Ancient design, iconic image, soothing energy
Boudhanath Stupa: A Shrine of Nirvana in Kathmandu
Many people going trekking in Nepal may think of Kathmandu as simply a gateway city. But you really should spend at least a day before or after your trek in the capital city of Nepal.
Kathmandu, often known as a city of temples, has a lot to offer in terms of historical and religious monuments. Its culture is a unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, and there are many beautiful architectural masterpieces to view before heading out on a trek.
Boudhanath Stupa is one of the must-see attractions in the Kathmandu Valley. This highly revered and distinguished landmark of Nepal is one of the largest stupas in the world, and remains as a center of attraction for pilgrims and travelers from the Himalayas, Tibet, South-East and Eastern Asia.
Boudhanath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, is significant for its historic and architectural significance, with sprouting monasteries and craftsmanship. It is believed that those who stay near this great Stupa will never have to suffer from hunger and unfavorable conditions.
History of Boudhanath
This architectural masterpiece is believed to have been built around the 6th Century BCE, just after the death of Lord Buddha. It is located on the side of Kathmandu valley where there was an ancient entrance from Tibet, which supports the fact that this stupa is a focal point for pilgrims from as far as China.
The Nepali community in Kathmandu refers to this stupa as “Chorten Chenpo,” meaning the great tower. The real full name of this stupa is, according the local legend, “Jya Rung Khashor Chorten Chenpo,” meaning “having finished given the order to proceed with.” This itself implies a very interesting story as to how its construction was initiated.
In this history, Kasyapa was a Buddha who lived a long time before Shakyamuni (Lord) Budhha. After Kasyapa’s death, an old woman with her four sons interred this sage’s remains at the place over which the mound of the stupa stands. The woman then petitioned the King and subsequently obtained the permission to “proceed” with building a tower. With great dedication and hard labor by the woman and her sons, the foundations of the structure were finished. The sight of their dedication caught attention of many at that time, and they were offered help by others to build the stupa. Even though some high officials were against this construction, the King was in favor of the woman and her sons, and hence he encouraged the completion of this tower. It is believed that long after the woman passed away, the construction came to completion by the virtue of her four sons’ continual effort.
Though the stupa had existed for years, this site gained a new popularity and reverence only when refugees from China immigrated to Kathmandu after 1950s. Once Tibetan Buddhism propagated to this shrine, this place gained new importance. Gradually, new temples and devotional sites were built around it that strengthened the power and importance of this site immeasurably. Today some 50 Buddhist gompas (convents) surround Boudhanath.
Building and Structural Significance
Built with ancient wisdom, this monument has a colossal dome structure. On top of this dome, there sits a Buddhist pyramid tower. There are 108 images of Dhyani Buddha at the base of the stupa, and they are accompanied by prayer wheels organized in a group of four or five in 147 different niches. The dome, as believed by many, is said to contain the relics of Past Buddha (Kashyapa). Some even believe that the monument consists of the bones from the skeleton of Siddartha Gautam, the Buddha.
The top view of Boudhanath Stupa offers a sight of a humongous mandala, the Buddhist cosmos. Like all other Tibetan mandalas, the four Dhyani Buddha signify the crucial points, and the fifth, Vairocana is enshrined in the central white hemisphere of the stupa.
An irregular 16-sided wall surrounds the stupa at the bottom. Moreover, in addition to the five dhyani Buddhas, Boudhanath Stupa is linked with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Padmapani), whose 108 distinct forms are enshrined in sculptures around the base. “Om Mani Padme Hum,” the Mantra of Avalokiteshvara, is carved in each and every prayer wheel. On the base of the stupa, there are three huge platforms that gradually decrease in size. These platforms represent Earth, and standing there you can watch the mountains in the north while listening to the holy chant of the devout doing kora, circling the stupa while praying.
Next, there are two circular plinths that buttress the hemisphere of the stupa, representing water. The omnipresent eyes of Buddha are carved in the top section of square tower on all four sides. What’s interesting is that instead of a nose, there’s a question-mark type symbol that is actually the Devanagiri symbol for the number 1. This symbolizes unity, the path towards enlightenment in the Buddha’s teaching. Above this is the third eye that represents the all-encompassing wisdom of the Buddha.
When looked at carefully, it is revealed that the square tower on the top has 13 steps that symbolize the ladder to enlightenment. The triangular shape on the topmost portion is an abstract form for the element of fire. The glided canopy at the top embodies air, and the spire represents ether. The prayer flags that are tied to the stupa are believed to carry mantras and prayers towards heaven. The entrance to the upper part of the stupa lies in the northern part where Amoghasiddhi, progenitor of the future Buddha presides. Just below Amoghasiddhi is the Buddha Maitreya, the future Buddha.
The Stupa was severely damaged due to the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. With efforts from national and international organizations, the reconstruction was immediately started and finally completed in late 2016. Once again, the gigantic stupa stands tall and high and attracts visitors with its cultural and historical importance.
Ambience and Feel
When one visits Boudhanath, s/he will simply feel a unique ambient vibe. This quiet and peaceful building seems as if it is peering down on visitors as the make prayers and offerings. As one of the most spectacular site of Buddhist culture in the world, this stupa has a lot to offer if one visits there—perhaps to gain a blessing or good fortune before starting your Himalayan trek. The best time to visit this shrine would be in the evenings of October/November when the time coincides with the Hindu festival of Dipawali (also known as Tihar), the festival of lights. This happens to coincide with a major Nepali trekking season.
If you ask how does it feel being around Boudhanath, the locals will mostly answer that they have some kind of spiritual connection with this place. If you visit this place in the evening, you will probably have a very peculiar experience. In the evenings, the whole area is lit up with prayer candles that span the Stupa. There is a very soulful experience when the lights are lit; it feels as if the whole surrounding is radiating some kind of influential positive energy. Moreover, the sound of singing bowls and Buddhist chants, mixed with the smell of incense burning creates a kind of healing energy. People from the surrounding places gather here in the evening with a firm belief that spending a few minutes within the aura of this shrine will instill their day with a positive energy. This place indeed works as some kind of spiritual stress reliever.
Around Boudhanath Stupa, there are streets and narrow alleys that are lined with crafts shops, Buddhist monasteries and paved roads. Apart from the soulful ambience this place has to offer, one can always peek into the Buddhist and Tibetan culture this place has to offer. Whether it’s the Tibetan woolen clothes or the spicy dishes like La-Phing, Boudhanath never ceases to amaze visitors.
Moreover, this place allows visitors to delve into the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns who devote their lives to simplicity and non-violence. For anyone who wants to learn about spirituality, meditation and the history of Buddhist philosophy, there is no other place like Boudhanath to visit. With its soothing environment, brilliant architecture and ambience, this place will soothe anyone.
Embark and Boudhanath
As part of your Nepali trek with Embark, we visit Boudhanath Stupa and explore the unique Tibetan culture and art in Kathmandu. Usually we visit this in conjunction with Pashupatinath temple, the holiest of Hindu temples that is located within a couple of miles of the Boudhanath Stupa.