The great white stupa at BOUDHA (or BOUDHANATH), about 5km northeast of central Kathmandu, is the swollen sacred heart of a thriving Tibetan Buddhist community. One of the world’s largest stupas – Tibetans call it simply Chorten Chempo, “Great Stupa” – it is also the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet. Since 1959, Boudha has been the focus for Tibetan exiles in Nepal, but it has been a sacred site on the Kathmandu–Tibet trade route for centuries. The 10km corridor from Pashupatinath to Sankhu was known as the auspicious zone of siddhi (supernatural beings), and Boudha was – and still is – its biggest, most auspicious landmark.
Early morning and dusk are the best times to be here, when an otherworldly cacophony of ritual music drifts from the houses and monasteries that ring the stupa, and monks, locals and devout pilgrims all perform kora together, strolling, shuffling and prostrating their way around the dome. At other times, the souvenir shops and cafés in the tall houses that ring the stupa can seem intrusive, and the brick-paved piazza is filled with tourists more than Tibetans. And if you follow either of the two lanes heading north of the stupa, the romance evaporates in short order: this is Boudha the boomtown, an unplanned quagmire of garbage-strewn lanes, unlovely new buildings, schools and businesses.
Traditions differ as to the stupa’s origins. A Tibetan text relates how a daughter of Indra stole flowers from heaven and was reassigned to earth as a lowly poultryman’s daughter, yet prospered and decided to use some of her wealth to build a stupa to honour a mythical Buddha of a previous age. She petitioned the king, who cynically granted her only as much land as could be covered by a buffalo hide. Undaunted, the woman cut the hide into thread-thin strips and joined them end to end to enclose a gigantic area.
The Newari legend has a firmer historical grounding, involving a drought that struck Kathmandu during the reign of the early Lichhavi king, Vrisadev. When court astrologers advised that only the sacrifice of a virtuous man would bring rain, Vrisadev commanded his son Mandev to go to the royal well on a moonless night and decapitate the shrouded body he would find there. Mandev obeyed, only to find to his horror that he had sacrificed his own father. When he asked the goddess Bajra Yogini of Sankhu how to expiate his guilt, she let fly a bird and told him to build a stupa at the spot where it landed, which was Boudha.
Whatever its legendary origins, it’s possible that the core of the stupa dates as early as the fifth century AD, and it’s almost certain that it encloses holy relics, perhaps parts of the Buddha’s body (bones, hair, teeth) and objects touched or used by him, along with sacred texts and other ritual objects. The stupa has been sealed for centuries, of course, so no one knows exactly what lies within, but the relics are held responsible for the stupa’s power, and its ability to command veneration.Read More
Volunteering in Boudha
Volunteering in Boudha
One of the simplest ways to spend some time in Boudha without committing to full-time study (see Boudha’s dharma scene) is to volunteer with one of the many charities sponsored by the Tibetan monasteries. One of the biggest is Karuna Shechen (w karuna-shechen.org), run by French author and monk Mathieu Ricard and based at Shechen monastery, which operates clinics and schools in Nepal, Tibet and India. Another, Rokpa (w rokpa.org), runs a winter soup kitchen and a home for street children.
Boudha’s stupa is famed throughout the Himalayan region for its powers of wish-fulfilment and blessing. You’ll see pilgrims repeatedly circumambulating the stupa, and doing endless sequences of prostrations in a secluded area on one of the upper terraces. Prayer wheels, heavy silver jewellery and rainbow-striped aprons are better indicators of a pilgrim’s Tibetan origins than facial features, as Nepali Bhotiyas, people of Tibetan ethnicity, and Tamangs from the central hills also visit Boudha in force.
Boudha’s dharma scene
Boudha’s dharma scene
Boudha’s Western community is well established, though to become a part of it you need either an introduction or a lot of time, since serious Western students of dharma tend to regard tourists as spiritual interference. But as those in the know say, if you’re ready you will find a teacher here. Some will go on to warn enthusiastic newcomers that there are good teachers and bad, and Buddhism is big business in Boudha. Still, many Westerners rate it as the best place in the world to study Tibetan Buddhism. All four sects are well represented, and the main alternative, Dharamsala in India, arguably has a politically rather than spiritually charged atmosphere.
A good way to start is to stay at a gompa guesthouse (most monasteries operate them, and they are open to all), to check restaurant or guesthouse notice boards, or to sample some of the alternative treatments on offer everywhere – from massage to Tibetan medicine. You could also go straight to a monastery: puja ceremonies are open to all, and most rinpoches (or “respected teachers”) at Boudha give occasional open talks – with or without English translation. Many also agree to one-on-one meetings to those who show a keen interest.
