Boudha, also known as Boudhanath, is home to the largest stupa in Asia — why not the world I wonder, where else would there be an enormous Buddhist stupa but in Asia? At any rate it is large and beautiful and the centre for Buddhist culture here in Nepal particularly for the Tibetans who now call Nepal home.
We are staying in a lovely Tibetan owned hotel, very comfortable and extremely well run as we have often found in the past when staying in Tibetan places. Tibetans are a small group in Nepal’s population, most having come after the Dalai Lama’s exodus from Lhasa in the late ’50’s, but many are fairly well off relative to the rest of the population with deep roots in commerce and tourism. Nepal is increasingly being pressured by China to be less hospitable to them as overseas Tibetans have financed the construction of numerous large and elaborate monasteries, or gompas, similar to Norobuddha which we visited from Bhaktapur. As in Lhasa, religious devotion is a regular part of life here in this stupa town.
The giant stupa is quite an imposing sight, constructed like all stupas of its type with a multitude of levels representing a “three dimensional reminder of Buddha’s path towards enlightenment” (Lonely Planet). The base represents earth, the dome is water, the square tower at the top is fire, the spire is air. The thirteen levels of the spire represent the stages that a human being must pass through to achieve nirvana or Buddhahood.
The eyes at the top represent the all seeing Buddha, the nose-like figure is a Sanskrit number 1 signifying unity and the crescent moon on the top represents ether, the heavenly element and sacred light of Buddha. For non devotees like us, the spectacle of devotion is still very compelling, though as with all religions, a lot of money changes hands.
We happened along at the beginning of a three day prayer festival — I think there are many of these throughout the year — which is taking place in the middle of Losar or Tibetan New Year. The stupa is festooned with even more prayer flags than usual as devotees buy them, and when enough are collected to make a sufficiently long string they are sent up by a rope to a fellow who sits at the very top, he ties them on and then the bundle is thrown down and it flies through the air landing on each successive tier until it reaches the bottom. All are printed with a mantra or prayer and as they wave in the breeze the prayers are sent to heaven.
People also contribute to have whitewash put on the sides of the stupa and a legion of young men are constantly engaged in this work. Much more fun is the application of gold paint, also purchased by devotees, which is thrown in arcs along the bulbous area of the stupa. Trays and trays of tiny butter lamps are produced continuously and adorn all areas of the upper kora. A large sacred fire smokes constantly by the main entrance which is also graced by an immense bell. We try to avoid breathing in the smoke as it is choking, but devotees waft it into their faces for its blessing.
A constant stream of Tibetan devotees, lamas, monks, and tourists walk the large kora (circumambulation route) at the base of the stupa, reciting prayers using their beads and turning the prayer wheels set into all the walls. Many stop at the niches holding tiny Buddhas to touch them and mutter a prayer. It is almost like being back in Tibet, many of the most devout are elderly Tibetans with deeply wrinkled, sun darkened faces, tiny bent stature, long braids down their backs, huge chunks of turquoise and coral set in gold festooning ears and necks, and well worn traditional garb. Elderly Buddhists, like elderly Hindus often spend their last years in constant devotion and pilgrimage. But lots are young and dressed traditionally in cross wrapped jumpers or shirts at least for the devotions.
Kids are as red cheeked and adorable as they are in Tibet.
Around the lower level of the stupa are arranged a series of wooden sun bed-like objects on which people can do their prostrations, which are like constant sun salutations for you yoga enthusiasts, but done over and over again until they can do no more. In Tibet pilgrims would prostrate continuously for up to a year as they made their way from their home village or from the holy mountain to the main temple in Lhasa, the Jokang. They wear rags tied around their hands and leather patches on their knees but a more exhausting routine it is hard to imagine.
During this prayer festival, mats are set up for the monks on all four sides of the stupa, with wooden thrones at the front for the head lamas. At certain times, they all assemble, pick up their wooden slatted prayer books, their saffron or maroon robes and commence to follow the head lama in a sonorous, monotone chanting, punctuated by blasts of cacophonous sound from a “band” with a huge drum, two types of cymbals, long alpenhorn like trumpets, oboes, bells and so on. Apparently the purpose is to wrest the wandering attention of the chanters back to the business at hand.
At night the stupa is transformed by hundreds and hundreds of twinkling lights hung from the tiers. Since there are conveniently located roof top restaurants all around the outer kora area, it is quite nice to eat lunch watching the chanting, and then to have dinner overlooking the myriad twinkling lights.
No one needs to be shy about photographing the event. It seems that in addition to the traditional five possessions monks are allowed: robe, bowl, sandals (runners here) umbrella, and prayer beads, a sixth has been added — all of them have cell phones and take pictures of themselves and others constantly, even the elderly big wigs have them! There are quite a few robed foreigners and others who just look like they’ve been around a while letting their Rasta locks grow, as the monasteries have classes for those wishing to learn Buddhism and many foreigners come to stay in Boudha for this and yoga training, and live in the monastery guest quarters. There are numerous monasteries just here in Boudha, very elaborate, and tons more in the surrounding area.
Doug went out without me for a little stroll on our last morning and found himself in the midst of a parade of traditionally hatted lamas and monks, the most tremendous variety of head gear, some of which we do not remember seeing before. There were over one hundred of them he thinks, and they first did the lower kora, stopping at each corner for chanting, then went up to the upper kora and did the whole thing over again. Once they were done, a man came with a huge box, collected the hats to take into the stupa office, and they all sat down on their prayer mats again and re-commenced their chanting! Never a dull moment.
Boudha is a lovely place to stay out of the chaos of Thamel, very different again from peaceful Bhodinath. This country has so much to offer just within the confines of the Kathmandu valley, we have not even scratched the surface. Tomorrow we are off to Pokhara by plane. We had planned to go by comfortable bus but we have now arranged a three day “trek” for the day after so will take a 40 minute flight rather than a 7 to 8 hour drive as the road is under construction and delays are lengthy. AIt seems that all the roads in the country are under construction and we are sick of dust. We are hopeful of seeing mountains but sadly the prediction is for rain which we have not seen for 9 weeks. Fingers crossed the clouds break and Annapurna appears, and that we don’t freeze in our rather inadequate wardrobe. Will keep you posted.