The Biggest Stupa in Asia?
“Look!” I say, coaxingly. “It’ll be interesting! It’s the biggest stupa in Asia! We have to see that, right?”
“Oh, alright!” says my spawn. (Neither of us are at our best with colds.) “Yeah, I guess we do have to see that.”
“And,” I interject rapidly. “There’s this other Hindu temple that’s very famous, on the banks of the sacred river, and it’s right on the way. So we could go through there en route…”
“AND,” I say, wheedlingly. “There’s this lovely garden called the Garden of Dreams… We could maybe stop there for a drink on the way?”
And off we set, with nary so much as a facemask against Kathmandu’s traffic and crazy, in search of the biggest stupa in Asia.
The Garden of Dreams, an elaborate, Edwardian affair built on cowrie shell winnings and populated largely by petting Nepali couples, pleases us immensely.
The boy appreciates a gigantic bamboo swing that cannot, but CANNOT have been part of the formal garden design.
And we both find the stripy Himalayan squirrels almost unbearably cute.
“Aw!” says the boy, bonhomie restored by a tonic water in the rather smart bar area. “I just want to catch it and SQUEEZE it.”
The squirrel, sadly, has other plans.
We’re only seconds from the hubbub of the traffic, but thanks to the tranquil pavilions, we feel a mile or so away from it.
It is, to be frank, a shock returning to it.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Zac, who is expressing a desire to head back to base. “It’s not really a very pleasant place to walk, is it?”
We’re picking our way through a muddy gutter past gridlocked traffic, sharing this limited and rather splashy space with motorbikes, cyclists and a few brave fellow pedestrians, some of them in miraculously pristine saris.
“Oooh, look,” says Zac. “I think there’s some pavement on the other side…”
We edge across in a neat diagonal, only to find the pavement disappears, and head out into suburbia through a welter of almost-certainly-fake automobile dealers (CHEVROLET?! Really?!) and definitely-absolutely-fake hotels and colleges (Crown Plaza Hotel! Oxport Language College!), their signs typically hand-painted onto crumbling walls.
“She’s selling offerings!” I say, spotting a stall adorned with heavy strings of marigolds, so different, I think, from the delicate flurry of petals and fanpalm that forms the typical offering back in Bali. “We must be getting closer.”
“How far IS it, anyway?” asks Zac.
I consult my guidebook. “According to this, about 8k from where we started. With Pashupatinath about 6k…”
“WHAT?” he says.
“Pash… Push… Pash… hang on…” I open the guidebook again. “Pashupatinath.”
“Is that the ‘sacred’ Bagmati river?” Zac asks, his voice labouring the quotation marks around the word “sacred”.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think so.”
“It’s disgusting,” he says. “They should clean it up.”
We plough up the hill.
Offerings stalls and small temples appear with increasing frequency, many of them lined with nattering teenagers; Hindu women in festive finery begin to crowd the streets; and then we hit the ring road, which is, as far as I can see, the only road in all of Nepal designed for more than two lanes of traffic.
A sacred cow is obstructing traffic! We’re definitely close.
As non-Hindus, Zac and I are not allowed into most of the Pashupatinath temple, so we sit up above the funeral ghats that line the Bagmati river, watching the unceremonious yet ritual end of a number of lives to a background of the lowing of cattle, and trying to work out what the young boy and his father are doing with the coffin and the orange cloth in the river.
“Oh dear,” I say to Zac, dusting some ash off myself. (After watching buffalo sacrificed in the Tana Toraja, plus a royal cremation in Bali, the pair of us are relatively comfortable around death.) “Was that a leg that just fell out?”
“Yes,” he says. “And you can’t take a picture…”
The guy with the bamboo pole pokes the disembodied limb, fully consumed above the knee but barely touched below it, except for some blackening around the toes, back into the pyre.
It is, I think, a nice-looking leg. The owner of this shapely calf must have died young. Folk do in Nepal.
I wonder about the body slumped unceremoniously on the steps still wrapped in orange, awaiting its turn. How old was he or she? What killed them?
