One of the most fabulous places in the fabled valley is the great Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath. Its huge white dome, surmounted on three enormous tiers, shaped like mandalas and supporting a gilded tower and golden finlal, create an image as restful as it is vast. It can be seen from all over the valley, a shimmering beacon of faith.
The all-seeing eyes of the compassionate Buddha gaze cobalt, white and scarlet from the gilded sides of the tower, above them a tikka and between them, where the nose should be, a question mark that, no matter what it means, for me enhances the riddle of the eyes. Perhaps when they were first painted, when the valley was young and there was a settlement instead of a sprawling city, those eyes looked down on everyone, reaching into their homes, their fields, and into the passing phases of their lives like an insinuating presence. Even today it could be a reflection of one\'s own mood, or cloud shadows racing across the stupa, that make the half-closed, lotus-shaped eyes sometimes frown, blaze with anger, enquire, or smile.
Pressing upon the stupa and separated from it by a paved perambulatory, is a circular wall of houses in which those connected with the stupa, pilgrims, traders and craftsmen, live. On their ground floors are tourist shops filled with instantly attractive trinkets and curios and presided over by Nepali or Tibetan shopkeepers endlessly jovial with bargaining on their brains.
A plump Tibetan lady who years ago made me her brother, sews and embroiders Tibetan boots. A man who used to call me Apala, or father, before he married and had four children, presides over a modern shop with wall-to-wall showcases and cupboards. Once he displayed his wares jumbled together in a dark cave of a room. The old houses with their thatched or small tiled roofs are giving way to modern concrete, a great sadness since the atmosphere of the place is changing with each new building.
Beyond the circle of shops, which contain a Buddhist chapel and a Buddhist monastery, there grows a town of monasteries, chapels, houses, lodges, shops, and change houses which sell local liquor. Some of the monasteries, all in the Tibetan architectural styles, are grandly enormous, but none impose upon the stupa. It soars above them all.
I can remember \'a time when Boudhanath was a single jewel in the lotus of its encircling houses, with not an irreverence of concrete anywhere; when a florid whitewashed gateway spanned a narrow entrance so no disturbing vehicles could intrude. There was only one monastery then, rather a chapel-beside-the-home of the Chini Lama, a rotund jovial man whose first concession to the modern world was giving audience from under a golf umbrella. It was he who supervised the ritual bathing of the stupa and the offering of votive flags that hang in strings from the high finial to the surrounding wall like the spokes of a great wheel.
Then in 1959 came the Tibetan refugees and with them a reincarnate lama known as the Mongolian Lama who began to set up a fine monastery, a chant away from the Chini Lama. Both claimed to represent the Dalai Lama and both suggested, not always discreetly, that the other was a lesser lama. Time has changed all that.
Undoubtedly, the stupa is very old: some believe older than the Buddha himself, others that in the heart of the stupa are enshrined relics of the Buddha brought from India by his beloved disciple Ananda. Perhaps the Emperor Ashoka who is believed to have visited the valley in the footsteps of his master, added to a stupa already there.
Over the centuries Boudhanath has been embellished, fallen into disrepair, and again added to by saints and kings. One of the last well-known donors to the stupa was the first maharaja prime minister, Jung Bahadur, who had a high prayer-wall built around the stupa where hundreds of copper prayer wheels are still turned by the pious.
Whatever its origin, whoever built it, there is a tranquillity, an other-worldly beauty about Boudhanath that no one fails to notice. Some claim cosmic forces or psychic vibrations, other the centuries of faith built into the stupa. Whatever, there is a wondrous sense of peace, contentment and well-being that surrounds the stupa.
The voice of legend requires a hearing. An early king of Kathmandu constructed a pool near his palace but no water poured from the three stone fountains carved with dragon beads. Deeply perplexed, the king consulted his oracles who advised that a man possessed of the thirty-two virtues should be sacrificed at the spot. So the king summoned his son and commanded him to go to the spring at dawn and sever the head of a shrouded person he would find sleeping there.
Dutifully the son carried our the king\'s request, and even as water gushed from the fountains, he realised he had slain his father.
So great was his grief that he left the court and sought seclusion as an ascetic in a distant temple, but his penance alone was not enough to relieve the drought and plagues that befell his kingdom. When it seemed the whole valley was doomed, the prince had a vision in which the goddess Bajra Yogini told him to build a great shrine to the Buddha where a white bird would settle.
So severe was the drought that there was no water with which to mix the clay and sand. So for twelve long years white sheets were spread upon the ground each night to be saturated with dew. When wrung out, the sheets provided the necessary water and so was built the stupa of a million dewdrops.
Peace and plenty returned to the land.