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.





A 40 year journey from Essex Road

28 04 2011

I made a journey recently with a group of friends. It could be said that it was a journey that had started some forty years ago, one that had started with the forging of bonds in the classrooms and on the schoolyards at Essex Road in Singapore. Yes, we were schoolmates, seven of us, making a journey in mid-life that was as much motivated by a common passion, as it was by the camaraderie we developed in the course of our Christian Brothers’ education that kept us in touch with each other well into our teenage years.

Flying the flag of our Alma Mater: Seven schoolmates and one we adopted ...

Some of us in Primary 6, St. Michael's School.

The journey we took was one that brought us to the shadow of the roof of the world. An excursion, as one put it, an extension of those we used to look forward to at the end of the year during our primary school days. Having a common interest in photography, we sought to capture, through seven pairs of eyes, how we saw the wonderful world in which we found ourselves immersed in for a few days, coming back not just with a multitude of images, but touched by the beauty and warmth in the simplicity of the people, fond memories of the colourful sights that unfolded before our eyes, and most importantly with the spirit that the ten (some twelve) years in St. Michael’s School (now St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) and St. Joseph’s Institution had imparted on us.

Life on the streets in Kathmandu makes it a wonderful place to see and discover.

Along the three hundred steps to enlightenment: A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath, a stupa which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, seen during the Bisket Jatra festival held during the Nepali New Year in April.

The trip involved not just a visit to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, but also to some of the areas that surround the city, places that have a magical or mythical charm, as well as one that would, on a clear day, have given us a magnificent view of the roof of the world. Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, is certainly blessed with some magnificent cultural treasures, a few which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including two stupa sites, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, and a former capital, Bhaktapur, and it was these that we focused our cameras on. Along the way, we also visited a Roman Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and along with it the Parish School, the Regina Amoris School, set up and run by the Sisters of Cluny for the children of the needy. All in all, it was a huge and meaningful adventure for us, and one, that I would be touching on in detail in separate posts to come on each part of our visit.

The long, narrow and winding road up to Nagarkot, a hill station near Kathmandu.

Boudhanath, a UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest stupa in Nepal, is also a centre of Tibetan life.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, a concentration of monuments which is another UNSECO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Lalitpur.