• Culture & Tradition
  • 23 May, 2024

Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa. Photo by Raimond Klavins via Unsplash

A popular touristic destination and a world heritage site recognized by UNESCO (in 1979), Boudhanath Stupa holds even a bigger significance among the Buddhist communities, meditators and spiritual practitioners. It stands as a center of faith and spiritual practices for the Buddhists all over the world, offering them a glimpse of Nepal’s extraordinary cultural and religious heritage.

Religious Significance

Built within a unique cosmological map in a form of mandala, this great Stupa symbolizes the Buddha’s three jewels: Body, Speech and Mind. It also embodies the entirety of Buddha’s teachings and the great path to Enlightenment. As complex as its outer structure may appear, each and every corner of this stupa resonates with a specific Buddhist belief on a deeper level. Together they perfectly form a sacred geometrical shape, delivering even higher spiritual values to the practitioners.

It is believed that the interior chambers are filled with precious statues, jewels, stones and sacred mantras. Most importantly, the sacred relics of Kashyapa, a Buddha from vedic times, and 1000 million other Buddhas lie within the Stupa. For the devotees, the great Stupa represents a dharmakaya, or Buddha Body, where all the good qualities of the Buddha’s are contained.

As practitioners of Buddhism circumambulate the Stupa, they make prostrations and offer butter lamps, prayer flags and other offerings with a pure heart. The stupa stands as a powerful and auspicious pilgrimage site among all the Buddhist communities. It is believed that whatever prayers offered here are supremely granted, as the miraculous Great Stupa stands graciously to bring even the most inconceivable of joys to all the sentient beings.

On a deeper level of Tantric understanding, Boudhanath Stupa is a powerful point of spiritual energy where one can make distinguished spiritual discoveries and realizations. It is significantly intertwined with the life of a great tantric master of the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava, also known as the
Lotus master, Guru Rinpoche. He introduced Buddhism to the otherwise secluded land of Tibet, thus, he is regarded as the second Buddha by the Tibetans. His life story records events of Tantric practices, transforming and subduing evil forces. Many believe he had secretly concealed treasures in many sacred places and the Boudhanath Stupa is one of them.

The Nepali Origin Story of Boudhanath Stupa

The origins of Boudhanath Stupa is believed to be in 14th century C.E. during the reign of the Licchavi over Nepal. From a strategic point of view, when the Licchavi dinasty was ruling, the Kathmandu Valley was a cultural, artistic and spiritual hub that connected Tibet to the Indian Subcontinents. As the Stupa’s
architecture reflects a unique blend of Tibetan and Nepali influences, it can be assumed that the Boudhanath Stupa might have been built in Kathmandu as a result of the long history of cultural and religious exchange between Tibet, Nepal and Indian Subcontinents.

Given the ancient and mystical origins of this great, sacres structure, there are many myths surrounding its origins. A story narrates that the stupa was built after demise of Kashyapa Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddhi’s previous incarnation, whose relics are believed to be within the Stupa. Yet another myth relates the story of the Stupa with a king named Ashoka who was a great devotee of Buddhism. He once had a vision of Buddha in his dream, where he advised him to build a Stupa in the Kathmandu Valley and that this Stupa would flourish Buddhism and bring peace and prosperity to the place. King Ashoka then, embarked on a mission to build the Stupa and started seeking for the perfect place to build it in. It was then, when he discovered the enclosed valley, full of lush greenery with a majestic lotus pond in the middle. He started building the sacred stupa with the help of thousands of artisans and craftsmen.

Jharung Khasyor: The Tibetan origin story

The Tibetan version of the great Stupa’s origin exclusively narrates its reconstruction, other than its foundation or actual origin. In 1915 C.E., a Tibetan monk named Sakya Zangpo discovered the hidden text related to Boudha Stupa at the Samye Monastery. This was one of the earliest monasteries in Tibet. After this discovery, the monk realized that it was his responsibility to uncover and reconstruct the Stupa as a way to support and flourish Buddhism for future generation. But the name Jharung Khasyor comes from an ancient account which was narrated by Guru Padmasambhava, in an assembly of his 25 disciples and the then king Triston Detsun at the Samye monastery.

The story starts with a woman named Shavara, who was a poultry keeper and a successful business-woman. She wished to build a stupa to contain the relics of Kashyapa Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. Other versions of this story narrate her as a prostitute and mother of four children, each from a different father of low caste family. She gathered all the necessary resources to build the stupa. Finally when she went to the king, she asked for permission to build the Stupa. The king was moved by the noble devotion of the woman to keep the Dharma alive by making such a grand Stupa. He happily agreed and allowed her to make the stupa as big as the area of an Ox’s skin.

But once she started the work, other countrymen opposed and questioned the king’s decision. As the Stupa was considered highly sacred and auspicious, they were against the idea of letting a low caste
woman to build it. But the king was highly inspired by the diligence and devotion of the lady and the explanation he gave was, jharung khasyor, meaning “let it be done slipped from my tongue.” And those who objected knew that once the King’s permission was granted, he couldn’t go back on his word.

