Sacred Sites of Nepal 1:

in Kathmandu

Our experience of Nepal may have been tainted somewhat by
the fact that it was under martial law when we arrived due to a
pre-announced one-day bandh (strike) by the Maoist communists,
which virtually shut the country down for our first full day there.
 It turned out to be only a minor inconvenience, however, and in
fact provided us a much needed day of rest and relaxation after
our most harrowing trips by car to and from Bodh Gaya in India.
Besides, we were staying at a wonderful five-star hotel, the Holiday
Inn Soaltee, which has been rated as one of the best 300 hotels in
the world.  Its "Pagoda-style" architecture is deceptively simple
and doesn't hint at the truly luxurious facilities inside (including
one of the best Italian restaurants we have ever experienced).

Under one of the two huge canopies just outside the front entrance is
a lovely sitting area.  Below are additional buildings in the hotel complex,
which are near the pool and tennis courts.  The photos show clearly the
poor quality of the air in Kathmandu, which has been ranked among the
most polluted in the world (due to the city's valley location and the
country's utter lack of emissions standards or control.


Below, my wife Randy stands in front of a rack of small Tibetan
prayer wheels to the right of the main entrance of the hotel.
On either side of the front doors are two statues of Hindu
deities, with another in the spacious lobby -- all indicating
the same easy harmony of Hinduism and Buddhism in
Nepal that one also sees in India.


Nepal is, in fact, officially Hindu, and is called
"the only Hindu kingdom in the world."  Yet, ironically,
Kathmandu is best known for its two famous Buddhist
sites, Swayambhunath and Bodhnath, both of which boast
monuments distinctively decorated with the eyes of the
Buddha.  From our hotel room, we could see in the distance
(depending on the level of the smog at any given time) one
of them:  the Buddhist temple complex of Swayambhunath
on a distant hill.

(The pictures that follow are thumbnails.  They may be
enlarged by clicking on them.)
There are several routes up the forested hill to the Swayambhunath
complex.  The main one, the eastern "pilgrims' route," has 365 steps,
and from the top provides a spectacular view of Kathmandu,
marred only by the ever-present smog that shrouds the city.

  Professional guides, however, are just as likely to lead tourists
and other visitors up one of the two back (western) routes,
like the one pictured below, perhaps because it it not quite as
steep, but more likely because it takes tourists past more
hawkers and vendors.

Our particular route on the western side took us through a part of
Swayambhu village and past a group of Tibetan-style Nepalese
novice monks (called chappas), who were intently engaged in a board game.


It also took us past several small stupas with the
distinctive Tibetan-Nepalese Buddha eyes . . .


. . . and a golden statue of the Buddha that
stands poised under his symbolic umbrella.

Arriving at the top, we are met with a spectacular
(and much photographed) view of the main stupa,
which is festooned with prayer flags and
surrounded by a host of smaller stupas, shrines,
and other buildings, including a monastery.
The sacred site is said to have been established
some 2500 years ago, at the very dawn of Buddhism.
The great stupa itself, however, is probably "only"
fifteen centuries old.


 Beneath crowning parasol and thirteen rings of its guilded
pinnacle, the all-seeing eyes gaze in four directiions.
What might be mistaken for a nose just below them is
actually the Sanskrit number 1 (ek), which stands for
the spiritual unity of all things.


Near the pinnacle of the stupa and on all sides are
small representations of various celestial (Dhyani)
Bodhisattvas, whom many Buddhists believe
to embody compassion.

 Wherever one turns, it seems, there are prayer wheels
inscribed with the magical-mystical Tibetan mantra
"Om Mani Padme Hum."  Wife Randy stands in front
of a rack of them that is next to a small pagoda.


  The great stupa itself is surrounded by prayer wheels,
and devotees circumambulate it (in a clockwise direction)
and spin them (also clockwise) in order to generate
positive spiritual energy for themselves and the world.

I stand in front of one set of prayer wheels, talking with
our guide, Sanjib (pronounced "San-JEEV").  Randy
poses in front of another set, giving one of them an
"it can't hurt" spin (clockwise!).


 The grand stupa is surrounded by various other temples.


One one of them, monkeys perch and play.
(More about them in a moment.)

Here and there are images of the Buddha, though perhaps
not as many as one might have expected.  Given the
eclecticism of both Hinduism and Buddhism in India
and Nepal, one is not very surprised to see as well
a lingam -- a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva --
at this Buddhist site.


The most impressive symbol here, however, besides the
grand stupa itself, is a six-foot-long dorje, that greets
pilgrims at the top of the 365-step eastern entrance.  Dorje
means "thunderbolt," and symbolizes the power of the
enlightened mind for Tibetan-style Buddhists.  The Sanskrit
equivalent of dorje is vajra, and Tibetan Buddism is
often referred to as Vajrayana, the "Thunderbolt Vehicle."

We are here at the beginning of the tourist
off-season, which is summer, so this sacred
place is not exactly crowded with tourists or
other visitors  and devotees.  Still, there is a
fair number of people engaged in
a variety of activities:


lighting incense and votive candles,


  chatting, or . . .

simply resting.

We are permitted to go inside one Buddhist temple,
where we are greeted by a large golden Buddha, . . .


and surrounded by many other smaller ones.


Just inside the main entrance and to the left, a monk
appears to be catching up on the temple's paperwork.
To the right of the doorway sits another monk, with a
young novice monk asleep on the bench to his left.


A woman spins a large prayer wheel, to which a bell us attached.
The bell rings with each rotation of the wheel, apparently to alert
other devotees when the wheel is slowing, so that they
may keep it in its perpetual (and spiritual) motion.
Another smaller prayer wheel (pictured below at the right)
is kept in motion by the heat of the incense in the brass
burner that it is poised above.


Outside the door of the temple sits an ever-present
beggar -- this time a rather sickly and emaciated
woman, who still manages a smiling pose for
my camera (for which I gave her alms).

And now about the monkeys . . .

Swayambunath is sometimes called "the monkey temple"
because of the 300-odd rhesus monkeys who live there.
They are quite tame, can be seen being fed by the locals,
and obviously have the run of the place, perching and
playing wherever they wish.  Visitors are well-advised to
bring no food with them to this place, because the
aggressive monkeys have been known to snatch a
snack and even to pick a backpack or two.


The monkeys are given such freedom here probably because
of the high esteem in which Nepalese and Tibetan people
hold Lord Hanuman, the monkey general of the Hindu epic
Ramayana who was later made a deity in his own right.


Even a sacred dorje is not off-limits to these simians.

Finally, a view from atop one of the rear (western) exits
from the hilltop shrine, showing hundreds of prayer flags,
all generating prayers with their motion,
just as the prayer wheels do.



Back to the India-Nepal Menu Page

Back to Paul Alan Laughlin's
Home Page