Sagarmatha, also known as Mount Everest draws major tourist attention to Nepal, a small country situated between the mountains of High Himalaya. However, in the shadow of the mountains, lush green valleys and flowing rivers live to tell the history of human civilization. History of Nepal dates back to several centuries.
Nepal is the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the prophet whose graceful teachings of peace, love and harmony has spread till the far eastern corners of the world and shaped culture and social order of many nations. “Buddhang Saranang Gacchami” - I go to Buddha for refuge: the mantra is chanted in Nepali households as a way of life!
It is of little wonder that a number of Buddhist monuments in Nepal have survived for centuries.
Kathmandu valley and beyond are dotted with Temples, Stupas, old-world Monasteries and Gompas where Buddhism has been practiced and taught to young monks since historic times. Many of these Buddhist monuments have been conferred as UNESCO World Heritage site for impressive contribution to art and culture of the region.
The Buddhist Circuit of Nepal: A Pilgrimage Route to trace the Buddhist Monuments
Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal is an ancient city showcases distinct cultural nuances. Colorful local life easily impresses visitors! Kathmandu valley had suffered a lot by the Gorkha earthquake of 2015t. Buddhist monuments and other religious sites crumbled down to ruins. Subsequently, the world has joined hands to rebuild the heritage city.
There are a sum total of 7 UNESCO world heritage sites in Kathmandu. 2 of these monuments find their origin and inspiration in Buddhist teachings. They are Boudhanath and Swayambhunath stupa. The Patan durbar square, an ancient royal city, showcases architectural styles which have major inspiration drawn from Buddhism.
Beyond Kathmandu, lies Lumbini, the sacred birthplace of the Buddha. Together, they form a part of the important pilgrimage route featuring some of the most important Buddhist sites in Nepal.
Buddhist Monuments in Kathmandu You Must Visit!
Boudhanath in Kathmandu: UNESCO World Heritage sites in Nepal
With a profound Mandala and a protruding dome, Boudhanath is one among the largest stupas of Nepal. Located on the ancient Indo-Tibet trade route, It defines the skyline of Kathmandu.
The three eyes adorning the golden mount of the Stupa are believed to be the eyes of Buddha. They are considered to be protecting the nation and devotees from enemies and natural calamities.
The hemispherical form of the mould is designed after ancient Burial grounds of the Indian subcontinent, the likes of which you see in Sanchi stupa as well as Jakarta. It is believed to house sacred burial remains of Kasyapa Buddha.
Built in the early fourteenth century AD, Boudhanath Stupa has numerous legends associated with it.
A Tibetan lady locally known as Ma-jha-zi-ma is regarded as the first devotee to start the process of building Boudhanath. She asked for a piece of land and skin from the king, drew a circle with the skin given to her and started building the Stupa. Many renovations took place before the Stupa came to today’s shape and form.
The Gorkha earthquake of 2015 had caused many damages to Boudhanath. The world came in to support to rebuild the UNESCO heritage site of Kathmandu. A sum total of $2.1 million and more than 30 kg of gold were instrumental to rebuild Boudhanath Stupa.
Entry ticket to Boudhanath is priced at 100 NPR (SAARC nationals) and 500 NPR (foreigners) and valid for a week from the date of issue.
Entry to Boudhanath is strictly restricted between 6 am and 10 pm however the gates remain open longer during festivals. One can visit Boudhanath round the year. Best time to visit is early morning. Sunrise showcases gentle light kissing the top of the dome.
At night, Boudhanath Stupa and surrounding area comes alive with pretty little cafe lit up at the surrounding place. Many souvenir shops and restaurants serving various cuisine serve tourists and devotees.
Several prayer wheels are found at the ground of Boudhanath Stupa. Devotees chant “Om Mani Padme hoon” as they take circumnavigational rounds and walk up to the top of the dome.
Swayambhunath Temple (Monkey Temple)
Standing atop a small hillock at the outskirts of Kathmandu valley, Swayambhunath temple is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Newari Buddhist culture, specifically Vajrayana line of tradition and elements of Hindu culture are observed at the elaborate architectural details of Swayambhunath temple complex.
