The Guardians of the Stupa

Features Issue 189 Dec, 2017
Text by Evangeline Neve

Boudhanath Stupa is one of Nepal’s world heritage site monuments, and one of the holiest places for Tibetan Buddhists pretty much anywhere in the world. Even for those who follow other religious paths, it is a location of immense power and wonderment; no matter how many times I have stepped inside the circle and gazed up at the great stupa, each time I am struck anew with the wonder and awe of it. It’s a very special place.
I met Mani Lama, appropriately, in its shadow—fitting, because Boudhanath Stupa has been such an integral part of his and his family's life. Simply dressed and unassuming, his eyes sparkled with intelligence, wit, and I would soon learn, a wonderfully rich sense of humor.
My first question was just how his family came to be connected with one of the greatest symbols of Buddhism in Nepal, if not the world. It is a fascinating story that he was happy to share with me, and that I now in turn share with you. I've done my best to be as accurate as possible with the historical facts as they were shared with me; any errors are mine.
“My family, we are called the Chinia Lama family,” he began. “We have a history with this place that goes back almost two hundred years.”
This started during Jung Bahadur Rana’s time, the first Rana prime minister; Mani Lama is a fifth generation member of the original Chinia Lama family. In those old days, there were lots of pilgrims from Tibet, Bhutan, and Sikkim who used to come to Boudha. They’d arrive in the fall, before the snow blocked the passes; there was no transportation besides walking, so they would come in the fall, stay all winter, and travel around, visiting all the holy places in the Kathmandu area, after which, if they had the time and money, they would walk to Raxaul, and then take a train to Bodh Gaya, Saranath, and then back to Kushinagar and Lumbini. It was a sort of circuitous pilgrimage that would take months, though on the Indian side it was facilitated by the trains. Back in Nepal, when the snow melted in the spring, they’d return home. 
“Back then, in Boudha, there were only a few houses around the stupa, all straw-roofed. And when my great-great grandfather came from Szechuan, he didn’t want to go back. So, instead, he went to Pashupati and meditated in one of those caves in Arya Ghat. But there was war then, Tibet and Nepal were at war, and the palace was told there was this lama who looks a Chinese up there, and he must be a spy,” relates Mani. “So, at the palace he told Jung Bahadur ‘I‘m just a lama, this is Buddha’s country and I want to learn more here.’ ‘Ok, to prove you’re not a spy, you go with my men to Tibet’—and he was sent as a mediator twice, and eventually,the war was settled.”
Jung Bahadur, understandably pleased, asked Mani’s ancestor what he could do for him, and then decided: 'If you like Nepal so much, you can be the caretaker of Boudhanath, Swayambhu, and Lumbini.' He was a scholar who could speak and read and write Tibetan and Chinese, which was useful with the steady flow of pilgrims, and he was given a tamapatra—the copper plate inscribed by the ruler that detailed his job description and title. The Chinia Lama was responsible for the care and oversight of the myriad Buddhist pilgrims who flocked to the country. He married Jung Bahadur’s daughter by one of his Tamang concubines, and settled in the Boudha area, where many of his large and extended family of descendants continues to live to this day, including Mani Lama.
All the power in Boudha used to be under the Chinia Lama—they even used to call Boudha a foreign land, with the Chinia Lama having powers of giving sanctuary. If someone accused of a crime entered the Boudha gate, the case would be the Chinia Lama’s to decide on. Practical work in the area was also under his jurisdiction, as well as issuing permits for the Tibetan pilgrims to travel through Nepal, and even to India. In King Mahendra’s time, things began to change all over, not just in Boudha, with land reform changes, when things began to switch from guthi to raiker to committees, instead of the guthi sansthans, the local religious community centers, which used to run things previously. 
And how old, I inquire, does he think the great stupa is? Mani replies, “No one knows, there is no record. There are legends that say it was thousands of years, but some say it was built during the sixth or seventh century—this is the Nepali version—but the Tibetan legends say it is a pre-Buddha monument. So, if you go through the religious texts it tells you about the stupa, how it was built and all that. But it’s unclear if the texts refer to the big one or the small one on the side.”
Another interesting tidbit is that the Boudhanath Stupa was not gold-gilded, but was unadorned like the small one in Chabahil used to be (though that is copper and gold too now), but in Mani Lama’s great-great grandfather’s time, Shakya Shri, the Kagyupa Lama, sponsored the gold from Tibet. He sent the gold and money, and craftsmen from Patan were hired to gold-gild and put gold-gilded copper plates on it, all about 125 years ago. 
When, after some time, we begin to speak of the 2015 earthquake, it quickly becomes clear than even though, as a younger son, Mani Lama has not been directly involved in Chinia Lama affairs, his heart is nevertheless firmly caught up in this great holy site, official guardian or no.
Fascinating insight into the rebuilding process and other details will be covered in part two of this interview, in ECS’s September 2017 issue. You won’t want to miss it!