Four o’clock in the morning is brightened by the sound of crows, giving way to little birds by 5 o’clock. And a cat had been yowling up and down the stairs for much of the night. At about 3 AM I thought that it must be trapped in the stairwell, and I got up to let it out. It turned out that the door was open, so I wondered if she was on heat. The full story came later.
Swayambhu stupa was my goal that day. There was some rain, so visibility would be poor, but the clear weather was forecast for the following week, and I was planning a couple of longer trips under what I hoped would be blue skies. The stupa at Baudha has a bigger pull for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but Swayambhu is perhaps more photogenic, sitting as it does on top of a hill that overlooks the city. I took a one-way taxi, as I had no idea how long I would be, and I wanted to walk part of the way back.
Thamel is the most popular tourist area in Kathmandu, and a visit was somewhere on my to-do list. Driving through in a taxi did make me wonder, though.
The Swayambhu hill rises quite sharply out of the river plain, and a large number of stupas have been built in more recent years on either side of the steps at the bottom of the hill. Some on the left:
And some on the right, many of these housing large prayer-wheels:
Not to forget another large and rather garish Guru Rinpoche:
You are on the net, so you can easily find as many pictures of this place as you want, so here are just some of the Buddha statues at the bottom, the steps, of which there are many, many indeed, on the way up, and the stupa itself at the top.
Sadly, the damage done by the earthquake was very noticeable at the top. Some of the smaller temples and structures have been reduced, if not to rubble, then to a battered remainder of their former selves. The boundary between the commercial and sacred seemed a bit more blurred than at Baudha. I love all the commercial stuff, and these sites would be far less interesting if they were “purified” of souvenirs and knick-knacks. That being said, a boundary is a nice thing. Soon I was on the way back down.
Yes, it’s as steep as it looks. Perhaps steeper.
A few hawkers work the steps. One of them tried to sell me a single roll of prayer flags for Rs.100. These flags are mostly supplied in semi-standard bundles, but this seemed already to have been opened, which might explain the lower than average price. As it happens I had already bought several bundles to put up in Tuscany, so of course I said no. I stepped away. He now offered to let me have them for Rs.80, which still didn’t induce me to turn round. As the distance grew and I reached the next downward flight of stairs, I could just hear him calling, “Rs.50” after me. I wondered what he had paid for them himself. Perhaps he had “acquired” them. (But we shouldn’t judge.)
Down at the bottom, I followed the instructions Chris had given me, heading on foot towards the Bishnumati river. The road was clearly part of “mala central”, lined with one tiny shop after another, the sort with brick walls for the back and sides and a metal roller-shutter at the front. One shop after another was piled high with malas, mostly of the basic wooden sort, available in ones, tens, hundreds, polythene bags with 20 kg in each… And none of the shopkeepers made any effort to interest a random passing tourist like myself. The stuff is made wholesale and in most cases shipped, so I heard, to China where Buddhism is now something of a fad amongst the middle classes. Just don’t mention the Dalai Lama!
I was to turn left immediately before the river, and with a bit of poking around I found it. I knew it must be holy, because I had to climb yet another set of steps, leading up to a gate. This gives access to, yes, even more steps leading up to the Vidhyeshvari Vajrayogini Temple. This is the home of one of the valley’s ancient Vajrayogini statues.
The site is nowadays a Newari Temple, and is therefore Buddhist, but the style of activity, with massive offerings of marigolds, other flowers, and fruit, reminded me more of the Hindu way of doing things. There was quite a party there on this occasion, which I later heard was unusual, taking offerings across the rainy “courtyard”:
into the shrine, where I was able to go but not take photographs. The offerings were then handed to the shrine attendant, the only person allowed in the inner sanctum. The statue itself – and this is not uncommon – was clothed in so much brocade, that even her face is scarcely visible, her bodily position invisible. I have it on good authority that in fact this is one of the “flying” forms, in which she is drinking from a skull cup held in her left hand, her left arm being wrapped around the back of the calf of her raised left leg. I have not mis-written that.
I have found these on the net:
which is a rather vulgar, modern interpretation of that form, and
… which is supposed to be a picture of the actual statue.
Marpa the Translator must have known this place, as he spent three years around Swayambhu almost a thousand years ago, and there is a nearby cemetery where he is believed to have meditated.
In the afternoon I took myself back to Jarung Khashor, the great stupa, and to the Tamang/Nyingma Ghayanghuti temple to sit at the back during the afternoon Mahakala practice.
I was one of the last to leave, which must have been a factor in this: my shoes had gone! Good, solid, comfortable, boots for walking pavements, rocky paths, woodland or anything else I was likely to encounter. Not wildly expensive, but not cheap and tatty either. They were also more less black, so there is no scope for any naïvely generous idea that the thief had simply mistaken them for the more or less white, cheap and tatty trainers that were left over. Somebody thought, “Oh, those look better than mine, I think I’ll have them.” The tatty white trainers were also too small, so it was back to the guesthouse in my socks. Still, that was better than what had happened to someone I chatted to later who had once needed to return to a hotel in Delhi in bare feet for much the same reason. Good , again, that the area is now paved!
In the Double Dorje that evening I met Shiv for the first time and nordic Eric, where we put the world to rights over momos and tongba.
I want to mention that Shiv (or Shiva) turned out to be much more grounded, and also well-informed, than you might guess from the obvious fact that he is an old hippie who visits Nepal. He is a fountain of knowledge about Kathmandu, particularly about Pashupati and the Hindu side of things, and he does himself guide tours from time to time. If you get the chance, I’d recommend his services.