Tag Archives: Kathmandu

Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face

27 Aug

Bodhnath Stupa – Kathmandu (2007)

Bodhnath Stupa rises like a giant white bubble over the flat rooftops that dominate the Kathmandu skyline. I was told Bodhnath was about 6km away from Thamel and I set out to walk there. That walk turned out to be an odyssey through slope after slope, trash heaps, crossing streams, dodging traffic, and side-stepping little Nepali dogs. When I got to the temple complex, it was surrounded by a village and curio shops run by Tibetans. There were several Tibetan monasteries spread around the area and I saw many Tibetan monks with their maroon-colored robes going about their daily activities. I followed a few of them into their monastery. It sat on a hill above Bodhnath. I could hear trumpets, the low bass tones of other horns, the tinny chimes of cymbals, and the blasts of a gong. I walked up ladder to the second floor of the monastery towards where the music was coming from and I peered through the doorway. I saw the monks playing all these instruments themselves. The music was interspersed with chanting and prayer. The pageantry, musicianship, and vocalization were heavenly and were in such contrast to the austerity of other Buddhist monasteries. When the monks stopped their service, I went back outside and looked out over the railing. Bodhnath was below me.  What struck me was the precise geometry of Bodhnath’s design. The central bubbled-shaped Stupa is so dominant that one could easily overlook the plinth it sits upon. This is a terraced platform which is in the form of a “Mandala” featuring concentric blasts of whitewashed stones jutting at precise mirroring angles. There are 4 stairways leading up each level of the rising platforms to the Stupa. This was the first Mandala that I had ever seen and to appreciate its design you had to observe it from above — either from the monastery I was standing at or from one of the rooftop restaurants of the buildings encircling the Stupa. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, but the circle is formed through a geometric diagram using a square with 4 gated entrances as the base. There is a circle contained in the center of this square and the square itself is contained with an outer circle.  Many different explanations exist for how the Mandala is invoked as part of the ritual and spiritual layering of Buddhist practice — especially in the Tibetan tradition which creates Mandalas in many different media, forms, and structures. In fact, one of the primary differences I have noticed between the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the Theraveda Buddhist school is the Tibetan Mahayana’s emphasis on color, art, and geometric splendor to convey the Buddhist path. All of these things are captured within the Mandala which can take the form of a fresco, a 3-dimensional structure, or sandpainting.  The Stupa of Bodhnath stands in the center of the Mandala. It is not certain whether this Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha which was the original purpose behind the erection of these shrines. Some believe that a piece of bone of the Buddha may be contained within Bodhnath which was built around 600 AD. The  primary base of the Stupa consists of hundreds of prayer wheels that are spun by the faithful as they complete the “kora” or circuit around Bodhnath. Each of the wheels contain the following mantra written in Sanskrit on the outside: “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Instead of having to orally chant these words, one can invoke them through spinning the wheels which releases the mantra into the universe. This mantra contains 6 syllables and each word has a duality of meaning – a yin and yang.  The current (14th) Dalai Lama has explained this mantra like this: “…the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.”  When I read the mantra and the Dalai Lama’s explanation, it becomes apparent to me that the mantra acts like a “greatest hits of the Dharma”. This mantra sums up the essence of the Buddha’s journey – renunciation, the middle path, spiritual practice, and attainment of enlightenment – but personalizes it to the individual who chants it.  This idea that anyone can become a Buddha is central to the Mahayana tradition and the mantra encapsulates this concept within a mere 6 syllables.

The Eyes of Bodhnath

The most striking aspect of Bodhnath are the eyes. There are a pair of eyes painted on each of the 4 sides of the main Stupa. The depiction of eyes are unique to Tibetan Buddhist temples. None of the Pagodas, Dagobas, or Stupas that I have seen anywhere else in the world have had any human characteristics depicted on their exteriors. The core reason for the depiction of eyes comes from its connection to Mahayana Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Mahayana tradition is to not focus on the attainment of enlightenment only for the self, but to devote oneself to the enlightenment of all. Any person who is moved by such great compassion and who lives his life in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood for others is a bodhisattva. So, the depiction of the eyes on Bodhnath (or Swayambhunath – see below) is to broadcast the omnipresence of the Buddha’s teachings so that anyone can receive them. These all-seeing, never blinking eyes symbolize the universality of the Dharma which is to be shared with all people. There are no ears depicted because the Buddha did not want to hear the praise and chants of his followers, and instead of  a nose, there is a squiggle placed below and in the middle of the eyes. This is the Sanskrit representation of the number one, and, as its placement suggests, signifies the middle path.  Above each pair of eyes are 2 thick black eyebrows and in between them sits a third eye. This conveys the meditative practice Buddhism encourages in order to help purify the mind, body, and speech within oneself.

Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath sits atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. The eastern stairway that leads up to the temple is steep and is said to contain exactly 365 steps. There are so many macaques (monkeys) hopping around the wall and the steps as you get close to the temple that Swayambhunath is actually referred to as the Monkey Temple. There is a legend that a bodhisattva who lived on the hill grew his hair so long that he had a lice infestation. When he cast out the lice, they became the monkeys which now inhabit the temple complex. The sun was close to setting when I made it to the top of the stairs, and from there I noticed that I had the Stupa to myself.  Most of the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who come to Swayambhunath do so in the morning. There is a monastery on the hilltop, but I was sure the monks must have been inside having a sunset service. So, it was just me and the monkeys. Although curious, the monkeys were not the brazen kind which try to pry things from your hands or stick their hands in your pockets scrounging for food.  I did the kora around the Stupa and saw that it was flanked by 2 tall Sikhara-style temples which had been built by a Hindu King many years after the Stupa had been constructed.  These 2 flanking temples gave “Swayam-bo” (another nickname) a much different look and feel than Bodhnath.  Instead of a Mandala design, which corral visitors into 4 escalating gateways in order to circumambulate each level and gravitate towards the center, Swayam-bo is just an open circle with 2 Sikhara temples off to its left and right. The 2 temples are separate and disconnected from the Stupa. Yet, despite this separation, Swayam-bo’s design physically links the 2 great religions that came out of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is for this reason that Swayam-bo occupies an especially revered status in the minds of its pilgrims.

The Eyes of Swayambhunath

Swayam-bo’s eyes are also different.  While the eyes of Bodhnath are wide-eyed, blue, and somewhat ambivalent in their gaze, the eyes of Swayam-bo are narrowed, pale, and seem a bit cynical.  It is as if Bodhnath serves as the bigger beacon and broadly sends an “all are welcome” signal, whereas, Swayam-bo is more reserved and reticent. Swayam-bo may have a more scenic entrance than Bodhnath, but this entrance also requires the more arduous journey. It appears that one has to earn her keep in Swayam-bo’s gaze and this gaze also includes a third eye that is much more pronounced than the slight representation on Bodhnath.  The spiritual discipline and inward contemplation Swayam-bo radiates upon onlookers and pilgrims is more intense than the relaxed feel of Bodhnath. The prayer wheels around the base of Swayambhunath are more numerous, but smaller than those of Bodhnath. Each wheel carries with it the same 6-syllable mantra. I remember that when my eyes first met the eyes of Swayam-bo, I thought there was something familiar about the shape and feeling of those eyes. They penetrated through me and I could almost visualize the face that may have been behind those eyes. It was not one of the many depictions of the face of the Buddha that I had seen before. It was something or someone else. I was frustrated that despite my intense efforts at peeling through the layers of my memory, I could not place those eyes with a face from my past. I then realized it was a riddle.  The eyes, nose, and other elements of Swayam-bo may have individual symbolic meanings, but taken as a whole, there is a coordinated, veiled message there. That was what triggered the feeling of familiarity in me — there was a latent meaning that was literally staring me in the face. Bodhnath and Swayam-bo each convey the riddle differently due to their visual variations, but the understanding one can achieve after figuring out the riddle will be the same.  That is the power of these 2 Stupas and why they still stir such devotion. Their eyes beguile and beckon — they are at once fixed stares and reflective mirrors just as we are at once capable of great compassion and abject impurity.  They encourage and mind the faithful and that begets practice, method, and wisdom. Om Mani Padme Hum.