The woman died soon after her work began. It was later on continued her four sons who accomplished the Stupa’s construction as per her wish. They also vowed to reincarnate in the kingdom of Tibet in the recognition of their mother’s undying devotion to flourish Dharma.

The Architecture of the Stupa and the Buddha Body

The architecture of the Boudhanath is an example of a phenomenally designed classic Stupa. It has three terraced plinths, on the top of which are based a drum and a hemispherical dome. The height of the
first plinth is around 7ft while the second and third plinth are approximately 6ft tall. The drum is about 4ft high and the added terrace on this drum has exactly 108 niches carved on it. Each niche contains a
stone deity. The dome is about 120ft in diameter, and it is topped with a Harmika (square box) and the 13-step conical pillar. These steps are made from gold gilded copper sheets. On each side of the Harmika, two powerful eyes of Buddha are drawn. There is a lotus at the top of the steps which holds a jewel at the pinnacle.

The design of the Stupa corresponds with perfect proportion of a Buddha’s body, crowned and seated on a meditation posture on a throne. The throne is supported by lions. The four dimensions of the base represents the four inhibit qualities of an enlightened mind: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. The platform of the base that directly touches the ground is a profound reminder to all of us that Buddha
indeed was a human being, born on this very Earth. It reminds that each sentient being is potential of attaining Nirvana just like Buddha did.

Boudhanath Stupa
The structure and architecture of the Stupa. Photo by Elton Sa via Unsplash

The semi-spherical dome is the field of emptiness from which everything arises. There are four pairs of eyes drawn on each side of four-dimensional steeple. These are the eyes of four Buddhas, representing the primitive nature of awareness that lies in an Enlightened mind. The 13-step tower represents the pinnacle of every Buddhist path, Enlightenment. Likewise, the Stupa as a perfect form is a symbolic interpretation of all elements of the Universe. For instance, the square base is the Earth. The semi-spherical dome is Water. The conical tower represents Fire and the lotus parasol and the crescent
shaped Moon on the top is considered to be Air. For the devotees, Boudha Stupa is a perfect form of Buddha’s enlightened mind and his presence, a gentle reminder for everyone to discover their own throne and reach ultimate Buddhahood.

Boudhanath Stupa
Life around the stupa, with devotees and onlookers. Photo by Raimond Klavins via Unsplash

Circumambulating The Boudhanath Stupa

Buddhist communities portray the great stupa as the immovable center of their devotion, and makes circumambulation around it in clockwise direction. The stupa is considered to be as firm and stable as Mount Meru, which is the center point of the Buddhist cosmological map. The circumambulation starts and ends with prostrations and prayers to the Three Jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
It is done specially during the principal time of dawn and dusk and other important occasions of the lunar calendar. When walking in circles around the Stupa, people contemplate Lama Zopa’s teaching, “true healing comes from mind and Stupa is one sublime object of purification.”

Boudhanath Stupa
Renovating the eyes of the Stupa. Photo by Meghsha Karki via Unsplash

Ma Ajima Temple in the Center of the Stupa

There is a single chamber shrine of a female deity in the midst of the outer surrounding of the Boudhanath Stupa. She is meticulously adorned in chunky silver ornaments and portrayed with her aggressive demeanor in a standing posture. One interesting portrayal here is a corpse held between her hands and the strand of intestine (of the same corpse) in her mouth. The corpse is believed to be of a child. There are different names attributed to this female deity, depending upon the narrations of different ethnic communities. Tibetans call her Jadzima, or Ma Jadzima and believes she is the one who built the whole stupa. She is considered to be reborn as the protector deity Pramoha Devi and her
temple was established to protect the stupa and for the welfare of the devotees. In the tantric belief, she is a protector of cremation grounds (Dharmapala), and named Pukasi. The local Tamang community residing alongside the stupa calls her “Mam Thakurani,” the Grandmother.

There is an interesting account behind this name attributed to her. She was once a Yaksi (an elemental demon) who used to inflict small pox to the children of the locals, causing them to die. Some believes she used to eat them. Because of this, all the locals were extremely terrified of her. One day Buddha appeared and decided to teach her a lesson. She was then forced to take a vow to remain non-violent and never
come out of her shrine that was built in front of the stupa. Ever since, the locals worship her with great devotion as a protector of the Stupa and people following the Dharma. Despites her different names and
stories, she is indeed a female Buddha in her wrathful manifestation, extremely compassionate to bestow power “siddhi” when invoked with pure hearts.

Boudhanath Stupa
Devotees inside a monastery next to the Stupa. Photo by Wonderlane via unsplash

The external circle of the Boudha Stupa is surrounded by local Tamangs, an ethnic group of the Valley. Before the migration of Tibetans in Boudha (around 1960), the site was mostly a Tamang community, full of small traditional mud houses and their farming lands. But now with rapid changes happening all around, most of their houses have now turned into restaurants, hotels, motels and touristic shops to cater the thousands of visitors visiting every day. Boudhanath as a community is now a hub to more than 60 monasteries and nunneries that homes thousands of nuns and lamas practicing Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism. It is a global destination for all enthusiasts who want to explore Vajrayana Buddhism (the tantric path to Enlightenment).

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