Reminiscing my days in Kathmandu, Nepal !!

Like millions of people around the world; I  was in shock as I watched tragedy unfold when the massive earthquake shook Kathmandu. I have fond memories of this mountain city; where I spent my first year at work nearly 18 years ago. It was a sleepy little town then, with warm friendly people who made us feel at home instantly. I turned the pages of my album reminiscing the beautiful moments spent in the lap of Himalayas in Kathmandu. I did go back a few years ago but development and modernity had transformed the city beyond my imagination.Kathmandu Budha Nilkantha - Sleeping Vishnu

Eyes welled up; tears rolled down for people I had never met; nor will I ever get a chance to but there was one thing in common between us, all of us felt that Kathmandu was a slice of heaven; a blessed place lovingly looked after by Boudnath; Pashupatinath; Swayambhunath; Budha Nilkantha and many others !!

In reality it turned out to be otherwise. Was it nature’s way of reminding us not to overburden; or was it a calling of our inner being not to come in the way of nature !! Yes but what about the little ones orphaned; what about the mother who lost her brood; what about the nonagenarian who stares at infinity having lost everything; too many what’s and no answers.

Pashupatinath Kathmandu Nepal

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Swayambhunath – The Monkey Temple, Kathmandu

Swayambhunath promounced as “Swa – yam- bhoo- nath” or the Self Created one is a famous stupa in Kathmandu. This stupa also known as the Monkey Temple is believed to have been built atop a self existent flame which also relates to the origin of its name. Though it is a Buddhist shrine, it is extremely popular with other religions as well. While there is a motor way to reach close to the top, we chose to climb the steps.Swayambhunath Kathmand

The monkeys were playfully prancing around the small tank at the entrance and the temple has earned the name Monkey Temple due to their abundant presence. We climbed up the 365 odd steps to reach the hill dedicating each step to each day in a year until we stumbled on the Vajra and got the first glimpse of the stupa.Swayambhunath Kathmand

The compassionate eyes of the Buddha drawn on the spire of the Stupa shone through the fading sun light. The eyes are visible on all four sides signifying the omnipresence of the Buddha in every corner of the planet for that kind glance, the invisible loving touch when we most need it.Swayambhunath Kathmandu

The golden pinnacle of this nearly 1500 year old structure has 13 tiers signifying the stages that one has to cross to merge with the Buddha. There are several smaller stupas leading upto the main Stupa. The souvenir shops around have an excellent collection of masks, statues, singing bowls, prayer wheels and other stuff.Swayambhunath Kathmand

The doors to the golden pagoda were closed but the soft murmurs of “Om Mane Padme Hum” reverberated through the evening air while some people proceeded to turn the prayer wheel or light the customary lamp.Swayambhunath Kathmand

This place also provides an excellent view of Kathmandu city. As the sky turned crimson and cool Himalayan air made its presence felt around us, we started our descent through the tree lined stairway providing breathtaking views of Kathmandu Valley.Swayambhunath Kathmand

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Story of 2 Flames in Pashupatinath, Kathmandu

I revere fire be it the one in my belly which sustains me or the one in my heart that shows me the way or the one that I light every evening symbolically. Fire is one of the elements of nature and is extremely sacred to Hindus. The sacred fire is a constant companion through birth, marriage or daily prayers and finally embracing our physical body in death.  In most Hindu homes an oil lamp is lit everyday to ward off negative energy. Fire rituals or Yagna which are elaborate fire ceremonies are an integral part of important auspicious events specially marriages which are solemnized around the fire.

Pashupatinath Arati KathmanduI was in Kathmandu and decided to visit the famed Pashupatinath Temple in the evening to watch the arati on the banks of the river Bagmati. The arati is held out side the temple on the river bank facing the temple idol. I reached a little early when the preparations were going on. Bagmati river nearly resembles a canal, with its dark muddy waters that seem to be quite stagnant. Looking for a convenient spot to watch the evening ceremony my gaze fell on the other side where a funeral pyre was being lit.Pashupatinath Arati Kathmandu

Soon the 3 priests took position and with the ongoing chants in the background, they turned the flaming stands around to invoke the deity and perform the worship while the flame on the other bank continued to burn. Both flames were burning bright on either bank of Bagmati, one to worship the lord with bated breath and the other that paves the way to merge with the lord after last breath.Pashupatinath Arati Kathmandu

After a while, nearly everyone got up and matched steps with the chants of Shiva Panchakshari Strotram (Om Na Ma Si Va Ya representing the 5 elements of nature), celebrating life. The spontaneous participation from the crowd cutting across age groups encouraged me to give my camera a break and join in. I tried to match steps, occasionally stealing glances at the funeral flame on the other side. Everyone else seemed to be unfazed and I wondered if it was only me who was struggling with the story of 2 flames. Maybe I landed there to overcome my fear of death and realize that death is not the end, but an opportunity for a new beginning !!

