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Mata Tirtha: a Sacred Geography

Abstract

Tucked away in the foothill of a mountain in the Kathmandu Valley, Mātā Tirtha defies the description of a sacred tirtha. It is neither situated between the confluences of two rivers nor is it dedicated to the God Viṣṇu, as are most of the tirthas in India. And yet, Mātā Tirtha continues to become popular within the valley among citizens of all faiths. What is unique about Mātā Tirtha? This paper sets out to trace its origins by examining its history, folklore, and the myths that surround the sacred site. Positioned as a tirtha, it is dedicated specifically to the mother—the mothers of all men and women whose mothers have passed away. For that reason, Mātā Tirtha stands out as unique. Nothing similar is to be found in India. In terms of geography, Mātā Tirtha has a unique place in the religious landscape of the Kathmandu Valley, while its historic sanctity dates back to the seventeenth century during the reign of King Pratapa Malla. Legend, however, pushes it back to an even earlier existence. Today, visitors of all religious persuasions come to Mātā Tirtha to honor their mothers who have passed away.

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Notes

  1. Before 1769, the term “Nepal” was applied to the valley of Kathmandu. Even after many parts were brought under the statehood of Nepal, the valley, as late as the 1960s, was known to many people living in the far corners of the land, as Nepal.

  2. Daniel Wright, History of Nepal; Stella Kramrisch, The Art of Nepal; Asia Society: New York, 1964, p. 15; Mary Slusser, Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley, Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1982, p. 8; Swaymbhu Purana, Nepal Mahatmya, and Gopalaraja Vamsavali all say the same thing.

  3. Nepal Mahatmya translated by William P. Forbes in association with V.K. Chaube contains tales about the Vaisṇava origin of the Valley. See The Glory of Nepal: A Mythological Guidebook to Kathmandu Valley Based on the Nepala Mahatmya and Himavatkhanda. Varanasi: Pilgrim Publishing, 2000.

  4. Subhadra Sen Gupta, Tirtha: Holy Pilgrim Centres of the Hindus, Saptapuris and Chaar Dhaam. Rupa: New Delhi, 2001, p. 3.

  5. A sacred place situated on the outskirt of Kuruksetra where if one bathes would be rich in children. See Sloka 58, Chapter 83, Vana Parva of the Mahābhārata. Quoted by Vettam Mani in Puranic Encyclopaedia. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, reprinted 1996, p. 493. However, J. A. B. van Buitenen translates Mātri Tirtha as Ford-of-the Mother. [W]hen a man bathes there, his offspring increases and he attains to unending prosperity. See The Mahabharata, 2 The Book of the Assembly, 3 The Book of the Forest. Ed. By J.A.B. van Buitenen. Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1975, p. 380.

  6. Deepak Shimkhada, “Pratapamalla’s Pilgrimage: An Historical Painting from Nepal” in Oriental Art, Winter 1984/85, p. 368. The Rani Pokhari inscription is dated A.D. 1670 which supports the date of the manuscript of 1699, just a year before the inauguration of the Pokhari as the dedicatory stone inscription suggests. For the full text of the inscription, see T.W. Clark, “The Rani Pokhari Inscription, Kathmandu” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 20, No. 1/3. URL: http://hnks.islor.org/sici?sici=0041-977X%2S1957%2920%3Al%2F3%3C167%3ATRPIK%3E2.0.CQ%3B2-D

  7. Shimkhada, op.cit.

  8. Shimkhada, op.cit.

  9. Clark, op. cit.

  10. Clark, op. cit.

  11. Clark, op. cit.

  12. Sanasam Sandhyarani Devi in India Nepal Relations: Historical, Cultural and Political Perspectives, VIJ Books India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi 2011, p. 6.

  13. Quoted by Padmakshi Rana. I have not been able to verify this story in any of the texts I have read so far. Unfortunately the author did not cite the source from where this was taken. See http://magarstudiescenter.org.np/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Festivals-of-Nepal.pdf

  14. Swayambhu Purana, p. 19.

  15. Shimkhada, op. cit.

  16. Bishnu Prabhat, see Prajna Sanskriti Kosh (in Nepali). Kathmandu: Nepal Academy, 2017, p. 356.

  17. I remember as a young boy of ten when I first visited Mātā Tirtha with my parents. Although both my parents had lost their mothers, my mother was still alive, so I was not allowed to go with them to the Kunda. I was left with another adult in a tent a few hundred yards before the Kunda while my parents went to the Kunda for a dip and to perform a shrāddha for their departed mothers. I have a vivid memory of the time, probably because I was terrified as I waited for my parents to return. That afternoon, the wind was blowing hard, and the tent in which I was left was shaking violently as if it were going to fly off.

  18. According to legend, the mother never came out of the pond in a physical form. The boy saw her reflection only in the water. When he accidentally dropped his food in the pond, his mother put it in her mouth which led to the practice of performing shrāddha annually at Mātā Tirtha.

  19. Snātvā karōtima y: Śrād’dhaṁ māghō: Kr̥ṣṇakuhau dinē.

    Viyōga na bhavēnmātu: Vārdhakyē̕pī suniścitamma.

    Tr̥ptā bhavati tanmātā snānamātrēṇa cātra vai.

    R̥ṇa: Pramucyatē sad’dhō mātr̥garbhasthitōbhdavai.

    Rough translation: After taking a bath in the pond on the dark fortnight of the month of Magha, one who gives oblation in loving memory of one’s mother, he will not be required to return to his mother’s womb. He attains liberation.

  20. Op. Cit. See endnote xix above for the full text of the mantra in Sanskrit.

  21. Appropriately, its alternate name is Viṣṇupadi as the Vaiṣṇavas believe that the River Gañgā too is issued from Viṣṇu’s foot (pada). Please also see Mary Slusser, Nepal Mandala, op. cit., p. 351.

  22. Not in the same month. The birthday of Krishna is called Kṛṣṇa Janmāsṭhami, which usually falls during the month of August or September according to the lunar calendar.

  23. Emoto, Masaru, Hidden Messages in Water. Atria Books, 2005.

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Correspondence to Deepak Shimkhada.

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Shimkhada, D. Mata Tirtha: a Sacred Geography. DHARM 2, 31–39 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42240-019-00031-4

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Keywords

  • Mātā Tirtha
  • Mother’s Day
  • Kathmandu Valley
  • Kirat
  • Krishna
  • Vaisnava
  • Rani Pokhari
  • Pratapa Malla