrine is flanked by two mythical creatures Sardulas and lions. The main deity of the shrine is an image of Simha Sartha Bahu a legendary hero/ trader of ancient Kathmandu. The complex is typical with a two-storied building with open halls on the ground floor and lattice-covered, overhanging balconies above.
Patan / Lalitpur
Of all the Viharas in Kathmandu Valley the Bahas of Patan also known as Lalitpur is more renowned for the artistic workmanship in tera cotta metal and wood works. Numerically too, the town of Patan has more Bahas than other cities of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. For centuries, Patan has remained predominantly Buddhist.
Kwa Baha also well known by its Sanskrit name Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, is the foremost Baha (monastery) of Patan. Situated just down the street from the crossroads known as Kwalakhu Tole, this Baha is probably known as one of the most active Bahas. The complex is known as the most lavishly decorated of the Bahas primarily because the community members are wealthy traders who have constantly embellished the complex. The street entrance has two large stone lions as guardians and a stone facade with a stone tympanum depicting celestial Buddhas.
Passing Through this entrance and a small entryway leads to the main shrine complex. Nicknamed ‘the Golden Temple’ inside the complex are numerous gilded images and the facade of the imposing Kwapadyo shrine (the main deity). The temple in the centre of the courtyard is another attraction that is made of gold copper repousse work. The main shrine is a four-storied structure with three gilded roofs. The entrance is flanked by two large cast iron mythical lions each standing on an elephant and surmounted by an image of Lokeswore. The doorway to the shrine is an excellent temple of metal workmanship – all finished in gilt repousse work and above it is one of the finest tympanum (torana) anywhere all made of silver. The Kawapadyo (main deity) of the Baha is a large silver image of Aksobhya facing east.
As said earlier, the other striking feature, of this complex is the shimmering temple in the center of the courtyard which enshrines a Chaitya from Licchavi era. The shrine is an excellent piece of extraordinary metalwork and is almost entirely covered with gold and metal. It has a single gilt copper roof above which rises a pinnacle with four snakes whose curved tails raise to hold a multi-staged umbrella over the main bell-shaped final, Historically, this Baha dates back to not later than the eleventh century A.D. or even earlier.
Uku Baha is one of the best preserved and oldest of all Bahas of Patan. Located a minute’s walk south of medieval heritage. Also known by its Sundhara (the golden spout), this Baha displays a unique collection of Sanskrit named ‘Rudravarna Mahavihara, this Vihar is said to have the largest number of branches in the valley. Passing through a gateway in the street one enters the first compound and an entryway from this is led into Uku Baha itself.
The main shrine is of three two-roof structures. Steps leading to the shrine are flanked by large stone mythical lions each standing on a crouching elephant an surmounted by an image of Lokeswore. The doorway is marked by a finely worked repousse of an arch of leaf and floral motifs. The Kwapa dyo is a large metal image of Aksobhya. Opposite the shrine in the courtyard runs a row of traditional pieces. The first item is a Lichhavi Style Chaitya followed by ‘Dharmadhatu Mandala’ surmounted by a Vajra, a recess for the sacred fire, a metal lamp on a stand and an image of Manjushree.
The famous temple of Mahabuddha is the best-known shrines of Patan. Situated in the south of Uku Baha and inside a small cramped courtyard, Mahabudha Buddha complex consists of a large terracotta ‘Sikhara’ style temple in the centre of the courtyard which houses the shrine of Kwapa dyo with a shrine to the mother deity to the side. Completely made of terracotta in this temple every brick has an image of Buddha. So the complex is also called the temple of ‘thousand Buddhas’. Although, this unique temple is said to have been influenced by the architectural form of Bodh Gaya, a close look would reveal the originality of a Nepalese structure. Although the present structure is newly built after the great earthquake of 1934 exactly like the original one, the foundation of the structure was laid during the sixteenth century A.D.
Also known as Tanga Baha, this complex is located in the Tanga Tole on the east side of the road leading south from Patan Durbar Square. The complex does not offer a typical Baha complex as most of the buildings and structures are of recent origin except the free-standing temple of a main deity or the Kwapa dyo. The Kwapa dyo is the red image of Padampani Lokeswore. This deity is popularly known as Chakuba dyo or Minnath. The temple structure is two-storeyed of which the upper roof is gilded copper and the lower one is a tiled roof. In addition, the courtyard has several other pieces of antiquity and archaeological importance. It includes a bathing platform, several votive chaityas, stone mandalas, interesting stone mythological lions, a large prayer wheel, and a rest house all dating not later than the 17th century A.D.
