Friday, January 18: The great stupa at Boudha (also known as Boudhanath) was the biggest, most auspicious landmark along the ancient Kathmandu-Tibet trade route. One of the world’s largest stupas, Boudha is also the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet. Nowadays, Tibetans run most of the businesses surrounding the stupa, and they have also built monasteries, extending the community well past the stupa’s borders. Historians cannot establish an exact date for the origins of the stupa, but legend has it that the monument was built in the 5th century.
The Boudha stupa commands veneration because it’s believed that it contains holy relics, perhaps part of the Buddha’s body (bones, hair and teeth) and possibly objects owned or touched by him, including ritual objects and sacred texts. Because the stupa has been sealed for centuries, no one knows for certain what is inside, but faith continues to draw pilgrims to this day.
Pilgrims come from all over the Himalayan region because of the Boudha’s powers to fulfill wishes and bestow blessings. People are allowed to climb up on to the stupa’s base. The stupa is elevated on three 20-cornered plinths of decreasing size; this establishes the idea of the stupa as a mandala, or meditation tool. The Buddha’s blue eyes are painted on four sides of the central spire, topped by the 13 steps to nirvana. Prayer wheels are mounted around the perimeter wall. According to Rough Guide to Nepal, one spin of a prayer wheel here equals repeating the mantra engraved on it 11,000 times!
Buddhi and I walk clockwise around the huge stupa. He asks me if I’d like to see a studio where thangkas are painted. A good thangka takes hundreds — even thousands — of painstaking hours to do. A cotton canvas is stretched across a frame and then burnished to a smooth surface. The design is then drawn in pencil, but there is not much artistic license here as these designs are supposed to represent religious truths. An apprentice blocks in the large areas of color, and then the master brings the figure to life with lining, stippling, facial features, shading, the eyes, and other minute details. I watch as apprentice works on one with fierce concentration.
There are four main types of thangkas: Wheel of Life, Buddha’s Life Story, tantric deities, and finally mandala drawings used in meditation. I agree to go in, where of course they try to sell me as many expensive thangkas as they can. I actually am interested in these, so I do buy two of them, but not the outrageously expensive ones: a mandala and a wheel of life.
On one side of the stupa, we stop into a room with a giant prayer wheel, where I’m able to turn the wheel while saying a prayer for the thing I want most in this world. Then we climb up into the Tamang gompa, where we have a good vantage point of the stupa.
From the balcony, we can see people climbing and walking atop the stupa, but Buddhi says that today is not an auspicious day to climb up on the stupa. Apparently the monks determine which days are auspicious and announce those days to the public; today isn’t one of them, but that doesn’t stop people from climbing up.
I comment on the pigeons that are like drab confetti sprinkled all over Kathmandu. Buddhi tells me that while Europeans routinely poison pigeons because they’re nuisances, Buddhists believe all life is sacred. They value the lives of pigeons, as they do every life (I don’t know if what he says about Europeans is true!).
We continue to make the circle around the Boudha, enjoying the colorful shops, the devout pilgrims turning prayer wheels and walking meditatively, the different perspectives of the Boudha, and warm wool gloves for sale along the way.
After wandering around the stupa, we decide to eat lunch at Boudha Kitchen, where I have a delicious Momo and vegetable noodle soup and then an order of Momos on top of that. It is way too much food! It’s delicious, although I take most the momo order back to the hotel for a snack later.
After our lunch and long stop at the Boudha, we head next to the cremation grounds of Pashupatinath.