Boudhanath in Nepal: Circling One of the World's Largest Stupas
A Haven Inside the Busy City of Kathmandu
During my three-month trip to Nepal, I spent a few weeks in the crowded capital. It was my first visit to the country, and, until I arrived, I'd been unaware of the extent of the political unrest -- the Maoist strikes and sporadic violence -- going on at the time. I was there on my own for a writing project and headed into the adventure with blinders on. Not that I'm at all sorry I went, but I was not prepared for some of the turmoil or the crazy, uncomfortable circumstances I encountered, especially in the city.
But at least there was Boudhanath. Also known as Boudha (pronounced Bo-da) or Bodhnath, the site is located several miles east of downtown Kathmandu and contains one of the largest Buddhist stupas -- dome-shaped shrines -- in the world. Though no one knows for sure when Boudha stupa was built, it's believed to have been constructed during the 5th century AD.
In 1979, by then one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kathmandu, Boudhanath became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around the whitewashed stupa is a circular brick and cobblestone area surrounded by monasteries, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. It was within that outer ring of buildings, with the huge shrine at the center, where I felt the most safe, secure, and relaxed in Kathmandu.
Photography: Unless otherwise noted, the photos on this page were taken by me, Deb Kingsbury.
Boudha Stupa Then (1950)
Following the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet, thousands of refugees arrived at Boudhanath, and the stupa became one of the most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. Over time, the site became surrounded by more and more city, people, traffic, and noise.
Boudha Stupa Now - Sixty years later....
Today, Boudhanath remains an important place of pilgrimage and meditation for Tibetan Buddhists and local Nepalis. It's also the site of a number of festivals throughout the year, lots of chanting and praying, children playing, and visitors from near and far shopping, eating, chatting and sitting, watching the world go by -- something I did a lot of during my time in Kathmandu.
Inside Boudhanath - Enter through the main gate or any of several alleys off of busy city streets....
You can climb steps onto different levels of the stupa. I took this photo while sitting on the second platform early in the day, before the crowds of worshipers, walkers, and shoppers arrived and before most of the other tourists were out and about.
Technically, tourists are supposed to enter through the main gate and pay a small fee, unless they're staying in a hotel inside Boudha. (I didn't know about this the first time I went in, before I was staying inside, and entered through a shop-filled alley. But it's not like they give you a ticket or have any apparent way they check, so, to me, it was more like a donation.) Locals and monks don't have to pay anything.
Walking and Worshiping at the Stupa
Round and round they go
As a daily ritual, crowds of people circle the stupa multiple times -- usually at least three but often many more -- while repeating the mantra, "Om mani padme hum" either silently or aloud. The tradition is to walk clockwise around the stupa and spin the prayer wheels clockwise also. One lap around the stupa is about 150 meters or just under 1/10th of a mile.
During festivals and full moons, the smell of incense and the sound of mantras chanted by monks fills the air of Boudhanath, where there are something like 50 Tibetan gompas (or monasteries).
There were times when the singing and chanting, the drumming and clanging of cymbals lasted all night long. Too hot and humid to shut the windows of my room, I would lie on top of the sheets, sweating and listening to the nonstop sound until sunrise. (Summertime really isn't the prime time to visit Nepal, unless you'll be in the mountains.)
A Wall of Prayer Wheels Around the Stupa - With 147 niches, each with 4 or 5 wheels
A prayer wheel is basically a cylinder on a spindle. The cylinder is made of either metal, wood, stone, leather, or even coarse cotton. The "Om mani padme hum" mantra is usually written in Sanskrit on the wheel.
Hundreds of small prayer wheels line the outer wall of the stupa. There are also a number of other prayer wheels, some of them very large, within Boudhanath. Walking around the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels and reciting the traditional mantra, is called a "kora."
A large prayer wheel in an alcove near the stupa
Take a Virtual Kora Around Boudhanath Stupa - Join these visitors as they circle the shrine....
The Most Pious of Pilgrims - Prostrations around the stupa
Some who come to Boudhanath to pray prostrate themselves, which means they lie flat on the ground, arms outstretched, then stand and step forward to the point where their hands had touched. Then they lie down again and repeat the process ... over and over, around and around the circle. Worshipers often do this amidst hundreds, even thousands, of feet walking past, but they don't seem to notice. Or get stepped on.
Inside a Gompa at Boudhanath
At Boudha on a daily basis, you'll see a LOT of Buddhist monks and nuns dressed in the traditional deep red robes. During festivals, it's more like a sea of red robes.
I knew very little about Buddhism or the lives of these devout people before my visit to Nepal. And while I didn't come away an expert about Buddhism or monks by any means, I did enjoy meeting some of them from all over the world, many of whom spoke English and were very happy to tell me about the teachings of Buddhism and answer questions.
One particular monk decided to take me under his wing for an afternoon and led me around the stupa, showing me this and that, explaining things and telling me stories. Eventually, he invited me inside a large monastery, or gompa, where he offered me a seat and went about silently performing a number of "rituals" I didn't understand. But I didn't ask any more questions and simply watched. The monk told me it was fine to take photos, but mostly I just sat there, enjoying the relative quiet and space.
Buddhist monks worshiping at Boudha stupa
I was at Boudhanath during two of many festivals that take place there during the year. These people were playing drums and cymbals, chanting, and collecting food offerings. The pile of popcorn, crackers, and cookies was huge at the end of the day.
