Śākta Traditions in the Kathmandu Valley and Beyond:
The Cult of Tripurasundarī
Dr Rajan Khatiwoda and Dr Ramhari Timalsina
One of the ten Mahāvidyās, Tripurasundarī is also known as Ṣoḍaśī, Lalitā, Kāmeśvarī, Śrīvidyā, and Rājarājejeśvarī. Since the early medieval period, Tripurasundarī worship has developed its Vedic Samaya ritual and become popular among the initiates in the tradition of Śaṅkarācārya. This tradition broadly remained a form of Kaula practice in Nepal, particularly among royal and high cast Newar families. M. Dyczkowski, A. Sanderson, and recently J.S. Lidke have brought to light some important aspects of Nepalese Śākta Tantra and the Tripurā Śākta tradition, however, a comprehensive history of Śākta Tantrism in Nepal is a desideratum. Thus, although the Tripurā tradition seems to be the major Śākta tradition in Nepal, extensive research in this tradition is lacking.
Origin and spread of this tradition is still obscure. It still needs to be analysed whether this tradition travelled to the Kathmandu Valley from Kashmir, from South India or from Bengal. Historical records show that Bhaktapur and surroundings were the centres for the Tripurasundarī tradition. While two historical records relate Tripurasundarī tradition in the Valley with the South, there is a significant amount of textual resources to suggest a fluid relationship of the Valley with Kashmir. It is possible that the modified version of the tradition of Tripurā came to Nepal through the mountain regions of Karnali and through the route of Kashmir. There are conflicting reports regarding the identity of Taleju, with some suggesting that the goddess is actually Tripurasundarī while the others maintaining she is Siddhilakṣmī. The relationship between these two deities is crucial to explore the depth in which the fusion of traditions work in Nepal, with the second goddess being linked with the Kashmiri liturgies and having multiple temples in the Kathmandu valley.
The Parvate or “Village” Śākta tradition in comparison with Newar Śāktism popular in the Kathmandu Valley is different. Dyczkowski (2001) and Sanderson (2002) have extensively studied the Newar Śāktism of the Valley and have traced its roots to the Śākta Āgama texts. In contrast, there is no text to trace back the Parvate practice, as it is unique to the villagers and most of their priests are Brahmins, not equipped with the textual knowledge of the higher Āgamas. This is not to say that the Valley tradition lacked any indigenous flavour.
In the various Archives of Nepal and private collections there are hundreds of manuscripts related to the Tripurasundarī tradition. In the National Archives of Kathmandu (NAK) there are some old manuscripts of the tradition. In the Asha Archives of Kathmandu there are many manuscripts containing different texts related to the tradition. Most of them are the manuals for worship written in Newarī mixed hybrid Sanskrit. It shows that these manuscripts were prepared and used by Newar priests who did not speak Sanskrit.
Although reconstructing the History of Śākta Tantrism based on inscriptions and artifacts is difficult, since the transaction between the king and the Tantric practitioner has always been shrouded in secrecy, there are a few documents that relate to the Tripurasundarī temples in different parts of Nepal and we can make a case based on these documents. Tripurasundarī appears to be more popular in the Karnali or the far western region of Nepal. The fluid relationship among various Śākta deities on one hand and the folk deities on the other needs further investigation.
This project aims to do an extensive and interdisciplinary research on the evolution of the Tripurasundarī tradition in the Kathmandu Valley and beyond, trying to investigate the tradition relying upon the iconography of gods, inscriptions, manuscripts, chronicles, historical documents and published texts.
A research monograph to be published in the Routledge Studies in Tantric Traditions series (ed. Gavin Flood). The book is expected to be finished in 2022.
Dyczkowski, Mark S. G.
2001 “The Inner Pilgrimage of the Tantras: The Sacred Geography of the Kubjikā Tantras with reference to the Bhairava and Kaula Tantras”, JNRC 22, 43-100.
2002 “Remarks on the Text of the Kubjikāmatatantra” Indo-Iranian Journal 45, 1-24.
* Manuscript photo: Tripurasundarīpūjāpaddhati (NAK 1/1584, i.e. NGMPP B 31/40) prepared in the kingdom of Jayasthiti Malla (NS 503, i.e. 1383 CE)