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The missionary Father Cassiano da Macerata was travelling in 1740 through Nepal on his way from India to Tibet. In his account of the journey he writes that he saw some ruins in the jungle, which he later was told were the remains of the ancient city of Scimangada, whose walls was said to have formed a labyrinth around the city. Cassiano adds that the plan of this City can be found, wrought in stone, in the royal palace of Batgao (modern Bhaktapur/Bhadgaon) in Nepal.
The presence of labyrinths in Asia is rare in comparison to Europe, and its occurrence is geographically limited.(2) The occurrence on the Indian subcontinent, although more common than in the rest of Asia is, with few exceptions, restricted to the western and southern part of India and to Sri Lanka. Cassiano’s account is the only extant source for the occurrence of the labyrinth in Nepal and therefore his information is particularly interesting and the aim of this article is to discuss and interpret Cassiano’s account of this Nepalese labyrinth.
This labyrinth has seldom, and only briefly, been commented upon in the literature on the labyrinth. The only two scholars (as far as I am aware) to take note of this labyrinth are Simon Nordstrom, who at the beginning of the 20th century mentions it in an article in the Swedish encyclopedia Nordisk Familjebok (3) and Hermann Kern in a footnote in his Labyrinthe.(4) But neither author had access to the text of Cassiano, and knew only of a abridged account given by Giorgi (see below), and could therefore not discuss this labyrinth at any length.
A Nepalese Labyrinth
We also saw in several places some old ruins, and some seemed to be remains of substantial buildings. We could not understand how, in such a large forest which judging from the old trees is of considerable age, there could be buildings of any significance. During the following years when I was staying in Nepal I did not neglect to inform myself about such ruins which I made Bavanidat observe during the journey and whose answer I did not understand, because I did not yet know the language; and although I have received this knowledge 4 years later I am of the opinion that I should treat it here, despite the small digression I have to do from our journey. I was assured by many Nepalese from Batgao that these ruins were some small vestiges remaining of the very ancient and famous city of Scimangada, from which their Kings originated, and which was not possible to enter without wheeling it around again and again for about a month, because it was a city situated in the centre of a quasi-
The text is accompanied by an illustration (fig.2, reproduced opposite) entitled “Plan of the City of Scimangada and its enclosures”, which shows a labyrinth of the ‘classical/cretan type’ with the familiar central cross design and eight walls.(10) The illustration measures 15.5 by 16 cm. A caption explains the illustration:
A. Entrance to enter into the fortifications of the City of Scimangada.
B. First Fortress, which one has to pass to come to the city.
C. Second Fortress
D. Third Fortress
E. Fourth Fortress
F. The City of Scimangada
The account of Scimangada had to wait about 200 years before being published by Petech, and the illustration of the labyrinth, which is not reproduced by Petech or Magnaghi, has remained unpublished until now. However, a brief mention of Scimangada and an illustration derived from Cassiano’s drawing did actually appear in print in Cassiano’s lifetime, in the work Alphabetum Tibetanum (Rome 1762) p.431-
Cassiano came to Batgao a few days later on his journey and was later to stay in Batgao for three years, from 1742 to 1745,(12) and during this period he learned the story about Scimangada and certainly had the opportunity to see the labyrinth in the palace. Although Batgao is described by Cassiano the labyrinth is unfortunately not mentioned again, and we are left with no information regarding its size, precise location nor whether the labyrinth was made in relief or incised.(13)
In the story Scimangada is described as an almost impregnable city, but nevertheless, we are told in the story that disaster one day fell upon this city. It fell through treachery, betrayed by a minister whose troops took control of the entrance to the labyrinth, and after some walls had been collapsed, the enemy entered the city and slaughtered its inhabitants. Among the few survivors, who escaped the same way the enemies entered, was a son of the King who eventually became King of Nepal. At this point we may wonder what the connection between this story, the ruins in the jungle and the labyrinth in Batgao is. First the question of whether the story of the fall of the city has a foundation in real events or is fictitious has to be considered.
That the defensive system of Scimangada, with walls which took a month to pass is more at home in the world of saga than in reality is evident and Cassiano is sceptical about the whole story. After mentioning the coins stamped with the plan of Scimangada,(14) Cassiano continues that he has retold the story of Scimangada such as he has heard it, but he finds it chronologically difficult that the city was destroyed by Muslim troops, as it was also said that Scimangada was destroyed nearly 400 years ago, and the first Muslim emperor who, to Cassiano's knowledge, was active in this area was Oranzeb, whose reign started much later, in 1655.(15) Cassiano also finds a difficulty in that the Kings of Nepal only counted 300 years from their usurpation of the throne.
