Suitcase and World: Stupa on the Hill. Swayambhunath.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Stupa on the Hill. Swayambhunath.

From Patan Durbar Square, Sonam drove us to Swayambhunath.  In 2007, I visited Boudhanath on my first day and came here on my second day.  When I suggested that to Bindu, he replied that Swayambhunath is closer to Patan so it's better for us to come here today so that's what we did.

I have to admit, I don't remember much of Swayambhunath from my previous visit so getting to come back and see it again was most certainly a treat for me.  The entire time I was here, I recalled snippets of memories but for the most part, it was as if it was the first time I had ever set foot here.

Sonam dropped us off in the parking lot.  In 2007, I arrived by cycle rickshaw....a very different arrival experience for sure.  I also don't remember this small square filled with stupas and draped with prayer flags.  It's nice to feel like a first time visitor!

The one thing I do remember well about Swayambhunath is that it's also called the Monkey Temple, a reference to the macaques that roam the grounds here.  They are not afraid of humans and I was careful to keep clear of them - I don't want another one jumping on me as one did at Galti Ji in Jaipur!

I had a vague recollection that I had to climb steps to get to the stupa.  There were two sets of steps.  I remember pausing to take in a view of the Kathmandu Valley and the view was on my left side so we took the steps on the left side of the square.

As described in Wikipedia:
Swayambhunath is among the oldest religious sites in Nepal. According to the Gopālarājavaṃśāvalī, it was founded by the great-grandfather of King Mānadeva (464-505 CE), King Vṛsadeva, about the beginning of the 5th century CE. This seems to be confirmed by a damaged stone inscription found at the site, which indicates that King Mānadeva ordered work done in 640 CE.  However, Emperor Ashoka is said to have visited the site in the third century BCE and built a temple on the hill which was later destroyed.
Although the site is considered Buddhist, the place is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. Numerous Hindu monarch followers are known to have paid their homage to the temple, including Pratap Malla, the powerful king of Kathmandu, who is responsible for the construction of the eastern stairway in the 17th century."

Though Swayambhunath is a functioning religious site, to me it feels like an open air museum.  There's so much art to see, my head was spinning and my finger felt like it was constantly hitting the camera shutter.  But without a guide to explain things to us, we lost the contextual meaning behind much of what is in the complex.  We basically just wandered around the complex taking photos and here are a few of them.

Today, I did not pause on the walk up to take in the views of the surrounding Kathmandu Valley.  Good thing because the view is much better once you reach Swayamabhunath.  There are several places where you can stand to see what the world looks like spread out before you.  You get a good sense of just how densely packed the city is!  It's also a remarkably green place.

I do remember walking through a cluster of stupas and then coming upon the stupa itself.  Today, it was the same.

Chantale was lagging behind me and I kept waving her towards me because I wanted her to see the stupa.  I was certain she had never seen anything like it before.  Most definitely the stupa architecture in Nepal is unique to the country and once you see a Nepalese stupa, you will recognize one no matter where you go.  For example, the Kumbum in Gyantse, Tibet, China.  Nepalase stupa.  One look and you know!

Here's what you see as you round the corner from the stupas and here's the description from Wikipedia:
The stupa consists of a dome at the base, above which is a cubical structure painted with eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions. There are pentagonal Toran present above each of the four sides with statues engraved in them. Behind and above the Torana there are thirteen tiers. Above all the tiers there is a small space above which the Gajur is present. The stupa has many artifacts inside it."

Also as described in Wikipedia:
"There is a large pair of eyes on each of the four sides of the main stupa which represent Wisdom and Compassion. Above each pair of eyes is another eye, the third eye. It is said that when Buddha preaches, cosmic rays emanate from the third eye which acts as messages to heavenly beings so that those interested can come down to earth to listen to the Buddha. The hellish beings and beings below the human realm cannot come to earth to listen to the Buddha's teaching, however, the cosmic rays relieve their suffering when Buddha preaches. Between the two eyes (also called Wisdom Eyes), a curly symbol, symbolizing the nose, is depicted which looks like a question mark, which is a Nepali sign of number figure one. This sign represents the unity of all things existing in the world as well as the only path to enlightenment through the teachings of Buddha."

And from Wikipedia:
"The dome at the base represents the entire world. When a person awakes (represented by eyes of wisdom and compassion) from the bonds of the world, the person reaches the state of enlightenment. The thirteen pinnacles on the top symbolize that sentient beings have to go through the thirteen stages of spiritual realizations to reach enlightenment or Buddhahood."

Looks like a representation of a fat and happy Buddha to me 😁

The stupa was completely renovated in May 2010, its first major renovation since 1921 and its 15th in the nearly 1,500 years since it was built. The dome was re-gilded using 20 kg of gold and was funded by the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center of California.  Work began in 2008, just a short year after my visit.  Sadly the complex suffered damage in the 2015 earthquake though there was no scaffolding around to identify exactly which structures had been damaged.

The one thing I do remember very vividly about Swayambhunath was how many souvenir vendors were operating here.  Pretty much every building on site that does not serve a religious purpose is selling souvenirs.  Oddly, I don't recall all that many, if any, selling food or drinks.

I got a good chuckle watching this group of young folks who look like they are Chinese.  Oh....they wanted so desperately to take photos of the macaque.

But the dog was not about to give them their moment. 😁 I know how they feel....been there, done that!

It felt like I went around the complex several times.  In some instances, I walked in circles looking for Chantale who is always in search of people to take photos of.  I caught here snapping away at some men who were hard at work repairing a building!  Before we left, we also did a bit of souvenir shopping.  I ended up getting an etched slate plaque that I absolutely love but if anyone looked at it, they would think it was done by a North American Indian artist.  Most definitely, not your typical Nepalese design which is part of the reason I was attracted to it.   That and the fact that the young woman who created the artwork was selling it to me.  I like supporting artists directly and the last piece of art I bought when I was here in 2007, in Bhaktapur, remains one of my treasured art pieces.

We managed to retrace our steps back to the stairs that we took to get up here.  Again, I was consciously avoiding those cheeky macaques.

Back down at the entrance square, we paused to admire the pond and fountain.  I definitely do not recall seeing this in 2007 but unfortunately, I've not been able to dig up any information to confirm when it was installed.  I did stumble across a video showing water shooting out from Buddha's uplifted palm and a story about how if you toss a coin and it falls inside the vessel at Buddha's feet, your dreams will come true.  I expect there are a whole lot more coins in the water than in the vessel!

It was almost 5:30p when we drove away from Swayambhunath.  In Kathmandu's evening rush hour traffic, it would take us nearly 45 minutes to drive the short distance to our next destination - the home of Arun Ji where we would be having dinner.  He's been so hospitable already - giving us a car and driver to chauffeur us around town and now he's hosting us for dinner.  Sadly, we are both feeling very under dressed for the occasion but hopefully, our hosts will overlook our sloppy appearance.  Personally, I am looking forward to a real, home cooked Nepali meal!