Out of India [North – The Great Vehicle]

26 Aug

Dubai was nothing more than a desert port with a creek that ran through it 20 years ago. Now look at it. I gazed out of the window of the Burj Khalifa which is currently the tallest building the world. This building itself was not even around the last time I was in Dubai some 3 years earlier.

View from Observation Deck of Burj Khalifa – Dubai, U.A.E. (2010)

At that time, I was flying to Kathmandu via Muscat, Oman. I remember being surrounded by all types of South Asians hitching a red-eye flight on Emirates from Dubai to Muscat and from there they were transferring to flights on Oman Air to Jaipur, Lucknow, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Chittagong. Each of these chaps carried with them the same style of briefcase with masking tape on the outside that spelled out their destinations in large English block-letters. I could only assume that these briefcases were stuffed with dirhams and dollars amassed during their stints as a wait staff, kitchen help, construction workers, housekeepers, and taxi drivers in Dubai. I was going to Kathmandu and was to land sometime between 7:30am to 8am. That flight was horrible because of the unbelievable body odor emanating from the gentleman who was sitting next to me. The only thing that got me through was the in-flight movie that played on a large screen from the front of the coach cabin. This was a Bollywood movie that had been released earlier that year and it was called Eklayva: The Royal Guard. It was in Hindi and had English subtitles. It starred Amitabh Bachchan and completely roped me in — so much so that when it ended I was wiping tears off my face and I looked around the cabin and saw a few Nepali men doing the same thing. But, the overpowering smell of B.O. then hit me again and I had to suck it up for another hour or so until we landed.

Barnes & Noble “franchise” – Thamel – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

The Thamel area of Kathmandu is a kindred spirit of the Khao San road of Bangkok with its cramping of backpackers and hostels. But, unlike the linear and more orderly Khao San, Thamel is a crooked corridor of fabric, fish, pashmina, wool and curio stalls — each entrenched within shaky looking buildings with rooftop terraces that are perched on a hill which is then in turn surrounded by the Himalayan foothills. I made the mistake of getting a cheaper room (no A/C – again a mistake) that opened up right above a busy bend of Thamel, and so the endless cacophany of bike-rickshaws, motos, squat Suzuki taxis, and other strange vehicular contraptions — each bleeping or blipping their horns — kept me awake each night. Although the Buddha had been born in Lumbini which is in southern Nepal, the vast majority of Nepalis practice Hinduism. Buddhism still had a vibrant presence over parts of Nepal and that was primarily due to huge numbers of Tibetan exiles who had crossed over the Himalayas during the last 5 decades after the Chinese annexed Tibet.  The Nepali and Tibetan Buddhists practice Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism which is one of the 2 main schools of Buddhism that developed in the centuries after the Buddha’s death — the other school being Theravada (the “Doctrine of The Elders”).  The Mahayana school traveled North and then northeast out of India, while the Theravada school traveled South and then southeast out of India.  I had come to Kathmandu to see 2 very important Buddhist Stupas and to also receive my Chinese visa and Tibetan travelers permit in order to travel overland to Tibet.  On my first night in Kathmandu, I found myself on a rooftop bar drinking a couple of Gorka beers and eating the staple Nepali meal of dhal bhat: a platter of rice and lentils surrounded by small round tin dishes of vegetables, curried meat, and cucumber dip. I started with a few steamed yak meat momos as well (I would eat a lot of yak during this trip).  That night, I saw perhaps the best cover band in the subcontinent – there were 3 guitar players, 1 bass player, 1 drummer, and 1 conga player. This band played everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Don’t Let Me Down” and the  audience and patrons loved every second of it. They even clamored for an encore after the band finished their set and they came back and sang 3 more songs.  The combination of the music, Thamel feel-good vibes, and pure air of the Himalayan foothills had me glowing that night.  Kathmandu still had a sliver of its 60s “freak street” cred to it. It was hard for me to believe that only 6 years earlier, the Nepali Crown Prince, Dipendra, had snapped during a royal family party and killed 9 members of his family including his parents (the King and Queen of Nepal) before shooting himself and dying in a coma 3 days later.  No doubt there was still tension in the air that summer because of the Nepali Maoist insurgency that was spreading through the country, but on that night at least things seemed to be centered and carefree. I wanted to slip away into the deep funk of sleep, but the characters of the Thamel night had other ideas. Not to mention that the cool air of the Himalayan foothills that I was expecting (hence the decision to get a room with no A/C) was a no-show, and instead, Kathmandu was blanketed with warm and heavy humidity. So, I thought about Mt. Meru and Everest looking over me out in the yonder. I knew they were close — just a bit further North. That cool air was within reach.

