Now a temple vs monastery row in Nepal

Sify News, February 8, 2009

Kathmandu, Nepal -- Drawing strength from parliament that three years ago declared the former Hindu kingdom of Nepal a secular state, Buddhist leaders are now demanding the construction of a Buddhist shrine at a famed 12th Century archaeological site, stoking afresh a temple versus monastery controversy.

The new debate centres round Kakrebihar, a site in remote Surkhet district in midwestern Nepal that during excavation by the country's archaeological department yielded a treasure trove of sculptures and stone carvings.

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In 2001, the Archaeological Survey of Nepal commissioned a survey and excavation of the mound that lies about three kilometres away from the district headquarters Birendranagar and the findings established the area as an important centre of Buddhist art.

Some Nepali historians believe the site was developed by King Ashoka Challa, who belonged to the powerful Malla dynasty that ruled Nepal from the 12th to 18th Century. Ashoka Challa's victories extended as far as what is now Uttarakhand in India, whose famed Gopeshwar temple has a pillar erected by the king to celebrate a war victory.

The Kakrebihar mound is probably the biggest instance of rock architecture in Nepal. The ruins suggest a temple built in layers and decorated with images that illustrate the life of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and his teachings. The excavation team had suggested that the temple could have been demolished by an invading army.

Around 2002-2003, when Nepal was under the rule of Gyanendra, the last Hindu king of Nepal, the government decided to rebuild the temple. However, the work was halted by lack of funds as well as the growing Maoist insurgency, with Surkhet being one of the worst affected districts.

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Now, with the end of the armed insurrection and the abolition of Hinduism as the state religion, Buddhist leaders are clamouring for the erection of a vihar or Buddhist monastery at the site, instead of a Hindu temple.

As a regional Buddhist conference kicked off in Kakrebihar on Saturday, Buddhist monks have come up with a four-point demand that asks the Maoist government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda to shelve the construction of the proposed temple and instead build a Buddhist shrine-cum-monastery.

"The word bihar itself suggests that Kakrebihar was a Buddhist shrine," said Jeevan Kumar Shakya, a member of the Buddhist body Dharmodaya Sabha that is attending the conference.

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"We have been saying for years that it was not right for the government to approve a temple here despite knowing the fact," Shakya told the Republica website. Two years ago, Buddhist groups on their own initiative laid the foundation of a Buddhist monastery near the site. Now, the resurrection of the dispute has cast a shadow over an architectural heritage that also has the potential to become a fabled tourist destination.