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.
As I walked around the monument, there was so much to take in that at first I didn’t notice what wasn’tthere: Tibetan flags, Free Tibet signs, or any other indication of political identification so common in India’s Tibetan outposts. This, while Tibetans inside Tibet, in an unprecedented and desperate form of protest, have been burning themselves alive—more than 140 since 2009. Meanwhile, China has been steadily sealing Tibet off, banning foreign journalists, restricting in-country access to foreign news, and tightening border control. Since the mass protests and Chinese crackdowns of 2008, the number of Tibetans crossing the border has decreased from between two and three thousand annually to mere hundreds. At the same time, China has been extending its influence, through political pressure and economic incentives, to its small Himalayan neighbor. Indeed, China has not only enlisted Nepal’s help in stemming the flow of refugees to India but also pressed the Nepali government to quiet the political activities of Tibetans long settled in Nepal.
I breathed in the air thick with incense. It did feel quiet, so quiet. The stupa, freshly whitewashed every new and full moon, is always bright. Without any marker or memorial, it is difficult to remember that in an echo of the protests in Tibet, three monks have set themselves alight at the Boudhanath Stupa, the last one in August 2013, less than a year before my own visit. This image of sudden violence lingered incongruously against the slow turning of prayer wheels, seasons, years.
I asked casually in a couple of Tibetan shops around the stupa, “How do you like it in Nepal?” Almost no one met my eye. They said, It’s fine. Very nice. Anything else for you?
I hadn’t noticed the cameras until a Tibetan man working at my hotel explained why the Tibetans around Boudhanath were so guarded. The cameras were installed around the stupa in late 2012, to monitor crime, the government claimed. All tilted down toward the circling worshipers.
There are spies too, he told me. We are watched all the time. We can’t display flags or Free Tibet signs. The police will take them away. People are afraid to talk. Anyone could be listening.
Later, I spotted one camera installed on the ornately carved wooden molding of a window above a shop selling incense and prayer beads, one on the side of a restaurant advertising free Wi-Fi, and another above a shop selling those psychedelic parachute pants popular among Western backpackers.
I took pictures of the cameras and looked around to see if anyone was watching me. Above, the Eyes of the Buddha did not blink.
On my map, I found something labeled “Tibetan Refugee Camp.” I asked a taxi to take me there. About 20 minutes from Boudha, the driver dropped me at a Tibetan rug-weaving center near the camp—he probably couldn’t fathom why a tourist would want to visit the dreary complex of concrete buildings I eventually found my way to. Tangles of faded prayer flags flew from the roofs and laundry hung against a rusted fence topped with barbed wire. I didn’t see any cameras, but I wondered whether I was being watched from the windows as I wandered through deserted clusters of buildings.
“We are watched all the time . . . People are afraid to talk. Anyone could be listening.”
I quickly wound my way to what seemed to be the center: a larger, circular courtyard with grass pushing up through the brick floor. I was surprised when a man called out to me from behind. I told him I was trying to learn about the situation of Tibetans in Nepal. And for some reason I can’t explain, this man, whom I’ll call Norbu, talked to me.
It’s very bad here, he told me. As noncitizens, Tibetans can’t get good jobs or attend good schools. Many are self-employed, doing what they can in the carpet industry or running small shops and restaurants around Boudhanath. But for the young people it’s worse. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Nepali government stopped issuing refugee identification certificates, known as RCs, to the children of officially registered Tibetan refugees. Without papers, Norbu explained, the children are effectively stateless—they do not officially exist, are afforded no legal protection, but cannot leave the country, either.
Schoolchildren began to flood the courtyard around us, enlivening the gray space with their shouts and laughter. The girls wore beautiful turquoise chupas and the boys wore elegant white tunics over black slacks. I asked Norbu if I could take their picture, and he called out to a group hurtling by, one boy and two girls, perhaps 6 or 7 years old. They stopped suddenly, swaying in place. One of the girls and the boy hammed it up, the girl jutting her hip far out to the side, grinning madly, the boy clasping fingers over his mouth to stifle his giggles. But the girl on the end, the smallest one, didn’t smile in any of the pictures, or even look at the camera. Instead she looked at the ground, off to the side, up to the sky.
Watching the kids bounce away, Norbu said, You see us outside, we are having a good time, smiling, laughing, eating something . . . his voice trailed off. He told me the Tibetans used to march every year, on Losar (Tibetan New Year), March 10 (Tibetan Uprising Day), and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. But it’s impossible now, he said. Boudha is packed with riot police on all the important days.