This huge courtyard is located just opposite the Chaku Baha across the street. The complex is well known amongst the Buddhist community primarily because the Baha, in addition to a well-established odd monastery (vihar) shrine, also houses the temple of ‘Bungadyo’ Red Machhendranath. And these two shrines are totally independent in functioning.
Along the southern wall of the complex is the house of ‘Kwapadyo’ the shrine of the Baha. It is a single standing – probably a part of larger complex in the earlier times. The doorway of the shrine is surmounted by a torana – itself surmounted by a triple parasol The deify ‘Kwapadyo’ is an image of Aksobhaya facing north.
Chovar or Cho Baha:
A Very popular Buddhist shrine Chobaha is located in the center of the Chobhar Village above the gorge across the Bagmati River. The complex is an entirely closed courtyard at the top of the hill and the shrine of Kwapadyo is a three-storeyed, multiple roofed temple, Of the three roofs upper most is gilded copper the rest are tiled roofs. The most striking feature of the temple is the great array of pots, pans and household utensils nailed to almost all the open space on the surface above the ground floor. It is believed such offerings are done in the temple so as to benefit the deceased relatives in the after next birth. The Kwapadyo enshrine in the temple is an image of Adinath – Lokeswore and is the main attraction of the complex.
Also known as Hakha Baha or Hatko Baha, is one of the few Bahas of Kathmandu which has retained the original Baha architectural norms and preserved the medieval beauty. The street entrance is a stone arch torana depicted with fine celestial Buddhas and the door is marked two stone lions. The shrine of the Kwapa dyo opposite the entrance is an imposing three-story temple. The doorway to the shrine is elaborately carved and finished in repousse metal. The image of the Kawapadyo is an image of Aksobhya facing north. In the courtyard, there is on the array of several mandalas and Chaitya – some even dating back 7th century AD from Licchavi period.
The complex is best known as the Bhaktapur Shrine of Matshyendranath. Situated in Itachhen Tole, this temple is a two-storeyed structure – one tiled roof surmounted by two smaller roofs farming a sort of cupola. The lower of the small roof is tiled, the upper one is of gilded copper and surmounted by a golden gajur (pinnacle) make in the form of a Chaitya.
The Kwapadyo (the main deity) of the shrine is a mental image of Padampani Lokeswore. Locally also known Annapurna – Lokeswore is fully covered with a metal cloak embellished with floral ornaments. The locals worship this shrine as the local deity of Matshendranath Karunamaya or Loknath. In front of the temple are a cluster of seven Chaityas and dharamdhata mandala. The shrine is dated to belong around the seventeenth century A.D.
Situated in Inacho Tole, the Baha complex possess one of the few well-preserved Baha shrines left in Bhaktapur. The doorway of the shrine is marked by two stone lions. The Kwapadyo in the shrine is Aksobhya facing west. The first storey has the customary five-fold, carved window flanked by two smaller windows and carved struts depicting the five Buddhas supporting the roof. In the center of the courtyard are three chaityas, the central one of which has a ring of oil lamps around it. Historians ascribe this shrine complex to the late Malla period.
Tadhi Chen Baha:
Located just off the area of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, it is possibly the only example of Baha architectural structure left intact. It is one continuous building in a small courtyard. Opposite the main entrance is the shrine of the Kwapa dyo – Padampani Lokeswore. The entrance is flanked by two stone lions. The shrine of Dipankara is located in the northwest corner of the complex. The origin of the Baha is dated to the early fifteenth century A.D.
When to visit the Bahas Although a Baha is always open to outside visitors except for the Kwapa dyo Shrine, it is more rewarding to visit during certain occasions when the Bahas observe annual ritual/festival or during the initiation of Buddhist community (Bare Chuyegu) i.e. Bajracharyas and Shakyas. The recommended time to visit these Bahas is ‘Gunla’- a month from a Newari Calendar which normally occurs in mid-July to mid-August. During the month these festivals mentioned above take place.
• Panchdaan – The alms giving of five offerings. The day differs in each of three cities of the valley.
• Bahidyo – boyegu – The display of gods and goddesses of the shrine which lasts for days.
• Mataya – a festival of light – This is typical of Patan Buddhists which is not observed elsewhere. On this day, the Buddhists of Patan visit all the Bahas and Buddhist shrines carrying lighted candles, torches or tapers.