Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stupa night

Just came back from a colorful night. I'm afraid I won't do it justice now - I feel both sleepy and glass-of-wine-silly. But I'll try to paint a few pictures.

The setting: Bodhnath Stupa, the largest stupa in Kathmandu. I remember seeing it weeks ago as I flew into the city – an immense, white UFO shape with a pointed gold top and prayer flags sprawling out from the tip to the base. It is, without question, the most prominent structure in the valley.

A blurry view from the air

Today is a Buddhist Holy day and thousands have flocked to the stupa to worship, celebrate. Prayers are said to be 10,000 times more potent today. (Or is it 100,000?).

Birbal, our driver, drops Jenny, Denise and I at the main entrance. As I exit the car, I collide with a short Tibetan woman wearing a maroon robe. Her head is shaved. The first of many Lamas I'm to see - and bump into - tonight.

We walk through a narrow alley lined by ancient, European-looking apartments (colorful shutters, well-maintained). The ground floors host shops that sell cloth mandalas and Tibetan prayer flags. Every shop burns a different incense. My nose twitches.

The stupa is at the end of the alleyway. Several football fields wide and a few flagpoles tall, the white sphere appears to have its own gravitational pull. At the top, a set of large painted eyes stare down, directly at me.

My first stupa-picture of the night

I take out my camera and start taking pictures. A gut reaction. Denise and Jenny do the same. After a few pictures we look at each other, Jenny asks what’s on all of our minds: 'Is this appropriate?' We aren’t sure (so much sacred-ness), but find out later that pictures are fine.

Hundreds (maybe thousands) of people are circulating the stupa. Most of them are holding white candles and are chanting sounds that are low, deep. Half wear maroon robes and have shaved heads. A few white (sunburned) tourists dot the crowd – cameras around neck, fanny packs at waist. But the vast majority are Tibetan and Nepali. A lot of “Free Tibet” t-shirts.

I see lamas wearing bright plastic Croc shoes under their maroon robes; old women dressed in traditional scarves talking on cell phones; thousand year-plus-old stupa next to coffee shops advertising "lattes" and "fast internet."

Monk waiting in internet cafe

Jenny and I circle the stupa while Denise waits at the entrance for the woman we’re to meet. Chanting, candles, robes all around us. We walk in a dazed wonder, clockwise, around the structure. It reminds me of the Dartmouth homecoming bonfire – the mass of people and energy, circulating, worshiping this central relic.

We’ve come to meet Maura Moyhihan, a friend of the IRC’s president who is visiting Kathmandu for the week. I’m excited to meet her – she’s supposed to be “eccentric” and “feisty.” And I’d read about her dad, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in American history classes.

After Jenny and I do a loop, we wait for Maura by the entrance with Denise. Minutes later, a middle aged woman bounces up to us, smiling. She looks like an aging teenager - she is thin and wears flair jeans, a bright blue shirt and dangly earrings; she also has wrinkles and thinning hair.

She hugs each of us, introduces us to the Tibetan man with her, takes Denise by the hand and walks swiftly with the crowd, motioning for us to follow. Unsure where we are going, Jenny and I tag along, make small talk with the Tibetan man along the way.

I'm getting sleepy so must stop here. But in a nutshell, she brought us to visit an old, tantric Lama – one of the last of his generation still alive. He was performing a ceremony near the stupa. We entered his temple, bowed to him, sat with his followers on red cushions. Lots of chanting, prostrating, colorful hats, drum beating. After, we had dinner with Maura and a handful of her Tibetan friends. I sat next to a grey-haired Tibetan man who came to Nepal when he was 9. The year was 1959, the same year China invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled for India. He left with his two older brothers and father in a group of about 300 others from his village. Luckily he knew how to ride a horse. Six months and many mountain passes later, they reached Nepal. Many, including his father, died along the way from disease, malnutrition, and occasional fights with Chinese troops.

The Tibetan Drama has always been distant, academic to me. Tonight at the stupa it came alive.

Denise (my boss), Jenny (my roommate) and Maura (lady we were meeting). This picture is characteristic of Maura - her hands were flail-ey and expressive most of the night.

Good old Birbal!

1 comment:

sbg said...


Stupa night sounds magical and surreal! I could really see it in my mind as you describe it.

I just came back to your blog - I had forgotten you were writing. Is your Settings->Email->BlogSend Address option all full? I'd love to be alerted when you post!

Last night I went to Lebanon and I couldn't help wishing you were there visiting your grandfather so I could scoop you up and take you away to ice cream.

Love and Miss!