It is the third day after Dashain and a gathering of Malla family members waits inside the Taleju Bhawani temple of Bhaktapur. This Goddess has been the patron deity of the ruling families since the time of the Malla kings. The Mallas gathered today are direct descendants of the Malla rulers and have come to receive ‘tika’ from the Royal priest. They come here during all the major festivals and rights of passage ceremonies. It was here within the walls of the Royal Palace that the three Malla kings of the valley made their last stand against the invading Gorkhali army. The bullet holes on the statues of Saraswati and Laxmi that flank the temple’s doorway are a reminder of the last battle that brought an end to the long reign of the benevolent Mallas. It was 1768.
Today, we are proud of our architectural heritage and are delighted to show visitors the grandeur of the three Durbar Squares, which are World Heritage Sites. They were all built during the Malla period. Besides these, there are many fabulous temples that owe their existence to the creative zeal of the Mallas. It was the Mallas who transformed a tiny village into a well organized and planned city which later became known as Bhaktapur. Art, music, drama and poetry flourished under their patronage and some kings are even known for their hand in literary works besides a bit of carpentry. The conduits that these kings constructed in the cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur still supply many of the citizens with a constant supply of drinking water. The water spouts that we come across everywhere we go, stand testimony to the organized society that the Mallas had built in the valley. You may stumble upon a water spout that has run dry; it is only because modern building practices have destroyed the underground conduits and cut off the supply of fresh water. The Raj Kulo (Royal or main Conduit) that supplies Patan’s stone water spouts with water, is presently being renovated.
The caste system was introduced, whereby people of each caste had a duty to perform in society. 238 years since the fall of the Mallas, the Newar society still retains the system. There are the priestly classes, the butchers, sweepers, etc. In Bhaktapur, many citizens still live in their consigned areas with the lower castes living in the outskirts and the upper classes in the central area. Festivals accompanied by drama, was an integral part of the peoples’ lives. The performances took place on the dabalis (brick platforms) that can be seen around the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Art and entertainment was a way of life during the Malla period. Music and dance groups were supported by royal decree and were given land as a means of fund raising. Many festivals such as the Gai Jatra (Cow Festival) and the cult of the Kumari were the creations of Malla kings. The Living Goddess Kumari is still a powerful figure in Nepali society.
“After the defeat of the Malla Kings, their descendents left the valley and settled in different districts of Nepal. As an endeavor to develop a mutual relationship between the Malla descendents and to keep alive the rich traditions of our forefathers, we formed the foundation and have been regularly organizing various kinds of activities.” remarks Devendra Kumar Malla, Vice President of the Malla (Pradhananga) Foundation and the writer of the book, ‘Bhaktapur’s King Bhuwan Malla’s descendents.’
The literal meaning of “Malla” in Sanskrit is “wrestler”. “The Mallas as a class of people find a place in several ancient treatises with identical heroic tradition.” states D.R.Regmi in his book, ‘Medieval Nepal’. It is believed that Arideva’s father was so impressed by his ability as a wrestler that he conferred on him the title of ‘Malla’ and with his reign in the Nepal valley during the twelfth century began a new dynasty.
Malla Kings of Importance Jayasthithi Malla (1379-1424)
It is said that after Jayasthithi Malla’s rise to power as the husband of Rajalladevi (the daughter of the prevailing ruler), Nepal valley experienced a sustained effort in reorganizing the shattered and chaotic kingdom. He is remembered for the social organization he set up by dividing the people into various caste groups according to their professions. “Jayasthithi Malla no doubt occupies a high place in history as the founder of the dynasty, which ruled Nepal for nearly four hundred years. He emerged out of obscurity to occupy the throne of the kingdom of Nepal; this was no mean achievement and speaks of high qualities of head and heart,” states Regmi in ‘Medieval Nepal’. A lover of poetry and drama, he always encouraged learned men. Many important Sanskrit mythical books were translated into Newari and the feeling of ‘religious unity’ flourished during his rule.
Yakshya Malla (1438-1491)
The entire Kathmandu valley was once a single kingdom ruled by Yakshya Malla, a powerful warrior king responsible for immensely expanding the Malla kingdom. He built the Dattatreya and Pashupati temples of Bhaktapur. Ruling from this city, he was known to visit Pashupatinath in Kathmandu every day. It is said that one day, when floods prevented him from crossing the Bagmati river, he could not reach Kathmandu. As he could not pay homage to Pashupati on this day, he spent a sleepless night. Lord Shiva appeared to him in his dream and told him to build another Pashupati temple in Bhaktapur. He built one within the Durbar Square. It was renovated some years ago. Yakshya also invited four South Indian Bhatta Brahmins to take charge of the pujas within the Pashupati temple of Kathmandu. Their descendants are still the official priests in the Hindu kingdom’s holiest shrine.
