The stupa of a million dewdrops

Three elderly people look up with wonder and reverence, palms pressed together at the Boudhanath stupa towering over them. Sonam Yangjung Lama, Yangja Phuti, and Samten Lama (pictured, above) are from Humla, and have undertaken a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Kathmandu shrine. 

“Boudha is the holiest place in Nepal, and I had never seen it,” beams Yangja Phuti. “Now that I have finally seen it, I am overcome by its beauty and holiness. Now, I can die happy, and go straight to heaven.”

Boudhanath has always been sacred to Nepal’s Buddhists, whether Newars of the Valley, Tibetan Buddhists from the mountains, or from China.

The pilgrims from Humla had to walk for a day to Simikot, and then take a plane to Nepalganj and Kathmandu to get here, since Humla is the last district in Nepal not yet connected to the road network. But they say it has been worth the time and money.

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This fulcrum of Buddhism was first built in the 5th century, according to Shange Dorje Lama, who heads the Lama Department of Boudha Ghyang Guthi, the trust responsible for religious activities at the shrine. Boudha has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, including after the 2015 earthquake.

“The stupa stands on a five-layered platform, signifying the five elements of nature,” Lama explains, pointing at the imposing monument. “The dome signifies the earth, while the eyes of the Buddha represent compassion and wisdom. The 13 tiers above it are the thirteen steps to enlightenment, and the cupola signifies the protection that the dharma gives. Finally, the spire represents Nirvana.”

Despite being swallowed up by Kathmandu’s urban sprawl and over-run by the Chabahil neighbourhood, Boudha retains its spiritual charm, with hundreds of devotees doing the ritual circumambulation, rotating prayer wheels, counting rosaries, or performing prayer rituals. Boudha has also grown as a tourist attraction for locals and Asian visitors who can be seen taking selfies. 

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Xin Liu, a journalist from China, is among them. “I once saw a picture of Nepali people many years ago. I loved their smiles. And it has always been my dream to come here,” she says, between trying to take a perfectly timed shot of pigeons at the temple. 

Many Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and even Westerners come here, mixing tourism with pilgrimage, but for many foreign tourists Nepal is also an attraction because it is much more affordable. Chinese tourists, especially, say they find a Nepal holiday cheaper than anywhere else in Asia.

“We are students and we didn’t have a lot of money, but we wanted to travel abroad. So, we chose Nepal,” says Zhao Meng from Hunan, strolling around with her friend Sheng Fengju. They confess they are not Buddhist and know very little of the Buddhist significance of Boudha, but are impressed by its beautiful and calm atmosphere. 

The circle of buildings around Boudha used to house pilgrims, but now have been taken over by elegant terrace cafes, meditation centres, bed and breakfasts, and gift shops. 

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The newest addition to Boudha’s cosmopolitan ambience are the new Chinese eateries. Liu Xiao Ping runs Chengdu Kitchen and has been living here for six years. 

“I had a restaurant in China, but business was too hectic. I heard of Nepal from my friends, so I came here. It costs me less in rent and salaries, and life is more peaceful,” says Liu, who serves spicy Sichuan dishes popular among Nepalis and foreigners alike. 

Pema Rangdol, a Nepali restaurateur, speaks fluent Chinese and has named his restaurant Chonqing Noodles, with the signboard in English and Chinese. 

“We get lots of Chinese guests from China, Singapore and Malaysia, and they like it that the menu is in their own language,” Rangdol says.

Boudha is proof that despite the chaos of a teeming city, the spiritual energy of the shrine has preserved its tranquility and sanctity. The tourists and pilgrims may be enjoying its picturesque and insta-friendly location, but they are earning karma points for 2019 at the same time. 

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