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.