Some monasteries are particularly oriented towards Westerners; the following are worth checking out. Note that some of the more popular, better-funded monasteries operate grander satellite institutes in the countryside.
Teaching Gompa in Boudha
Jamchen Lhakhang Gompa The Sakya school is represented at Boudha by this monastery, headed by the English-speaking Shabdrung Ngawang Kyenrab Rinchen Paljor; the monastery sponsors the Boudha-based International Buddhist Academy (w sakyaiba.edu.np), which offers an annual ten-day retreat in September, and four- and eight-week Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan-language courses.
Shechen Gompa w shechen.org. The death in 1991 of the revered Dilgo Khyentse of Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling, the “Bhutanese Monastery”, left a large gap, but it is being filled by his grandson, the current abbot, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who teaches courses in English.
Shedrub Ling Gompa (aka the “The White Monastery”) w shedrub.org. Perennially popular among the dharma set, the Ka Nying Shedrub Ling Gompa holds a regular Saturday morning talk in English, and every November, the English-speaking abbot Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche runs ten-day seminars. The monastery is affiliated to Kathmandu University for longer degree programmes (w shedra.org).
Shelkar Chode Gompa 400m west of the stupa, facing the Hyatt Regency Hotel; w lamawangdu.org. Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche holds open sessions most mornings from 7.30–11am; visitors can also attend the remarkable Chöd ritual, a tantric, symbolic offering of the body performed on the 10th and 25th of the Tibetan month.
Thrangu Tashi Choeling Gompa w rinpoche.com. Thrangu Rinpoche attracts many Western students, though usually to his grand-scale temple and teaching complex at Namobuddha, rather than this relatively modest monastery in Boudha itself.
Teaching Gompa around Boudha
Kopan Monastery 3km north of Boudha w kopan-monastery.com. One of the most welcoming monasteries to Westerners, with a full schedule of courses and teachings, including daily teachings at 10am, seven- and ten-day residential courses aimed at beginners, and a well-regarded month-long intensive course in November.
Pulahari Gompa Further along the ridge from Kopan w jamgonkongtrul.org. A major centre for long-term Western Buddhists, with frequent ten-day programmes.
If you want an extra helping of Tibetan culture, go to Boudha during the festival of Losar in February or March, when the community hosts the biggest Tibetan New Year celebration in Nepal. Other busy times are Buddha Jayanti (the Buddha’s birthday), held on the full moon of April–May, when an image of the Buddha is paraded around the stupa aboard an elephant, and the full moon of March–April, when ethnic Tamangs – the original guardians of the stupa – converge here to arrange marriages, and hundreds of eligible brides are sat around the stupa for inspection. Full moon and new moon days in general attract more pilgrims, since acts of worship earn more merit on these days.
Hiking and biking around Boudha
Hiking and biking around Boudha
Boudha makes a good springboard for several walks and bike rides in this part of the valley. You can also walk to Pashupatinath in half an hour.
Kopan Monastery Occupying a ridge about 3km due north of the stupa, Kopan Monastery is an easy target, and is something of a pilgrimage destination for its astoundingly richly decorated “thousand-Buddha stupa”, so named for the inordinate number of holy relics it contains. You can take a taxi all the way, but it’s a pleasant walk.
Pulahari Monastery Half an hour’s walk further to the east of Kopan (beyond the giant, brand-new temple of the Amitabha Foundation), Pulahari Monastery sits atop the ridge like the superstructure of an enormous container ship; its huge new prayer hall is perhaps the most richly and exquisitely decorated in Nepal. Both monasteries are usually open to visitors in daylight hours, unless there’s a ceremony on.
Nagi Gompa From either Kopan or Pulahari, it’s a strenuous two- or three-hour hike north up a wooded ridge to the nunnery of Nagi Gompa, though you probably shouldn’t go without help finding the way. From here you can continue up into Shivapuri National Park.
Gokarneswar Three kilometres northeast of Boudha (and 2km downhill from Pulahari on a paved road) lies Gokarneswar, where an imposing Shiva temple gazes across the Bagmati River to the peaceful Gokarna Forest – which encloses the luxury Gokarna Forest Resort, golf club and spa. Frequent mini- and microbuses run from here back to Boudha and Kathmandu, along the main road from Sundarijal, the trailhead for Helambu treks.