Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Letters from Nepal 5

Saying goodbye to Nepal
As this journey comes to an end, I had the chance to know Kathmandu tourist zone. This week I went to Patan, Thamel, and Swayambhunah with my friends John and Daniel. The Buddhist Kathmandu is constituted of Swayambhunath and Bouddhana.


I went to Patan by myself. As I crossed the gate, a Nepali man offered me his tour guide service. After a little hesitation I accepted his offer. I soon realized that it was the best decision I could make. Mr. Janga Bahadur Kami is a real connoisseur of his History and about all the rules of the place. Patan is located 5 km Southeast of Kathmandu, a concentrated center of ancient art and architecture. An old city state, now is a center of Buddhist monuments and Hindu architecture. Palaces and numerous temples such as the Krishna Mandir, Bhimsen, Taleju bell, Bhai Dega and others rest side by side on Durbar Square, surrounded by iron art, court yards, stupas and gates covered with hand carved religious art, and beautiful statues.


The former Royal Palace complex, houses a Museum containing large amounts of bronze art, and right now, very proud of getting back several statues and other artifacts returning home from Museums and collections from around the world. Two of the oldest Buddhist Monasteries are just a few minutes walk, and other main monuments. Some of the best Master Tanka stores I have seen, are also found here. A renown Master of singing bows played for me his best hand made bow. Inside the Museum there is a nice modern restaurant.


Next day John, Daniel and I went to Swayambunah, which is connected with the creation of the city of Kathmandu itself, and is said to be 2,000 years old. The legend tells that “in the previous eon, when the Kathmandu Valley was a huge lake, the Buddha Vipashyn came and cast a lotus seed into its waters. The flower grew and blossomed with a thousand petals and a hillock arose from its centre, the self-arisen Swayambhu. Later, the Bodhisattva Manjushiri came from the mountains of Tibet to fulfill the prophecy of the Buddha Vishvabhu and drained the lake of its waters by cleaving the hills to the south with his mighty sword during an earthquake, creating the gorge and eventually a fertile valley fit for human habitation. Successive Buddhas, including Gautama Siddharta after his enlightenment, came to the valley to meditate and preach.” The valley is filled with Buddhist temples and monuments in a Nepalese only beautiful way of intertwined Buddhism and Hinduism. I have already noticed in our Gompa, that local Hinduists attended all our public functions. Reading more about the subject, I found out that this is a unique characteristic of Nepal. Buddhist legends and practices have influenced and have been influenced by Hinduism, with followers of either worshiping at the shrines of the other, and monuments of both faiths standing side by side in the Buddhist sacred sites and in the city.


The Swayambhunath Stupa is 175 meters high, three kilometers west of the city center. This is where the previous Buddha is supposed to have thrown the lotus seed into the lake. The legend says that the primordial Buddha Vajradhara is still now embodied in the timber axis of the stupa. The earliest historical account of the monument and shrine is previous to AD 350, but later inscriptions attribute its construction to King Mandeva I in AD 450. The monument was reconstructed in a later date. With a long history of famous pilgrims and worshipers visiting, the shrine became a focal point for Buddhists. Here it is said, worshiped Atisha and Padmasambava. By 1230, it was a famous cross road for disciples with close ties with Tibet. In 1349 it was destroyed by Muslims coming from India, but was soon rebuilt.


We took a taxi up the road surrounded by smaller stupas leading to the top, very high on the Mountain side. On arrival at the gate, we faced 200 steps to get to the top. Surrounding the stairway as usual, the business of the divine flanked one of the sides all the way up. So did bands of small, playful domesticated forest monkeys and dogs. At the top, the view is mesmerizing, both of the stupa complex and of Kathmandu. The ancient stupa has a conical golden spiral format, shining against the blue sky, lending a mysterious mystic atmosphere to the place. It can be seen from many miles of distance. There you see more Hindus than monks and nuns, whom I am told come early in the morning for circumambulations, and only a few westerners. Some pujas offered are typically Hinduists. In front of the dome I saw an Hindu man and wife working an elaborated mandala offering, with rice, flowers and other elements in the Hindu tradition. The business of the sacred is extensive, almost an ocean of handcrafts creating patterns of tradition and art, all around the place. Several smaller carved shrines and half human size monuments fill the area.


