VIEWPOINT: Swayambhunath Pagoda in Nepal

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  *S. Balakrishnan

            The sacred Swayambhunath Chaitya near Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, is 2000 years old and is also one of the world’s oldest Buddhist Chaityas. It is two miles west of Kathmandu city on a hillock  that rises 250’ above Kathmandu Valley’s altitude of 1,400 metres (4,600 ft).  The Stupa, which forms the main structure, is composed of a solid hemisphere of brick and earth, supporting a spire of copper and gilt. The all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha are painted on the four-sided base of the spire. Such a depiction is also found in the Mahabouddha Gompa in Kathmandu; probably the specialty of Gompas in Nepal.

            I was fortunate to visit this sacred Stupa in 1986 during my eight-day trip to Kathmandu from Gangtok where I was then living. Nepal was then the ‘Kingdom of Nepal’ ruled by the charming & charismatic King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah who, unfortunately, met a tragic end. Well, I can proudly brag to have visited a Kingdom, world’s last Hindu Kingdom, during my lifetime!

            On the morning of Wedesday the 8th January 1986, after sipping a refreshing cup of hot tea for 50 Nepal paisa, I took a momentous decision to have another cup to round it off to one rupee. Maybe the tea was also good. Returning to my Hotel New Anand in Lagan area, I listened to the news of Nepal Radio.  I had carried my small Philips transistor radio (Asiad model – 1982); it was announced in the local news that a new Indian Ambassador to Nepal had been named and that the Indo-Nepal transit treaty had been extended till March 1989.  Having spent some three years in Sikkim, I had picked up considerable knowledge of Nepali language and could at least understand the Nepali news in full, though colloquial language was difficult to understand fully. But still I did not fail to flaunt my little knowledge of Nepali during my Nepal visit, to the amusement and amazement of the people there.

As I had to report for the conducted tour to Nagarkot (a view point 36 kms. away at an altitude of 7,133 ft.) only at 2.45 PM, I did not know where to go. The Hotel allowed me till 1 PM to vacate; I had decided to vacate the room for that day during my one-day trip to Nagarkot , becuase I can save Rs. 70 {Nepal currency}. Thus finalising the arrangements, I decided to go to Swayambhunath Temple, and to go on foot itself as the cycle was found inconvenient during the Patan trip.

After semi-circling the hillock , I climbed up to reach the Gelugpa Sect (Yellow Sect) Gompa which was almost complete after renovation. I watched as some tantric puja was being performed in the open front yard.  A head Lama was seated on a high pedestal with goggles on, while seven lamas were seated on the floor, all dressed up especially for the puja. Later, another Lama, without the special attire, joined the group. With the paraphernalia spread around, a few other lamas were assisting in the ceremonial activities and ready to light the sacred fire.   On the cold morning, what better way to enjoy the warm & pleasant sunshine!

I bowed before the colossal statue of Manjusri inside. On the courtyard monkeys could be seen roaming freely, while the flock of pigeons had whitewashed the mini stupas with their droppings. The five-coloured festoons were fluttering and scattering the mantras in the atmosphere. The all-seeing eyes of Sakyamuni, Lord Buddha, on four directions at the base of the spire of Swayambhu Temple made an unforgettable and mesmerizing experience! The pair of eyes symbolize His omnipresence and the question-mark-like nose, His virtue. This spire is of bronze and thirteen-tired; each tier symbolizes a stage of heaven. Above the tiers is a canopy, symbolizing the all-protecting grace of the Buddha. At the base of the Gompa are images of Buddhas and Taras.

I could not help smiling at the keenness of the visiting Lamas in getting them clicked before the spire of the Gompa, for memory sake. No mobile then, hence no selfie either! A huge vajra (dorjee) was mounted on a brass-plated pedestal with religious symbols and figures. It was a remarkable sight what with the spire towering above countless miniature stupas spilled across the courtyard. While these represent Buddhist architecture, there could also be seen structures of the Nepali Hindu architecture-style. These mini stupas are for images dedicated to earth, water, wind and fire spirits, various deities and gods.

As I peeped into the nearby Hariti Temple, there again I could see some tantric ritual being performed in the open by some devotees. Nearby, a Nepali couple was drying grains and other food items in the open courtyard, making good use of the shining sun during the peak winter, to preserve them for the coming months. This temple is dedicated to the Great Grandmother Goddess ‘Harati’ and ‘Ajima’. It is believed that this Goddess protects the children and newborn babies of devotees.

The Swayambhu Stupa was first constructed in 410 A.D. It is said that in the ancient times, the fourteen square mile valley of Kathmandu was a huge lake. Vipaswa (Vipassi) Buddha, while visiting the spot, found it extraordinarily beautiful. He threw a lotus seed into the lake; this bloomed into a multi-coloured ‘Lotus of Light’. Manjusri, who passed by the spot, saw the wonderful lotus. Wishing to make the spot accessible to pilgrims, with His sword  He cut a gap at Hmasikap point at Chobar and drained the lake. In 410, King Prachandra Deva visited the Lotus of Light and built a stupa around to protect it.

As the nearby Natural History Museum was closed that day, I could not visit it. I bought a map of the Mandir costing Rs. 2 and another Rs. 2 was my generous offering at the Gelugpa Gompa. Remember, I was on a shoe-string budget and every paisa (whether Indian or Nepal) was worth its weight in gold for me in those tough days. During my trip, exchange value of Indian currency Rs. 100 = 170 Nepal Rupees. I must consider myself lucky on this account also besides my actual trip that was a dream-come-true. I could not believe that I was actually on a foreign soil for the first time in my life! Of course, earlier I have seen Tibet and Bhutan. Yes, only seen but not touched the soil; it was a view from Nathula Pass in Sikkim in 1985. The spectacular Pass was spread before in the Tibetan territory while on the east a mountain peak of Bhutan was indicated to us.  Counting these two sightings, I can probably claim to have seen three foreign countries; a short, half-a-day visit to Myanmar in 2016, another 30 years after my trip to Nepal in 1986, adds this up to four!

After darshan at Swayambhunath, I again trudged back the 3.5 km. to Kathmandu city and exchanged 400 Indian rupees to 680 Nepal rupees. After a hot bath at Hotel Anand (they had installed rooftop solar water heater), I left the excess luggage at their custody itself, carrying only what was needed for the Nagarkot trip. The lunch menu was 2 plates of rice, dhal, aalu-mattar side dish & curd; with a magnanimous Rs. 1 tips, the bill was rounded off to Rs. 20. Bought and stocked Fuji 35 mm colour film rolls @ Rs. 80.  Drank a bottle of milk (cold?) at dairy centre for Rs. 3 and then boarded the van for Nagarkot for another exciting experience, that of viewing Mount Everest!

Now in 2018, I hardly remember anything about the sights & sounds of my visit to the Nepal Kingdom. Only the photos, which I saved in the nick of time by scanning all the negatives, rekindle my memories. But what remains etched in my memory is the image of the all-seeing & ever-watching eyes of Lord Sakyamuni from atop Swayambhunath Gompa! ….. Whatsapp