Bhupatindra Malla (1696-1722)
When strolling through the squares of Bhaktapur, one name that keeps cropping up is that of Bhupatindra Malla. This multitalented ruler of Bhaktapur is responsible for some of the most fascinating architecural heritages of the city. He is also fondly remembered for his vast contribution in the field of art and literature. The most well known and prominent structures in the city are his creations such as the five-storied pagoda, Nyatopola Temple, Pachpanna Jhyal Durbar (55 windowed palace) and his own statue (in front of the Golden gate).The frescoes and the intricate woodcarvings of the Pachhpanna Jyale Durbar are a source of marvel and they are now being renovated. Also a dramatist, he has written more than half a dozen literary works, which includes Maithili literature. It is believed that his special inclination towards performing arts affected the construction of his palaces. He built dabalis (a platform where dramas, dances etc. were performed) in the squares so that he could enjoy the wonderful performances from his palace window. According to scholar, Perci Brown, “Bhupatindra Malla’s works are a fine example of the interblend of knowledge, intellect and religion.” It is also believed that the rivalry among the three kings of the valley led to a proliferation of architectural works. All three Durbar Squares have statues of kings on a giant stone pillar.
The Fall of the Mallas
Before his death, Yakshya Malla divided his territory among his sons into three kingdoms-Kantipur(Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur. Thus began the rivalry and bitter fueds which were sometimes settled with outside help. The age old wisdom, “United we stand, devided we fall” was ignored. King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of Gorkha, a kingdom to the north of Kathmandu, stood upon the Chandragiri hills overlooking the valley, and declared he would become the ruler of all the valley. It was many years before he attacked the valley. It is said he arrived at the gates of Kantipur when the citizens were lost in the revelry of the Indra Jatra Festival. His army met no resistance and the city became his when the Living Goddess Kumari, who is taken out on a chariot procession during this festival, blessed him with a tika. In the next few years, Lalitpur (Patan)and eventually Bhaktapur fell into his hands and the four hundred year reign of the Mallas was over.
Descendents of the Mallas
Legend has it that when Ranajit Malla, the last Malla ruler of Bhaktapur accepted defeat against the Shah rulers, he silently took off his crown and with eyes full of tears dropped the crown from a window of his palace. Then, reciting a sorrowful hymn, he bade goodbye to his kingdom and walked towards Kashi (Varanasi in India). He then spent the rest of his life in prayer and devotion to Lord Shiva.
The most significant history books of the world show that the tales of the defeated are left unwritten, while those of the victorious are glorified. History is full of heroic tales of conquests. Someone’s defeat is another man’s victory. The tales of the conquering heroes are inscribed and acclaimed in the history pages, and the painful tales of the losers are only told through folk music and dances. Kathmandu valley until today has a few folk singers whose songs relate the history of the Malla rulers.
After the defeat, the descendents of the Malla rulers found themselve in chaos as rampant bloodbaths followed. It is believed that most of the descendents of the rulers of Kathmandu and Patan were killed. Perhaps it is for this reason that until today, many Mallas have disassociated themselves from their lineage. Many Mallas changed their family name to avoid persecution. But, since Ranajit Malla was an intimate friend of Prithvi Narayan Shah, it is said that he was lenient towards Bhaktapur.
The Malla descendents have been using surnames like Pradhananga and Rajalwat. It is known that Pradhananga was a respected title given by the Malla rulers as recognition of their high post in the durbar. According to Luciano Petech, Medieval History of Nepal, “The rulers forbade the use of the title ‘Malla’ substituting ‘Rajalwat’ for it.” Regardless of this stipulation, the descendents along with the other Newar communities preserved the traditions, culture and skills of the Malla period wherever they went.
Taleju Bhawani, the Patron deity of the Mallas
Taleju Bhawani, the patron deity of the royal families of Nepal is found in all three palaces built during the Malla period; in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan. The Malla descendents till date continue to go to the Taleju temple of Bhaktapur on different occasions to conduct various rituals but this practice is not prevalent in the Taleju temples of Katmandu and Patan. Taleju Bhawani is still their family deity.
The main Taleju temple of Bhaktapur is out of bounds for common people. Only male descendents of Mallas are allowed in the inner sanctum, which is well hidden in the upper floor of the two storied temple. Here the three main priests, Rajopadhaya, Joshi and Karmacharya officiate. The Mallas have to prove their lineage from the Malla rulers to these priests. Before entering, the men are required to take a religious oath that anything seen inside the temple will remain strictly secret. The Taleju temples are known for tantric practices.
Another interesting ritual that takes place in the temple is the rice feeding ceremony of a Malla son. Here again, the father of the newly born son needs to prove his family association. The child dressed in special attire is carried to the temple premises by his maternal uncle, followed by a procession consisting of the family members. Then, one of the priests takes the child towards the main temple. Signifying the birth of the royal prince, various rituals are performed inside the main temple. Lastly the child’s name is recorded in the books containing the names of other Malla descendents. Likewise, during the Dashain festival, all Malla families gather in the temple to receive ‘tika’ from the high priest. In different festivals like Indrajatra and Nawami (the ninth day of Dashain) rituals are regularly performed by members of the Malla families. The Malla rulers were followers of tantrism and therefore the rituals are secret as well as complex. Some involve immense physical strain, which is one of the reasons why many Malla descendents have left the tradition. “The Taleju Bhawani is our religious and cultural pillar. It is our privileged opportunity to serve and worship our family deity,” says a Malla descendent, who has been religiously observing every family ritual.