Situated around 15 km to the north-east of Kathmandu, atop a wooded hill, is the oldest temple in all of Nepal. Changunarayan Temple is believed to have been constructed some time in the 4th century BC, with many historical artifacts in its premises that have been dated close to this period.
Given its relative isolation, the temple isn’t exactly a major destination for religious tourists in the valley. But the Changunarayan Temple is one of the most unique cultural heritage sites in all of Nepal, with a mythical origin story that is just as interesting.
A repository of unique heritage artifacts
While the original Changunarayan Temple was built nearly 2000 years ago, it has been rebuilt at least two times in history — once in the year 1702 after a huge fire ravaged the original structure, and a second time after the devastating earthquake of 2015. However, the temple premises still has some of the oldest artefacts of the country’s cultural history. Those interested in history, art, and culture are bound to find a visit to Changunarayan Temple worth their while — if only they knew what to look for.
The temple premises has the oldest stone tablet in Kathmandu valley, dated to 464 AD, which tells the story of how a king convinced her mother to not take her own life after her husband passed away.
The ancient artworks present in the Changunarayan Temple compound are also unlike any other. The temple holds some exquisite stone statues of Vishnu avatars such as Narsimha, and a dynamic stone portrait of the avatar Vikranta, who was a dwarf avatar that grew to immeasurable heights.
The premises also dedicates a separate temple to Chhinnamasta, a goddess who holds special importance in Tantrism.
Commemorating a legendary battle
As is the case with many religious locations of Nepal, the origin of Changunarayan Temple has also been ascribed many stories. One of them is slightly uncommon, and explains that Changunarayan Temple was built to commemorate the battle between two legendary warriors named Changu and Pranjal. It is said that Changu challenged the equally renowned warrior Pranjal to decide once and for all the superior of the two warriors. After the battle was fought, Changu stood the victorious one, and the temple of Changunarayan was built to commemorate his victory.
A tale of mythical origin
The more popular origin story of Changunarayan Temple is one that tells of a supernatural occurence that took place on that hilltop — similar to the origins of Pashupatinath Temple, among others.
In this version, the story begins with a business transaction between a brahmin named Sudarshan and a cowherder, also called a Gwala. The cowherder had purchased a cow from Sudarshan, but over the coming months, was concerned to find that the healthy cow would consistently give very little amounts of milk.
Having had enough, the Gwala contacted Sudarshan again, and complained. This was not an issue that Sudarshan himself had faced with the cow; so, he and Gwala discussed that it would be wise to observe the cow for a few days.
The cowherder regularly took his cattle to the Changu hill for grazing, and there the two set up camp in order to investigate the matter. The cause for the Gwala’s headaches soon revealed itself as a tiny, dark-skinned boy. Every day like clockwork, a strange little boy came out of the hilly forest, drank his fill of milk from the cow, and walked right back into the woods.
Sudarshan and the Gwala watched it all from afar, and decided to teach the boy a lesson. So the next day, when the boy reappeared for his dairy lunch, the two followed him. The child scurried away through the woods and was seen disappearing mysteriously into a Champak tree. Seeing this supernatural occurrence, the two surmised that the dark-skinned must be some form of a mischievous spirit, and that the tree must be its home.
The two decided to cut the tree down and banish the little devil from that place forever. But when they thrust the blade to the treetrunk, it began to bleed human blood in profuse quantities. Sudarshan and the Gwala became greatly agitated at the sight, believing that they had intruded upon some form of a divine abode.
But out of the bleeding tree stump emerged the living form of the god, Vishnu. He quickly assuaged the two mortals, and explained that they had done him a favor by cutting down that tree. As it turns out, Vishnu had been trapped in the earthly plane for some time now, after having accidentally committed a heinous sin — during a casual hunting trip to the material world, the god had accidentally murdered an innocent human.
The victim turned out to be none other than Sudarshan’s own father. When Sudarshan cut down the Champak tree, Vishnu’s mortal form was also decapitated, thus freeing him from the karma that bound him on this earthly plane. Freed of his sin, he blessed the two humans, and went on his way.
After this divine encounter, Sudarshan and the Gwala decided to construct a temple at that location in honor of the god Vishnu, naming it Changu Narayan.
It is said that the modern-day priests of the Changunarayan temple claim to be descendants of Sudarshan the brahmin, while the Guthi responsible for maintaining the temple is run by descendants of the Gwala.