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City as a Sacrificial Site

Roma Chatterji

By A.W. van den Hoek . Edited by J.C. Heesterman, Bal Gopal Shrestha, Han F. Vermeulen and Sjoerd M. Zanen
CNWS Publications, 2004, pp. 188, price not stated.


This volume is a posthumous publication of what would have been a part of Bert van den Hoek’s magnum opus on the ritual structure of Kathmandu. His untimely death, in a road accident in Mumbai in 2001 while on his way to a conference in Pune, put an end to a project that would have covered various aspects of the Newari ritual calendar. A dense monograph that examines the way in which the city of Kathmandu is imaged as a sacrificial arena, this work reflects the best traditions of the Leiden School of Indology.   The festivals of the ‘four month’ period (caturmasa, caumasa) – from the middle of the rainy season to the end of the year – are set apart from other cyclical festivals by their overriding concern with sacrificial death. Unlike other cyclical festivals they are not directly related to the agricultural calendar. The dominant feature of these festivals is the ritual procession or yatra that marks out a sacrificial arena – from the center of the city of Kathmandu with the royal palace at Hanumandhoka and the temple of the living goddess, Taleju, to the pithas (sacred shrines) which once may have circumscribed the city. As van den Hoek shows, the sacred topography of the city is an ideal type and not empirical reality. It is a product of overlapping perspectives of the dominant religious worldviews in Nepal and of the royal dynasties that have successively shaped the sacred geography of Kathmandu. Thus as the author shows, in the Buddhist, Vajracharya view of the city as a mandala, the Kathamandu Valley and the further reaches of the Malla kingdom are all ringed by the overlapping circles of eight matrka (goddess) shrines. These shrines are supposed to represent human vices, viz. raga (desire), dvesa (hate), moha (enchantment), ahankara (selfishness), irsya (envy), darpa (pride), maya (illusion), and mada (intoxication). This circle is without a center since the individual self (purusa) does not exist in the Buddhist worldview. This is in contrast to the Hindu view in which the circle of eight pithas is centred on the temple of Taleju and is referred to as the Navadurga.   There is also a ritual division of the city into north and south or upper and lower that is not revealed by an analysis of the sacred texts but is distinguishable in the annual cycle of yatras that make up the caturmasa festivals. The city of ...

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