Buddha’s Birthday in Kathmandu

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Every year on the full moon during the Nepali month of Baisakh is the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. People flock to Buddhist stupas and shrines all of Nepal. Special celebrations occur in, Lumbini – Buddh’a birthplace. In Kathmandu city, one of the most notable sites for the occasion is Boudhannath Stupa.

We walked about an hour and a half across the city to reach Boudha. It was early enough in the day that the roads had not completely turned to dust and the sun was not yet scorching. Kathmandu is an interesting city to walk through – unfinished roads, mud, dust, and a variety of vehicles make it a busy commute.

In Kathmandu many spaces are “hidden” behind tall buildings or structures. it is only when one wanders down alleys or into courtyards, that the city begins to reveal itself. In the case of Boudhannath temple, it is a massive structure, but still quite hidden among the circle of surrounding buildings. The temple and its circumfrence form a mandala. From the busy city streets one can see the tip of the stupa and the many prayer flags draping down. But step through an alley and into the circle and you will enter the world of Boudha Stupa.

The day of my visit was especially active because of the holiday. A great many people were walking around the massive stupa in an act of prayer, good will, and religious devotion. Poor and disabled citizens lined the outside of the ring, in order to receive money from those walking the circle. In a tradition of goodwill, many people will change their money and distribute many small bills to the lines of beggers. Monks also form sections of the circle, each one with a metal pot for receiving donations.

The walls of the stupa are lined with payer wheels. Thus, as one circles clockwise, you pass your hand along the prayer wheels. With the number of people circling, most wheels are continuously spinning. Around the circumference people are burning powdered, green incense on hot coals. The incense is made from the leaves of a juniper tree. You’ll also see monks playing music or giving blessings and people handing out free fruit. Generosity and goodwill seem foundational in the celebration of the holiday.

Venture within the Stupa and you will first come to a chamber of prayer wheels. A small space, but with two large prayer wheels surrounded by many oil lamps and shrines. A flow of people walks the walls while spinning the wheels; the space is so tight that I was trying not to catch on fire from the lamps. Stepping out of that space there is an open room lined with small prayer wheels, which lead to the place of the paint mixing.

A man gestured me over an said “Saffron!”. He explained to me that they take the white paint and mix in Saffron to color it gold. I saw them take a massive handful of Saffron and mix it into a 5-liter bucket. It looked deeply red, but once strained and prepared it has a more golden color. They carried the bucket up the steps of the tiered stupa. Climbing above one can see the busy activity of the outer circle and get a closer look at life on the inside. Walking around the top, underneath the overstretched prayer flags, I saw what they were using the Saffron paint for. At the base of the large dome atop the Stupa two boys had clear jobs – one was pouring paint into a bucket and the other would definitively raise the paint over his head, splashing it across the dome. The process would form a golden lotus pattern atop the white stupa.

On the tiers leading up to the dome, others were painting the stupa white. It is believed to be good luck and a kind act of renovation for the stupa – giving it a fresh coat of paint. You could see locals and visitors alike adding to its fresh exterior. Overall, the event was a beautiful and fascinating experience of Nepalese rituals and the interesting interweavings of Buddhism and Hinduism.

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