Boudhanath a World unto Itself

Features Issue 173 Apr, 2016

The great Boudhanath Stupa, too, could not escape the effects of the devastating earthquake in 2015, but thankfully, damages were limited, and these too are undergoing rapid repair and restoration. 

Next year is the ‘Year of the Bird’,” says Mr. Mani Lama, as we sit drinking coffee in the Garden Kitchen in Boudhanath. “The newly restored Boudhanath Stupa is planned to be inaugurated then.” I was in quite an enthusiastic mood since I was visiting this world renowned site after quite a few years, and as luck would have it, Mr. Lama was around the place. Actually, that wasn’t a surprise. As soon as I entered the hallowed grounds, the first thing I did was to ask a shopkeeper if Mr. Mani Lama was around, and he replied, yes, he had seen him clicking some photos of the stupa just a few minutes ago.

Before venturing further, let me explain why I was so keen to meet the famous photographer, whom I had heard frequented the site most days. You see, his name is almost synonymous with the name of the world heritage site monument, since he happens to be a member of the abbot’s family, and could well have been the abbot himself. Now, you might think, what’s so great about that? Well, let me tell you. Plenty. Here’s a short history that will make clear why the abbot of Boudhanath is somewhat different from the usual. 

The Chini Lama

In fact, let’s hear what Mr. Lama has to say about it: “During the Nepal-Tibet War in 1853, a Chinese monk was in Nepal on a visit; he stayed on, living and meditating in a cave. Prime Minister Junga Bahadur Rana came to know about this mysterious monk, who some said could be a spy. So he was brought before the premier, who asked him to prove that he wasn’t a spy by mediating and bringing about peace between the two countries. He succeeded in doing so, and was duly rewarded with the abbotship of Boudha in 1859.” According to records, his name was Taipo Shing, and he was a Szehuanese Nyingmapa Buddhist. “He was actually awarded abbotship of Boudha, Swoyambhu, and Lumbini, but in time, it became impractical for him to look after all three,” reveals Mr. Lama.

At the time, Boudha was as good as a kingdom within a kingdom, with Boudhanath Stupa being the jewel in the crown, so one can imagine that it was a powerful position indeed. People started referring to the abbot as Chini Lama, since he came from China, and this term was given to succeeding abbots, as well. The fact that the Chini Lama also acted as the Consul of the Dalai Lama to the then Kingdom of Nepal made his position all the more powerful. Today, it is Mr. Mani Lama’s brother, Sherab Dorje Lama, who is the Chini Lama. “The seventh generation,” he says. “Actually, after my father’s demise, a dispute arose between us and our uncle about who should inherit the abbotship; subsequently the court adjudged that my brother was the rightful heir to the title.” It is a title that still commands a lot of respect, but as Mr. Mani Lama says, “The powers were diluted somewhat after laws came into being limiting land ownership of Boudhanath (as elsewhere), and the Boudha Jhyang Guthi, a committee formed in my father’s time, also started questioning some of the Chini Lama’s powers.” 

Restoration of Boudhanath

A fall out of this is perhaps the reason for Mr. Mani Lama’s lament, “The present Boudha Development Committee did not even bother to ask for my opinion on how to restore the stupa after it was damaged by the April 25 earthquake. I could have given some good advice. ” He discloses that he has been recording the various stages of restoration that have been going on since the last many months. “I have permission to photograph whatever I want here,” he says delightedly. “Later, I will display them online and publish them, as well. I don’t want any money for that. Whatever money comes in, I would like it to be donated to charity.”

While on the subject, he says that he had tried to convince the committee to solicit advice from various experts, but that they did not agree. “We ourselves have some well-known restoration experts here in Nepal. I don’t know why they haven’t been involved,” he says. He also discloses that the archaeology department hasn’t funded the restoration works in any way.  “I don’t know why,” he confesses. “However, one of their engineers has been delegated to help restoration of the damaged parts.” The damages, as such, are limited, but the distinctive golden spire had to be brought down for restoration works on the cracks in the dome; a 100-meter-diameter, 40-feet-high dome that makes it a very big stupa indeed!  Mr. Mani Lama says, “I keep on reading articles where it’s said that Boudhanath is the biggest stupa in Asia. That’s not exactly correct. It is the biggest in the world.” 

