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May 2018
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The Boudha Mahachaitya The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion

Kanak Mani Dixit
1The Boudha Mahachaitya is great in the most literal sense of the term – for more than a millennium, until the Shah-Rana era, it was the largest human-made structure in Nepal Mandala, the valley of Kathmandu. And yet, for its massive plinth, the three terraces leading up to the gigantic dome topped by the 13-stepped finial and gilded parasol, Boudha did not overwhelm with its size.

Until just two decades ago, the Great Stupa on the Lhasa road out of Kathmandu stood alone amidst the vast landscape of rice paddies that sloped towards the Bagmati below Gokarna. True, Boudha was visible like a luminescent bulb from every corner of the Valley, but except for those who came right up to the chaitya through its ring of tile-roofed houses, the size was undermined by the distance. In the late modern era you do not get to appreciate the stupa’s girth due to the urban sprawl that has robbed the vantage for the naked eye or the photographer’s lens. Only from the air or up close, from the terraces of next-door restaurants, can you appreciate this great dome.

2-2From lake to Stupa
One can imagine this area as the loess-laden lake bed of the primordial loch that was once Kathmandu Valley, with only the hill where Swayambhu Mahachaitya stands remaining above the water with its mythical lotus bloom. As the great lake diminished into several smaller water bodies, one of them was caught behind the ridgeline of Gokarna. The Valley floor was taken over by woodland, a vestige still remaining in the Gokarna Reserve Forest nearby. Over three thousand years ago, the forest would have been cleared for paddy agriculture. Urban habitation began in earnest, titled the Bagmati Valley Civilization by the engineer-conservationist Hutaram Vaidya.

3With prosperity and urbanization, the people needed sites for devotion and obeisance. A hillock to the south of the Gokarna gorge, upslope from the Bagmati, evolved as such a place. According to the Vamsavali chronicles, the stupa was consecrated by Lichhavi King Manadeva (464-505 CE). The fifth century was the time of stupa building in Nepal Mandala, when the domes at Chabahil and Swayambhu were put up. Boudha’s original shape may have been like the Ashoka-era grass mounds (thudva) found today at the cardinal points around Patan, at Pulchok, Gwarko and Lagankhel. Some sources link the stupa to the Buddha Kasyapa, whereas a Tibetan monk reported in the 18th century that the bones of the King Amsuvarma (who ruled 605-621 CE) were interred here.

Located conveniently on the trail heading out from Kathmandu city towards Lhasa, the stupa’s mythology simultaneously developed along Newar Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist lines, with midhill communities such as the Tamang also extending reverence. After disappearing from the chronicles for nearly a thousand years, we are told that the Eighth Situpa Rinpoche arrived twice from Tibet, in 1723 and 1748, to repair and restore Boudha after finding it “covered with dirt, sand, etc to the point that it became invisible.” Tibetan nobility and clergy, and rulers from as far afield as Mustang and Sikkim, looked to Boudhanath as a place of worship, often commemorating their battlefield victories with a gift of restoration. The current dimensions and shape of the stupa are said to be the work of a visiting Tibetan lama in 1821.

4During the Malla era, a hereditary line of Tibetan caretakers looked after Boudha, which was also known as the Khasti chaitya and also as the Bya-rung Kha-shor (“permission once given cannot be taken back”) Chaitya. The Tibetan caretakers were removed after the Nepal-Tibet war of 1855-56 during the reign of Jang Bahadur. It was then that the Chiniya Lama lineage took over as caretakers.

Over the centuries, the Boudha Mahachaitya remained a vital part of the Himalayan Buddhist cosmos, but it is absent from the march of political history of Nepal. We know that Ekai Kawaguchi, the Japanese monk-explorer, was hosted by the Chiniya Lama in 1899. The Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959 brought great economic energy to the Boudha area, which became a veritable Little Tibet as various denominations located their headquarters-in-exile in the vicinity. Then came the rush of urbanization after the 1980s.

Manadeva would certainly fail to recognize Boudha’s surroundings of today, and the same would hold for Ekai Kawaguchi, and even Toni Hagen, the Swiss development expert who explored Nepal during the 1950s. Hagen’s photographs of Boudhanath take us back to what the place would have looked like at least two centuries previously.

The eyes of Boudha have seen the eras come and go. Today, they look out over the flat-top concrete jungle. Yesterday, they studied the seasons play out on the rice paddies - the plantings, harvesting, threshing and drying. Earlier there were devotees from Kathmandu, the midhills and high valleys, and Tibet. Today, the devotees come from across the seven seas. What the eyes of the Great Stupa are telling us is left to each of us to interpret!

Kanak Mani Dixit is the editor of Himal (South Asian) and the publisher of Himal Khabarpatrika based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Highly respected as a journalist in the South Asian region, Kanak’s related interests include children’s writing and translations. He is also the Chair of the Film South Asia documentary film festival, among the best known film festivals in South Asia.
Reference: The Nepalese Chaitya: 1500 Years of Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley, by Niels Gutschow, 1997
Last modified on Thursday, 02 February 2012 11:23


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