Gently gliding above countless houses and buildings cramped together in the crowded neighborhoods of Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, our 14-passenger airplane brought us above a white domed shape, dwarfing its surroundings, an early and unexpected encounter with Boudhanath Stupa, also known as Khasti Chaitya – “The Dewdrop Stupa”. This majestic monument, visible even from the sky, ows its name to the town of Boudha, where it is located, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Once on the ancient trade route linking Tibet to India, for centuries a stopping and prayer offering point for Tibetan merchants trafficking wool, salt, musk and medicinal herbs on their yaks and mules, Boudhanath Stupa is even today a major destination for pilgrims from the Himalayas, Tibet, Bhutan and South-Eastern Asia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, also known as the Stupa of Enlightenment or Bodhi Stupa, Boudhanath Stupa is one of the largest and most significant Buddhist monuments in the world, being the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside Tibet.
Once morning comes, together with the first rays of light, Kathmandu is brought to life by ceaseless sounds of motor-vehicles, honking and the occasional wedding parade. There’s no way of escaping the city’s liveliness, so the best thing to do is immerse in it, taking to the noisy, bustling streets, we were heading for our first destination of the day: none other than the huge whitewashed dome from the day before: Boudhanath Stupa. Myth has it that at Boudhanath Stupa come people who, in a previous life, decided that they will meet again. Glad that this promise was made with this bright bunch of people! 🙂
Aummmm… Aummmm…. :)))
A Stupa, in Nepali, or Chorten, in Tibetan, is a mound-like or hemispherical structure, containing the relics of a Buddhist monk or nun, that is used for meditation. Seen from the sky the stupa dominates its surroundings, so naturally, approaching it, we were excepting to be visually overwhelmed by the sight of the huge stupa. Driving down a cramped street, overflowing with cars, crowded buses, colorful trucks, noisy motorcycles and watchful pedestrians, flanked on both side by walls of buildings tightly packed one into the next, for a fleeting moment, in a small gap between two building, we caught a glimpse of two big blue eyes and a spiraled nose topping an immense white dome. We had arrived!
An offering of flowers
While on the streets, Boudhanath Stupa lays hidden behind a row of grey, featureless buildings. Once past a dusty entrance gate, the small gap between buildings we saw before, we stepped into another world, the horizons opened to a thriving town of monasteries, craftsmanship and shops, centered around an overwhelming white dome, topped by a golden pyramid, draping in bright colored prayer flags, each flag a mantra blown to the wind.
No less than 50 Tibetan Buddhist Gompas (Monasteries) were built around the Stupa by the many Tibetan refugees that poured into Nepal in the 1950s, fleeing from the Chinese invasion and seeking shelter around Boudhanath. The base of the Stupa is encircled by countless Mani (prayer) wheels, hidden behind rows of overlapping prayer flags. To spin them you need to put your hand through the drapes of prayer flags and feel your way from one wheel to the next. On the sides of the square housing Boudhanath Stupa lay shops abundant in souvenirs, traditional Tibetan Thangka painting schools, temples and monasteries of Geluk, Sakya, Kagyud and Nyingma Buddhist traditions, Boudhanath Stupa being the principle center of Himalayan Buddhist worship and studies in the Kathmandu Valley.
Spinning Mani wheels hidden behind prayer flag drapes
A rich offer of souvenirs
Tibetan Thangka painting
LEGENDS OF BOUDHANATH STUPA’S ORIGINS
Like much of Nepal’s history, the Stupa’s origins and its early history are entirely based upon legends. One such legend says a widow aspired to make a great offering at Boudha, using her earned savings, so she asked the local King for permission. He granted her a piece of land measuring the size of a single ox skin. However, she cut the ox skin into thin strips and claimed the land enclosed by the strips tied together end to end. The woman’s ambition to build such a monument offering caused much jealousy between the rich and the powerful of that time. One such jealous lord petitioned the king to stop her construction, but the king was true to his word and allowed the building to continue. The construction of Boudhanath Stupa was completed by the widow’s four sons, one of them it was said to be the great and much revered Guru Padmasambhava, who is attributed the role of bringing Buddhism into Tibet.
