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Religious Symbols

Different yantras, for tantricpuja or meditation, are used by tantric pundits. Among the many yantras prevalent the shree yantra (shree stands for 'Lakshmi' the goddess of prosperity) is said to be the most important and is called the king of yantras by the tantric adepts.

Shree yantra is composed of two sets of triangles one of which is composed of Shreekanthas (four male Shiva triangles denoting gradually involved energy) and the other set of triangles is composed of Shivayavatis ( five female or shakti triangles denoting five senses of knowledge and action, and five subtle and gross forms of matter). These two triangles reflect the unison of Shiva and Shakti.

A noted Nepali Scholar says that Shakti is always in unison with Shiva, existing within each and every being as the inner self; the state of existence, consciousness and bliss. Shiva is the Ashraya (basis) of Shakti which in turn, being his creative faculty, is the basis of the whole universe. Hence, she is known as Shree the primordial energy existing within Shiva and yantra is her divine extension network. Without her operation, this visible cosmos would not be possible.

This universe and all it's contents are basically composed of panchtatva or five basic elements comprising of Prithvi (earth), Apas (water), Tejas (light), Maruta (wind) and Aakaash (sky). It is believed that our body is also composed of the same basic elements called pinda. The unison of Pinda, the individual body, with Brahmaanda, the cosmic body, is beautifully represented by this great yantra. The objective of meditation on Shree-yantra is to unite with the universal mother, in her forms of mind, life and matter, to attain consciousness and divinity. The Yantra is therefore transformed from a material object of lines and curves into a mental state of union with the universe.

The Satkon is composed of two sets of overlapping triangles. One is the symbol of Shiva, which stands for eternal being (static by nature), and the other is a symbol of Shakti, the most active female. This popular symbol of the union of Shakti and Shiva, that indicates the union of the two, is represented in several Nepali works of art like the Mandala paintings, windows and doors etc. The beautiful temple residence of Devi Annapurna Ajima, at Bhotahiti Tol in Kathmandu, has one of the most exquisite Satkon patterns in its windows. Many people seem to mistake the Star of David, which has nothing to do with it. The Satkon signifies the five basic senses and the extra sensory perception, that significantly makes it the six -pointed star. This symbol is believed to have originated from ancient tantric Hinduism. On the other hand the Buddhist story about the Satkon says that it symbolizes the perfection of the highest form of wisdom (Pragya), however, the Mahayanists accept it as a great symbol of Pragya (knowledge or enlightenment) and Upaya (active force or the power of the female principal) united. This ancient symbol appears to be the central core of all the highly sophisticated symbols in Nepali religious culture.

Swastika, a Sanskrit word which means doing good for all, is a very ancient oriental symbol. This symbol can be seen in wood -carvings, bronze castings, thangka paintings and many other traditional forms of art.

In Buddhism, the four hands of Swastika signifying Maitree (friendship), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (happiness) and Upershya (indifference), are four divine merits or talents. This theory is very dominant in our culture. According to Sadhanmala(one of the most authentic Buddhist texts), the four merits represent four ideal ways to Nirvana every aspirant should mediate on.

It is believed that the Mahayanists, in due course of time, developed an iconography based on all those four merits and soon created Swastika to proudly add to their pantheon of gods. The many deities were all given the same merit names like Maitree, Karuna, Mudita and Upekshya. Hindus as well Buddhists worship them in Nepal. Among many such deities of Nepal, the four most beautifully built bronze statues of these merit gods can be seen in Hiranyavarana Mahavihar(Golden temple)of Patan built by Vaskar Varma in 12th century.

Shiva Linga
The linga is the phallic symbol of lord Shiva and it displays supreme power generally identified analogue of cosmic deity. It occupies the "womb cell" in temples while the outer structure of this double sex diety signifies its determined creative function. Creation, in tantra is described as sexual self-relation. The Brihadaranyaka Upanisad says that one alone knows no delight and so the female partner was generated.

