At dawn and dusk they circle the stupa—a whitewashed dome atop a mandala base, tapering to a golden steeple rising more than 100 feet above the throngs. The most devout—mostly older, mostly women, wearing nuns’ robes or Tibetan chupas or Nepali kurtas—walk close to the outer wall, spinning prayer wheels, smoothing worn malas between practiced fingers, mumbling mantras so quickly the syllables run together in a steady hum. Young people dressed in jeans and T-shirts amble around in groups in animated conversation. Those in a hurry, on their way to work or school, may not complete a full circuit, but they always walk clockwise with the tide of people before dipping out at the ornate main gate of Boudhanath, the primarily Tibetan part of Kathmandu, or one of many sidestreets that branch off the colorful ring of shops, hotels, and restaurants that have sprung up around this center.
Since the first wave of Tibetans left their homes in 1959, in the wake of the Chinese takeover of Tibet, Nepal has been the first stop for Tibetans on their way to India, and until 1989, when a diplomatic agreement between Nepal and China halted Nepal’s acceptance of new refugees, many Tibetans chose to settle here. Today, Nepal is home to an estimated fifteen to twenty thousand Tibetans—those who fled between 1959 and 1989 and their descendants. The stupa has become their cultural, commercial, and religious center.
Prayer flags streaming from steeple to base, the clouds all flung out behind, the stupa commands a gravitational force all its own. Even the pigeons, who settle in flocks on the dome and startle up in waves with the wind, seem to feel the pull of this ancient monument whose origins stretch beyond memory and into myth. Abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, rediscovered and reconstructed several times over the centuries, the stupa has anchored this spot like the still center of a wheel for more than a thousand years. In July 2014, some nine months before the recent massive earthquake, I too was drawn by its force. Down a muddy street past shops selling lentils from bulk barrels, single bars of soap, and bags of spicy chips, around a bend, past shoe shiners squatting over dirty tarps, down a slight hill, past a beauty parlor and a row of Tibetan restaurants, the streets opened and there it was. From the outer wall, embedded with hammered brass prayer wheels and stone statues of deities darkened and smoothed by centuries of devout hands, my gaze was drawn up past the squared base, up to the white dome streaked green by the monsoon months, up to the eyes.
Four identical sets are painted on the four sides of the gilded brass steeple rising from the dome. The blue irises rest beneath lids so precisely rendered, lined red on top and black beneath, creasing at the corners into the brass, that I half expected them to blink. The lids dip in an expression that might be angry or discerning, depending on who is looking and what they hope or fear might be seen. The April earthquake would crack the spire but leave the eyes untouched. These are known as the Eyes of the Buddha, and they see all.
The stupa has seen the land around it turn from jungle to field to tourist destination. It has seen the rise and collapse of kingdoms. It has greeted travelers, centuries of traders, artisans, scholars, teachers, and yogis crossing through the Kathmandu Valley to Tibet, stopping to pray for safe passage through the Himalayan passes, and to offer thanks on their safe return. And in the past half-century, it has seen a new set of travelers from the mountains, refugees stumbling frostbitten and hungry from their homes high in Tibet to this fertile valley, spilling, like the travelers before them, into its orbit.
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