Budhanilkantha’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 from worshipping the image). The real puzzler is why Budhanilkantha (literally, “Old Blue-Throat”), a title that unquestionably refers to Shiva, has been attached here to Vishnu. The myth of Shiva’s blue throat, a favourite 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-image statue of Shiva lies on the statue’s underside.
Nonetheless, the Budhanilkantha sculpture bears all the hallmarks of Vishnu or, as he’s often called in Nepal, Narayan. It depicts Vishnu floating in the ocean of existence upon the endless snake Shesh; from his navel will grow Brahma and the rest of creation.