I am writing in from Kathmandu, Nepal, where we are just a few days into our Ayurveda in Nepal program. In this post I have included some video highlights of our day trip to visit the Swayambhunath, Boudhanath stupa, and Pashupathinath. This day trip included both our two week Immersion program students, and also the clinical students enrolled in the longer five week program.
Our first stop was the Swayambhunath stupa and temple complex, an ancient spiritual site that sits atop Semgu, or Swayambhu hill, that lies to the west of Kathmandu Valley. It is a particularly important site for the Buddhist Newar tradition, and is also important for Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus. The stupa itself is painted with the “Buddha’s eyes”, and the nose which lies between them is the number one in devanagari script, representing the unity of consciousness.
The Swayambhu temple complex consists of a dome-like structure called stupa, along with a variety of shrines and temples. Some of these date back to the Licchavi period, which existed in the Kathmandu Valley between the 5th and 8th centuries. According to an ancient text called the Swayambhu Purana, the entire Kathmandu Valley was once filled with an enormous lake from which grew a lotus. It is said that Swayambhu hill itself was created by the boddhisattva Manjushri who cut a gorge and drained the lake, leaving the lotus behind, which then transformed into Swayambhu hill. This religious complex is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are monkeys that live throughout the complex. It is believed that these monkeys arose from head lice that grew on the hair of the boddhisattva Manjushri when he spent time on Swayambhu, and hence they are believed to be holy, with pilgrims feeding the monkeys as an offering.
According scholar Alexander Von Rospatt, professor of South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the Swayambhu stupa that now encompasses the very top of the hill houses a wild female nature deity that was once worshipped during the pre-Buddhist period. It is associated with the goddess with Harati, that devoured children and spread disease such as small pox until she was tamed by the Buddha. Lying immediately behind the Swayambhu stupa is the temple of Hariti, who in her now reformed state is viewed as a protector of children, where people come to make offerings and propitiate her to protect the health of their children. Many people claim that their children have been healed by making an offering to this goddess.
A few kilometers away is Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It was recently damaged in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and to repair the damage over 30 kg of gold was used. Displaying the same “Buddha’s eyes” as Swayambhu, Boudhanath is a particularly important spiritual site for Tibetan Buddhists, and the area around Boudhanath is inhabited by many Tibetan refugees, with the Shechen monastery lying close by. The stupa sits on an ancient trade route between Tibet, Nepal and India, and Tibetan merchants have rested and offered prayers at Boudhanath for many centuries. The stupa itself is said to house the remains of the Kashyapa Buddha, the twenty-seventh of the twenty-nine Buddhas that have passed before.
It is believed by some that Boudhanath was built shortly after the death of Lord Buddha, but a Newar text called the Gopalarajavamshavali states that it was founded by the Nepalese Licchavi king Shivadeva in the 7th century CE. When one visits Boudhanath, many pilgrims can be seen to be walking around it in a clockwise direction, reciting mantras. According to an ancient legend there once lived a very spiteful and evil man who lived near the stupa. Few people came to visit his shop and most people despised him. After he died, the man fell towards the pits of hell, but the Buddha prevented this and spared him. When asked why he did this, the Buddha stated that although this man committed many sins, he once circled around Boudhanath stupa while he chasing a dog, and this was sufficient to gain enough merit to spare him from his horrible fate. Thus, walking around the stupa is considered to be highly auspicious.
The last place we visited was Pashupatinath, a highly important and sacred Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Pashupati, the “Lord of the Beasts”, and an incarnation of the Hindu god Lord Shiva. In all, there are 12 major temples dedicated to Lord Shiva across the Indian subcontinent that represent his body, and Pashupatinath represents his head. Pashupatinath is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu, dating back to at least 400 B.C. Although off-limits to non-Hindus, the temple itself is said to contain a sacred linga of Lord Shiva. There are a number of legends that describe how the temple came to existence here. One legend states that Lord Shiva once took the form of an antelope, and that a piece that broke off from his horn became the linga that is now housed by the temple.
Located along the edge of the Bagmati river, Pashupatinath is an important crematory site, where the dead are taken and cremated by loved ones and family members. If you watch the video you can see this happening. On the evening we were there, the evening worship, or arati, was just about to take place, which explains the music in the background.