Locals believe, at the site of the Swayambhunath, lay a freshwater lake. At the center of which grew a lotus flower. The hill was dense with "Sublime Trees". Locals call the site as Singgu, denoting "self-sprung".
Swayambhunath's history can be traced back to 1500 years. Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, is considered the one who started the ritual of worshipping at Swayambhunath.
At Swayambhunath, one can find various temples, shrines, monasteries and ancient villages, filled to the brim with heritage. An eternal ghee lamp, known as Svyaṃbhu, remain lit deep inside the interiors of the main Gompa.
The main temple is located at the top of 365 stone steps. Close to the entrance of the main temple, a huge Vajra, an artistic sculpture of lightning bolt is placed upon a mandala. A group of stone carved animals bear the Vajra on their shoulder. A large pair of eyes is painted on the gilded golden top of the Stupa. Known as the eyes of Buddha, they stand for wisdom and compassion. The third eye, a gateway for the cosmic rays, opens only when Buddha preaches.
Swayambhunath temple has historically received king's patronage, dating back to the era of Ashoka to comparatively recent Malla kingdom.
Some of the temples are built during the Licchavi era. The Swayambhunath complex also houses the famous Ajima temple, Hariti temple (where Goddess of smallpox is worshipped). Newari architecture can be seen in these temples.
The main Stupa represents a small replica of the universe with adjacent shrines and spaces symbolizing other elements of nature, like Vayupura (air), Nagpura (water), Agnipura (fire), and Shantipura (sky). These symbols represent a diﬀerent aspect of Buddhism. Recently, a Tibetan monastery, museum and library have been open for visitors and devotees.
For westerners, Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey temple. These animals live and thrive here safely. They often attach tourists and demand a piece of the seasonal fruits from offerings.
Entry fee to the Swayambhunath temple complex is NPR 200.
Patan, also known as Lalitpur, "The city of Beauty"
Hinduism and Buddhism has a longstanding history of shared heritage in Nepal. The best of mixing of both cultures can be seen at Patan, one of the three ancient Durbar Squares of Nepal. Once regarded as the capital city of the imperial kingdom, Patan's heritage easily finds a place in the oldest manuscripts of Buddhist culture. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site owing to its incredible culture and artwork.
Bagmati river flows by the side of Patan, also known as Lalitpur to locals. The four corners of the city are guarded by 4 Stupas, believed to be erected by emperor Ashoka.
As of today, Patan houses as many as 55 major temples, 136 Buddhist monasteries, numerous alleys. The famous art of Thanka painting was originated at Patan. The most prominent Thanka painters of Nepal are trained in Patan.
A taste of exclusive local cuisine is a prized experience in Patan along with observing the beauty of fine metal works, and wood carvings. The alleys and old houses are separated by elaborately detailed bronze gateways, guardian deities and artistic carvings.
Patan is located only at a distance of 5 Km from Kathmandu. You can easily spend an entire day here, exploring the old city by feet. Sunset in Patan brings out the best color of rustic Newari architecture and is any photographer’s delight.
When in Patan, the following landmarks are highly recommended for visitors.
- Patan Durbar Square: The prime Palace square dotted with ruins of Malla king's residential palaces. Close to it housed is the Sundari Chowk with a masterpiece of stonecut architecture at the center. It was used as the Royal bath,known to locals as Tushahity.
- Mahabouddha Temple: Also known as the thousand Buddha Temple, this draws direct inspiration from the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, India.
- Banglamukhi Temple: A Hindu temple dedicated to the ten Mahavidyas, who are an incumbent part of many rituals for Tantrik Buddhism.
- Bhaskerdev Samskarita Hiranyabarna Mahavihara: Hiranyabarna , the color Gold is adorned by the temple deity, Lokeshwar (Lord Buddha) in this three story golden pagoda, also known as the Golden temple to the locals.
- Ratnakar Mahavihar: The Kumari, the iconic controversial living Goddess of Patan lives at the Vihara complex, also known as Ha Baha to the locals.
- Mahaboudha Temple: A Buddha temple styled after traditional Hindu Shikhara, the five pinnacles on rooftop Stupas.
- The Golden Window: Located at the entrance of Patan Museum, the elaborate window depicts the divine figure of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.
