Ashok arrives punctually, the perfect host and entrusted with making my stay in Nepal both comfortable and enjoyable. Indeed, he has already put together a most ambitious itinerary promising to give me an all-embracing flavour of some of the best of the country: culture in Kathmandu, trekking in Pokhara and Annapurna, a jungle experience in Chitwan in Southern Nepal, and if luck is with me, some adventure on the rapids of the fast flowing rivers. And this morning, he has a driver in tow who will take me to three of Kathmandu’s most famous landmarks.
Our first stop is the Swayambhunath Stupa, or the Monkey Temple as it is known by tourists, an impressive Buddhist temple perched on a hill crest overlooking the Kathmandu Valley bearing witness to Nepal’s ancient history. Centre stage is a large white dome-shaped stupa topped with a glittering gilded tower, which is painted with Buddha’s watchful eyes on four sides, its spire stretching skywards. When I arrive, the fascinating, chaotic jumble of minor Hindu and Buddhist temples and ancient monuments depicting gods or commemorating the departed is wrapped in mesmerising air thickened with the wafting smells of sweet burning incense and butter lamps as worshippers mingle with the many tourists. The green of the hillside is festooned with the criss-cross spider web threads of colourful prayer flags.
Although a major tourist attraction and Unesco World Heritage site, the Stupa is still a place of worship for Buddhists and Hindus alike and today, Saturday, the complex is buzzing as the Nepali people celebrate the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, the festival which honours the strong bonds between brothers and sisters and also luck. We forge our way through the throng and rather than being allowed to do the steps to the entrance, the driver takes me all the way to the top, saving time and my energy.
And at the temple, Buddhist monks saunter amongst the ancient relics; priests tie the tell-tale good luck strings of Raksha Bandhan around wrists; shopkeepers sell Nepali mementoes; rows of women peddle oblations for the gods; tourists and worshippers alike touch the spinning prayer wheel; the faithful perform their pujas and offer food, drink and prayers to the deities, and ‘living’ gods earn their upkeep by posing for photographs. And all the while, the monkeys that mob the temple round the clock are keeping an eye on things, wasting no time to feast on the goodies left at the statues’ feet or on occasions even more audaciously stealing fruit and crisps from unsuspecting visitors; they are after all referred to as the ‘holy’ monkeys.
If the recent earthquake indeed demolished some important historical landmarks in Nepal, it has been kind here and only a few of the smaller buildings suffered major damage. Most of the temples are unaffected and the rebuilding work on those that bore the brunt has already started so that the Monkey Temple will hopefully soon be restored to its former glory.
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My immersion in Nepalese ancient history continues with a visit to the Great Buddha Stupa of Boudhanath, which until last April dominated the Kathmandu skyline with its massive mandala, making it one of the largest spherical stupas or domes in Nepal. But the earth tremor was more brutal to this monument to Nepal’s past and whereas the stupa itself only sustained minor damage, the cubical gold encrusted tower and spire which crowned the base were toppled by the force of the quake. Today, scaffolding and plastic sheeting shield the remnants and protect the restoration work in progress; and much of the interior of the Buddhist temple remains closed to the public.
Although the view afforded from the Buddhist monastery opposite the Stupa can now only give an impression of what must have been an imposing vista, it does not deflect from the aura of mystery and piety. It certainly does not deter faithful Buddhists and Hindus to flock to the temple for their daily rituals of praying and offerings to the Gods, spinning the prayer wheels whilst circumnavigating the structure, burning incense to sweeten the smoky atmosphere; and leaving Pujas or Prasad to appease the gods. Elderly Nepali women take respite on benches and doorsteps and work their way through strings of prayer beads as a sign of their devotion. They seek reprieve from the oppressive heat of the sun under their huge umbrellas as a lonely boy monk watches the world go by.
And on the sidelines, shopkeepers are hopeful for sales to tourists who have stayed away this year, fearful after the earthquake, making Nepal’s recovery all the more tricky through lack of much needed income.