Many Gods Many Blessings: A Stupa Rebuilt

Features Issue 212 Jul, 2019
Text by Evangeline Neve

There’s no other like it in the Kathmandu Valley: the stupa of “multiple auspicious doors,” a white structure with 120 niches that sits in the shadow of its famous neighbor, the Swayambhu Stupa, it has, in fact, a fascinating story to tell. I’m talking about the Maá¹…gal Bahudvāra Caitya, or Tashi Gomang—both names being used locally.

This type of stupa is characterized by its numerous openings or niches, in this case there are thirty on each of the four sides, and each holds a stone sculpture: there are 120 in all. The four guardian kings (Dhrtarastra, Virudhake, Virupaksa, and Vaisravana) are prominently displayed in the large central niches facing the cardinal directions.

The stupa’s specific personal origin is unknown. It somehow seems to have missed out on a lot of the more detailed documentation of the buildings on the Swayambhu hill. Other examples of the same type of stupa can be found in Tibet and Ladakh, indicating strong Newar-Tibetan relationships that were forged in the trans-border trading days. Hem Raj Shakya (the eminent Newar scholar who wrote the defining history on Swayambhu,Sri Swayambhu Mahachaity) speculated that Newars and Tibetans collaborated on installing the sculptures in the niches.

During the earthquake on 25 April, 2015, the stupa collapsed completely. Fortunately, those on the scene during that first week became involved in its ultimate renaissance. But before anyone could even dream of rebuilding, it was first necessary to preserve what remained. In addition to the sculptures that were housed in the niches, the interior of the stupa turned out to be mostly hollow, the gaps filled with a number of objects. These were thoroughly documented and included tsha-tshas (small clay votive offerings), vessels, coins, gold and silver phukis (small metal confetti) and terracotta sculptures. Concern arose that with these objects scattered in the rubble, people might just take things for souvenirs. Another real danger was the oncoming rains. Since many of the small clay objects inside the stupa were not fired they could dissolve and just melt into the rest of the rubble if not properly preserved.

The Department of Archaeology, represented by Head of Archaeology Section, Ram Bahadur Kunwar and Archaeological Officer Bhaskar Gyawali, and the UNESCO archaeologist David Andolfatto led the archaeological excavation and recovery effort, in concert with the local Buddhacharya priests. Immediately following the earthquakes, the team photographed and documented the finds in minute detail before bringing the artifacts to safe storage.

The rebuilding effort was instructive to archaeologists because active stupas are not routinely excavated and therefore very little is known of their interiors. When the ruined stump was taken down, more things were discovered inside room-like openings, which contained thousands and thousands of miniature stupas. There was also a reliquary casket inscribed and dated to 1875.

The earliest known record of Tashi Gomang is a simple sketch by Raj Man Singh Chitrakar from around 1840-50, now part of the Brian Houghton Hodgson collection at the British Museum.

Furthermore, the stupa itself was found to be built with an assortment of mis-matched bricks; there’s speculation that it was reconstructed after the 1934 earthquake, particularly because some of the 94 coins found inside range from the Malla period to the time of Kings Birendra and Mahendra, indicating it had to have been repaired at least once after 1975. This would account for the variation in brick sizes, though if it was rebuilt or merely repaired during those efforts is not known. As noted earlier, such stupas don’t often get excavated, so there’s very little knowledge about its attributes. For instance, we cannot know why this stupa had no central pole, or axis mundi. A dearth of knowledge is also a result of the fact that this corner of the Swayambhu hill was never historically documented. After the 1840s sketch, there are simply no records of it for 130 years.

The reconstruction, when it did begin, was an exemplary team effort, a community run project overseen by the Federation of Swoyambhu Management and Conservation (FSMC)
In addition to David Andolfatto’s early work, architects Renu Maharjan and Thomas Schrom, also consultants at UNESCO, worked on the restoration design which the craftsmen, mostly from Bhaktapur, would later bring to life.
“Since no measured drawings of the stupa existed, we surveyed the remains, the base, scaled dimensions from photographs, and used dimensions from the stone sculptures, so it was very challenging to redesign,” Thomas told me, when recalling the final rebuilding plans they drew up.

“During the excavations, we dug an exploration trench, that exposed beautifully built foundations employing uniform bricks and laid with very tight joints, so our hypothesis is that the stupa probably rests on much older foundations,” explained Thomas.

The community felt very strongly about rebuilding using traditional bricks which have a special format. Called maapa, they are relatively thin, the width large compared to the length.

It took some time to get those made, after which the excellent craftsmen were able to start their work. A fascinating and lesser known (at least for me) part of the rebuilding process is a forgiveness blessing ceremony (kṣema pūjā) that was conducted a year after the stupa was destroyed and before the reconstruction began. Essentially this ceremony is done to pacify the gods and desanctify the structure. During this ceremony, the tantric priests who are in charge of the site took the spirit out, so to speak, and put it in a metal vessel, which was then stored for the time of construction. After the completion of the work another ceremony was held to put the spirit back in.

When the work was finally completed in the spring of 2018 a benefactor arranged for the gilt copper cladding for the entire stone finial, resulting in the beautiful end result that you can see today.

The restored stupa is a great example of collaboration and successful reconstruction, and has ensured that whatever we don’t know about this stupa’s past, it will last long into the future.

Ashok Buddhacharya, a Buddhist priest from Swayambhu, accurately sums up the importance and significance of this structure: “This stupa is the oldest one in SwayambhÅ«. We call it Tashi Golma in Tibetan. There are many gods and goddesses in the stupa and they are related to the construction of the main stÅ«pa (mahācaitya). Since there are so many gods and goddesses, they are commonly called the tettis koti deutā (thirty-three tens of millions of deities). During the renovation of the main stÅ«pa, all the gods of Nepal (tettis koti deutā) were put into the Tashi Gomang stupa and they give blessings for different kinds of things. For instance, Kuber gives wealth, Dhritarastra gives knowledge, and so on.Tashi Gomang StÅ«pa is encircled by so many gods and that is why we call it Bahul Maá¹…galdvār Caitya, the Caitya with Many Auspicious Openings.”

It’s incredible to imagine all the deities of the country safely held inside this structure, which makes its importance and successful rebuilding all the more significant. Make sure you spend some time with it on your next visit to Swayambhu.