When Nepal was a Kingdom: Part 5, What is a #Buddhist Stupa?


There’s a one eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu “! I knew this poem as a schoolboy, and never dreamed I would marry someone from Nepal, visit the country many times, walk amongst monasteries and temples, and become a Buddhist myself. These are not the sort of things that happen to a boy from a poor working class background in England.

Buddhist temples are easily recognised by the stupa, a mound or hemispherical structure supposedly containing “relics” of monks, nuns or even Buddhas within them. They are often part of monasteries or places of meditation.

Stupas originated as pre-Buddhist tumuli just like those found around Neolithic Britain such as the one below, Silbury Hill in Wiltshire.


But The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of Buddhist stupas dates to the late 4th century BCE in India.

Even before I visited Nepal for the first time in 1983 I was fascinated by Swayambhu temple/monastery, with its huge stupa and I have been fortunate to visit it literally hundreds of times since then. The most famous of all stupas in Nepal, legend has it that it was Swayambhu hill that was first revealed after the great flood covered the earth, with a lotus flower the first thing to show above the receding water. Hence it’s understandable place in Nepali Buddhist and Hindu legend.

The dome at the base represents the entire world. When a person awakes (represented by eyes of wisdom and compassion) from the bonds of the world, the person reaches the state of enlightenment. The thirteen pinnacles on the top symbolise that sentient beings have to go through the thirteen stages of spiritual realisations to reach enlightenment or Buddhahood.


Swayambhu 2



The other renowned stupa in Kathmandu is at Boudha, built by and traditionally the home of Tibetan refugees. This Stupa was built shortly after Buddha’s death around 400BC, probably by Tibetans along a trade route to India, and is therefore much older than Swayambhu.



Both of these stupa are naturally like magnets for tourists, of historical significance, architecturally beautiful, and playing up to your imagination of Buddhist mysticism. But don’t expect peacefulness, or a religious atmosphere, or any clues about enlightenment. Instead expect to pay to enter, beggars at every step on the climb up Swayambhu, merchants and hawkers refusing to take “no” for an answer, inflated prices, and taxi drivers wanting 4 times the meter price to return you to your hotel. Buddhist stupas have become commodities for the unscrupulous as well as a magnet for the tourist. But don’t let this put you off, just visit with your eyes open. Om! 🕉


Categories: Nepal, Travel

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2 replies

  1. Swoyambhu temple is a magical place at dawn before the crowd of worshipers arrived.

    Liked by 1 person


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