But even if it is true that Scimangada once existed, it is not possible to trace the truth among pagans, as one gets entangled in their stories and great tales.
However, Cassiano did not have a good knowledge of the history of the Muslim powers in India, and the story of the fall of Scimangada is, contrary to Cassiano’s opinion, to some degree based on actual events. Scimangada is also known in Nepali sources as Simraongarh, Simaramapura or Simraon. It was founded in 1097 by Nanyadeva from Karnataka as the capital of Mithila (Tirhut). The city remained the seat of the dynasty until its destruction by the Muslims in 1325.(16) The ruins of the city, seen by Cassiano, are still quite substantial, with much relief sculpture still visible.(17) Subsequently the Karnataka family of Simraongarh gained the throne of Batgao through marriage.
Thus, the story told to Cassiano is to some extent based on historical reality; the city was destroyed by the Muslims and the dynasty of Batgao did originate from Simraongarh. Still it is evident that the real Simraongarh did not have any labyrinthine defences and we may ask from where this idea came and why the plan of the city’s fortifications was reproduced as a labyrinth in the royal palace in Batgao.
The connection of a city destroyed long ago with a labyrinth, fits well into the very widespread pattern of the labyrinth as a symbol of a fabulous city from remote times.(18) In Europe this symbolism is common and well attested, and it is possible that -
In Northern Europe, by the 15th century AD (21) and onwards there are ample evidence for the association of labyrinths and cities (and castles), most evident in the names given to the labyrinths:(22)
Caerdroia “City of Troy” (Wales); Troytown, City of Troy (England)(23); Wunderburg “Wonder castle” (Germany); Jerusalem (Poland)(24); Nineve, Viborg, Trondhjem, Konstantinopel “Constantinople”, Trojaborg “City of Troy”, Trelleborg (Sweden (25); the latter two names also in Denmark (26)); Jerusalems Förstöring or Jerusalem Hävitys “The Destruction of Jerusalem”, Nineves Stad “City of Nineveh”, Jerichos Ritning “the plan of Jericho” (Finland)(27); Jeruusalemma Linn “City of Jerusalem”, Türgi Linn “City of Turks”, i.e. Constantinople? (Estonia)(28), Vaviloni “Babylon” (Kola peninsula and Solovetski Islands in the White Sea, Russia).(29)
Drawings of labyrinths in manuscripts start appearing in the 9th century AD. In the earliest (30), as well as later examples (31), the labyrinth is used to illustrate the city of Jericho. The concept of Jericho as a labyrinth apparently became widespread and Jericho illustrated by a labyrinth can be found in manuscripts in Europe and in Asia, both in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox tradition, as well as in the Jewish and the Christian Syrian and Armenian traditions.(32)
The concept of the labyrinth as as a symbol of a city was also known in the Islamic culture. The Arabic geographer Al Qazwini, gives some curious information about Quastantiniyya “Constantinople”, in his work Cosmography, finished AD 1276. The account of Al Qazwini can be summarized as follows:(33)
This city was built by Constantine. Wise men have produced it. Neither before nor after it has anything similar been built. The accounts of the city's size and beauty are numerous. The city looks as follows: [picture of the labyrinth] but nowadays it does not have that appearance. Instead it is a great city, in which is the castle of the king, surrounded by a wall.
Another, earlier, testimony for the labyrinth as a symbol of a city in the Islamic tradition comes from Arabic historian Al-
Thus, from Northern Europe to India a common pattern appears: the labyrinth is a symbol of a distant, more or less mythological, city, destroyed in the past. Although the identity of the city symbolized by the labyrinth varies, it is never a nearby or contemporary city.(37) Examples from Northern Europe are, needless to say, not directly relevant while discussing the symbolic significance of the labyrinth in Nepal, but likewise in the regions closer to Nepal, the labyrinth symbolizes a well-
I think it is fairly safe to say, that the Nepali labyrinth and the city of Scimangada/Simraongarh fits well into the same pattern. The physical remains of Scimangada/Simraongarh was long since only ruins and although the ruins were not that remote, their location in a dense jungle inhabited by tigers and other wild animals made them inaccessible. As the Kings of Batgao claimed their origin from Scimangada/Simraongarh, this city and the story of its fall must have had some importance in the cultural milieu of the kingdom of Batgao. And so it was said in Nepal that the plan of the defences was that of a labyrinth, the same story told in Europe and Asia. [Editor's note: similar interpretations are applied to labyrinths in America and southern Africa].
