Mani Lama’s Boudha in pictures


Mani Lama, 73, never intended to become a photographer. As a young man he studied agriculture in America, but destiny had other designs.

As a photographer, Lama ended up becoming the chronicler of Boudha and its unique neighbourhood. His latest work, Boudha: Restoring the Great Stupa, is releasing on 18 January and chronicles the shrine’s rebirth after the 2015 earthquake.

Mani Lama has spent his entire life in the shadow of the great stupa, and his family has ties with Boudha that go back six generations. His great-great-grandfather was a Chinese man from Sichuan who came to Nepal to meditate in one of the caves near Pashupati. But Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, who was preparing to invade Tibet, took him for a Chinese spy and arrested him.

Read also: The stupa of a million dewdrops, Sewa Bhattarai

After he was satisfied that the monk was not a spy, Jung Bahadur recruited him to look after Lumbini, Swoyambhu, and Boudha. Eventually the Lamas tired of travelling all over Nepal, and stuck to taking care only of Boudha. That is why Mani Lama’s ancestors were called the Chiniya Lama. The lineage still looks after the shrine, although Lama himself does not have to. 

“I still have 18% Chinese ancestry,” Lama laughs, “but I am fully Nepali.”

There is Tamang and Rana blood running in his veins because the first Chiniya Lama married a woman who was Jung Bahadur’s daughter through a Tamang wife, and he is also of Sherpa descent by way of ancestors from Helambu. Lama thinks his mixed heritage has given him a wider perspective on the world. 

While his father went about his priestly duties, Lama spent his childhood experiencing Boudha, then a settlement of mud houses with thatch roofs. 

“Pilgrims from India, China, and many parts of Nepal visited Boudha in those days,” he says. “They came here in autumn and stayed the whole winter when the mountain passes were snowed under.” 

Read also: The Rana reign, Kunda Dixit

Mani Lama got his first camera from his father when he was 12, and took up photography as a profession when he returned from the United States and could not find a job in agriculture because of rife nepotism and casteism.

Lama started taking photographs for postcards that he had printed in Singapore. These flew off the shelves when they first appeared in New Road shops. Lama then took up out-of-town assignments, and travelled all over Nepal taking photographs and learning about his country. 

Read also: Windows on Nepal, Sophia Pande

Lama’s skills and his connection to the neighbourhood came into use in documenting the damage to Boudha, an important pilgrimage and a world heritage site, in the 2015 earthquake.

“I was shocked when I saw a crack on the stupa,” he recalls. He started documenting the damage, as well as the later reconstruction. He and his camera were at the stupa every day. 

The result is now a photobook that documents the reconstruction of Boudha, along with commentaries from historians and cultural experts. Lama is happy with the way the book has turned out, but he is not so happy with what has happened to Boudha. 

“The commercialisation of this sacred space is a sad thing. It is very different from what I remember as a child,” he says. “I hope Boudha is able to retain its spiritual essence in the future.” 

Read also: Time Capsule of Kathmandu, Kunda Dixit



Boudha: Restoring the Great Stupa
Photos by Mani Lama
246 Pages.    
Rs 5,000
Vajra Books, 2020


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