05 Aug A Buddhist Boudhanath Glow
In a Juniper-cloaked fog, celestial turquoise eyes observed hundreds of worshippers circumambulating and prostrating around a colossal white stupa.
Monks and nuns in saffron robes flowed past whirling ochre prayer wheels carved with the six-syllabled Sanskrit Buddhist mantra of compassion — “Om mani padme hum” — which Buddhists believe is too pure to translate. The same mantra reverberated through and transcended the crowd.
A golden pinnacle and four sets of hypnotic khol-lined eyes crown the Boudhanath Stupa, a 2,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist holy site in Nepal. I had first seen the stupa when I arrived in the country two days earlier, in the sweltering afternoon heat. I walked around for about thirty minutes, had lunch, and traveled on to another holy site in Kathmandu. But what I had wanted was to see Boudhanath at its busiest, most vibrant — when the soul of the ancient kingdom I’d been dreaming about since I was a child was in full force.
Visiting the stupa is a Buddhist act of merit. Being there when it is bathed in full moonlight is believed to be a higher act of Buddhist practice than coming at any other time — so I went back, when both the moon and the stupa were full.
It was the night of a supermoon, and the stupa was a hub of activity, softened by hundreds of flickering butter candles and the scent of melting ghee. Devotees of all ages had swarmed the mound in Boudha on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu since the late afternoon to begin their kora, or ritual stroll, that would last into a star-filled night.
I began my kora, walking past groups of humanity: blind, elderly women begging for Nepalese rupees; a cross-legged monk playing the sitar; flocks of tourists in zip-off cargo pants, down jackets, and hiking boots. There was a traffic jam at the main altar to observe chants and ceremonial bows, and then there were about 20 tables where people were casting long sticks on hundreds of butter candle wicks. I warmed my arms on the flickering golden garden as the sun began to dip, and then I continued on the circular path again. And again. And again.
After several revolutions, I took a break from my kora. I perched myself on the steps of one of the dozen Tibetan monasteries ringing the Nepalese version of a piazza and stood above the crowd. I wanted to capture the sun setting on the stupa’s hypnotizing gaze in my viewfinder.
I took a few shots and rested my camera on my chest. I smiled at a nun in a maroon robe and she grinned back. Then she motioned for me to walk toward her. I descended the staircase and bowed.
She pointed at herself and then toward her bunny-ear covered mobile phone. I nodded and took it from her hand.
She folded her arms, and tilted her right shoulder. As I pressed the circle on her phone screen, a bouquet of hearts floated across it.
We exchanged bows and as she stepped away a monk pointed at me and then to his phone. I nodded and took his photo. Then I took photos for two more monks. They wanted to capture the moment — to show they were there.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is considered the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet. It was said to draw more than 300,000 visitors globally before April 2015, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked the Kathmandu Valley, severely damaging the Boudhanath’s golden spire.
From above, the Boudhanath represents a mandala, or a diagram of the cosmos. In Tibetan Buddhism, mandalas are powerful guides to enlightenment. Teams of monks will labor for days to weeks over intricate sand mandalas, dropping individual colored grains onto hand-drawn blueprints whose designs are passed down by oral tradition. Once the masterpieces are complete, the monks scatter the sand to represent the impermanence of material life. Then they begin a new mandala.
The Boudhanath’s spire was reconsecrated in November 2016, less than one week after my visit.
The pull of energy made hours pass. I continued on the circular path again. And again. And again.
I stood woozy at the main altar as worshipers whiffed the mound of juniper incense that was intoxicating the air.
I walked up the steps to a massive prayer wheel enclosed in a dark chamber, as it slowly twirled and I crammed myself in a corner, listening to its quiet spinning.
When I was thirsty, I sat at an outdoor cafe and quickly gulped ginger tea. When my legs ached, I took photos for more monks. When I was hungry, I ate soba noodles in the quiet corner of a Japanese restaurant, peeking my head out at my window view of “The Eyes.”
Back outside on the path, a group of photographers hovered over one of the glowing tables, trying to get the perfect shot.
Children ran and laughed. Dogs played. People lined up beside the heaps of rice that were ready to be served to anyone who was hungry.
It was getting close to 10:30 pm. I hugged my arms through my thin sweater. I hadn’t brought a jacket. I hadn’t expected that I would stay so late and I felt tired. I was leaving Kathmandu the next day, but I wasn’t ready to go back to my homestay in Patan.
Standing beside the monk playing his sitar, I stared at the sky. The moon’s eternal glow competed for attention with the hum and energy below.
I felt the pulse of humanity as the Buddha’s eyes watched over us.