Much of the history/lore below comes from a book called “The Boudha Stupa” that a monk in Boudhanath lent me. Unfortunately, it had no author, no date, and no publishing company listed and I can’t find the book online. I returned the book to the monastery before I left Kathmandu.
Some of the lore comes from a book I picked up off a shelf in a teashop in Boudhanath called “Power Places of the Kathmandu Valley” by Keith Dowman.
The Kathmandu Valley is a place where gods collide. Just as the tectonic plates of India and Tibet joined millions of years ago to lift the bottom of the sea to the heights of Himalaya, so too did Hinduism and Buddhism combine with the animist shamans and maternalistic Kali-worshippers of the jungle to form this spiritual stew which has simmered here for thousands of years. And just as the Himalayas rose from the depths of the sea, the Gods arose in the Kathmandu Valley.
The numerous gods here project their power through specific geographical features like rivers, rocks, and hillsides. The experience of walking through Kathmandu is coming across countless sacred places and the pilgrims who seek them.
Lord Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Buddha, Kali, the Bodhi trees and the Naga elementals and literally millions of other gods all live here, projecting power through icons and places. Importantly, the many gods don’t often contradict each other. It seems that Hinduism has a unique ability to absorb many different belief systems into its broad canopy of lore and spirituality.
The Boudha Stupa
One of these powerful places is the Boudha Stupa in Boudhanath, west of Kathmandu on the old road to Tibet via the Kuti Pass.
Some say the stupa was built around 500 AD by a poor poultry rearer and her four sons. Some say it was built even longer ago, by the son of a king to atone for (unintentionally) chopping his dad’s head off.
However and whenever the Boudha Stupa was built, for at least a thousand years the structure sat in jungle outside the city of Kathmandu- its form an abstract representation of the great Buddha sitting in his full lotus meditation pose. As the millennia drew on and different conquering groups moved in and out of the valley, the stupa fell into disrepair, sitting sat half-buried and forgotten in the jungle.
Imagine traveling through the Kathmandu Valley jungle in 1000 AD. You are bushwhacking through dense rainforest foliage, keeping your eyes out for big cats and man-eating snakes in the trees. At this time period in this valley where gods collide you might bump into Hindus, Buddhists, animist shamans who worship beasts and the earth, the blood cults who make sacrifice to the mother goddess Devi, or any wild amalgamation of the above “religions”.
So you might be a little on edge as you chop some vines from an overgrown, pale white structure and find the two faded eyes of Buddha staring back at you.
Maybe this was Tibetan bridge-builder Thangthong Gyalpo’s experience in the 14th century when he discovered the ruins of the Stupa and “weeded out the mound.”
And then in the 16th century, a Tibetan named Ngagchang Shakya Sangpo found and restored the Stupa:
“It was this tantric master [Sangpo] of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, whom while dwelling at the monastery of Samye in Tibet had a vision of the historical Buddha, who called upon him to travel to the Kathmandu valley to restore the Boudha Stupa. In the end, after he dug several times at incorrect places, Ngagchang Shakya Sangpo managed to find the right hill, to dig the Stupa out, and to restore it.”-“The Boudha Stupa”
Buddhists will “pray” by circumambulating an object of reverence in a clockwise direction- this is called a Khora. In my personal experience, circling the Boudha Stupa in Boudhanath truly does produce an internal sense of peace and awe similar to coming upon great natural beauty.
As you walk, drums and horns wail, and smoke fills the air from burning incense and candles. A flood of people circle the Stupa like fish in a flowing river. Many of them are counting Mala beads or murmuring mantras. Teenage Tibetan monks are walking and laughing in big groups while Nepali teens flirt on the outskirts of the circle. An old monk prostrates himself in the direction of the flow, wooden blocks cinched to the palms of his hands. He does this over and over, hundreds of times as he circumambulates the Stupa in one big, painful Khora.
The purpose of such activity isn’t really to worship anything/anyone, but to produce a specific internal state of mind. This is often referred to as the “enlightened” state of mind. All people have achieved such clarity at some moment in time; the purpose of Buddhist study is to achieve the enlightened state at all times. A passage from “The Boudha Stupa” describes “Enlightenment”:
“We could get a hint of the enlightened state of mind by comparing it to some of the extraordinary and ‘supernormal’ experiences available in our conception of relative reality. For example; standing on a mountain peak, after a long trek, the very moment the sun rises. Sensitive individuals will for a while be too moved to speak or even think, and may experience a mental state of such deepened insight and overwhelming joy, that they can do without thinking for a while. Other examples are mental states following great danger, death, or birth. Moments of unconditional love can provoke such supernormal experiences, which cause cognitive activity to stop for a short time.”-“The Boudha Stupa”
The Town of Boudhanath
Over the latter half of the second millennium, Tibetans slowly populated the peaceful village of Boudhanath, or Boudha, just 7 km from central Kathmandu city. And over the latter half of the 20th century as urbanization gripped the nation of Nepal, everything in the Kathmandu valley filled in with people. The broad jungles and rice paddies between Boudhanath and Kathmandu turned concrete. With urbanization, so many people have packed into every nook and cranny in the Kathmandu Valley that Boudha might well be considered a neighborhood of Kathmandu rather than its own town.