Notes & References:
1. Petech, Luciano. I missionari Italiani nel Tibet a nel Nepal. I cappuccini Marchigiani I-
2. For details of labyrinths in Asia, see: Causasus, Kern, 95, fig.99; Afghanistan, Kern, 435, fig.630. Kern, Hermann. Labyrinthe: Erscheinungsformen and Deutungen 5000 Jahre Gegenwart, Munchen, 1983. Labyrinths sculpted in wood in mosques, and a rock carving of a labyrinth, have been reported in Northern Pakistan by Umberto Scerrato, “Labyrinths in the wooden Mosques of North Pakistan: A problematic presence” East and West 33, 1983, 21-
3. Vol.15 (1911), col.744 q.v. “Labyrint”.
4. 424, no.32. Kern erroneously places Scimangada in India and Batgao is callad Batgai, which is the genitive of the latinized name Georgi uses.
5. For a short biography on Cassiano (secular name Giovanni Beligatti); see Petech I, p.CXII.
6. Magnaghi, Alberto. “Relazione inedita di un viaggio al Tibet del P. Cassiano Beligatti da Macerata” Rivista Geografica Italiana 8-
7. Petech IV.
8. Petech IV, 4. A map on which several of the relevant placenames can be found is: Rennell, J. Hindostan 1782 (copied at Berlin by Benj. Glasbach 1785), scale: 60 geographical miles/69.5 British miles to a degree [i. e. 1:4,500,000]. It should be noted that cartographically this map is not very reliable.
9. Petech IV, 12-
10. On p.60 in Cassiano's manuscript.
11. The illustration measures 8.5 x 8.7 cm. Scimangada is also in the index of the book (p.809) and basically the same information is given: “Scimangada, a city built in a labyrinthine manner in the most ancient times. Hardly any remains of it are preserved. Many stories are told about it”.
12. Petech 1, p.CXII.
13. A labyrinth appear in the stone reliefs on each of three temples, built in the 12th-
14. Neither Magnaghi (1901), 615, n.4, nor Petech IV, 246, n.16, knows of the labyrinth as a motif on Nepali coins. Petech suggests that Cassiano refers to a coin with some kind of ornamental design.
15. More precisely Auranzeb, ascended the throne in 1658. Petech IV, 246, n.16.
16. According to late, unreliable, Nepali sources Nanyadeva -
17. Ballinger, Thomas O. “Simraonqarh Revisited: a report on some observations made at the ruins of the former capital of Mithila in the Terai of Nepal” Kailash: Journal of Himalayan Studies 1, 1973, 180-
18. Exactly what is symbolized by the labyrinth can differ slightly; sometimes the labyrinth is understood as a city/castle and sometimes as the walls around the city (as in the case of Scimangada), but the basic association of labyrinth and city is the same.
19. This means that the neither the labyrinth nor the inscription has anything to do with the Roman equestrian game lusus troia. Weeber, K.W. “Troiae lulus: Alter and Entstehung eines Reiterspiels” Ancient Society 5, 1974, 171-
20. Kraft, John. “The Cretan labyrinth and the walls of Troy, an analysis of Roman labyrinth designs” Opuscula Romana 15, 1985, 79-
21. France: le cipte de Troie, “City of Troy”, Matthews, William Henry. Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development, London 1922, 156; Sweden: Andersson 8-
22. A survey of the labyrinth-
23. Saward, Jeff, The Caerdroia Field Guide, Thundersley 1987, 43-
24. Kraft, John. “Wunderburg and Jerusalem” Caerdroia 13, 1983, 11-
26. Kraft (1986), 26-
27. Kraft (1986), 33-
28. Kraft (1986), 33; Kraft, John & Selirand, Urmas, “Labyrinths in Estonia”, Caerdroia 1990, 32-
29. Kraft (1986), 32-
30. Italy, Kern 188, fig.216.
31. Syria, 19th century AD, Kern 198, fig.230.
32. Kern 182-
33. I have not consulted the original text, but rely on the translations of Batschelet-
34. Another example of the labyrinth in the Islamic culture is reported by Saint-
35. Kern 425-
36. Kern 425, fig.607. A labyrinth carved on a housewall in a village of Kota was used for the game of Kote “Castle”. Kern 428, fig.617.
37. From a rationalist point of view a labyrinth cannot be a symbol of a real city, as real cities do not look very much like labyrinths.
