This is, more or less, how the story goes. Maya Devi, a pregnant queen living in what is now the Terai region of Nepal, was strolling along one day some 2700 years ago when she went into labor. Soon after, she gave birth to a son as she stood with her arms around the branch of a bodhi tree. It turns out that this child, named Siddhartha, would emerge some 30 years later from his protected and privileged existence behind his father’s palace walls to seek the meaning of life. He succeeded in his quest and is now known as the Buddha. Several centuries after his birth, King Ashoka identified the Buddha’s bodhi birth tree in the area of Lumbini Village. He placed a stone to mark the exact location of the birth, and knocked the tax burden of the Lumbini villagers down to one-eighth of its previous levels. Not a bad windfall for living near a tree. I should mention that Siddhartha is thought to have emerged from his mother’s armpit, which might explain her death seven days later.
We had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Buddha, and to observe that the armpit theme is alive and well in both the village of Lumbini and in the sprawling Lumbini Development Zone that surrounds the spot demarcated by King Ashoka many centuries ago.
The village consists of a mosquito infested, one block dirt road lined with dark, flea bag hostels and a few trinket shops. During our stay a “dharma story” consisting of spoken word, ‘singing’ and musical accompaniment (that reminded me of my children’s pre-school winter concerts) was blasting through a village-wide PA system of speakers starting at dawn and continuing into the night. Static, distortion and an overly long and wandering storyline seemed to be the main thrusts, but, not being able to speak Nepali, this was difficult to confirm. We spent two sleepless nights swatting at buzzing, pesky, blood sucking bastards, and we have resumed our anti-malarial intake.
The Lumbini Development Zone is a walled compound of several hundred acres that encompasses the “birthplace” (now covered by a dark building meant to preserve the exact spot); a long, narrow reflecting pool (in which two speedboats sat ready to buzz passengers up and down its length); which divides the western monastic zone (in which massive monasteries have been built by countries practicing the crimson-robed, Mahayana branch of Buddhism (eg, China and Korea)) from the eastern monastic zone (in which only slightly less massive monasteries have been built by the saffron-robed Theravada countries (eg, Thailand and Sri Lanka)); and, amidst a maze of road and path construction, appropriately placed in the center of this armpit, sits a bizarre statue meant to depict the Buddha and the pose he struck immediately upon being born (see photo below).
One cannot help but wonder what our friend might do, or say, if he returned to this spot today. WWBD? Probably, say WTF?!?!
Temples, other sacred structures and religious iconography are everywhere in Nepal. It would take months of determined sightseeing just to visit all of the temples in the Kathmandu Valley and many years of study to understand them fully. It would be easy to overdose on religious studies and temple touring, so we’ve engaged in both on only a limited basis. But religion plays such a central role in this society that, not only is it an unavoidable part of any trip to Nepal, one cannot understand Nepal without first trying to understand the two main religions here: Hinduism and Buddhism. This entry tries to give an account of some of what we’ve seen of these religions in the architecture and statuary in the Kathmandu Valley.
We started our time in Kathmandu Valley in the Tibetan Buddhist neighborhood of Boudha within sight of the huge Bodhnath Stupa. This stupa has attracted Tibetan refugees and travelers over many centuries and is a centerpiece of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community in this country. For us it was a first introduction to the religious foundations of Nepal.
Two things became immediately apparent as we walked around this stupa in the late afternoon of our first day (always clockwise with the stupa on our right!). The stupa (originally constructed around AD 600) is still a focal point of current religious practice. Unlike many of our European churches which have been abandoned by the faithful even while swarmed by tourists, this stupa, and all of the other temples we visited, are in daily use by their respective adherents. The other thing that struck us was the incorporation of icons that we did not understand as being “purely” Buddhist. The Buddha eyes on the tower below the spire and the five-colored prayer flags blowing in the breeze are both identifiable to even the minimally initiated as Buddhist icons or objects. But there at the base of the stupa, in fact incorporated into the structure of the stupa, was a temple dedicated to Hariti. Who is this Hariti? we wondered. The goddess of smallpox, we were told. When we ran into Hariti several weeks later at the Swayambhunath Stupa we were told she is the goddess of fertility and a protector of children. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the story of Hariti (aka Ajimadya or Sitalamaju) is a long one starting in what is now Iran, and her relationship with Buddhism is complex. (We’ve come to find that long, complex stories are the norm here!)
