The Stupas of Kathmandu valley – History & splendor
The stupas of Kathmandu valley are unique in their architecture and cultural relevance. They are a feat of intricate craftsmanship and artistry. From the domes, to the pillar bearing an umbrella to the beautiful doorways and the wisdom eyes (painted on most stupas in Nepal) all portray exemplary techniques.
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According to Swayambhu Purana, the Chinese saint Manjushree was flabbergasted when he saw a self-existent primordial flame, Swayambhu in the middle of the huge Paleo Kathmandu Lake during his Nepal visit. The celestial flame came from a lotus flower with thousand petals that bloomed in the middle of the ancient lake.
Manjushree wanted to reach the divine lights and drained the lake by cutting the Chobhar gorge with his godly sword. Soon, the lotus was magically transformed into a hill and the flame became the Swayambhu stupa.
Historically, the present Stupa on top of a hill, rising at the center of the Kathmandu Valley is said to have been built by Lichhavi King Mandev in the 4th century. A series of long steps lead to the temple and visitors are welcomed by large tribes of monkeys who have made the sacred place their home.
Hence, the visiting tourists call the Stupa as “The Monkey Temple”. The vibrant and auspicious prayer flags which are meant to spread peace, blessings and wisdom are found strung along trail. There are quite a few Buddhist and Hindu deities, shrines and temples in and around the premises as well.
The Mangal Bahudwar Chaitya
The Mangal Bahudwar Chaitya at Swayambhu, was the first Chaitya to be scientifically excavated in the Kathmandu Valley. Various miniature bronze and copper stupas and gold foil was recovered from the structure. Coins issued by the Mughal Sultans, the Malla and Shah Kings and metal currency from China were discovered during the excavation.
The secret behind them was revealed when the archaeologists discovered an inscription with a casket underneath the shrine. It belonged to a merchant who liked collecting coins from international traders who visited Kathmandu. But the reason why the structure was built for him in Swayambhunath temple still remains one of history’s great mysteries.
The names of the stupas reflect the experiences and cultures of different communities, and oftentimes there is more than one legend related to a name. Boudanath Stupa has several names. One of them is “Khasti Mahachaitya” which means ‘the great stupa of the dew drops’.
Legend has it that long time ago, Kathmandu Valley was going through a prolonged period of drought. There was shortage of water to mix the clay for the construction of the stupa. So, the King of Kathmandu at the time instructed the people to harvest water by collecting dewdrops every morning.
Fog or dew collection is an ancient practice. In desert areas, where there is very little rain, fog and dew are abundant sources of humidity that are used to harvest fresh water.
According to another legend, a poverty-stricken single mother brought up four sons with the earnings from raising chickens. She had only one wish, to build a great stupa with her savings. She went to the King and impressed by her dedication and devotion to God, the King granted her the permission.
The woman and her four sons began building the foundations for the great stupa. 4 years later, everything up to the dome was completed. But jealous aristocrats and ministers were shocked that a single woman and her four sons could build such a great stupa.
They requested the King to forbid the construction. The second name of the stupa comes from the king’s answer: “Jarung khashor”, meaning “I have already granted her my permission (kha shor) to begin with the work (Jya rung)” The woman had become weak and passed away but the 4 sons completed the stupa.
Due to the merit of building this great stupa, the woman is said to have attained Buddhahood (a state of absolute enlightenment) It is believed that the four sons who helped her in the construction, also helped in introduction of Buddhism to different parts of Tibet and were reborn as prominent figures in Buddhism.
The Ashoka Stupas
After experiencing death and destruction of war, Emperor Ashoka walked in the path of peace. He converted to Buddhism and visited Lumbini, the birth place of Gautama Buddha. He then built a pillar in Lumbini as a mark of respect to Gautama Buddha.
The emperor also visited numerous other pilgrimage sites in Asia including several places in Nepal. Emperor Ashoka visited Nepal more than 2000 years ago during the reign of Kirant King Sthunko, 14th Kirant King.
He built 4 Ashokian stupas in Lalitpur; Teta Thura (eastern stupa), Pucho Thura (western stupa), Ibahi Thura (northern stupa) and the largest among the 4 stupas, Lagan Thura (southern stupa). These Stupas defined the boundaries of the sacred space.
They were built on stacks of bricks, which have gradually become grassy mounds except for the northern stupa. It would have probably been possible to see the three stupas from the top of any one stupa in the past. The historical monuments still stand at Imadol, Pulchok, Ebihi and Lagankhel.
Some people believe that The Pimbahal Stupa near the Jagmadu pond in Patan is the central Ashokian stupa.
The Charumati Vihara has more than 2000 years of history. Its Lichhavi era name is Dhando Chaitya and it is commonly known as the Chabahil Stupa since it is located in Chabahil, Kathmandu. The Stupa is considered as one of the oldest stupas in the country and has been renovated many times by various Nepali Kings.
It was built by Princess Charumati, the daughter of Indian Emperor Ashoka. Princess Charumati married Nepali Prince Devapala of Kathmandu and together both of them established the town of Devpatan (present day Pashupati and Chabahil area).
During the Gunla festival, the Buddhist Newars visit the stupa playing Gunla Baja and chanting Buddha prayers that are considered very auspicious.
The Shree Gha-Shanti Ghat Bhajradhatu Mahachaitya
According to a popular legend, the Chaitya was originally located in Kingdom of Kashi. Once upon a time, Acharya Vak-vajra of Kwa-Bahal, Thahity was on a pilgrimage visit to Benaras. He was requested to perform the consecration ceremony of the stupa by the King of Kashi.
He used his tantric powers to lift the entire stupa in the sky and transported it to its present location in Kathmandu. Acharya Vak-vajraa was a Vajrayana Buddhist master whose folklore of tantric magic is still popular among the people of Kathmandu.
People who cannot climb up the long row of steps to reach the Swayambhu Stupa located on top of a hill, visit the Kashi Swayambhu stupa.