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One Afternoon in Buddha’s birthplace-Lumbini, Nepal

Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini Grove on a full moon day in the month of April-May in 563 BC as Prince Siddhartha to Queen Maya Devi and King Suddhodana of the Shakya Clan. Lumbini is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Southern Nepal very close to the Indian border. Our pilgrim group reached Lumbini in Nepal around noon after clearing the immigration check at the Indo Nepal border  in Sunauli. The road leading to the Sunauli border from Gorakhpur is pretty congested and the rows of medical stores and street corner eateries doing brisk business cannot be missed.  After quick lunch in a restaurant with a sprawling garden we headed to the main temple complex
Lumbini Nepal Temple

The holy pilgrimage site is bordered by monasteries belonging to the different branches of Buddhism. Hotels and other commercial establishments are not allowed in the vicinity to protect the sanctity of the place. Lumbini Gardens can be accessed from the main road either by a short walk or in a cycle drawn rickshaw.
Lumbini Nepal CandlesWhen we stepped into the main garden complex, we were welcomed with love by the soft chants of “Buddham, Dhammam, Sangham Saranam Gacchami “ that wafted in with the cool Himalayan breeze. We walked towards Maya Devi Temple, beautiful white structure that contains the site of the Buddha’s actual birth. Inside the temple, we stood by the Marker Stone, denoting the birthplace and the sculpture on the wall alongside depicting Queen Mahamaya’s labour.  Queen Mahamaya gave birth to Buddha (587 BC – on a full moon night in the month of April-May) in Lumbini Gardens beneath the Sal Tree, holding on a branch, accompanied by her maids in waiting. Forklore from Vajrayana Buddhism mentions that she was taken to Lake Manasarovar by four divine beings, lovingly bathed in its pure waters and then a elephant holding a white lotus in its trunk went around her three times and finally entered her womb!! Lumbini Nepal PushkariniShe knew she was chosen for delivering greatness to the world but alas never lived to see her beloved son’s greatness. On the side of the temple is the Ashoka Pillar, erected in 249 BC marking King Ashoka’s visit during the 20th year of his reign. The brick platform next to it, appears to be a remnant of an ancient stupa where the devout offer candles and flowers to the Lord and his mother. There is a pond or pushakirini alongside the temple which is believed to be the place where infant Buddha was given his first purification bath. A sat there smiling to myself , imagining the master as a child.Lumbini Nepal Discourse

A short walk ahead, across the tank is the Bodhi Tree decorated with Prayer Flags (very common in Nepal and Tibet) in all 6 colours. It is hard to miss the occasional Korean lamp that is visible within the flags. It was ethereal, with white robed pilgrims silently listening to a discourse on one side and orange robed monks chanting rhythmically on the other sideLumbini Nepal Monk

I sat on one of the planks under the tree, which is an ideal spot for meditation with the ongoing chants of monks lulling my mind into a quiet retreat. I would highly recommend visitors to walk through the lawns, soak in the ambience and find a quiet place to meditate. Lumbini Nepal MeditationIt is a beautiful place to spend the evening, with the sun slowly disappearing between the trees, lending a orange hue to the sky and soft soothing chants wafting through the air. If there is a definition of feeling peace, this is it.  Overwhelmed by the peace and calmness of the surrounding, it is not uncommon to find pilgrims humming “Buddham Sharanam Gacchammi” in  gratitude for the opportunity to visit this holy land. While walking through the lawns,we met Sagar Dhamma, a monk and an old associate of Nithya Shanti, our teacher. Lumbini Nepal Sagar DhammaSagar Dhamma, had given up his career with UNESCO, in Srilanka, years ago to explore Dhamma as a break from his hectic life. He can be seen chanting in Richard Gere’s documentary on the Buddha. He answered our questions patiently, spoke about the aspects of Buddhism and as a parting note told us to be mindful of the Qualities of Dhamma. The sun was off the horizon, twilight giving way to yet another evening and heralding the end of a happy, fulfilling and beautiful day.

Travel Tip

If there is time on hand, visit Tilaurakot, Japanese Peace Stupa and Lumbini Museum and indulge in a bowl of authentic Thukpa accompanied by steaming hot momos. Located in Southern Nepal, Lumbini is very close to the Indian border (Sunauli). The best way to reach is to take a train from New Delhi to Gorakhpur and then take a taxi to the Indian Side of the border and another taxi from the Nepal side of the border. The closest airport for Lumbini is Siddharthnagar in Nepal which is connected to Kathmandu. Alternatively, if you are in a group, plan to hire a car or a bus for the day from Gorakhpur in India.

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