The next question that came to mind was whose goddess of smallpox and fertility? Hariti, it turns out, was a non-Buddhist who was instructed by Buddha about the value of compassion. As a result, she changed her evil ways (killing children) and became a guardian of the Buddha’s doctrine. And yet there at the base of one of the largest and most important Buddhist structures in Asia, Hindus, among others, were praying to Hariti. This same scene repeated itself several weeks later when we visited the Swayambhunath temple complex, a chaotic jumble of Hindu and Buddhist structures and iconography (centered on the Buddhist Swayambhunath Stupa but also including a prominent Hariti Temple) at the top of a high hill west of central Kathmandu.
In this last photo, one might expect a Shiva lingam (a Hindu symbol) atop the yoni, but there sits Buddha.
These two initial impressions — religious structures in regular daily use and a complex intermixing of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and architecture — became enduring themes as we visited or came across the artifacts of religion throughout our first month in Nepal.
The Bodhnath Stupa was just the beginning. The next day we visited the Pashupatinath temple complex as the Hindu faithful prepared for the Maha Shivaratri festival (about which we reported briefly in an earlier post), and here too the intermixing of the two religions was apparent with Buddhist icons appearing here and there and a few of the hermit meditation caves set aside for Buddhist devotees.
The notion of daily use, the deep incorporation of religion into the regular routine of the Nepalese and the mixing of Hinduism and Buddhism were on display during a stroll through a residential/commercial district of old Kathmandu during which we encountered a 15th Century Buddhist stupa across from a temple dedicated to Shiva. One block on we hit another stupa before passing an altar to Ganesh and then a 9th Century stone relief of Shiva and Parvati, then another Hindu temple with a carved Garuda, and, turning the corner, a short, unremarkable 5th Century standing Buddha statue tucked inconspicuously between a hardware store and the neighboring business. All this in the first five minutes of a casual stroll through busy, narrow streets with secular life churning around the ancient and the sacred. We walked on for another 30 minutes through a similar landscape before being driven inside by an unusual cloudburst for a cup of milk tea.
The constant presence of religious objects repeats itself throughout the Kathmandu Valley, an area stretching approximately 15 km north to south and 30 km east to west and consisting of many smaller towns and neighborhoods. Boudha and Dhulikhel are two we’ve written about. We also visited Panauti at the confluence of the sacred Roshi and Pungamati Rivers (yes, more sacred rivers) and Swayambhunath, the “Monkey Temple”, mentioned above. Finally, we spent one night in the former city state kingdom of Bhaktapur with its famous Durbar (or Palace) Square and its many other plazas surrounded by temples to the various gods. Our travels within the Kathmandu Valley only scratched the surface in this densely populated and historically rich part of Nepal. In all of these places it is difficult to walk ten feet without passing a Ganesh figure smeared with red paste, or a Buddhist stupa surrounded by prayer flags. And with the panoply of gods and other characters (demons, various incarnations of each god, their children and consorts, and their animal companions or vehicles [vahana]), it is often difficult to understand who is being worshiped and for what purpose. Some gods are well-known and the obvious object of worship if you know what to look for (a trident is Shiva’s weapon of choice, a Garuda is Vishnu’s vahana), but others are a bit more obscure. For example, the toothache god hiding in an old snag of wood covered with coins that had been nailed to the misshapen tree trunk. The fact that his little shrine was located in a district with lots of dentist offices didn’t make his purpose that much more obvious to the uninitiated. For what is, in some sense, a one-man show, the Buddhist system also includes a surprisingly large number of characters, many of them borrowed from the older Hindu system. (This intermingling includes the belief among some Hindus that Buddha is the ninth incarnation or avatar of Vishnu.)
Below are a few more photos of religious buildings and objects.
And here are a couple that capture secular life in the Kathmandu Valley.
But notice the white stupa structure on the left side of the last photo under which this youngster is bathing.