The dawn has not broken yet. Many are still in their beds, wrapped up in thick quilts. Only the occasional bark of a dog punctuates the tranquility.
It’s Saturday morning, but my mother, a devout Buddhist, is already awake and cannot wait to embark on her journey: she is ready to go visit the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the holiest and largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It is located about seven miles from downtown in the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, but it is only a 15-minute walk from my home. Pilgrims flock to this stupa very early in the morning, and my mother wants to offer her worship before it is crowded and the peace of morning is broken.
“Just a minute, ama,” I yell from my closet as I search for my scarf and beanie.
“This is the third time you’ve said ‘a minute.’ I’m leaving now,” my mother yells from outside the house.
She is wearing her thick, warm chhyupa. When I finally slip the beanie onto my head, wrap the scarf around my neck, and come out running, she is already on her way. Her prayer beads are carefully tucked in her right hand, her fingers busy moving them—one bead for each Om Mani Padme Hun, a Buddhist prayer. Seeing her in her crimson chhyupa, I’m embarrassed at my jeans and Converse shoes. I wish I didn’t feel odd wearing daura suruwal and dhaka topi, the national dress of Nepal. But these days my friends and I wear it only on very special occasions. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable embracing my culture, but I’m unable to escape the peer pressure.
I don’t remember when it began, but it has become almost a ritual to visit the Boudhanath Stupa, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1979, every Saturday morning with my mother. These days I’m mostly with my friends, and I hardly spend any time with my mother outside the house. As I finally catch up to her, I notice a sacred silence in the air. When my friends and I walk this street this early, the dogs bark at us as if they owned the street. But when my mother is there, they don’t bark at all, as if they don’t want to break the silence that surrounds her. A few shopkeepers are opening the doors and shutters of their roadside shops. A bell rings from one of the open windows. Someone must be performing a puja in his house. A bird chirps from somewhere behind the houses.
“Phyaphulla, angi!” People we meet on the way greet
“Phyaphulla!” She returns their greeting.
My mother walks very slowly, taking in every detail
along the way.
“At this speed we will reach the stupa tomorrow morning,” I tease her.
“At your age I used to fly like a bird.” Her mouth is
very quick. I laugh.
A motorcycle whizzes past us, leaving behind a plume of smoke. The road is empty except for a few Buddhist devotees walking towards the Boudhanath Stupa. Most go with empty stomachs, but some can’t resist the pleasure of sipping warm milk tea. The closer we get to the stupa, the thicker the presence of people becomes. We can hear the continuous recantation of mantras, mostly Om Mani Padme Huns. The air, ripe with prayers, is filled with the smell of burning incense. I love the sounds leaving the worshippers’ lips to create a cadence and mysterious spell around us. Even though it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nepal, hardly any tourists can be seen at this hour. It’s just the devotees and some local people like me.
Finally we reach the brick floor around the stupa. I notice that many devotees have already arrived and have begun performing kora, circling the stupa clockwise. Some come as early as 4:00 am, when it’s still pitch-dark outside.
I’ve visited the Boudhanath Stupa about a thousand times, yet there is always more to learn about it. I’m always awed by the massive three-story mandala structure that rises to a height of 36 meters (about 118 feet). Every time I’m there, I get the sense of being watched by the pairs of Buddha’s eyes painted on each side of the four-sided pedestal, representing compassion and love. Between the eyes is painted the Nepali number one as a symbol of unity. This symbol is also interpreted by the Buddhists as indicating that the path shown by Buddha is the only way out of the sufferings of the world. Above the eyes sits the third eye, which symbolizes either the wisdom of looking within or the eye of God.
Above the four-sided pedestal is a pyramid with 13 stairs representing the 13 steps towards enlightenment, and the pyramid is topped with a gilded canopy representing nirvana. Prayer flags strung together on a rope stretch from the canopy of the stupa to the prayer flagpoles at the base, sparsely covering the stupa all around. We join the crowd circling the dome clockwise. The pilgrims also spin the prayer wheels clockwise. At the top sits a gilded spire, representing perfect knowledge. More than once I’ve tried to imagine how everything looks from this golden top.
I have heard several legends about the construction of the Boudhnath, which claim the stupa to have been built in the fifth century ad. My mother’s favorite legend says that a woman asked her king to donate land to build a stupa. The king promised to give her as much land as the skin of one buffalo could cover. The woman cut a buffalo skin into thin strips and circled a large area of land, which the king was then obligated to grant her. When my mother is done telling this legend, I grin at the woman’s wit and ask my mother, “What prompted her to build a stupa of this scale?” My mother grins back at me. “Buddha’s power, what else?”
We join the crowd circling the dome. As we kora the stupa, we witness the representations of the 108 forms of Avalokiteshvara, who is closely associated to Buddha. My mother spins all 108 prayer wheels, which are carved with Avalokiteshvara’s mantra, Om Mani Padme Hun, and
mounted in niches around the stupa. But I spin only the
larger prayer wheels.
I’m fascinated by the manifestation of religious tolerance at Boudhanath in the form of Kasyap, a Hindu sage whose remains supposedly lie here. While I haven’t seen many Hindus coming here to pray, all my Hindu friends come here with me to light the lamps or just sit on the topmost mandala for the panoramic view and benign breeze.
After rounding the stupa five times, I follow my mother into a small room filled with butter lamps. We each light three butter lamps and pay 18 rupees altogether. Then we head onto the second level to feed wheat to pigeons. Where the stairs that take us to the second story end, a woman is selling bags of corn, wheat, and rice. We buy two bags of wheat, 10 rupees each. As we feed the pigeons, they come closer and closer until their wings brush our feet as if in gratitude.
From here, we get a spectacular view of the crowd circling the stupa and the façades of houses around it. On the ground level, cross-legged on cobblestones, monks buzz like bees. Here and there, beggars respectfully stretch their hands toward the prayer flags flapping in the breeze, asking for alms. Tring—someone drops a coin into a bowl. Pilgrims continue to kora the structure chanting mantras, spinning prayer wheels mounted in niches and also spinning handheld prayer wheels. Somewhere in the middle of the moving crowd, a few ragged men circle the dome by prostrating: they spin the stupa not on their feet but on their body, going flat on the floor and then rising up.
The sun has finally risen and its first rays hit the stupa, bathing it in gold. The road just beyond the houses is coming to life. I can hear the engines beginning to purr. A quick, sharp honk of a taxi follows a fat, loud honk of a truck. A young boy on a bicycle too tall for him tries to weave his way through the crowd on the brick pavement, his thumb constantly ringing the bell.
Soon the kernels of wheat are gone, the pigeons fly to other people scattering rice and corn, and we descend the stairs. For the last time, my mother turns toward the stupa, joins her hands to form a Namaste, her prayer beads snug between the palms, and bows her head. As we head home leaving behind the stupa wrapped in prayers and incense, I’m most grateful toward the stupa for bringing me closer to my mother.