Bhairab – The Fearless God of Death
Who is kal Bhairab?
In Nepal, when someone gets very angry, they might be compared to a fierce and strong figure called “Bhairab” also known as god of death. This Bhairab is like a version of the Lord Shiva, who destroys things when he’s angry. In battles, soldiers and their groups are also called Bhairab, and they’re protected by Bhairab figures at temples and special places. In the Kathmandu valley, during special dances, there’s a blue masked Bhairab character who represents anger. Bhairab isn’t just angry; he’s also honest and loyal. That’s why the dog is regarded as the vehicle of Bhairab.
There are many temples and statues for Bhairab in the Kathmandu valley. Some of the big ones include Bagh Bhairab in Kirtipur, Tika Bhairab in Lele, Mahankal Bhairab near Bir Hospital, the Akash Bhairab at Indra Chowk in the heart of Kathmandu, the Haya griva Bhairab temple at the Bungamati and the huge Bhairab temple of Taumadi in Bhaktapur are just a few we see all the time.
History and significance of Kal Bhairab in Nepal
At Hanuman Dhoka palace, there’s a huge statue of a Bhairab named Kal Bhairab (kaal means Death). Long ago, this statue was found when digging for a water channel. Bhairab was important in preventing corruption. Civil servants had to promise in front of this statue that they wouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal.
Bhairab is also depicted in the valley during various festivals in the form of a mask dance with a huge alcohol vat attached behind it. A pipe delivers the alcohol to the ‘devotees,” through the mouth of the Bhairab. In the valley these are referred to as Haltha dyo and the largest of these is the Sweta / Seto Bhairab (White Bhairab) at Hahumandhoka palace square.
Normally the huge mask is locked up behind wooden latticed windows and is open to the public during the Indra Jatra festival. All across the routes along which the chariot of the living goddess is pulled, these mask and vats are placed on raised platforms and the various neighbourhoods organize rice beer and alcohol for the public participating in the festival.
Story of Kal Bhairab
During the reign of King Narendra Deva, there was a severe drought in Nepal. Astrologers predicted that the rains were held back because Gorakhnath had trapped all the Nagas ( serpent spirit) who were responsible for rain. They also advised the king that the only way to release the snakes was to bring Karunamaya ( Machhendranath, Bungo dyo or Lokeshwor) the compassionate one to the valley from Jamini in Assam. The news of the Bodh sattva’s arrival in the valley would surely force Gorakhnath to come to greet his teacher and hence the Nagas would be free and the rain would come.
King Narendra Deva along with the Bajracharya priest, Banddatta and local farmer, Ratan Chakra left for Kamarupa in present day Assam, to get Karunamaya who resided there as a young boy. The parents refused the request and overcame the three using supernatural powers. King Narendra Deva then called the four Bhairabs from the valley to help. Accordingly Harsiddhi Bhairab, Konde Bhairab, Lubtosanhara Bhairab and Londe Bhairab went to the rescue. They were able to ‘convince’ the parents and city dwellers to let go of Karunamaya. As the story goes, the four Bhairabs then carried the boy towards Nepal.
The four wheels of the chariot that carries Karunamaya through Patan represent the four Bhairabs and the eyes painted on them have flaming eyebrows to depict the “ ferocious ones”. The chariot festival of Karunamaya each year is a celebration of this living heritage. As the story goes, the parents again used supernatural powers and made the chariot so heavy that even the Bhairabs could not lift it. The priest then turned the young boy into a bumble bee and brought him rest of the way in a sacred flask- Kalash. The long wooden beam which is used to steer the enormous structure represents the king of Nagas and has the mask of Hayagriva Bharab at the front.
Thus Bhairab helped convince people to let Karunamaya come. In a special festival, a chariot represents this story, with Bhairab figures on it.
So, Bhairab is a powerful and important figure in Nepal, connected to anger, protection, and history.
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