On the ghats (riverfront steps) of the holy city of Varanasi is a little piece of Nepal with a curious story, and at the centre of this tale is the Pashupatinath Temple, a mirror image of a famous temple of the same name in Kathmandu in Nepal.
This pretty wooden temple with a Nepali-style pagoda is located on the Lalita Ghat, not far from the city’s most famous cremation site, Manikarnika Ghat. Its formal name is the Shri Samrajeswar Pashupatinath Mahadev Mandir, popularly known as ‘Nepali Mandir’.
The origin of the temple, a standout among all the temples in Varanasi due to its unique architecture, goes back to the year 1800, when a visitor named ‘Swami Nirgunananda’ arrived in Varanasi. He was none other than the exiled king of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah! The king had raised quite a storm back home and had to eventually flee. Since he now led the life of an ascetic, he arrived in the holy city of Varanasi.
Rana Bahadur Shah had ascended the throne in 1777 CE after the untimely death of his father. Later, he married a widow, Kantavati, and vowed to make their son his successor instead of his elder son from his second wife Subarnaprabha Devi. Then, a year after their son Girvana Yuddha was born, Kantavati contracted tuberculosis. In 1799 CE, the king abdicated and placed Girvan Yuddha on the throne, under the regency of his chief queen Raj Rajeshwari and led an ascetic life with Kantavati, under the name ‘Swami Nirgunananda’.
It wasn’t long before Kantavati succumbed to her illness. Unable to bear the loss, Rana Bahadur Shah suffered a mental breakdown. He ordered the destruction of idols and began interfering in court matters, which resulted in the setting up of two different courts. The court in support of the young Prince Girvan arrested Rana Bahadur Shah, who eventually fled the kingdom, taking refuge in Varanasi, where he lived for around four years.
But the heartbroken king was homesick and yearned for his beloved country. So he decided to create a little piece of Nepal in Varanasi. He commissioned the construction of the ‘Nepali Mandir’ as a replica of the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.
The king went all out to make sure the temple looked exactly like the one in Kathmandu and is said to have even brought labourers all the way from his homeland to build the shrine. And he appears to have succeeded.
The most striking feature of this temple is its Nepali Pagoda-style architecture. Painted red, it is made of wood and terracotta stone with intricate carvings. And, surrounded by tamarind and peepal trees, it is unmistakably like the one in Nepal. Interestingly, the temple is also known as ‘Kanthwala’ (meaning ‘wooden’) as it is made of wood, and also ‘mini Khajuraho’ due to some of its carvings, which resemble the ones in Khajuraho.
When Rana Bahadur Shah decided on a replica, he was dead serious, for it’s not just the structure that’s a lookalike; the location of both temples is also quite similar. The Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu is located on the banks of the Bagmati River, a holy cremation site in Nepal. In a similar fashion, the Varanasi shrine is just 100 m from the Manikarnika Ghat, the holiest cremation ghat in Varanasi, which is also one of only two cremation ghats in the city.
It took around 40 years to build this temple. In 1804, while the temple was still under construction, Rana Bahadur Shah returned to Nepal, due to the annulment of a Treaty of 1801 signed between Nepal and British in which the British would ensure Rana’s residence away from Kathmandu in Varanasi in return of establishment of a British Residency in Kathmandu. After his death in 1806, his son, Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah Deva, took it upon himself to complete the temple. He also built the Lalita Ghat (named after Goddess Lalita), on which this temple stands and which too had been commissioned by his father.
The unique Pashupatinath Temple in Varanasi temple did not go unnoticed by scholars and travellers, who visited the city and it finds mention in some of their works. Scholar and author Rajani Ranjan Sen, in his book, The Holy City: Benares (1912) writes, “Not far off, lies in a shady comer the picturesque Nepalese temple of Pashupatinath Siva with its two-storied roof and its gilded top and a pair of boldly executed Nepalese lions near the entrance. It is a unique Temple structure of its kind in Benares, being made entirely of wood with profuse and elaborate carvings beautiful and bold, representing various gods and goddesses neatly sculptured in wood and other fine ornamentations executed to a nicety.”
The Pashupatinath Temple looks down from one of Varanasi’s well-known ghats, offering a wonderful view of the riverfront below. It is a symbol of the ties between two countries with similar cultures.
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