Friday, 28 October 2016

Nepal - 1

Pasupathinath, Boudhnath & Swayambunath

Let me start with a brief introduction to the country before recounting my experiences there.  The official name of Nepal is Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.  The Nepali government works in the framework of a representative democracy with seven federal provinces from 2015.  It is a landlocked country bordered by China and India. It has never been colonised and East India company which tried to extend its rule to Nepal was defeated in Anglo-Nepali war. But the kings of Nepal remained good friends of British and helped them against India in the first Indian Independence war of 1857.  The overwhelming majority of the population are Hindus and together with Buddhists they constitute more than 90% of the population.  Earlier it was a Hindu kingdom and only after the new constitution it has become a secular state.  The official language is Nepali, written in Devanagari script. Its flag is unique in that it is not rectangular. The official currency is Nepalese Rupee but Indian Rupee is freely accepted in many shops locally. 

On 25 April 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, to be succeeded by another earthquake of 7.3 magnitude two weeks later and both these left more than 8,500 people dead besides causing extensive damage to buildings.  So initially we were reluctant to plan a trip to Nepal.  But when we learnt that Kathmandu, the capital city had not been affected much and our main interest, Lord Pasupathinath temple had not been damaged’ we planned to go to Nepal via Delhi.  This also gave us an opportunity to visit my niece, Swetha, who has shifted to a new flat in Gurgaon, now called Gurugram.  After spending two days in the new spacious flat in Gurgaon, enjoying the company of her children, Brinda and Vedant, we left for Kathmandu by Indigo flight on the morning of 16/10/16.

Kabit of Altruism travels met us at the airport and gave us a warm traditional welcome with garlands and then took us to our hotel of stay in Kathmandu, Hotel Arts in Thamel.  Thamel is the centre of the tourist industry in Kathmandu.  Thamel’s narrow alleys are crowded with various shops and vendors; and cars, cycles rickshaws, two-wheelers and taxis alongside hundreds of pedestrians compete for the narrow space in the alleys. It has a wide range of mountaineering gear shops, foreign money exchange booths, pubs, and clubs along with the numerous travel agents and guest houses. The hotel is in an inconspicuous corner in the centre of Thamel and offers good accommodation with free WIFI, which works better in the lobby than in the room.

That evening itself after freshening up we visited Pasupathinath temple.  We made a second visit to the temple in the morning of fifth day.  Pashupatinath Temple's existence dates back to 400 B.C. and it is located on the western banks of the Bagmati River. There are many legends connected with the temple. One of them says that Lord Siva had a great liking for the forest on the banks of the river Bagmathi.  So he took the form of the deer and was enjoying unknown the serene solitude of the place.  Devas not finding Him in Kailash, searched for Him everywhere and finally caught up with Him here.  They forced Him to return to Kailash, grabbing Him by the horn and in that process one horn broke and fell down.  The broken horn was worshipped as a Linga but over time it was buried and lost. Centuries later an astonished farmer found one of his cows showering the earth with milk daily at a particular spot. Digging deep at the site, he discovered the divine Linga. Lord Shiva appeared and announced that as he had lived by the Bagmati river in a deer's form, he would be here known as Pashupatinath, Lord of all animals.  It is said that whoever came here and had the Darshan of the Lingam would never be reborn as an animal.  There is a deer sanctuary maintained by the temple on the eastern banks of the river.

The temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Main temple is of pagoda style with a golden spire.  The temple is located in the fortified courtyard within the complex guarded by an Army post and a police outpost post which has living quarters within. In front of the western door there is a huge statue of gold-plated Nandi. The metre-high Lingam has four faces; Sadyojatha, Vamapurusha, Tatpurusha and Aghora, facing the four directions and there are four main doors for having darshan of each face. Practicing Hindus and Buddhists of Indian and Tibetan descendent are only allowed into temple courtyard.  Practicing Hindus of western descent are also not allowed into the temple courtyard along with other non Hindu visitors.  The inner courtyard, houses the main temple and a few other temples like Vasukinath temple, Kirtimukh Bhairava temple, 184 shivlinga shrine etc.  It is said that if one goes round the 184 shiva lingas touching and chanting Siva’s name, one gets the Punyam of visiting Mount Kailash. It is believed that the twelve Jyotirlingas in India constitute the body and the Jyotirlinga at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu the head over this body. The main temple priests are Vedic scholars from South India selected on the basis of scholarship and not hereditary.  Maha Sivarathri is a major festival celebrated in the temple.

On the eastern side of the river is a cremation ground.  Many elderly people come and stay here so that they can die on the banks of Bagmathi river and get cremated here and there is the belief that a person who dies in the temple premises will be reborn as human only, irrespective of their papas.  Further Bagmathi river merges in the sacred river of Ganges and the ashes immersed in Bagmathi river will get carried to Ganges.  The main temple complex of Pashupatinath and the sanctum sanctorum was left untouched but some of the outer buildings in the World Heritage Site were damaged by the April 2015 earthquake.

While Pasupathinath temple had escaped damage, Boudhnath stupa did not.  The ancient Stupa is one of the largest in the world, dominating the skyline before the earthquake and was a great tourist attraction.  This is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Now the stupa had been damaged by the earthquake and is undergoing reconstruction. Not only the stupa but also the big Mandala had been damaged by the earthquake.  There are many monasteries around the stupa occupied by the influx of Buddhist monks from Tibet who took refuge in Nepal after Chinese annexation. We can see a number of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims doing parikrama, chanting the mantra and spinning the prayer wheels. 

Luckily the other ancient stupa, Swayambunath stupa, has escaped major damage in the earthquake. Swayambhunath is a Buddhist stupa atop a hillock at the northwestern part of the city. This is among the oldest religious sites in Nepal. Although the site is considered Buddhist, it is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.  The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples, a monastery, museum and library.  The stupa consists of a dome at the base; above the dome, there is a cubic structure with the eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions.  The site has two access points: a long stairway with 365 steps, leading directly to the main platform of the temple and a road around the hill to the top.  Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys wandering all over the temple. 

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