However, you won’t be seeing the golden pinnacle, nor the iconic all-seeing eyes of the Buddha, at the present moment. There’s a lot of scaffolding around, and a smaller shrine close to the main dome is being built up from scratch since it was completely brought down by the quake. I forgot to ask around, but I did notice that although people were walking around the stupa, no one seemed to be spinning the rows of prayer wheels, as is the norm. Perhaps it will continue to be so after the inauguration next year. Now, you might think that this is not a good time to visit this famous shrine, but you’ll be wrong to make this assumption, simply because Boudhanath is much more than just a world famous shrine. It is actually a world unto itself. Besides, you might be interested in seeing for yourself how the restoration of a world heritage site monument is done.

A Living Culture

One can enter the stupa premises from many sides, making it, like the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu Valley, an easily accessible and very welcoming world heritage site monument. It is part of the local life, a bustling center where people gather at all times of the day to pray, to meet, or just to pass time. In short, it exemplifies what is often referred to as a ‘living culture’. Once you enter the site, you can be forgiven for thinking that you have entered an exotic Eastern bazaar, what with shops all around the stupa with displays that are colorful, vibrant, and most definitely, alluring. Some examples of what you will see are: traditional Tibetan style silk dresses, thankas, bead and rudraksha malas, wood and metal craft, ceramics, silver jewelry, and so on and so forth, the variety is vast. You could say that it is akin to visiting a super market of ethnic products. It’s a place for getting hold of some great souvenirs, that’s for sure!

Now, you must understand that visiting such a place entails a fair amount of time, and so you’ll obviously start getting hungry sooner or later. I did, and besides, I couldn’t imagine leaving Boudha without tasting some really authentic Tibetan cuisine. So, what I did was, I entered the curtained doors of Double Dorjee Restaurant. Actually, I noticed that there weren’t really that many restaurants around the site, and that a few places like the Garden Kitchen were the most popular. However, it was also on my mind that the prices were likely to be higher since it was a tourist site, so a smaller restaurant was
my choice. 

A graceful elderly lady in a Tibetan dress welcomed me with a smile, and handed me a large menu. I asked her about what I could get quickly, and she replied, “Thukpa, chowmein, momo.” Three tried and tested items that are probably the most popular dishes around Kathmandu, and as representative of Tibetan cuisine as is ‘daal, bhaat, and tarkari” in Nepali cuisine. I asked for buff thukpa, a thick nourishing soup with noodles, buff, and vegetables. Soon enough I was slurping the steaming soup happily, taking care however, to really savor the taste. I was eating in an authentic Tibetan restaurant, after all, and I wanted to relish some really original cooking, being somewhat of a gourmet myself. Well, it was one of the best thukpas I have ever had, that I must say. 

Coming out of the restaurant, my tongue still tingling with rich flavor, I noticed a small stall outside an adjoining restaurant, where a lady was ladling some kind of milky white strips into bowls for three small monks (children, really). I couldn’t resist it, of course, so I asked her about what she was serving. “Laiphing,” she replied with a smile. I had never heard of it. “What are those white strips made of?” I wanted know, and she answered again with a smile, “They’re made from Chinese flour. Would you like a bowl?” Would I? Boy, what a find, I was thinking! “Do you want the white one or the yellow?” asked the lady. I asked her to give me what she thought was the better one, so she rolled out a thin circular yellow laiphing, and sprinkling some crushed cashew nuts generously on it, rolled it back. Then, she cut the roll into bite-sized pieces that she put into a bowl and served to me. It tasted great, a new taste for me, in fact. 

Well, this novel experience of mine should be an example of why we like to say that there’s discovery and adventure to be found in Nepal. And if you ever get the opportunity of visiting Boudhanath, keep a lookout for someone like Mr. Mani Lama, who may, if he has the time or the inclination, spend a few moments with you, enriching your experience considerably. Make it a point, too, to enrich your palate with some authentic Tibetan cuisine; do try out a bowl of laiphing, and shop to your heart’s content for exciting souvenirs. All this, of course, after you have paid your respects to the ‘Apostle of Peace’, Lord Buddha, in this most holy of Buddhist shrines, Boudhanath.