Bodhnath - Biggest Buddhist Stupa in Asia

Trip Start Nov 29, 2013
Trip End Jun 11, 2014

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Flag of Nepal  , Central Region,
Friday, December 6, 2013

While Hindus predominate in the Kathmandu Valley there are numerous Buddhist monuments as well, including many monasteries of the Tibetan refugee community. Bodhnath is another UNESCO World Heritage site and one of those very unique must-see places. The gleaming white circular stupa with a gilded spire painted with the eyes of the Buddha is Asia's largest. Towards dusk a unique pilgrimage atmosphere develops as hundreds or maybe several thousand people join in the daily circumambulation of the stupa in a clockwise direction. Meanwhile other pilgrims prostrate themselves in what looks like a cross between a religious trance and slow motion calisthenics. Butter lamps burn, prayer flags wave, and the prayer wheels are in constant motion scattering prayers into the wind.

From guidebook descriptions I had envisioned the stupa standing alone high on a hill out in the open. It is instead, however, surrounded by an almost perfect circle of dense development that actually complements it by creating an almost stadiumlike setting. The whole atmosphere is more one of constant motion and religious frenzy rather than contemplation and quiet devotion. Apparently a few Tibetan monks have in recent years set themselves on fire around the stupa to protest China’s control over Tibet.

Beyond the stupa circle the narrow lanes are all paved in stone, a very neat and clean contrast to the dusty unpaved roads around much of the Kathmandu Valley. Several large Tibetan monasteries nearby house hundreds of lamas (adult monks) and novices (boys in training). The ones I visited were all very neat, brightly painted, and quite prosperous looking. The monks may live spare lives and forego most worldly possessions, but these monasteries are a far cry from the cavelike dormitories and near nakedness of the Hindu holy men at Pashputinath. Buddhist monasteries are usually open to visitors and even prayers can usually be attended. I sat in on one afternoon prayer session at Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Gompa. About 80 young monks sat in two facing rows down the middle of the dark prayer hall in a sequence of reading and chanting interrupted by gongs, horns, and drums.

Although there is significant syncretism between two major religions in Nepal, they are clearly very different. I find Buddhism as a philosophy is much more accessible to westerners the Hinduism with its multiple gods, some quite malevolent, and rigid caste system. While many westerners become Buddhists or at least study and live by some elements of Buddhist philosophy I’ve heard of few who convert to Hinduism.

Bodhnath was actually only my last stop on long day visiting many of the valley’s numerous shrines that made for a great long day. I started with a taxi ride from Kathmandu to Changu Narayan, a thirteen hundred year old Buddhist temple perched high on ridge known for especially elaborate carving that’s also on the UNESCO World Heritage list. I had the driver wait and then continued on to Gokarna,a thousand year old riverside Hindu temple with similarly aged stone carvings of the Hindu dieties.

I then began a hike along the Bagmati River and through Gokarna Forest Reserve that ended up in a long slog up ridge with some good views of Himalayas. I passed several prosperous-looking ridge top Buddhist monasteries and nunneries along the way. My intended destination was Kopan Monastery, founded by the Lama Thubten Yeshe, the search for whose reincarnation after his death inspired the movie "Little Buddha". The monastery supposedly has a very good vegetarian café, and I was very hungry after my hike. Unfortunately, though, Kopan was closed to day visitors because of a month long retreat and course in Buddhist philosophy for students from around the world. From the looks of things at Kopan, these retreats must be big money makers for the monastery because the place looks uncommonly plush. My pleading with the guard to at least let me in for a short wander for some outdoor photos got me nowhere and left me hungrily shuffling down the ridge toward Bodhnath.
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