Either way, it is a peaceful, old place that hasn’t changed much relative to the concrete chaos of greater Kathmandu city. It is a quiet neighborhood, crisscrossed with a maze of narrow stone streets built for mules and pedestrians. Small family storefronts line the streets- there are skilled carpenters making ornate furniture, carpet makers, hawkers of jewels and other treasures brought from Tibet, and restaurants dishing out foods like thukpa, momos, laphing, butter tea, and any other classic Tibetan dish.
At least ten huge monasteries intersperse the web of streets; everywhere there are crimson and orange robed Tibetan Buddhist monks walking in the streets, laughing over tea at cafes, joking with shop-owners, and begging in the streets.
Beggars! Boudhanath has lots of beggars. Buddha was a beggar. Many monks rely on begging as the primary means of supporting their esoteric religious study. They see begging as a form of meditation in itself. And so Boudhanath is filled with those asking for your help- from the dignified Buddhist monk burning incense and conducting blessings in the street to the most wretched soul from the slums of Kathmandu. Giving openhandedly to these guys kind of goes hand in hand with circumambulating the Stupa. Giving is part of how you harness the power of the Stupa. Since my experience with the neighborhood children in Pokhara, I’ve been trying to practice being openhanded without being naive; living in Boudha has been great exercise in this.
In my experience, the Tibetans are a kind, thoughtful, generous, and proud people. They are a people with some collective trauma and anger just bubbling underneath. The invasion and occupation of their home by the Chinese is fresh and tragic. I learned this while in conversation with a Tibetan when I accidentally referred to the plateau north of the Himalayas as “China” and swiftly saw how close to the surface that pain is.
Here in Boudhanath, I’m staying in a hostel called Utpala, which is a owned by the next-door Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Ka-Nying. The monastery manages a little complex including the hostel and a few cafes in the area. Being owned by monks, the place definitely has a “monkish” vibe. No smoking, no drinking permitted. Nobody playing loud music or really partying (unless you consider a few monks drinking chai at a café a party).
Another “Power Place” in the Kathmandu valley is Pashupatinath, a temple dedicated to the Hindu Lord Shiva the Destroyer. More than just one temple, it is a sprawling complex of temples, ashrams, altars, inscriptions, and art spread across the banks of the Bagmati River- a sacred river flowing from the Himalayas into the Ganges. As with many of the temples here, it is so old that no one truly knows when it was built.
Almost immediately upon arriving at the temple from my long walk down the river valley, I saw a dead human body laid out on the street. He was covered in yellow fabric and laid on a stretcher.
I watched as a group of men carried the body down the hill to the banks of the river. They lay the body on a stone slab by the river and conducted long rituals, often using the cleansing water of the Bagmati to wash of the body. As they conducted the rituals, more and more dead were carried to the river. From my guide, I learned that they might conduct upwards of 40 funeral rites per day here at Pashupatinath.
They then placed the body on a large pyre of wood on an altar against the river and set it alight. There was a long row of smoking funeral pyres running down the river, with the charred remains of half burnt bodies in the fires.
An Undertaker Priest stoked each fire for the family. Over 3-4 hours, this steward of death ensured that every part of the body burned- all except for one small scrap of flesh. When the acids of the stomach had sizzled away and the white bones turned to ash, the Undertaker removed the unburnt flesh from the coals. He wrapped the flesh in cloth and blessed it. Then he waded into the river and buried the piece of human remains in the soft mud at the bottom of the river. The remaining ash was swept into the swift flowing Bagmati to be carried down to the Ganges and beyond.
From a hospice on the side of the hill within the Pashupatinath complex, I could see the veiled faces of dying men gazing down at the funerals. The old and sick from across Hindustan come to this temple to die- to be burned at the banks of the river. To them, such a funeral means certain release from the endless cycle of death and re-birth.
When I gazed down at the pale corpses lined against the river, and I saw those veiled shadow faces gazing out from the hospice, I couldn’t help but consider my own death.
I suppose this is a fundamental purpose of the temple here- to help people come to terms with their own mortality. To not fear death but to embrace it as a natural part of the cycle of life.
But all I felt was fear. It looked cold down on that riverbank. I imagined being dead and lying against the river, my bare feet out exposed to the air. I would definitely want them to cover my feet. I imagined that while lying there I could still sense everything going around me but muffled, as if through a thick blanket.
The day was overcast and drizzling and I watched the procession of the dead become ash in the river. I had a profound sense of doom when I started back up the river valley towards Boudhanath.
The concrete urban streets of Kathmandu just above the river were abuzz with lively activity! Kids were getting out of school and walking along the streets in their uniforms. Street food was sizzling and a thousand smells accosted me. Panhandlers bugged me for money and shop-owners called out to me as I passed. The pressure of human activity against me was invigorating!
I relished in the sights of the kids playing, and the sizzling smells of simmering stoves on the street. I stopped to eat some deep-fried street food, and it that moment those samosas tasted like life! And I felt in that moment that regardless of when I die, whether it be tomorrow or in 80 years, I will have lived well.