The Budhanilkantha statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, located approximately 10 kilometers from the center of Kathmandu at the base of the Shivapuri Hill, is the largest and most beautiful stone carving in all of Nepal. It is also the most enigmatic.

Carved from a single block of black basalt stone of unknown origin, the Budhanilkantha statue is 5 meters in length and it lies in a reclining position inside a recessed tank of water (representing the cosmic sea) that is 13 meters in length. Called the Sleeping Vishnu, or Jalakshayan Narayan, the statue depicts the deity reclining on the twisting coils of the cosmic serpent Shesha (Shesha is the eternal, multi-headed king of the serpent deities known as Nagas, and also is the servant of Vishnu).

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Vishnu’s legs are crossed and the eleven heads of Shesha cradle his head. Vishnu’s four hands hold objects that are symbols of his divine qualities: a chakra or disc (representing the mind), a conch-shell (the four elements), a lotus flower (the moving universe) and the club (primeval knowledge).

Budhanilkantha literally means “old blue-throat’ and how it got that name is fascinating, as explained by the excellent Rough Guide to Nepal:

“Budhanilkatha’s name has been a source of endless confusion. It has nothing to do with the Buddha (budha means “old”, though that doesn’t stop Buddhist Newars – a particular sect of Nepalese Buddhists - from worshipping the image). The real puzzler is why Budhanilkantha (literally “Old Blue Throat”), a title which unquestionably refers to Shiva, has been attached here to Vishnu.

The myth of Shiva’s blue throat, a favorite in Nepal, relates how the gods churned the ocean of existence and inadvertently unleashed a poison that threatened to destroy the world. They begged Shiva to save them from their blunder and he obliged by drinking the poison. His throat burning, the great god flew up to the range north of Kathmandu, struck the mountainside with his trident to create a lake, Gosainkund, and quenched his thirst – suffering no lasting ill effect except for a blue patch on his throat. The water in the Sleeping Vishnu’s tank is popularly believed to originate in Gosainkund, and Shaivas claim a reclining image of Shiva can be seen under the waters of the lake during the annual Shiva festival there in August, which perhaps explains the association. Local legend maintains that a mirror-like statue of Shiva lies on the statue’s underside.”

Two old stories offer differing explanations of the origin of the Budhanilkantha statue. One says that the statue was sculpted and brought (by devotees or forced labor) to its current location in Kathmandu during the reign of the seventh-century monarch Vishnugupta, who controlled the Kathmandu valley under the Licchavi king Bhimarjunadev.