After a while contemplating our own mortality (me) and staring into space (Zac), we cross the river and wander up grand, ceremonial steps to a series of Shiva shrines, each with their very own lingam, where we find a bunch of disreputable-looking and well-fed holy men, or sadhu, catching the sun, arrayed in quite fabulous body paints of red, gold and white.
Traditionally a type of Hindu ascetic, yer classic wandering holy man, in Kathmandu sadhu, genuine and otherwise, make much of their money by posing for tourist photos.
And so it proves.
My heart isn’t really in it. There’s a terribly photogenic chap with a flute a bit up the hill. But my mind is back at the river, with the burning bodies, and, rather childishly, I’m thinking, “I don’t want to die! Not young! Not at all!”
“50 rupee OK?” I ask.
It’s OK. I snap a few shots.
I’d be interested to know whether they sleep the night in the beautiful Shiva shrines around them or remove the clay and dye, slip something over the giveaway dreadlocks, and return home to their wives and families…
The Shiva shrines would be more aesthetic, that’s for sure.
We ascend the hill to a tree-lined deer park, more Shiva shrines and more temples. “Oooh!” I say. “Look! Monkeys!”
“Hide your camera!” says Zac.
We’ve had enough run-ins with temple monkeys over the last couple of years to treat them with caution, but these seem good-tempered enough. We watch some of the babies working a high wire act from a high tension cable, a mother giving the youngest one a hand.
It’s rather sweet.
“I think we should head back now,” says Zac.
“No!” I say. “We need to get to Boudhanath. It’s the biggest stupa in Asia.”
Our third crossing of the Bagmati, and we’re out in the proper suburbs, where the pace of life slows dramatically.
The walking is pleasant, past bamboo swings and subterranean vegetable gardens, past fruiterers and toy shops, past old men wheeling vegetables from the garden, schoolgirls in pleated skirts carrying satchels back from school and women scratching marigolds and onions out of their little patches of soil.
And, out of nowhere, we’re there. The biggest stupa in Asia!
Even Kathmandu’s apparently uncontrolled growth has stopped, the circle of narrow blocks that surround it simultaneously truncated to the base of the spire.
Great streams of prayer flags flicker in the breeze, the vast white bell of the stupa is decked in golden dyes, the all-seeing eye gazes down blankly – and there are people, people everywhere.
This is Boudhanath. And it’s worth the journey.
There are Tibetan exiles in neat bright aprons, strolling in groups, prostrating in pairs, burning offerings…
And all the myriad diversity of the Nepalese: dark, hook-nosed men who could be from the plains of India, women with the flat high cheeks of northern Chinese minorities, delicate, beautiful boys with almond eyes and neat wide noses, straight out of Burma, old women with cheeks like apples, windscoured wrinkles, girls just blossoming into their teens…
As one elderly lady says her prayers at a shrine, a policeman settles down on it to eat his tea and banter with a mate…
Later, we watch a group of very, very young novices, proud in their Tibetan maroon robes, having their picture taken by a monk who’s only slightly older.
“How old do you reckon they are?” I ask Zac.
“The little one’s maybe 8?” he says. “The others? 9, 10, 12?”
“Would you like to be a monk?” I say. “Can you imagine being a monk at your age?”
“Well,” my little atheist says. “It’s a life that involves giving everything up. In the service of religion…”
“No sex,” I say. “No children… Or it could be like Laos, where they only do it for a few months, or a year…”
“Nah,” he says. “I can’t imagine that. But I think it’s great that people do it. I think it’s great that people will give up everything for something they believe in.”
Later, back at base, I’m thinking about the Boudhanath stupa.
And, for the biggest stupa in Asia (according to Lonely Planet), it didn’t really seem all that big – at all.
It didn’t have the jaw-on-floor impact of Istanbul’s Aya Sofya, let alone of Angkor Wat.
I turn to Google. There are taller stupas in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. And, if you call the whole of Borobodur a stupa (which would be pushing it, IMHO), there’s a bigger one in Indonesia too.
After all that, it seems that Boudhanath is only the biggest stupa in Nepal.
Not that it matters.
We’re glad to have seen it, and Pashupatinath too.
And tomorrow we’ll flee Kathmandu for the fresher air of Pokhara, a lakeside town fringed by mountains that’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.