As the plane takes a turn and starts its decent through Kathmandu valley, peer a little through the window on the left hand side and you will see a huge circular dome, with two large eyes intently watching you as you watch it. This is Boudhanath Stupa.
Nepalis refer to it as simply Chorten Chenpo, which translates to ‘Great Tower’ or simply ‘Great Stupa’. Towering at 36m high, it is one of the largest stupas in the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, since 1979.
As you leave the hustle and bustle of the busy road behind, and walk down the lane leading into Boudhanath Stupa, it’s like stepping back in time. Also called Boudha or Khaasti, there is an air of serenity that allows for plenty of time for contemplation.
A bit of history
While there are many stories around the origin of the stupa, one of the more popular ones revolves around a young prince unwittingly killing his father to appease the gods. In an act of repentance, he ordered the construction of the stupa, around 600 AD.
Unfortunately, the marauding Mughals ensured its destruction.
Then, sometime in the 14th century, immediately after the passing away of the Buddha, the current stupa was built on the very same site.
It originally lay along the ancient trading route between Lhasa and Kathmandu and was a popular stop for Tibetans to offer their prayers. While it has existed for centuries, it is only in the 1950s, with the influx of Tibetan refugees, that it became a centre for Buddhism. As the influx of refugees continued and settled around the area, it further strengthened the importance of Boudhanath Stupa. Today, many Tibetan Buddhists call this area home.
Sadly, like so many other historical sites in Kathmandu Valley, the pinnacle of the stupa was damaged by the earthquake that struck in 2015. Thankfully, repairs were in place by the end of the following year.
Around Boudhanath Stupa
The stupa is very photogenic. With prayer flags dotting the skyscape just above, it makes for a surreal photo-op. You can get lots of amazing photographs of the stupa and the area around it. However, be polite and ask for permission before you click people.
One of the highlights is to spin the prayer wheels as you walk around the stupa. A mantra, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is inscribed on each of them. Together with the sound of chants, this whole exercise is somehow very calming on the mind. It is also supposed to purify your karma. Just make sure to walk clockwise.
Once you are done with the stupa, make your way to Guru Lhakhang Monastery, also called Tamang Gompa. It is opposite the steps that lead to the stupa. The entrance is next to a gold-plated gate under which hangs a big bell. Immediately after you enter, on the left-hand side, is a huge prayer wheel that is practically floor to ceiling. Look beyond and you will also see a few Buddhist murals and statues.
As you walk up two floors, there are more murals to see and more spots to take photographs of the stupa. Finally, make your way to the balcony of the monastery. It’s from here that you get the best possible views of the stupa in all its glory.
If you like, you can also offer a prayer for loved ones by paying NPR 5 to light a a butter lamp adorned with a single marigold flower each. It’s located on the balcony itself, in a small hut.
There are many cafés that dot the square within the complex. Most of them with a terrace with excellent views of the stupa. However, while these cafés are nice, I personally prefer the several small restaurants that dot the lanes leading from the main road to the stupa. They serve everything, from snacks and soft drinks, to freshly brewed chai. Milky and sweet, you can’t have too many of them. However, that one cup is enough to give you a sugar buzz and lift your spirits. While the tea comes to a boil, and with time to pass, why not strike a conversation with the locals. There is nothing like chai to break the ice.
Finally, remember to keep an eye at those pair of eyes. With a set on each direction to represent the all-knowing nature of the Buddha, they seem to be peering at you and following your every move, whether you are making an offering, walking around the complex or simply taking it easy sitting at one of the many cafés.
Information you can use
It’s around 8km from the centre of town, Thamel. The best way to get there would be to hire a taxi. However, if hailing a taxi turns out to be a bit of a frustrating experience, fret not. Hop onto any of the buses heading in that direction. At a fraction of the cost, you will have the ride of your life, chatting with bemused locals while seeing the city from a different perspective.
All foreigners pay an entry fee of NPR 400 per person. Those from SAARC nations only pay NPR 100, while all other foreigners pay NPR 400. Nepalis get free access. If you don’t want to pay anything, then try and visit late in the evening when the ticket offices shut for the day. However, Boudhanath Stupa is no fun in the dark. So, choose wisely.