One of the most frequently used images of Nepal is that of the enormous stupa at Boudha in Kathmandu, another of the World Heritage sites situated in the Valley. It is so tall that it towers above the surrounding building and can be seen from many places in the city. As the largest stupa in Asia it is an important place of pilgrimage for thousands of Buddhists.
I spent an interesting afternoon there recently, with a friend who was visiting from the U.K. The guide book suggested that sunrise or sunset were the best times to visit, so we made our way there during the afternoon.
This enormous stupa is most impressive. Above the huge whitewashed dome there is a gilded central tower that has the all-seeing eyes of Buddha painted on all four sides. Representations of these eyes are found on many items throughout Nepal; t-shirts, cards, signs and book covers frequently have the eyes of Buddha on them.
We were amused to see a couple of men, armed with just small rollers, painting the stupa – the resemblance to painting the Forth Bridge struck us!
Buddhists believe that the stupa is highly symbolic and serves as a three dimensional reminder of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. The plinth that the dome stands on represents the earth, the dome is water, the square tower is fire and the spire at the top is air. The gold coloured umbrella at the very top represents the ether beyond space. Stupas were built to contain holy relics but it is uncertain exactly whose remains this stupa contains.
People are allowed onto the first layer of the plinth during daylight hours. There are some very old looking carved figures set into the wall of the steps (bottom corner), and two ornate elephants guard the flight of steps up to the next layer.
Around the base of the plinth 147 prayer wheels, inscribed with the Buddhist mantra “Oom mani padmi hum”, are set into the wall. Some pilgrims walking around the stupa, always in a clockwise direction, turn the wheels as they pass, to send the prayer spinning away. There were also several very large prayer wheels, taller than a man, that were kept turning.
Buddhists believe that sunrise and sunset are auspicious times when prayers are more likely to reach their destination. As the sun sank lower in the sky we noticed the swelling crowd of pilgrims and worshippers. We sat and watched with fascination as hundreds of people walked in a clockwise direction around the stupa. This walking mass comprised of a wide spectrum of people: maroon clothed monks and nuns with shaved heads, Tibetan men and women in their traditional clothes – the women in long skirts with multi-coloured striped woven aprons, older people holding grandchildren’s hands, groups of teenagers, young couples, women carrying babies on their backs, business men and women obviously straight from work in their work clothes, families and individuals.
We ate supper in a roof top restaurant, watching the setting sun turn the white stupa to a golden colour. Magic! How peaceful and relaxing it felt.