Part II (Cont’d) – Fire

18 Aug

It is said that for any Hindu the most auspicious place to die is at Varanasi. If the person dies in the Ganges river itself or water from the river is splashed on the person as he dies, then this results in the attainment of supreme salvation. The person escapes the perpetual cycle of reincarnation and is transported to Mt. Meru which is the center of the universe and is similar to the Western concept of heaven. I could see the smoke billowing and smearing into the hazy bend of the Ganges before me. Manikarnika was the last major ghat at Varansi and was located at the far end of the city from where I was. I began the long walk towards the smoke. This would not be the first time I had observed the ancient rite of the Hindu funeral pyre.

Cremations at Pashupatinath – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

I had seen my first cremation in 2007 in Pashupatinath, which is a large Nepalese Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in Kathmandu. Pashupatinath has its own cremation ghats which have been constructed on the banks of the Bagmati river and cremations take place 24 hours a day. Observers can walk over a bridge to the other side of the river and can watch the cremations talking place from that vantage point. Some of these ghats have roofs and raised platforms and these were where the wealthy had their funeral pyres. Those of less means were cremated right on the concrete slab of open air ghats that were nearest the river bank. What do we know of funeral pyres in the West? Certainly, we have cremations, but those are done in the back room of a crematorium with such technological gadgetry and speed that you get an incineration. So, as with many aspects of the way we live life in the West, we can choose to have instant gratification in death. The Hindu cremation is almost artistic in its ritual and choreography. The fact it can be viewed out in the open by non-family and strangers gives it the added element of the public theatre. It may take up to 6 hours for the pyre to burn itself out in some cases. How to describe the first cremation I watched at Pashupatinath? The first thing I can say was that I had to accept the decision I made to watch. I felt I would be invading the privacy of the family who was conducting the ceremony and I did not want to just gawk. At the same time, it would be ridiculous to sit on the other side of the river and pretend that you were not there to observe the cremation. When the body appeared, it brought everything into focus real quick.

Anointment – Pashupatinath

My eyes locked onto the scene, and in fact, I think it would have been disrespectful if I hadn’t held my gaze. It would have been disrespectful if I had looked elsewhere while this most shared actuality of the human existence was taking place. The body was carried by 3 men who shuffled down the steps and laid the man down on the pyre that had been prepared close to the river bank. He was wrapped in deep orange-colored robes. His head, hands, and feet could be seen. Then, other individuals – who appeared to be family members of the man — applied ointment to the man’s face, hands and feet. This ointment was a kind of cow butter and then other offerings like camphor, mango leaves, tumeric powder, and juniper or sandalwood were placed on or near the man’s body. The actual wood used for the funeral pyre was corkwood I think. After the anointing was finished, another man ambled out of the temple doorway above the ghat and approached the body with a torch that had been lit from a flame inside the temple. There were dried fronds of some kind placed on top of and around the sides of the body, and then the man carrying the torch began to light these fronds one by one in a clockwise manner. These fronds produced a dense smoke and triggered the wood below to begin to burn. As the smoke rose and blew across the river, I caught a faint scent of what seemed to me to be like candle wax. I could detect nothing more. The family members chanted a few refrains as they walked around the body clockwise. Some of them turned and sat down on the stone benches above the pyre.  I then noticed that another pyre that had already been burning for some time before I had arrived was about finished. A man showed up with a broom and began to sweep the ashes and remnants of the corpse directly into the Bagmati river. After a few strokes, nothing remained of the existence of that person. He had been swept into the everlasting right before my eyes and the river had taken it from there. I watched the river flow away from that spot and could see far downriver without obstruction. There was a man who appeared to be standing in the river and brushing his teeth. A couple of semi-clothed kids were swimming and playing just a little further downriver from the man. “How the swift current of life continued – uninterrupted,” I thought as I got closer to Manikarnika. But, the river I was walking alongside now was the Ganges whose source was the Himalayas and here at Varanasi it was starving without the rains of the monsoon. There were only a few rowboats that were crossing between the sandbars and carrying people across from one side to the other.

