Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kathmandu, day 1; Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple

January 19th, 2008

When I was a boy, I saw a short TV documentary about Nepal. The only part I remember is a clip on a monkey hanging out with an old sadu, sitting with a long gray beard, and dread-locks tied above his head. At the time, I thought it was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen, monkeys hanging out in the city with people at the base of the stairs heading up to the Monkey Temple. Of course, I'd already learned a couple of years earlier that monkeys weren't as exciting as I'd dreamt them up to be, Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, was still the first thing I wanted to see in Kathmandu.

The bus dropped me off on a run down, dirt street, and I caught a taxi into Thamel, the backpacker/shopping district of Kathmandu. It was a long drive, zigzagging through the hectic maze of dirt and crumbling brick. The driver was friendly, though, and did his best to detour the busy traffic that was starting to clog up the streets. We talk about Nepal, and at one point he told me that Nepal is 85% Hindu and 30% Budhist, which, somehow, made sense... Maybe it includes the cross over of Hindus including Buddha as one of the incarnations of Vishnu. Nepal is the home of Vishnu and also the birthplace of Buddha. 

He dropped me off close to the center of Thamel, where I headed to the shop of the brother of the husband of a  Korean friend of a Canadian friend (are you following?), who'd I'd been in contact with through email. It was nice to have an instant friend on a place like Kathmandu to help me feel comfortable. We had tea, and I unloaded some of the things I was carrying to send back to Korea (they ran a shipping service, connected with his brother's shop in Korea) and he brought me to a nice guesthouse, and I got settled, walked around the area a bit to get my bearings, saw some interesting antique shops, then flagged down a rickshaw to the Monkey Temple.

The driver told me the West entrance would bring me up just below the stupa but the East side, with the long staircase was better, and I took his advice. He pulled up to a parking spot at the edge of a hill, and pointed out the staircase. It was much more secluded then how I imagined it, the stairs leading into a wooded hill, not the ancient city center I somehow remember from TV about 20 years ago.

Geologists have discovered enough evidence to show that the Kathmandu Valley was once a great lake. According to legend, a single lotus with one thousand pedals grew in this lake. The Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī came to lake after having a vision of the lotus. He realized the valley would be a suitable place for civilization and, with his great sword, he cut gorges into the surrounding ridge, draining the lake. He transformed the stem of the lotus into a hill and the lotus became the Swayambhunath stupa. While creating the hill, Mañjuśrī's long hair became infested with lice, which he turned into the sacred monkeys still inhabiting the hill.

I followed the stairs, past small white stupas, big gold Buddhas, and red-faced monkeys playing along the stairs. The sun was setting behind the mountains and beneath long strands of prayer flags, the path opened to a view of the city, entirely covering the valley.

At the top of the staircase, you are immediately confronted by a giant vajra, and the distinctive Nepali Buddha eyes looking down at you from the famous stupa. The wind at the top of the hill blew the many strands of prayer flags emanating from the crown of the stupa and flowing out to the four corners of the temple. As the sky shifted to electric blue, and clouds flew quickly over, the flapping flags filled the site with a powerful energy. I circled the mound a few times with the remaining devout, mostly Tibetan refugees and playful monkeys, admiring every surface of the temple.

Eventually, another North American and I noticed each other and we began chatting. She's staying in Kathmandu involved in some kind of program, I wasn't really sure what she said it was, but some of the guys brought her there on scooters. They told me they would give me a ride back to Thamel, so I climbed on the back of one of their bikes and we zoomed through the dark streets of Nepal, passed the palace, where the Prince massacred his family in 2001, and finally to the guesthouse.

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