The temple of Budhanilkantha lies in the northeastern part of Kathmandu and is one of the most revered Vishnu temples attracting pilgrims from far and wide. This famous temple, unlike others, does not have an exotic architectural structure to boast about. Its pride rather lies in the gigantic twenty feet long and twelve feet wide exquisite Vishnu idol lying on a bed of serpents in a tank full of water–a scrupulous arrangement that is more than enough to evoke the mythological atmosphere of Narayana lying on his Shesh Naga bed deep underwater.
The legend of Budhanilkantha seems to be quite old as there is no identifying as to when the temple was actually built. The story begins at the time of a king who was a great devotee of Badrinath and Kedarnath of present-day Uttarakhand, India. It is said that the king used to visit these holy places regularly but as he grew old, such long and arduous voyages became more and more impossible to undertake. As a consequence, the king became dejected and lost his will to live. He yearned to see his beloved deities–the pillars that held him in every ups and downs of life. Shedding tears from his eyes, the king solemnly prayed to the gods to find a way that he could see them as before. Badrinath and Kedarnath, benevolent deities as they were, could not overlook the agony that their dearest of devotees was suffering and decided to manifest inside the king’s realm.
Manifestation of a divine being was not a quotidian spectacle and as it happened, it took no time for the miraculous news to break out and reach people’s ears far and near. Soon, the place was swarmed by people like bees rushing towards a succulent flower. When the senile king heard the story, he jolted from his seat as if he was stricken with lightning. He asked his ministers, caretakers and family members if there was any truth to it or was it a phony invention to inject life into his moribund soul? But to his surprise, every single person he inquired had not just a positive response but a dramatic anecdote as well. The king now could not wait any longer. He ordered his men to take him to the place that very moment. The royal guards obeyed as told and hastily took him to the sacred spot where the god Hari-Hara had manifested. The king rushed forward, prostrated and wept like a child who had been separated from his mother. After a while of genuflection, he lifted his head to see his beloved gods but rather than being exhilarated, he was utterly dismayed by what he witnessed. He found the combined form of Badri and Kedar to be very weird having no resemblance to the gods he remembered so well. He felt robbed of his joy as if his faith was being ridiculed as a child’s whim. He became furious and started questioning the divinity of the deity in front of him. Then, the god Hari-Hara, dismayed by his devotee’s hidebound and ignorant perception, forbade the foolish king to ever put a step on the premise again or the king would face a terrible fate.
After a very long time, probably hundreds of years later, the knowledge of this event was lost among the people. The place where Hari-Hara manifested became a spot where farmers came to winnow their paddies. The place was nothing but ordinary except that the crops that were winnowed here produced double the amount compared to elsewhere. Some say that it was actually a farm that wielded crops significantly more than one would expect. In any case, it would be convenient to say that there was some kind of unusual phenomenon in this place that attracted farmers from all the neighboring villages. One man among all of them, a farmer by the name of Nilkantha, found it not only surprising but equally unsettling. He suspected that something must be hidden deep underground that was causing such miraculous feats and was determined to find it at any cost. He started to dig the ground with a sharp iron tool and as he reached a few feet beneath the surface, he felt he struck something hard and upon close examination, he noticed blood oozing out of the earth. Astounded, he went back to the village and called everyone to see the extraordinary sight. The villagers came, saw and realized that Nilkantha’s account was entirely true. Then, after a long discussion and debate whether to proceed on with the unfinished work or to abandon it, they eventually decided to continue digging, but only using their bare hands.
Thereafter, the villagers started digging persistently and after several hours of grueling work, a gigantic idol of Hari-Hara lying on a serpent was unveiled. They were overjoyed by their discovery and started celebrating in every manner possible. Nilkantha, on the other hand, was overcome with remorse and guilt. He went to the idol and saw that the toe and the nose had been wounded. He sat there and cried to the God that he did a terrible crime and deserved the harshest punishment. Later that night, he had a strange dream. The same God came and told him that he was not to be blamed for any mishaps that happened earlier as it was totally accidental. Rather than being enraged, the god was delighted with him and even suggested to name him Nilkantha so that everyone could remember the one who unearthed him. The next day, Nilkantha recounted his dream to the villagers to which they reacted positively and thus, Hari-Hara was named Nilkantha since that very moment. Today, the same god is known as Budhanilkantha and it seems that the one who discovered him has been well remembered.
The curse of Budhanilkantha had a lasting effect on all the royal families of Nepal and even until the time of the last monarchs, no king ever dared to defy the divine embargo. But interestingly, there is an account of a king who tried to challenge and quash the venerated norm. Legends say that King Pratap Malla once tried to forcibly get inside the temple not with any malign intention but to behold and worship the revered god Budhanilkantha. Being a pious person as well as an adept tantrika, he might have thought his expertise would be enough to spare him of any antipathy or grudges, which was nonexistent whatsoever, at least in his mind. But as he was making his way, the serpents of Budhanilkantha came to know of this and one among the twelve decided to go and stop him. The king found the serpent blocking his path and asked to let him go. The serpent denied his wish and forbade him to take another step forward. They argued for a while but the king could not go past the powerful serpent. Infuriated by being demeaned, he cursed the serpent to be blind saying that the one who stopped me from visiting the lord shall not go back either. The blind serpent could not find his way back and thus, was lost forever. As of now, Pratap Malla is still credited for the rather anomalous number of eleven serpents crowing the idol of Budhanilkantha.
Centuries have gone yet the tale of Budhanilkantha remains treasured among the people with unmatched faith and enthusiasm.