Buddhist Kathmandu

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March 12th 2011
Published: March 25th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Buddha was born in Nepal. Or rather Siddhartha Gautama, who would become Buddha, was born in Lumbini, which is now included in Nepal (but such a country as Nepal did not exist in the Buddha's time).

It should not be surprising, then, that Buddhism is an important part of Nepal's religious landscape, despite there being a significant Hindu majority. Apparently, something like 80% of Nepalis identify as Hindu, while only 10% identify as Buddhist. However, these percentages don't clearly tell the story. For one thing, it obscures just how pervasive Buddhism is in the country. There are Buddhist stupas everywhere - including a few from the age of Ashoka, the famous Indian king who adopted Buddhism after having a change of heart over this earlier, blood-thirsty warrior ways and who supposedly had 84,000 stupas build across his empire. Sometimes there are stupas even in places that are more commonly associated with the Hindu community (such as Kirtipur). Some of the stupas and Buddhist shrines also seem to serve as pilgrimage sites for Hindus, as is the case of Swayambuhnath.

On my second full day in Kathmandu, Phil and G took me to the hilltop complex of Swayambhunath, often called the "Monkey Temple" (the reason for this becomes more than obvious when your box of juice gets snatched by one these long-tailed tricksters!). The center is dominated by the gleaming white Swayambhunath Stupa with its square-faced spire painted with Buddha's eyes - they stare at you from all directions. Crowded around the main stupa are a jumble of minor stupas, temples, and shrines in an equal jumble of Tibetan and Newari styles; there's a good dose of Hindu iconography thrown in for good measure.

There was a major puja going on as we got to the top of the hill and to the base of the stupa. Devotees were lined up to make their offerings at the Hariti Temple, a pagoda-shaped shrine to the Hindu goddess of smallpox (and, interestingly, fertility). Pans of fire blazed in the space between the temple and the looming stupa. A clutch of drummers and chanters rocked rhythmically in the shade on the far-side of the shrine.

No one seems to fuss that the lines of worship are not so distinct. If you look at the foundations of Buddhism, emerging as a response to the Hinduism of its time, it really is not so surprising. Moreover, many Hindus embrace Buddha as a Hindu figure (including viewing him as an incarnation of Vishnu). It only seems to puzzle those who come from religious traditions that are more sharply defined.

Moving way from the pilgrim crowds, we stepped onto the terraces just below the stupa to get a 360 degree view of the Kathmandu Valley. It was only then that I realized what a commanding spot Swayambhunath occupies. A Buddhist (and Hindu) beacon on the outskirts of the city.


To keep with the Buddhist theme of the day, we drove from Swayambhunath to Bodhnath (or Boudha), a predominately Tibetan area that was an important staging point on the Kathmandu-Lhasa trade route (though today most of the Tibetans in Boudha are refugees from the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959). Here, the feel was more distinctly Buddhist and more specifically Tibetan Buddhist.

The enormous Bodhnath Stupa stands alone in all its glory, unlike its crowded sister in Swayambhunath; it is surrounded only by a sweep of restaurants and shops (religion and commerce, again). The neighborhood, though, is riddled with Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist shrines. A sort of mini-Tibet in exile. There thus was less of the Hindu-Buddhist blurring I had observed in other parts of Kathmandu.

Still, as we sat in a terrace restaurant overlooking the stupa, eating some delicious momos, I got a good look at the crowd circling below. While many were obviously of Tibetan background, there were many others, including some western women chanting at the base of the white dome. It clearly didn't matter who came to worship...

Someday, to round out my exploration of Buddhism in Nepal, I will have to make the trip down to Lumbini, to see the Maya Devi Temple that supposedly marks the exact place the Buddha was born.

I will sit under a Bodhi tree.

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