Dining at Boudhanath
Cafes around Boudha Stupa
One of the routines I quickly adopted while staying at Boudha was to get up very early and walk most of the way around the stupa from my hotel to Flavors Cafe (which was actually very close to my hotel if I were to have walked counter-clockwise .... which I could have but didn't). At Flavors, I'd sit just inside the open front of the restaurant and drink milk tea, watching people go by, daydreaming, and sometimes scribbling some thoughts.
And sometimes I'd end up sitting there for hours, using the free wireless internet on my little laptop, occasionally typing but more often finding myself lost in thought. The folks at Flavors didn't mind at all if I sat there through the day, now and then ordering something more to eat or drink from their large menu. Or just sit there.
I made friends at Flavors too -- travelers from all over the world. We'd sit together and talk. Or not.
Sometimes I sat up on the roof and watched the activity around the stupa and on its various levels from above. Many of the cafes at Boudhanath have rooftop seating.
I also began frequenting the multistory Saturday's cafe, which reminded me of eateries and coffeehouses here at home, with their vegetarian meals and baked goods, organic coffee, and bookstore, from which you can borrow a book to read while you're in the cafe.
There are many good places to eat in Boudhanath, serving everything from local dishes to international cuisine ... and, of course, pizza. Find other recommended restaurants around the stupa on LonelyPlanet.com.
A little girl stops by for some bread while a waitress watches.
Shopping at Boudhanath
There's a LOT to look at
Colorful fabrics and clothing; bags, purses and backpacks; shoes and sandals; singing bowls; deity masks and statues; beads and jewelry; prayer flags and incense -- you'll find all that and a lot more for sale at Boudha, from craft stalls and artisan shops that ring the stupa and others in alleyways and inner hallways of buildings that look like a blend of European and Asian styles.
Compared to U.S. prices, I found much of what was for sale in Boudha to be very reasonably priced and sometimes very cheap. But do the conversion and beware, because you might not always be getting such a great deal. I found that there was often one price for tourists and another for locals, and sometimes the tourist price was very inflated. But bartering is not only acceptable but usually expected, and you can often find the same item -- or at least something very similar -- at multiple other shops, so don't be afraid to walk away ... or at least do a lap or two around the stupa until that same salesperson flags you down with a better offer.
Oh, but do be careful with your money and other valuables. Little hands are fast and sometimes not even felt as they remove what isn't theirs from pockets and purses. I learned my lesson the hard way.
I definitely recommend using a travel belt like this one for your money, credit cards, and other small valuables....
An afternoon snooze at the shop
Lodging in Boudhanath
While Boudha does get very crowded at times, it's a quiet place by comparison with the frenetic city surrounding it. And, like other tourist sites, it's also very clean compared to what I saw of the rest of Kathmandu.
For me, Boudha was a calm haven away from all the chaos, crazy traffic, and hoards of people outside its circular boundaries. Inside, at least when there are "hoards," they're generally going in one direction -- clockwise -- so it's easier to go with the flow.
So, during the second and third times I visited Kathmandu during my trip, I decided to stay within Boudha, choosing from the many guesthouses, hotels and hostels around the stupa and in the alleys just off the circle, including the hotel you see here. I'm trying to figure out the name of it, so I can specifically recommend it to you, as it was very clean and comfortable. The breakfast that was included in the price (which was extremely low compared to what we're used to paying in the U.S. ... as in, something like US $15/night) was very tasty, and there was reliable hot water for showers -- not something you find at all hotels in Nepal. This hotel also had its own private, quiet courtyard off the main circle of Boudhanath.
I'm fairly sure this was the Hotel Ngudrup based on the description and photos on their site.
There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses to choose from in Boudhanath
Some Nice Places to Stay Around Boudha Stupa
- Hotel Ngudrup
25 guest rooms, including some with small kitchenettes; a quiet courtyard just off the main circle around the stupa; rooftop seating
- The Valley Guesthouse
Located behind the stupa, surrounded by monasteries
- Boudha Hotels and Hostels from LonelyPlanet.com
Lodging around Boudha stupa reviewed and recommended by the well-known travel guide publisher
People-Watching - One of my favorite pasttimes in Boudha
As I sat in a cafe, on a bench, or on the stupa itself, people-watching, I'd see many OTHER people people-watching too. Boudha is a great place for that, especially for a writer like me, as well as artists and those who like to take people-pictures. The locals did a lot of that, too.
I wondered what they were laughing about. Watching them made me happy.
Feeding (and Chasing) Pigeons - Another common scene at the stupa
One thing I always think of when I remember Boudhanath is pigeons. Lots and lots of pigeons. And the kids who enjoyed running into the middle of the huge flock, sending them into the air in a frenzy. But not for long. Those pigeons would soon be back on the ground, happily pecking away at the plentiful supply of food around the stupa.
I saw this boy chasing pigeons nearly every day ... and then he'd feed them.
Buddha People-Watches, Too - Here's lookin' at you ... and you and you....
At the top of the stupa, the eyes of Buddha watch from all four sides of the square tower. Instead of a nose, what takes its place resembles a question mark but is actually the Nepali character for the number 1, symbolizing unity and the only way to reach enlightenment: through the Buddha's teachings.
More Information about Boudhanath
Pick Up a Reliable, Current Guide Before You Go - And take it with you....
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury