Nepali heritage on fire

Pashupatinath, western main gate

Among the daily sad reports coming out of Nepal was the recent news, published in all local newspapers, that the four-storey Agam House at Pashupatinath, near by western gate, caught fire on the night of Saturday, June 25, 2005, and continued burning for hours. Valuable manuscripts, historical documents and artifacts were destroyed.

The Agam House was the shrine of the tantric deity of Pashupatinath and the residence of Madan Bhatta, the official tantric priest. In NS 848 (1728 AD) Sambasadashiva Bhatta was authorized by Jagajjaya Malla (1722–1735 AD), a king of Medieval Kathmandu, to act as priest for several deities of the Pashupatinath area, and also as Tirthaguru Nemuni at the time of the Lingayatra and Kundayatra. He thus came to be the priest of the Agam House of Shankaracharya Swami, who was connected with Shankaracharya Matha in Pashupathinath. Madan Bhatta is a descendant of his.

Madan Bhatta informed the news media that among the items of his collection were numerous documents relating to Pashupatinath, copperplates and palm leaves from the time of King Jagajjaya Malla, King Rajendra Bikram Shah Deva’s Lalmohar ( “red seal”) of VS 1901 (1844 AD), a two-sealed Sanad (“decree”) of VS 1906 (1849AD) from the rule of Jung Bahadur Rana (1817–1877 AD), manuscripts concerning the performance of rituals and the holding of festivals, and documents relating to his ancestral authority in the Pashupatinath area. According to the news reports, all these unique items were reduced to ashes.

Fortunately, they are not completely lost, for the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project (NGMPP) had previously preserved most of them on microfilm. The NGMPP was founded in 1970 under an agreement between His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and the German Oriental Society. During 31 years of fruitful activity it managed to microfilm the bulk of Nepal’s extraordinary wealth of old manuscripts, block prints and historical documents written in Sanskrit, Newari, Maithili, Nepali, Tibetan or other languages. Thanks to the NGMPP, among the more than 180,000 manuscripts and documents available now on microfilm are the items destroyed in the Agam House.

The NGMPP microfilmed material from Pashupati Gosvara under the code letters PN (Pashupatinatha) from September 11, 1998 to March 21, 2000. The total number of documents microfilmed in the Pashupatinath area is 1,578 (PN 1/1 to PN 17/42). Madan Bhatta was foresighted enough to allow his private collection, consisting of 204 manuscripts and 136 historical documents, to be microfilmed from February 18, 1999 till February 24, 2000. The subjects include: Stotras (71), Tantric, Karmakanda (44), General Karmakanda (26), Purana-Mahatmya (24), Jyotisa (7), Ayurveda (7) and Yoga (6), along with two manuscripts in South Indian scripts and 17 miscellaneous items. Especially worthy of note is a multiple text manuscript containing the Purvamnayanityakarmarcanavidhi, the Daksinamnayapujavidhi and the Pascimamnayapujavidhi, the whole dated NS 827 (1706 AD) and scribed by Sambasadashiva Bhatta himself (PN27/1). There is also and old palm-leaf manuscript, dated NS 702 (1582 AD), of the Kashikhanda (from the Skandapurana) written in Sanskrit and Newari (PN 22/15), which has recently been mentioned by Madan Bhatta under the title Himavatkhanda.

There are five copperplates (dated NS 821, 851, 863, 877 and 935), 29 palm-leaf and 100 paper documents. The earliest of the palm-leaf documents, a deed of sale, is dated NS 513 (1393 AD). It was microfilmed on reel no. PN 12/35. There is a palm-leaf document issued by Jagajjaya Malla (PN 12/32), and another one, dated NS 594 (1474 AD), issued to Narayan Bhatta Ravata, a priest of Unmatta Bhairava of Pashupati.

The paper documents, including photocopies of earlier ones, fall under categories such as: Lalmohar, Rukka, Tamasuka, Kabolanama, Rajinama, Amsabanda, Bintipatra, Arji, Suchi, Phaisala, Muchulka, Sankalpapatra and Darkhasta. Among the importang documents preserved on microfilm are the Lalmohar of VS 1901 (PN 16/1) and the Sanad of VS 1906 (PN 18/42–44).

This is the third time that the work done by the NGMPP has proved to be valuable under such dramatic circumstances. In 1989, a fire at the famous monastery of Tengboche in Khumbu burned the monastery’s library to ashes, completely destroying unique manuscripts that had been brought from Tibet. Fortunately again, these rare manuscripts (185 texts, 15,766 folios) had been photographed by the NGMPP just a few months prior to the fire. In the beginning of 2001 the entire village of Pork in Gorkha district was destroyed by fire, only two months after the NGMPP preserved the valuable manuscripts and documents of this village.

The microfilms of all manuscripts and documents are kept both in the National Archives in Kathmandu and in the State Library in Berlin, and are generally accessible to the interested public all over the world. It was the far-sighted German academic community, earnest Nepalese archivists and scholars, and prudent private owners who enabled the NGMPP to save much of Nepal’s written tradition from ruin.

The timely preservation of manuscripts and historical documents is one important way to keep the cultural identity and historical assets of Nepal from being lost. For the sake of future generations, misfortunes such as the fires in Tengboche, Prok and Pashupatinath should instigate further efforts to preserve and study Nepal’s unique heritage.

Dragomir Dimitrov/ Kashinath Tamot

Nepal Research Centre, Kathmandu

Reprinted from : The Kathmandu Post, Sunday, 11 September, 2005, p. 4