Boats waiting for the Monsoon – Varanasi (2009)

Most boats were drydocked or stranded on the land waiting for the rains to come. But, as I neared Manikarnika there was suddenly a crush of boats and people were just sitting in the boats looking at the activities going on in the ghat. The buildings of Manikarnika Ghat were charred by thousands of years of smoke. They stood like blackened sentinels from another time and were strikingly absent of the color and light that characterized the other ghats. This part of the Ganges was like the River Styx. It was the underworld and like any underworld there were guardians. The guardians of Manikarnika I learned were called Doms — a caste of untouchables. I almost got run over by 3 of them when I was craning my neck to look at one Manikarnika’s buildings and unknowingly walked across the main throughway of the temple when the Doms blasted out carrying a body on two long bamboo rods. The Doms of Manikarnika Ghat earn their living by conducting the funeral pyres for those Hindus fortunate enough to make it to Varanasi. The Doms charge fees for burning bodies that scale from a base price to an “all the frills” package depending on what the family wants to do. Paradoxically, as untouchables, the Doms are the only Hindus expected to touch the corpses, and so they complete the ceremony by sweeping the ashes and throwing any remaining bones of the body into the Ganges. Unlike Pashupatinath, where I observed the cremations from across the river, I was right in the middle of the cremation ghats at Manikarnika. I was only a few meters away from where the pyre burned. I watched for about 30-minutes before I felt soot falling on my shoulders and face and then realized I was breathing in the ashes of human flesh. This didn’t unsettle me. I understood the shared mortality between myself and these ashes that were being carried up in smoke. I understood the meaning of what the Buddha had said to those who surrounded him as he succumbed to his own death that day in Kushinagar. Nothing is permanent – everything transitions into something else and you have to work out your salvation yourself. What I was observing (and inhaling) was one Hindu’s last step toward a salvation that he had journeyed to during his mortal days on earth. This person had lived, loved, been angry, sad, forgiven, grown, apologized, and died. Now, he was breaking free and ascending to Meru, or heaven, or nirvana. And I breathed it in. I became lost in this realization and watched the fire burn.

Periphery of Marnikarnika Ghat

When I finally snapped out of it, I noticed the sun was getting lower in the sky and I had to make my way back to another ghat where a ceremony was to be performed. This ceremony was a blessing to the Ganges that Hindus conducted at sunset of each day of the year. It was called the Ganga Aarti and it took place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.  When I arrived at this ghat, there were throngs of people already claiming spots on the steps and they crowded near 5 raised concrete platforms that faced the Ganges. There were lights in the shape of parasols above each of these platforms and bells hung from iron bars connected to these lights.  As the sun set, the ghat was packed and 5 priests — who looked very young — took their position on each of the platforms. A man who sat behind them with a couple of musicians began chanting and singing through a microphone. Then, each of the priests began performing the ritual of the blessing in unison. Each priest carried with him 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space (in the form of ether) that were symbolized by a flower, a water spray with a handkerchief, a brass lamp, a peacock fan, and a yak-tail fan. As each element was introduced and offered to the Ganges, the priests waved the materials clockwise and given the dust that was still in the air  and the twilight conditions, each item created a kind of vapor trail that clearly hung in the air around the priest before dispersing.  Each element took on an ethereal form and I guess that was the idea of the blessing — to have the faithful experience a tangible divine connection with the Maa (Goddess) Ganges who begat and sustained life. The ceremony lasted for an hour and at the end the priests walked down from their platforms towards the Ganges. They each kneeled down and placed a circular candle with flowers (called a diya) in the river which was slowly carried off by the current. There was a congruence between what I had experienced at Marnikarnika Ghat and the Ganga Aarti blessing. Each day Hindus gave thanks to the Ganges through a spiritual and symbolic offering at Dashashwamedh, and then just a few hundred meters away, they sought salvation through the physical offering of their bodies at Marnikarnika. That was the supreme personification of balance. That is Varanasi.

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