365 steps plus 13 degrees to enlightenment: Swayambhunath

11 05 2011

It was with a touch of good fortune that seven friends and I found ourselves in Kathmandu on the eve of the Nepali New Year I suppose. We hadn’t intended that, having to accommodate one who now lives half a world away, as well as fitting the trip we had planned within the constraints of flight availability. That we were, was something of a photographer’s dream I suppose, as we were confronted with the burst of life and colour around some of the most wonderful cultural heritage sites that I have visited. Wonderful not so much for the richness of architecture or craftsmanship that we sometimes associate with a cultural heritage site, but for the fact that the sites were not edifices that remind us of a time gone by, but living ones that are very much bursting with the life that makes them what they are.

The Nepali New Year is as much a religious celebration as much as it is one to celebrate the arrival of a new year.

Our first stop during the New Year was to the pilgrimage site of Swayambhunath, up the pilgrims path of 365 steps that leads one to a stupa, built with thirteen rings that represent the thirteen degrees of knowledge one needs to acquire on the path to enlightenment. Swyambhunath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located on a holy site that is thought to go back some 2,500 years, according to local legend, the bodhisattva Manjushri was said to have discovered a lotus flower at the centre of an ancient lake that had filled the Kathmandu valley, and drained it by cutting a gorge, allowing the valley to become habitable. The flower was said to have settled where the stupa now is.

The stupa at Swayambhunath is accessible via a pilgrims path of a flight of 365 stone steps to the top of the hill on which the stupa is perched.

The stupa of Swayambhunath said to be built on a site where a lotus flower of an ancient lake drained by the bodhisattva Manjushri was found and features 13 gilded rings each representing a degree of knowledge a person needs to acquire on the path to enlightenment.

Arriving at the foot of the steep flight of steps, we stepped out from the calm of the van into the din and frenzy that accompanied the gathering of street vendors in a clearing next to where we alighted, and were transported into the sea of saffron, crimson and gold of pilgrims decked out in the finery of the New Year, mingling with holy men and monks in robes that suggested the paths in life they had taken, in the cool shade of the trees at the foot of the hill. The trees are in fact according to legend, said to have grown from hairs cut from Manjushri and the monkeys we find around, said to have been the lice from Manjushri’s hair.

The foot of the hill is shaded with trees which are said to have grown from the hairs cut from Manjushri's head.

And the many monkeys found around the complex are said to have grown from the lice that fell off.

The stupa is of course one that is associated with the Buddhist faith, one that in many parts of the world is distinct in its practice to that of the predominant Hindu faith in Nepal, and has been a cebtre of Buddhist learning for centuries. It is in Nepal where the faiths intertwine, as much as life and faith comes together as one in daily life. Nepal is where Buddha, as the Hindu Prince Gautama had been born, and where he left the comforts of his princely life to live a life that led him on the path to enlightenment on which the Buddhist faith was built on.

A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath - Buddhism is embraced within the larger Hindu faith in Nepal.

Smaller stupas on the pilgrim's path.

Detail on a small stupa.

The ascent is one that gets steeper as it reaches its climax, as the stairway narrows and the stupa comes into sight. It is near the top where the tourist is required to pay an entrance fee of Rs 200 at a landing on the left of the stairs that one realises how much one has climbed as the opportunity to look back and survey the mass of narrow brick dwellings that define the city of Kathmandu that lay below. At the top, the stupa dominates the crest of the hill, surrounded by other structures and a circle of prayer wheels at the base. Teeming with pilgrims that sought blessings for the New Year, the area around the stupa was a kaleidoscope of the colours of the earth, the wind and of fire, earth being that of the offering laid out all around; wind seen in the the fluttering of prayer flags and the frenzy of movement of people around the stupa; and fire being the fire of fire being offered to the deities.

The steep final part of the ascent ...

... as the stupa comes into view.

The view of the Kathmandu valley near the top.

Another view of the stupa at the top of the 365 steps.

Prayer flags to be offered at the top.

Prayer wheels circle the base of the stupa.

The turning of prayer wheels on which mantras are written on is believed to bring purification and merit to aid in the path one takes to enlightenment.

Offerings being prepared.

An offering of food.

The area around the stupa is surrounded by temples, shrines and other religious buildings and monkeys roam the area freely, mingling with the pilgrims and curious tourists. For this, the stupa is sometimes referred to as the Monkey Temple. A feature of the stupa is the four flat sides of a cuboid of which each is adorned with the eyes of Buddha looking in four directions, each with a third eye painted above. More information on the complex and its background can be found on this site.

View of the complex around the stupa.

Roof of a building around the stupa.

Saffron water being thrown to trace the shape of the lotus petal on the stupa.

Dongak Choling Gompa.

A view of the Swayambhunath complex.

Offerings of fire.

Local children.

Another view of the area.

The stupa and the Hariti temple in the background.


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One response

12 05 2011
happypoppeye

Some fantastic shots up there. Great work. I did those steps twice …and was soaked with sweat both times. The second time an older lady passed me carrying two full water jugs strapped to her head…

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