(revised and updated Aug 2011)
When I noticed the Baudhanath Stupa on our itinerary, I was indifferent. But when I alighted from the bus there, I was awestruck at the size of this stupa and the vibrant atmosphere. The Stupa easily took a whole city block. It’s nearly 125 ft tall and the periphery was about a quarter of a mile; the largest in South-east Asia.
The large dome is topped by a square platform supporting 13 steps. From all four sides of this platform, the divine eyes of Buddha gaze out at the world. Such stylized eyes attesting to the benevolent grace of the divine, are everywhere in Kathmandu – on offices, homes, walls, shops and curios.
Visitors (and locals) walk around the perimeter, chatting with friends and ogling wares in tiny curio stores ringing the stupa, or simply deep in thought …
… or most importantly, turning prayer wheels.
In wall niches, prayers wheels resembling small vertical drums are engraved with Buddha’s mantra in Nepali script: Om Mani Padme Hum, (Glory to the Jewel in the Lotus). Short curtains cover the niches. You slide your fingers below the curtain and spin the knobs at the bottom of the wheels. Each niche held 4-8 wheels and there must have been nearly a 100 such niches around the stupa. It is believed that by spinning the wheel, you receive the same grace as if you recited the mantra. Thus even illiterate devotees unable to recite the mantra could receive divine merit (punya or grace) by simply spinning the wheel.
Similarly for the prayer flags atop the stupa. The mantra is inscribed on crepe-like cloth flags, and the wind rustling through the flags ‘recites’ a prayer. Beautiful, and I spun as many wheels as I could.
Along the periphery, was an alcove housing two gigantic prayer wheels. You had just enough space to squeeze by the wheel. These were the most magnificent and the light was perfect.
I captured this little girl as she came through spinning the wheel.
Contemplating life. I spied this family perched on the edge of the dome looking out at the world. I wonder what went on in their minds. Perhaps the same as in mine. From here life seems complex and threatening, … and fragile too. And dark clouds loomed. The stupa seemingly held the encroaching world at bay. But we cannot stay here for ever. We have to navigate this river of samsār, to the best of our abilities, guided by our dharma. And we can be assured that divine eyes will always be on us. One more spin of the wheel, and I was ready to engage the world.