According to the Puranas, Lord Shiva assumed the form of Lingam(the phallic symbol of universal pro-creation), on the night of Shivaratri, to save the universe from a big threat of destruction. It is said that when Lord Shiva swallowed the Halahala poison, which had emanated from the intensive churning of the milky ocean, the heat of the poison proved to be so unbearable that he could not wait for a Himalayan shower. Ganga, the river goddess, is said to have rushed to him and poured all the water she had in possession. This helped him and so, even today, holy water is offered through Jalahari(a copper cup that hangs above the Shivalinga). It is believed that Shiva was not cooled enough even after Ganga poured all the water she possessed over him. He was cooled only when the whole of the moon was tucked in the matted lock of his head. Shiva, after having cooled himself became ecstatic and started dancing the Tandava Nritya.


In Nepal, we have thousands of fascinating old buildings and temples almost all of which have religious figures and symbols. It would be almost impossible to know about each and every one of them. So, we discuss some important figures and symbols.

Shankha is a Sanskrit word used to denote a sleek and smooth conch shell. It is believed that if the Shankha is blown with skill, it can scare away evil spirits and is described as a killer of germs and enemies. According to some scholars, it can also be used for preparing many kinds of Ayurvedic medicines and that a certain dose of its powder can cure jaundice, gall bladder, etc.

The Hindus as well as the Buddhists drink water from a Shankha before they break a fast and almost all temple prayers are accompanied by the blowing of the Shankha.

It is strongly believed that the Shankha had been shaped from the holy waters showered from heaven. Thus it is regarded as a divine jewel always held by Lord Vishnu on his right hand. It was also used as safety bands for young ladies to wear, around their hands, in the form of bracelets and its necklaces were worn to cast away evil eyes.

Chakra (The wheel of right action)
Chakra or the wheel of righteousness is an emblem or tool used as a holy symbol by Hindus and Buddhists. Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation, always holds a chakra to do away with demons and to protect his devotees and to make sure that Dharma(righteousness) does not retrograde.

In Buddhism, some interpret the Chakra as the wheel of life and see it as the teachings of Buddha. We might as well say that it's purpose is similar in Buddhism and Hinduism because the first teachings of Buddha began with the turning of the wheel of Dharma.

Sinhamoo(Ceremonial vermilion container)
This ceremonial container is used for storing vermilion powder for religious purposes. The consecrated vermilion inside the container represents Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance. The upper portion of the Sinhamoo is either shaped like three, five or seven tiered oriental umbrella serving as a ceremonial canopy of Laxmi. Sinhamoo is used in almost all-religious ceremonies particularly in the Newari community.

Jwala Nhyekan (A ceremonial metal mirror)
Jwala Nhyekan, an ancient religious object, has a plain circle as the central portion surrounded by stylized flames that come to the peak at the top. It is indispensable in all kinds of religious ceremonies in the Newari community of Kathmandu Valley. This is used by Buddhist`s as well as Hindu`s to symbolize inner vision and is also regarded a representation of Saraswati, the goddess of learning and creative arts.

Kalasha (a holy ceremonial water jar)
Kalash is a typical traditional water jar usually made of brass, which has a round body with the base and mouth beautifully designed like a full blown lotus. Kalasha, the symbol of the universal mother goddess, is supposed to contain Amrit(inexhaustible elixir) which never dries and makes one immortal. It was said in ancient times that the sprinkling of Kalash- water, accompanied by mantra, over ones head would ensure plenty, purity and prosperity.

Lotus (the flower of wisdom)
The lotus is among the most popular motifs in Nepali arts, it is a symbol of mental purity and detachment. In Nepal, it is also a symbol of divinity as some Hindu as well as Buddhist gods are seen sitting on them showing that they are divine.

Torana, a gateway leading to a temple or a holy place of worship, is semi-circular in form and is placed above temple doorways. Torana`s mostly found made on wood or stone and some are lavishly gilded with brass, others are even beautifully embellished with several artistic designs.

Vajra, which means "thunderbolt", is used in the Vajrayani as well as Mahayani sect of Buddhism. It is described as an ever illuminating, indestructible and adamantine element, often identified as a divine symbol of the changeless absolute, in a Buddhist text. The Vajra is always accompanied by a bell, for Vajra stands for the male principle whereas a bell for the female principle. A Vajra accompanied by a bell is a ritualistic requirement for every Buddhist religious ceremony. In every Buddhist religious ceremony, the Buddhist priest holds a Vajra on his right hand and a bell on the other.