38. Accordingly, Constantinople does not seem to be an exception from other cities considered as labyrinths and Kern’s suggested explanation (166, fig. 196), that the tradition of Constantinople having been built as a labyrinth originated in a (hypothetical) performance of the lusus troia, is no longer necessary.
39. Kraft, John, The Goddess in the Labyrinth, Ĺbo 1985.
40. Kern 435, fig.630.
41. Kern 179, fig.215.
42. Slusser 94, 102, 345. See Auer and Gutschow 38, for a 18th or 19th century painting of Batgao as a mandala. Auer, Gerhard & Gutschow, Niels, Bhaktapur Gestalt, Funktionen and religidse Symbolik einer nepalischen Stadt in vorindustriellen EntMcklungsstadium, Darmstadt 1974.
Fig 1: the route followed by Cassiano and the missionaries through northern India and Nepal in 1740.
In the middle of the forest numerous ruins are seen; remains (it is said) of the vast and ancient city of Scimangada, of which we here give a reproduction. Many things are told about this city. Even today they show in the public square of Batgao a plan incised in stone. Old coins are found, although rarely, which show this plan, constructed in a labyrinthine manner, as in the drawing above.(11)
The text is accompanied by an illustration (fig. 3, reproduced opposite) The illustration, which measures 8,5 by 8,7 cm, is that of a labyrinth of the so called classical/cretan type with the central cross design and eight walls.
The accompanying story goes that the man who managed to get a glimpse of Khunkhar’s daughter Shamaili would be allowed to marry her. Six sons of Namazlun had been killed in the attempt, but the seventh managed to come near her by hiding in a statue which was brought into her house, and eventually he married her and took revenge for his brothers.(40)
Another story with the same theme can be found in a 19th century magical parchment scroll from Ethiopia, in which the labyrinth is the palace or harem of Solomon. A man called Sirak dug a tunnel into the centre of the labyrinth and abducted one of Solomon’s wives.(41)
The story of Scimangada is also a story of how the almost impregnable defences of the labyrinth were forced. Cassiano writes that the produce of the fields in the area enclosed by the walls was sufficient to feed the whole population, which I infer meant that the city could not be starved by a besieging enemy, and the height of the walls supposedly made them invulnerable to direct assault. Thus, the only way in was through the entrance, but the enemy entering here was forced to try for a month to pass along the whole circuit of the labyrinth and beneath the four fortresses. The treacherous minister nevertheless managed to get the enemy through these formidable defences by taking possession of the entrance to the labyrinth (supposedly to let the enemy in through the gate, if there was one) and by collapsing the two walls situated “opposite (i.e. of the entrance) and on the other side,” where Cassiano has marked “g-
As I am not an expert on Nepal I refrain from trying to put the labyrinth into the larger context of Nepali culture, but it can perhaps be noted in the final paragraph of this paper that the idea of a labyrinth as a symbol of a city could have been felt to resemble the deep-
Staffan Lundén, Gothenburg, Sweden; 1994.
For the preparation of this paper I have been offered invaluable assistance by Kerstin Röllander and the staff at the University Library at Gothenburg, and by the Section for Maps and Pictures at the Royal Library in Stockholm. I am also grateful to Ann-
Although rarely explicitly stated in the material, it seems clear that the labyrinth is not only a symbol of a city or of the city-
The House of Shamaili, its entrance was hidden, only Shamaili knew it.
The work of Cassiano (1708-
In February 1740 Cassiano and seven other cappuccini missionaries, together with a Nepalese Bavanidat (Bhavani Datt) and porters, left Patna on the Ganges in India (in Cassiano's time in the Mogol Empire) on their way to Batgao, capital of one of the kingdoms in Nepal, and their ultimate goal, Lhasa in Tibet.(8) The missionaries pass Lalgang (modern Lalganj), Messi (modern Mehsi), Barrihua (modern Purnahia?) and then cross the border to the kingdom of Maquampur (the modern city of Makwanpur). They continue through a jungle in the Rautahat district of the Tarai in Nepal, close to the modern Indian border. Cassiano writes that the journey is not without danger, as the jungle is inhabited by tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses. On the 29th of February, after having commented that the large number of animal bones indicated that tigers were not rare, Cassiano continues: (9)
In 1703 the Vatican took the decision to start missionary work in Nepal and Tibet and over a period of about 70 years sent a large number of missionaries to these remote Himalayan countries. The considerable number of reports and letters left behind by the missionaries give unique information about these countries during the 18th century.(1)
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