Another legend tells of a king who installed stone spouts for water, but the water wouldn’t come. Consulting his astrologers, the king was told to sacrifice the most virtuous man in the kingdom for water. The only men who could qualify were the king himself and his son. So he instructed his son to decapitate a shrouded form that he would find lying near the palace that night. The prince obeyed his father’s command, only to be horrified when seeing his father’s head fly from the corpse. The head landed at the temple of Vajra Yoghini and this goddess told the prince the only way he could undo his sin was to let a rooster fly and build a stupa wherever the rooster landed. The rooster landed at Boudha and the prince built a magnificent stupa there for his father.
STUPA STRUCTURE AND SYMBOLS
Seen from above, Boudhanath Stupa looks like a giant mandala. Its white dome sitson a base shaped like a mandala’s frame, symbolizing Buddha’s mansion, while the dome represents the Universe. On top of the dome are two blue eyes, symbols of method and wisdom, and a spiraled nose representing Nirvana. Above them are 13 steps, the 13 states of Boddhisattva’s (enlightened being) to complete enlightenment. Then follows a lotus, symbolizing compassion and purity. And an umbrella reminding of taking shelter in the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma (law), and Sangha (monastic community). The structure is topped by a pinnacle symbolizing Mt.Meru (central world-mountain in Buddhism).
Severely cracked during April 2015’s earthquake, the Stupa’s dome required extensive restauration and rebuilding of the entire structure above it. Thanks to the dedicated work and ceaseless effort of countless men, today the stupa is completely restored to its previous shape and visitors can enjoy its full splendor.
Butter lamp offerings
Leisurely walking around Boudhanath Stupa, enchanted by the mix of peaceful music from the shops, and the piercing sounds of traditional Buddhist instruments used in the monasteries, we were simultaneously admiring the beauty of the stupa and checking the goods on display: peacock feathered objects, colorful string bracelets, pleasant smelling incense sticks, statues of different shapes and sizes, beaded jewelry, intricately detailed paintings, traditional clothes, and countless more souvenirs. Halfway around the stupa we reached its entrance, laying opposite to the complex’s main gate, guarded by many bells of different sizes, Mani wheels and a temple dedicated to the protector goddess of the stupa. Before this temple, Buddhist burn incense offerings in a huge smoking cauldron, and light butter lamps lined in countless rows on the pavement. Once inside, flower offerings are made, one single flower in a water glass, surrounding the stupa in rows of colorful flowers. Pilgrims come here to meditate and prostrate before the stupa, and every morning here are performed offerings and prayers for the welfare of all sentient beings. Both tourists and pilgrims can climb on top of the mandala shaped base of the stupa, and circumambulate around its huge white dome. From up here, the whiteness of the dome radiates into your being, while the prayer flags’ sky dance with the wind fills you with tranquility, for a fleeting moment making you feel as if you were in a timeless world. Cheerful laughing brought us back from day dreaming. A group of Bhutanese child Buddhist monks, with heads shaved and cloaked in crimson robes, who were circumambulating the dome for accumulating benefits on the Buddhist path. They were kind enough to stop for a moment to take a picture with us. Did we, in a previous life, decide to meet them at Boudhanath Stupa? Who knows 🙂
Say “Nak Cheese” 😀
According to a hidden treasure of Guru Padmasambhava, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of past, present and future have dissolved into this great stupa, making it like a wish granting jewel, which automatically answers any prayer that is made to it. The texts go on to say that anyone who circumambulate the stupa will gain so many benefits that cannot be fully expressed or enumerated. And whoever hears of it and mentions it will have placed the seed of enlightenment upon their mind-stream.
Maybe these are myths, maybe they are true, but like in Pascal’s wager, there’s more benefit in believing them. So, have a pleasant stroll around the Stupa, spin its many Mani wheels, make a flower offerings, send good thoughts to all beings and then share this experience with friends and family once back home. Did we tell you about Boudhanath? 🙂
As the sun was climbing higher on the sky, its warm rays reflected by the stupa’s whitewashed walls helped us move on to our next destination, one in a less crowded part of Kathmandu, perched up on a hill above the city, rising from between shady trees and inspirited by lively monkeys: Swayambhunath Temple, or Monkey Temple.
Keep close! 🙂