Religion is a part of everyday life in Nepal. Going to Hindu or Buddhist temples is normal in Nepal, and temples are tucked even into the remotest places in the mountains. But, Nepal can be confusing to outsiders as the people are both Hindu and Buddhist. They often bring offerings to a Hindu temple, then go to a Buddhist stupa and spin the wheels. Understanding the differences and similarities between the two religions and how this is reflected in the architecture of the temples clarifies the importance of religious life in Nepal and its related customs.
Hinduism and Buddhism are widely practiced throughout Nepal. Situated between India, Tibet, and China, Nepali architecture has been influenced by both of these cultural strongholds. It is normal for Hindu and Buddhist sites to stand next to each other. Hindu temples are more widespread in Nepal, while Buddhist ones are usually located within the ethnically Tibetan communities, especially in the mountains.
The oldest living religion in the world, Hinduism teaches that beyond the body or the mind, all beings and all things have a pure and divine spirit. A Hindu temple is a symbolic house of Hindu gods. It is designed to bring human beings and gods together according to the Hindu faith. Carvings and iconography symbolically represent elements of Hindu cosmology, figures of gods and goddesses, while the layout of a temple is adapted to ancient rituals (puja).
Hindu temples in Nepal are built in the pagoda style – a multi-tiered temple with multiple roofs. Deriving from the shape of Himalayan fir trees, pagoda temples can rise to several levels, such as the Golden Temple in Patan or the Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur. On the ground floor, the temple contains a Hindu god’s image (murti), to whom people worship, bring offerings (incense, flowers, fruit), and pray. In a few cases (Dakshinkhali, Gorkha), Hindu gods claim animal sacrifices, and people bring sheep, goats, and chickens as offerings.
The temples at Pashupatinath, Changunarayan, and Bhaktapur are examples of Hindu architecture constructed in the pagoda style, and they feature remarkable ornaments on wood structures and roofs.
Even though Buddhism adapted some Hinduism concepts into its core principles, it is not centered on a god. It is a philosophy of life that created a code of morality based on Buddha’s teachings. Its goal is for practitioners to reach enlightenment and be free from all suffering of life.
Buddhist temples in Nepal include a dome-shaped monument called a stupa. The shape symbolically represents the Buddha sitting in a posture of meditation on a throne. Stupas can store sacred relics of the Buddha or his disciples, their items, or they can represent important events in their lives. Stupas also contain a treasury gradually filled with various objects (small clay votive objects, mantras written on paper, jewelry, or other precious objects). Therefore, stupas don’t have an interior space open to the public, and pilgrims usually engage in rituals around the stupa and adjacent buildings.
The round shape of the stupa is also important in the circumambulation ritual. Pilgrims pray as they walk clockwise around the stupa and spin prayer wheels with mantras written on them. Spinning the wheels is equivalent to the recitation of a mantra.
The sites in Boudhanath, Swayambunath, or Charumati (all in Kathmandu and its surrounds) are relevant examples of Buddhist architecture constructed in the stupa style. Stand-alone stupas can be found in Nepal but they are rarer; stupas are usually part of Buddhist monasteries besides the gompa (prayer hall).
It is popular to hang colorful prayer flags promoting peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom around Buddhist sites. The colors used are blue (representing the sky), white (air), red (fire), green (water), and yellow (earth), together signifying balance. In high-altitude passes, prayer flags are hung, and chortens are built of boulders to replace the big stupas in towns.