Kathmandu, Nepal

February 24, 2013

The gigantic, gilded scepter was said to have packed the force of a thunderbolt. This indestructible weapon of destruction symbolized the power that had forged present-day Kathmandu Valley, the mountain-ringed dust bowl that cradled the city. Bhuwan, our guide, called it vajra, a legendary object laid out on a pedestal atop the 365-step stone stairway that led to Swayambhunath, a 1,500-year-old Buddhist temple at the center of Kathmandu.

Vajra (Thunderbolt) @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Vajra (Thunderbolt) @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

Birth of Buddha Bas-Relief @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

Before we trudged up to the hilltop temple, Bhuwan pointed out a niche housing a bas-relief smeared with scarlet powder. He made us guess what the tableau depicted. Without batting their eyelashes, my girlfriends Ayee and Donna exclaimed, “The birth of Buddha under a tree!” I thought I was steeped in Eastern religion trivia I had gained from visiting Angkor Wat and Borobudur, but they easily got one over on me. Ayee, grinning like a Cheshire cat, admitted to have remembered the scene in the Keanu Reeves-starrer, Little Buddha.

Cultural tourist, zero. Pop culture fangirls, one.

Donna and Ayee @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Bhuwan Shrestha @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

We started the hike up on the ancient stairway at the eastern side of Swayambhunath Hill as pilgrims of centuries past had done. The climb was, at times, a balancing act, thanks mostly to skirmishing monkeys stampeding past us down the same steps. The view up the steps yet to be scaled left us breathless; the view down the steep slope and the urban sprawl of Kathmandu beyond was breathtaking, if not a wee bit vertigo-inducing.

The 365 Ancient Steps @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Baby Buddhist and a 17th-Century Buddha Statue @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

Tourists were immersed in a stream of devotees, both Buddhist and Hindu, and resident rhesus macaques. Religious fervor knew no minimum age; I spotted an infant climbing onto the lap of a brightly-painted 17th-century Buddha image. The stairway cut through the forest habitat of monkeys, giving Swayambunath its nickname – the Monkey Temple. When not jostling with one another for food offerings left at the feet of stone deities, they bonded by picking lice off one another’s fur.

Rhesus Macaque at Rest @ Swayambhunath, aka the Monkey Temple, Kathmandu
Prayer Wheels @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

The focal point of the temple complex was a whitewashed stupa with Buddha eyes that towered over all else. A row of Tibetan prayer wheels with Sanskrit inscriptions lined its circumference. The prayerful filed around the stupa as they ran their fingers through the wheels, spinning them clockwise while reciting mantras. I likewise spun the wheels singing, under my breath, the theme of a soap back home about a princess filmed in Bhutan. I sent the lovesick lyrics out to the universe with each turn of the wheel: Malayo man, maihahatid din ng hangin
ang mga hangarin na puno ng pag-ibig. (“Even through distance, the wind carries these dreams full of love.”)

Spinning Prayer Wheels @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Cafe and Commerce @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Stupa and Sagarmatha (Everest) @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

Monks mixed with merchants. Stupas and monasteries shared space with cafes and shops selling paintings, handicraft, and votive objet d’art. Crowding at the center of a courtyard was a group of miniature stupas, arranged like chess pieces. At this vantage point, the complex looked saturated with brick buildings and religious structures, many of which had been sponsored by the royals, the Brahmin, the affluent, and the religious of Kathmandu throughout history to modern times. It seemed unlikely that there was any space left for the shrines of future sponsors.

Art Shop @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Shops and Stupas @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Stupa-fied @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Main Stupa @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

Bhuwan directed our attention to an image of a standing Shakyamuni Buddha in black stone, a holy ground for Tibetan Buddhists in Kathmandu Valley. The heavy thump of a gong summoned us to a monastery, Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar, in time for the daily prayer. We peeked through ornate wooden reliquaries to watch, as unobtrusively as we could, monks in velvet robes chanting a mantra that reverberated through the hall. It was a full 3D experience: light and colors, chants and drum beats, incense and butter lamps.

Shakyamuni Buddha @ Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Buddhist Monks in Prayer @ Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar, Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

This hilltop temple was far from a tranquil and meditative sanctuary by day. Sights, smells, and sounds could be overwhelming. Only the viewing deck, with strings of multi-colored prayer flags flapping overhead, provided breathing space. It opened to one side of the 360-degree panorama of Kathmandu, a blanket of dense brick buildings at the foot of the Himalayas.

View of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath

Legend had it that the valley below was an ancient lake bearing a lotus. A bodhisattva cut a gorge with a powerful sword, draining the basin that became Kathmandu and leaving the lotus to settle on this hill that became Swayambhunath. The legend was not entirely incredible. This mountain-valley system had been in a state of flux through the eons, created and re-created by tectonic movement. Creation and destruction were the same force. Thus, the stupa was appropriately called Swayambhunath, “self-created.”

Tour or trek Nepal with Bhuwan Shrestha. You may reach him through his cellphone (977) 98-5111-1907 or (977) 97-2155-3885 and email: bhuwan_stha@yahoo.com for more information.