I told Norbu I wanted to visit the Tibetan Reception Center, where new refugees stay before being transferred to India. It turned out his brother worked there, and a few minutes later he walked up. Norbu introduced me in English, then switched to Tibetan. I understood his brother’s answer by his clipped tones before Norbu turned to me to say, It’s impossible.
We have to be very careful with the refugees, he explained. Foreigners must go through an intensive approval process with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) before they can visit. We don’t know who you are, he said, which I took to mean that I could have been sent by China. When new refugees arrive, the staff interviews them to find out their reasons for leavingand whether they were political prisoners. But the center retains no records of the interviews, in case of Chinese spies.
These days though, not so many people make it to the center. It’s harder for Tibetans to get out of China, and recently there have been reports of refugees detained and returned to China by Nepali border guards, out of sight of the UNHCR.
I asked Norbu’s brother if there were any refugees at the reception center now.
No, no one. We’ve had no one for about a month.
Tibetan Buddhists walk around sacred monuments, temples, lakes, cities, and mountains. The practice of circumambulation originated in the pre-Buddhist Indian tradition of walking clockwise around sacred objects, in imitation of the apparent movement of the sun across the sky. It is thought that to walk the wrong way reverses the accumulation of positive merit, like unspooling a thread.
The Tibetan word for circumambulation is kora. The word for pilgrim, nekorwa, means “one who goes around a sacred place.” While we tend to think of pilgrimage as a long journey, Tibetans circle the sacred daily—not only when they make a point to do kora but also when- ever they come upon a small stupa, shrine, or temple. It is a habit remembered in the body and built into the landscape. Stupas set beside roads in the Himalayas have enough space around them that vehicles may pass clockwise from either direction.
Kora is a living pilgrimage and a moving meditation. To a mind accustomed to work and reward, journey and destination, kora looks pointlessly repetitive. But to walk around with pure intention is to align body, speech, and mind toward the aspiration, the still axis at the center. The form of the stupa represents the Buddha seated in meditation, and symbolizes his enlightened mind. Still, while each cycle around a sacred object, each turn of a prayer wheel, each mantra muttered with clear mind and pure intention is believed to accumulate merit, stacked against countless lifetimes of negative karma and countless beings yet to be liberated, it’s not a kind of progress we can measure or see. A circle is both a forward movement, a step on the path, and a constant return to the place of origin. It’s fitting for a philosophy that describes birth and death as circular—the cycle of samsara—and the path to liberation as the wheel of dharma.
But what happens if the movement is halted? The walkers are suspended now between the Eyes of the Buddha and the lenses of the cameras, between aspiration and surveillance. They can be recorded, paused, rewound, and sent scurrying backward. What happens when the stupa is no longer a site of transit and exchange, but a circle turning in stasis, when young people walk in circles because they have nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go?
At night the stupa is lit by strands of red, yellow, and green lights. Women attend tables of butter lamps. Unlit, they’re creamy and opaque. Under flame, the butter turns translucent.
On my last night in Kathmandu, I chose a rooftop terrace with a good view of the stupa and ordered pizza. While I waited for my food, I used the restaurant’s Wi-Fi to look for information about the Boudhanath self-immolations. The first one, a monk named Bhutuk, survived and escaped to India with the help of the Tibetan community. The third hid himself from the circling crowds—perhaps from the cameras, too—between the base of the stupa and the outer wall. I found a photograph online of tourists and locals crowded onto the walls to see his body, charred and white with ash, curled up small.
It was the image of the second self-immolator, however, that I couldn’t stop staring at. In the photograph, he’s standing on the kora path, in front of a shop selling purses and jackets, beneath a Pepsi sign—a spot I had passed countless times in my circlings. The flames leap almost two feet above his head.
Drupchen Tsering was 25 on the morning of February 13, 2013, the same age as me. Before, he went into a tourist restaurant called Golden Eyes and asked to use the toilet. After, the waiter found a jacket and a gasoline canister.
One eyewitness to the self-immolation, eating at a terrace café by the stupa, heard people screaming, and then saw the monk, engulfed in flames, running to the right. It took me a long time looking at the photograph to realize that the monk faces counterclockwise to the stupa, the wrong way around.
I don’t know what it means. The eyewitness said that the monk was not screaming.
After I finished my meal, I made another circuit, looking for the spot. I found the Pepsi sign from the photograph, and below it, a darkened patch of bricks. I couldn’t tell whether they were scorched or, more likely, just stained. Feet away, a group of young monks posed for a photo in front of the lit-up stupa.
A little farther on, I stopped at a table of butter lamps. The woman’s lined face glowed by their light. I used the cotton-wrapped stick she handed me to light three dark lamps. The flames danced above tiny clear pools. I could feel the heat on the skin of my wrists, my arms, my face.
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