The shops, restaurants, signs, traffic, noise, colours and perpetual motion of Kathmandu can be so in your face that you forget there is a quieter spiritual side to this city.
The thousands of temples, shrines and stupas intermingle Buddhist and Hindu cultures and practices so seamlessly here that you might not even realise that one holy square can be spiritually significant to two distinctly different religions.
You can’t walk to the end of a street in Kathmandu without stumbling upon a thousand year old temple or a tiny stupa glittering in the sun. Many go unnoticed, and unless you take your focus off the millions of colourful paintings, tapestries and elephant pants for sale in the shops lining the streets, and look beyond the dust on your feet, you’ll miss something very special.
That’s just how we found the Kathesimbu Stupa in Thamel. We happened to look to our right while wandering down the maze of streets leading out of the Thamel tourist district, and there it was – white dome gleaming in the sunshine, colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind, and Buddha’s eyes inviting us to come take a closer look. The quiet and secretive square is dotted with ancient chortens, and important reliquary to the Buddhist faith.
As Austin walked clockwise around the stupa turning the big brass prayer wheels, he met a friend, an affable older Nepali gentleman who instantly took to him, guiding him around the stupa, explaining everything as they went around.
He showed us monks at prayer in the monastery in the corner of the square, and then (of course) led us to the shop where he is an apprentice, learning to paint the intricately detailed Mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism. He introduced us to his brother, a lama and master painter, and then talked us through the different elements of the mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum repeated to evoke compassion in the Buddhist faith. Round and round, clockwise in concentric circles through the levels of enlightenment to the centre – Nirvana.
The paintings were beautiful. We hadn’t planned to buy anything that day, but we sat in that little shop for an hour, learning about the different materials used such as gold and silver paint, levels of mastery, and the different price points that went with each.
Two weeks later we still hadn’t forgotten that painting and that lovely man, and after our trek we went back to that little shop and purchased one of his paintings. No, it wasn’t done by a master, and no, it wasn’t painted with real gold. But it was his – our friend, who took us by the hand and showed us a little bit more of what makes Nepal so very special.
There are other bigger, more famous stupas in Kathmandu. The Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the monkey temple, sits high on a hilltop overlooking the whole of the city, and the enormous Boudnath Stupa a bit further out from the centre are Kathmandu’s most visited stupas.
Legend has it that a woman petitioned the king for land to build a grand stupa – th largest in the world (Boudnath). The king, feeling more cheeky than generous, gave her a buffalo pelt, and told her that she could have the land that filled the space of the hide.
But this woman had more brains that persuasive charms, and cut the hide into strips, sewed them together end to end, and created an enormous circle and presented it to the king. He was impressed enough to oblige, and gave the land to build the largest stupa in the world.
The Boudnath Stupa is impressive, and I happened to visit while they were changing out the colourful prayer flags that streamed from top to bottom. As they were released from their hooks high up top, they flew down in wonderful curls of colour, down the white dome and into a pile down below. That was pretty cool to watch.
The stupa is surrounded by a 19th century square of wooden colonial architecture that is heaving with souvenir shops and even a Wimpy Burger, which more than takes away from the tranquility of the place.
But, a dozen monasteries operate in the immediate vicinity, and the sight of monks in their maroon and saffron robes, from ancient hunch backed wrinkled old men to young acolytes shopping for toys among the souvenirs, reminds you that this isn’t a tourist destination, and the people all around are here to pay their respects. With this in mind, the souvenir shops look different. They transform into shops selling supplies for worship – butter lamps, flower garlands, candles, prayer beads, incense — and its no longer souvenirs all around you, its the accoutrement of a religion.
Boudnath is centre of the universe for freely practicing Tibetan Buddhists. They are refugees in this country, welcomed by their neighbours in Nepal when conditions became intolerable at home. And here they are free to practice, unmolested, uncensored, and unencumbered.
Kathmandu is special in so many ways, but it’s the underlying peace, calm, tolerance and acceptance of different people and different religions, co-existing as one unified culture that distinguishes Kathmandu from anywhere else on Earth.