Located about 5 kilometres in a straight line to the north-east of central Kathmandu, the Boudhanath Stupa is the second holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists, right after Tibet. Its massive dome is about 35 meters in diameter, making it the largest in Nepal and one of the largest in the world. As of 1979, the Stupa, along with six other monuments of Kathmandu valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is definitely a must-see for tourist visiting Nepal.
The Stupa is said to house the relics of Kassapa Buddha, hence the second name of the Stupa - Khāsti. In front of the dome between the smaller stupas, the faithful bend on their knees and then raise in fervent prayers. They are surrounded by a white wall with 147 prayer wheels hidden in its outer side niches. The whole complex is tightly circled by colourful tenement houses with various shops. There is probably not a thing you couldn’t buy here – you name it, they’ve got it: earrings, incense, grinders, kukri knives, thangkas, mandalas, pendants, swastikas, clothes, and antiques - basically a bit of everything. The carvings on one of the walls will tell you about almost 30 Buddhist monasteries which you can visit in the area, and according to some sources, there are more than 50 here...
Getting to the Stupa is quite easy. Right from Thamel, it takes an interesting 15-minutes-long taxi or bus ride eastbound through the most crowded thoroughfares of the city. A taxi will cost you between 200 and 400 rupees (depending on your negotiating skills), while a bus is 20 rupees per person. Or, you can choose to rely on your physical fitness and walk the whole distance. You will need more than one hour each way, but breaking through the colourful, vibrant districts of Gyaneswor, Bhandarkhal, Chabahil or Boudha, you will have this unique opportunity to experience the less touristy but by no means any less interesting parts of Kathmandu. A chance to admire the Stupa is not free, as a one-day entry fee is 300 rupees.
According to the Gopālarājavaṃśāvalī chronicles, the Boudhanath Stupa was erected at the turn of the sixth and seventh century during the reign of King Śivadeva of the Licchavi dynasty. Other sources attribute the construction of the Stupa to the Great King Songtsän Gampo of Tibet, which would also indicate the seventh century. The majority of sources claim, however, that the Stupa was not built until the fourteenth century, after the Mongol invasion. There are numerous legends concerning the Stupa’s construction. One of them has it that after the death of Kassapa Buddha, a certain old woman and her four sons buried his remains in the place where the Stupa now stands. Then, they asked the king for permission to erect a temple in this place, and the king agreed. When, after many sacrifices, the woman and her sons had completed the groundwork of the structure, all those who saw it were amazed at the big size of it, and many were eyeing what was being created with undisguised envy. They went to the king and asked him to stop the construction process on the grounds that if such a poor woman was able to build such a huge temple, then the king would have to erect a temple as great as a mountain! The king is said to have replied: "I have finished giving the order to the woman to proceed with the work. Kings must not eat their words, and I cannot undo my orders now." In this way, the Stupa could be completed.
I don’t know if this is what actually happened, but the Stupa has been repeatedly rebuilt, so who knows, maybe there’s a grain of truth in each of these accounts? Perhaps, the stupa was built at the initiative of some poor family more than 2000 years ago, they received a little help from the king, maybe later it was rebuilt many times only to be destroyed during some kind of invasion and once again re-established in the fourteenth century. What is known for sure is that in 1959 in Tibet, the anti-Chinese uprising broke out, which ended with the severe repression of Tibetans. Dalai Lama fled to India, and many of his countrymen found a new home in neighbouring Nepal. A large part of them settled in the area of Boudhanath and the place has become the most important centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal.
If this is true that Buddha turned his begging bowl upside down and in this way inspired the shape of the future stupas, then this gesture was as simple and pure as his thoughts, and the stupa form has become the most succinct architectural form in the world. Only the geometric purity of the pyramids could effectively rival the perfection of a hemisphere.1
A stupa, or a reliquary (in Sanskrit स्तूप, stūpa literally means "heap"), is the most common type of Buddhist temples. Its central element is the Tree of Life. It is a wooden pole covered with mantras, which stores the positive energy generated during a special ceremony. Inside the stupa, there is also a treasury filled with various objects. The greater its value (obviously it is not about dollar value), the stronger the energy which later radiates from the stupa in all directions.
At the bottom of the treasury, there are small votive stupas called Tsa-Tsas. The empty space is filled with sand. Then, other layers of Tsa-Tsas are laid down until the entire space of the treasury is filled. Other important items that are placed in treasuries are the relics (the Boudhanath Stupa is said to contain the relics of Kassapa Buddha himself, the predecessor of the most famous Buddha Shakyamuni), jewellery and other things connected with the function of the stupa, such as cold steel in the case of stupas guarding travellers on the trail. Apart from treasuries, stupas cannot have other functional space, which emphasizes their symbolic rather than practical nature.
If you look at the Boudhanath Stupa from space, e.g. in the widely available satellite pictures, you will see enormous mandala fenced with a 16-sided and slightly irregular wall. Mandala harmoniously combines a circle and a square, where the circle represents the sky, transcendence and the divine, and the square represents earth, the immanent and all that is associated with the corporeal nature of man. The two opposites come together in the centre point being the centre of the universe, the eternal now.
A side view will show the five elements symbolically contained in the stupa form. The square base consisting of three diminishing platforms symbolizes earth, the hemisphere represents water, the pyramid-topped tower symbolizes fire, the upper lotus parasol represents light and air, and the gilded spire at the top represents space.
I wondered for a long time how the element of an umbrella got into this structure and I have finally managed to come up with a reasonable explanation. Well, in India, an umbrella was carried over the heads of important personalities, so it emphasizes the worth of what or who is beneath it. Another vital function of an umbrella is that it radiates the stored energy and distributes it in all directions of the universe.
Thirteen tiers on the pyramid at the top of the tower symbolize the thirteen steps of initiation leading to enlightenment. On all of the tower’s four sides, there are the all-seeing Buddha eyes, symbolizing wisdom and compassion, and in between them there is a third eye - the symbol of enlightenment. Instead of a nose, you will see the number one, symbolizing the unity of all things and the only right way to achieve enlightenment. Therefore, the stupa symbolizes the enlightened body of meditating Buddha, which is visible in the outline of the building. If you try to see Buddha instead of just a temple building, the eyes of Buddha will be exactly where the Nepalese paint them.
Andrzej Strumiłło, Nepal, Łódź 1987, s. 146.
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