The sound of a bell in Hindu philosophy symbolizes the Nata-Brahma(seed-sound) originating from Brahma, the supreme being. The ringing of a bell has always been an integral part of prayers for most religions in Nepal. We find bells in every temple and thus, it is of importance to every religion.

Prayer Wheel
Almost every Buddhist temple have prayer wheels which was introduced by Tibetans. These cylindrical wheels have prayers carved on them. The prayer seen in almost all prayer wheel is- om mani padme hum (I bow down to the divine jewel or Buddha seated on the lotus).

Sukunda is a traditional Nepali oil lamp made of brass. The front part of a Sukunda is shaped like the god Ganesha, the god of success and good luck. It has a tiny cup to put the wick and a fascinating loop handle designed with a five- headed serpent raising its head. It also has a small spoon, with the Naga-kanya atop, used for replenishing the oil from the reservoir. The artistic work on this traditional lamp reflects the remote past of a very famous Buddhist legend about a Naga(snake) and a lake. A long time ago Kathmandu valley was a lake inhabited by snakes. In the middle of the lake, there was a beautiful flame of a lotus with a thousand petals. Buddha Mahamanjushree after hearing about it rushed to the valley, all the way from China, and he drained the lake by striking his magic sword at the southern hill of the valley leaving the valley open to all. The most famous Buddhist stupa of

Swayambhunath is believed to have originated from the same legendary lotus-flame.
In Newari language sukunda means a beautiful lake. It is said that the oil reservoir of a sukunda represents the legendary lake, its mouth with the unfolded lotus motif represents the lotus with a thousand petals and the cup attached to it in which the lamp is lighted represents the self- existent divine flame. The lord Ganesha in front represents the great guru who is there to teach everyone the supreme acts of god. No ceremony in Nepal is started without the lighting of the Sukunda.

This traditional is a bit different from the Sukunda. Khaadalu, in Newari, means a hanging window lamp. Many years ago, when there was no electricity, these lamps were used for lighting shrines and the streets of Kathmandu. We can still see these oriental brass lamps, with a few mythical dragons watchfully guarding its flame from both sides, hung in many old houses but they are only lighted on festive occasions. As the age- old custom has it, only housewives are supposed to light this lamp and many still have faith in the myth that if this lamp is not lighted after it gets dark, Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, would be displeased.
"Shubham bhavatu kalyanam aarogya dhanasampati mamashatru vinashaya deepajyot namastute" an old prayer recited while lightening the Khadaalu means- You, the great doer of welfare for your devotees, the one who bestows upon us health, happiness, wealth and the destruction of our enemies (darkness and ignorance). Salutation to you, the great divine light.

Janai, a holy thread, worn around the neck by Brahmins and Chhetris, is worn to denote Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It is believed that all the three gods reside in the holy thread making it a divine. The Mantra to invoke the desired diety Begins with the word "Aum". It is believed that the one who realizes the significance of this Mantra will easily reach god.

According to a very old Nepali tradition, a person planning a journey first consults an astrologer to figure out the right time for the person to begin a journey. Then on the day fixed for the person to leave the person's family organizes a farewell ceremony the main highlight of which is a ritual dish (sagun) which is supposed to bring the person good luck. The ritual dish consists of a boiled egg, a thick round lentil cake, a dried fish, a piece of meat and a piece of ginger. The sagun is usually given, accompanied either by alcohol or yogurt and a vermilion mark on his/her forehead locally called Teeka.

Makara Motif
Makara, meaning crocodile in Sanskrit, is a traditional motif used in decorative art, which is very common in Nepal. This motif can be found used in Nepali temple toranas (tympanums), traditional water and wine jars, spouts, bronze containers, jewelry etc. The makara is shown having watchful eyes, very sharp teeth, flaming lips, two little legs and at times it is shown having a tough scaly body, four legs and a long floriated tail. Makara is more a symbol of a perennial source of life than a mere decorative piece of art. The incessant flow of water from the mouth of makara in spouts reflects the cycle of creation.

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