Let’s continue our exploration in Kathmandu Valley.
Swayambunath temple (monkey temple) is a Buddhist stupa at the top of a lush green hill at the northwestern part of the city (above). It has a great view of all Kathmandu valley. A long staircase leads you directly to the main platform of the temple. The stupa consists of a dome at the base; above the dome, there is a cubic structure with the eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions.
Swayambunath temple (above) is amongst the oldest religious sites in Nepal and it is one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
Behind the temple you can have a walk in the beautiful forest and enjoy your times peacefully with the company of hundreds of monkeys. It is a nice escape place away from the chaotic city.
In the old times the ancient trade route between India and Tibet was passing through Kathmandu. This enabled a fusion between the cultures in art and architecture. Kathmandu is an important place regarding craftsmanship. Artisans have been working with different materials like stone, wood and metal for many centuries and wood carving is one of the most important handicrafts. The art of Kathmandu in particular consists of an iconic symbolism of the Mother Goddesses.
One other handicraft is pottery. You can see many ateliers producing different cups and bowls.
Kathmandu is an important center of traditional Thanka painting that is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk. It usually depicts a Buddhist deity or mandala. Most thangkas were intended for personal meditation or instruction of monastic students. They often have elaborate compositions including so many small figures.
On the left, above we see ‘Khalachakra’ mandala. Khalachakra is one of the tantric teachings and esoteric practices in Tibetan Buddhism. And on the right, above we see ‘Wheel of Life’ that respresents the cycle of birth and death.
Kathmandu is a heaven of souvenirs. You see many shops everywhere that sell different types of handicrafts and traditional clothes. If you want to buy some gifts for yourself or for the loved ones, you will find a wide variety of options.
Having Kathmandu as a base you can go on some day journeys to the surrounding. If you like the country side you can visit close by villages Bungamati and Khokana which are an hour drive from the city. Visiting here gave me the first chance in Nepal to see the rural areas. There were many terraces in the landscape used as rice fields. It looked like the harvesting season was almost over and many village women were sifting the rices. This place is one of the areas that got so big damage from the recent big earthquake.
After a 2 hour drive from Kathmandu you can reach Nagarkot (above) that is at the altitude of 2100m. This is a spot where you can see many peaks of great Himalayas in clear weather. In time you start to learn that you can see these peaks from many places in Nepal. It was a cloudy day, I couldn’t see the mountains but I catched the sunrise in a beautiful morning accompanied with the chantings of some monks that came like me for the sunrise.
The Pashupatinath Temple (above) is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It dates back to 5th century and is located on the banks of the Bagmati River which ultimately joins the holy river Ganga.
Hindu cremation ceremony takes place by the river at the long stairs of the temple. First the body is carried to the ceremony place by the family members. After the body is washed in the river it is put on to the woods to be burnt. After couple of hours the remains are scattered into the river.
Ceremation ceremony scenes were like a reminder that this life eventually comes to an end. The state of the families impressed me so much. They were in their grief but in a silent way as Hindus view death as rebirth, not the end.
I came here with a former Buddhist monk and a South African friend Nadia with whom I met couple of days ago. She was telling me about the teachings of Buddhism which I was so willing to learn. She had been in the Buddhist path for a while and she was here to learn a particular Tibetan Buddhist practice Chöd from this monk.
Chöd (above) is type of a ritual that aims to block the power of fear. Rituals include song, music and prayer and may take place in graveyards as well. By this way Chöd practitioners put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test.
The monk chose a spot for himself facing the dead body that was in fire at that moment. He prepared an altar with unusual objects and started the ritual. He was dancing and singing some prayers in Tibetan and playing a strange instrument made from human tibia. The ritual lasted for couple of hours. Then he told us that he aimed for the purification of the soul and enable it to be free from fear and attachment when leaving the body. He believes when the families grief with voiceful cries, they make it difficult for the spirit to leave its body. It was a dramatic and memorable experience.
I saved the best places for last that gifted me the most impressive experiences and explorations in Kathmandu. Boudhanath (above) is one of the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is a very important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Apart from the stupa the whole area has a strong influence of Buddhists and consists of almost 50 Buddhist gompas (monasteries). Seeing the people around Boudhanath you can easily have an idea about the influx of many Tibetan refugees that had been coming to Nepal for many years.
The stupa is surrounded by a circular line of shops and restaurants and looks touristy. But when you get out from the circle to the outer neighbourhood you go into the humble daily life of Buddhists.
Every year the stupa attracts thousands of Buddhist pilgrims who perform full body prostrations, walk around the stupa with prayer wheels, chant, and pray all day long. Prayer flags and bells enrich this holy atmosphere.
If you are into being around holy places and discover more about Tibetans and their culture I strongly recommend you to come and stay at this area in Kathmandu. I found great peace being here. It was such a special experience to come by the stupa before the dawn and sit somewhere for meditation.
. . . . It is still dark, the sun hasn’t rised up yet but Buddhists are already here, circumambulating the stupa. I close my eyes. The sounds of the bells coming from the temple are resonating in the big walls of stupa. Buddhist monk is starting for the morning ceremony and letting magical frequencies of his powerful chantings out into the air. I hear prayer beads in the hands, prayers on the lips, the footsteps that go on and on in circles around the stupa. In the much deeper layers I hear the mantra ‘Om Mane Padme Hum’ again repeating on and on. I hear prayer wheels turning ceaselessly.
All are joining my perceptions. Knowing the cycle of all dualities –primarily life and death- I am just observing my senses in the moment without reacting to any of them. Knowing the impermenance nature of everything, my mind is calm and still. I am in peace. . . .
Buddhism, Buddha’s way is one of my interest that I want to learn about. Monasteries appeal me as they are the places that you can visit to start to learn about the wisdom and compassion teachings of Buddha. It is so pleasing that you can find monasteries that have programmes, courses, retreats or talks in English. Like International Buddhist Academy, White Monastery and Kopan Monastery. At some of them you can stay independent from the courses. They also have impressive libraries.
One of them is Kopan Monastery (above), located on a hill top, watching Kathmandu from above. It is a center of Buddhism’s Mahayana tradition. The courses here are quite well-known and you should register in advance. If you are interested to learn about your mind and further teachings on wisdom, I highly recommend you to stay and attend a course here. (www.kopanmonastery.com)
I visited as much monastery as I could during my stay around Boudhanath. Walking in the gardens of some of them, attending feasts in tribute to their Lama (high priest) or participating in teachings or Pujas (ceremonies with prayers and meditation) were like introduction experiences into monastic life and Buddha’s way.
Once I had a memorable morning at Bairoling monastery (above). It was around 5.30 in the morning when I arrived there to attend the morning Puja. I got so amazed by the fascinating interior. Some pigeons were freely flying around the high ceiling. Then all the monks (from the age of 7 to 50) one by one entered and took their places in the gompa. For an hour they did their ceremony with prayers and with sounds of highly interesting instruments. High volume polyphonic sounds were creating a unique symphony. Frequency of the vibrations took me to a deeper level of energy. I felt the pure sense of compassion that was embracing me.
Through all these unfamiliar experiences, I was more and more getting the feeling of being in an unknown journey. With pure intentions, I was willing to learn what I need to know to embrace what may come along in my path.