Restoring the Self-Created

Features Issue 173 Apr, 2016
Text by Anutara Shakya

The Swayambhu area was one of the places that sustained the most damages during the earthquake. Luckily, the main Stupa itself was spared.

Everyone who visits Swayambhu likes to gaze up at its majestic pinnacle as soon as they reach the top of the stairs. Gazing up at the Buddha’s eyes and admiring its beauty is a ritual as routine as walking around the stupa three times, stopping to bow one’s head in front of each of the 11 shrines, and spinning the prayer wheels as you move along. While strolling around, you also discover that Swayambhu does not consist of only one object, the Stupa. The place represents a cluster of shrines and smaller stupas, a giant vajra, monasteries that are decades old, and also, old houses of the local Buddhacharya family that has been looking after the shrine and its daily rituals for many generations. The earthquake of April 25, 2015, destroyed quite a bit of that living history. Fortunately, the main Stupa was spared from the damage. 

The Swayambhu renovation project of 2008 had helped to reestablish the strength of the Stupa. The insides of the harmika (the base of the gajur) are all supported by wood structures that were replaced during its renovation, after the artisans discovered that the wood had started to rot and needed to be removed. “If it wasn’t for the renovation, things would look far worse than it is today,” says Chandra Buddhacharya, a local of Swayambhu. However, while the main Stupa does not require any restoration, its surroundings do not look so good. 

Two of the monasteries located there, the Karmaraj Mahavihar, located behind Pratappur, and the Purano Gomba, located besides the Harati Mata Temple, collapsed completely, leaving no choice but to be rebuilt. For the time being, the monasteries’ idols have been kept in a safe place, with only Karmaraj Mahavihar’s giant Buddha being put out for display. The Harati Mata Temple, which the locals believe protects them from any harm, was also spared from the earthquake. Maybe it was the belief in the powerful goddess that also saved the locals from sustaining any casualties during the earthquake. Even today, many believers come to pay homage to the goddess of protection. 

The Anantapur, one of the two tall white shrines located on either side of the Stupa, also fell down, while on the other side, Pratappur sustained small damages around its base. As the legend goes, any negative energy that is directed towards the Swayambhu Stupa is absorbed by the two shrines first. While the peaceful eyes of the Stupa looks on at the valley below, the two shrines have a history of accidents and mishaps. One of the two has either been struck by lightning, had mysterious fires break out inside, or in this case, been damaged by the earthquake. 

The earthquake did not even spare the oldest and most mysterious temple in the Swayambhu area, Shantipur. Carrying a myth about a secret chamber with a powerful sage inside, who is believed to have stayed alive for centuries, the temple has sustained damages towards the back wall, where the locals say two murals are painted on the inside. Shantipur, like many of the bigger structures in Swayambhu, is being restored with the help of UNESCO and the Department of Archeology. However, restoring this temple is proving to be difficult, given the circumstances that only two high priests are allowed inside the innermost rooms of this temple. 

Many of the smaller damages, such as the dents on the roof of temples and other damages caused by falling debris, and the damages to the Manjushree shrine and smaller stupas, have been restored by the Swayambhu Mahasamitee and the Swayambhu Youth Club. The two monasteries are planned to be rebuilt with foreign aid, although, as Chandra Buddhacharya states, the paper work is taking longer to process than expected. He does not believe that poor infrastructure was the reason for so much damage. “The pla ce just consisted of too many structures that had gotten old and weak. The newer structures have not sustained such damages at all,” he states. 

Looking at the situation around Swayambhu can be overwhelming. While smaller repairs and maintenance have been completed, there is still a long way to go. The funny thing is that, I never noticed the small details around Swayambhu until after the earthquake. Things that had so naturally stayed in the background, such as the monasteries and copper structures placed above the stone poles, suddenly stood out, proclaiming their need to be restored as soon as possible. But, the restoration process is slow, probably because there is so much to be done.