On the other side of the mountain there was another set of stairs, 400 steps going down. John and Daniel kindly helped me all the way down. It was a long way, very hard on my knees and ankles. After that we headed to Thamel, the tourist commercial center, to have lunch. We have been here twice in the last days. For some it is a tourist haven, but at night it is a ghetto, in Buddhist metaphor, a real hungry ghost hell, especially with regards to children. Buddhist art is at its best here both for tankas and other ritual objects, cultural dressing, and high fashion stores cover every inch, in the traditional use of space in this part of the world. Colourful rick shaws compete with cars and motorcycles for space, and customers. Bookstores, Magazine and map stores, travel agencies and cyber cafes appeal to tourists from east and west. Food and drinks are also at their best in this area. However, at night, when you walk by, horror fills your heart with the sight of  children selling drugs and their bodies. They are so drugged and hungry, that they seemed to be barely alive. It breaks your heart.


When you arrive back in Boudhana, where we are staying, you can feel the difference in the air through every pore of your body and every psychic center of your being. Here, people are holding malas, reciting their mantras and circumambulating the stupa, any time of the day and night. This is a major Tibetan population area, with very few non Tibetan beggars around. It is said that there are 53 Monasteries in around the stupa. In the evening you can find all your friends and acquaintances, monastic or not, circumambulating the shrine, or at the cafes around. But rarely you can find your friends nuns. While the monks regularly seat around in the cafes, the nuns are only seen around the stupa praying. I made a point of inviting a new friend Ani Chime, whom i met in the Gompa, to seat with me and have a cup of tea. Yesterday, Thursday, was the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s Noble Peace Prize and Boudhanah was crowded with monks and Tibetans carrying their candle lights; strangely enough, Nepali police was all over. What were the Maoists expecting? A Tibetan upheaval? They still have no clue about Tibetan culture and religiousness.


Boudhana is the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet, surrounded by stores, cafes, restaurants, Guest Houses and Monasteries. Boudha, as we call it, was probably built in the 5th century and the legends about its construction are many. The most interesting, says that a widow with four sons had the relics of a Buddha of a past era and decided to build the stupa to house these relics. She and her sons built the tremendous dome where the tower sits. When powerful people of the kingdom saw what she had accomplished, got very envious, and asked the king to stop the construction, but the king impressed by her efforts denied their petition, saying that what has being authorized should be finished. Several Kings were buried there, making the place more sacred and special. A Tibetan Emperor of the 7th century is also associated with the construction.

Boudha Stupa is a massive and impressive view, both from the bottom and from above, from the many terrace restaurants surrounding it. From above it looks like a huge mandala, a diagram of the Buddhist cosmos, and according to Carl Jung, a diagram of the psyche, a symbol of wholeness. Living by its side day by day, slowly builds great reverie, a sense of reverence and depth, despite all the business and liveliness surrounding it. It is like being around a cathedral, the reverence doesn’t subsides, it grows and deepens.

Four of the Dhyani Buddhas mark the cardinal points with Vairocana enshrined at the center, the white hemisphere of the stupa. The shrine is constituted of 9 levels, symbolizing Mt. Meru the mythic center of the universe. There are 13 rings from bottom to top, symbolizing the path to enlightenment. This stupa is especially related to Avalokiteshvara and its 108 representations found at the bottom around the walls. It is also surrounded by several series of prayer wheels with the Mantra OM Mani Padme Hum inscribed on each one, and also filling the insides of these wheels of all sizes, all around the stupa. Inside the shrine tower the ceiling is covered by a painting of a Mandala, topping a large statue of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama’s picture.


Tomorrow we are all leaving, Daniel to Delhi, John to Lapchi, for a 2 year retreat, and me back to America. Many friends have already left, and a few others will be leaving next week, going different directions. Bouddhana is filled again with a different wave of religious tourists. Westerners, Koreans and Japanese were everywhere this morning with their huge cameras. As the snow arises on the Himalayas Tibetan nomads descend the mountains taking refuge in Boudha, filling the area with their most colouful traditional outfits and long hair dressed in red, all with their malas in hand reciting mantras.

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