Kopan: the Buddhist Monastery
A peaceful small monastery, located at the outskirts of Kathmandu, Kopan monastery houses two institutes. First is the monastery, atop Kopan Hill, and second is the nunnery, named as Khachoe Ghakyil Ling (also known as the Kopan Nunnery). The institution is run by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international organization of Gelugpa dharma centers.
The monastery is open for visitors only on Saturday.
You can actually take up a course on Buddhism and spend a few weeks soaked in divine serenity at Kopan monastery. Courses on Tibetan Buddhism and cultural nuances are taught by senior monks.
The hilltop is located at a distance of 7 Km of the city. It takes a leisurely stroll of 30 minutes to reach Kopan monastery from the foothill.
Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, Nepal
Also known as Namobuddha, the history of Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery dates back to 6000 years. A local tomb dedicated to a deceased king later became an important pilgrimage spot for Buddhist as Lord Buddha preached his disciples about reincarnation.
Soaked in the heritage of Tibetan Buddhism, Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery today houses 250 young monks. The complex also has a Buddha temple and The Shree Mangal Dvip Branch School in the premises where local’s children study.
Visitors can stay for a few days with prior permission from the monastery. The prayer room has a profound metal statue of Buddha with refined art work. The walls are hand painted. The prayer wheels are old and speak dearly of a time bygone.
The nearest village to Namobuddha is Manegaun. The monastery is located at a distance of 40 Km off Kathmandu. Kartik Purnima, Guru Purnima are among the major festivals observed at the monastery which brings in many devotees from distant villages.
It is impossible to visit Nepal and skip Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
With more than 25 international monasteries built by the Buddhist nations from around the globe, Lumbini has been a major site for pilgrimage dating back to the age of emperor Ashoka.
Places to visit in Lumbini
The Iron Pillar built by Emperor Ashoka
The iron pillar erected by Asoka, dating back to 3rd century BC, has been excavated close to the iconic Mayadevi temple. The historic words, "King Devanampriya Priyadarsin ... came himself and worshipped ... because the Buddha Shakyamuni was born here" inscribed on the iron pillar revealed the true glory of Lumbini, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage.
It is surreal to step into the premises of Mayadevi garden. It is where Queen Mahamayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama in 563 BC. The birthplace has been renovated, preserved, and now hailed as a temple among the believers. Excavation work is ongoing at the surrounding area, with signs of monasteries dating back to historical times being found in abundance everywhere.
The Sacred Pond
The pond, Pushkarini, where Buddha was first given his bath is still there. Chapters from history from ancient Kapilabastu kingdom play in front of your mind as you stroll around Lumbini.
Shanti Stupa: World Peace Pagoda of Lumbini
Among the numerous monuments, monasteries and a museum, and the Lumbini International Research Institute, stands tall the World Peace Pagoda. The pristine beauty of the ivory white monument and its serene environment is a major tourist draw. There are close to 80 peace pagodas around the world. Nepal has two of them. The other one is located atop a hill in Pokhara by the picturesque Fewa lake.
Also, do consider paying a visit to the golden pagoda built by the Myanmar government in Lumbini.
A new international airport is being built in Lumbini. Lumbini is connected with Kathmandu with highway. The bus journey to Lumbini from Kathmandu takes anywhere between 10 to 12 hours.
Buddhism as a part of Cultural Heritage in Nepal
From Licchavi kings to Ashoka and the Mallas in later period, Buddhism flourished in Nepal with the help of the ruling kings, who had high regard for Buddhist philosophy. Changing time brought in various scholarly versions and newer explanation of old religious manuscripts. However the soul of Buddhism in Nepal remains planted in ancient Tibetan Buddhist teachings.
The old silk route spreading from the Tibetan plateau and connecting a vast expanse of Central Asia ran through Kathmandu valley and a vast area of Nepal. The trade route was instrumental in spreading of Buddhism beyond the Indian subcontinent.
Even though a major number of the Nepalese population follows Hinduism, elements of Buddhist culture are deeply ingrained in every religious spectre of Nepal. Many of the Buddhist customs and rituals stem out of ancient Hindu practices. Shared deities, temples (for example, Muktinath temple of Mustang) between both the communities testify to inherent homogeneity.
The Tibetan masks, from Kal Bhairav to Tara, carefully preserved at the monasteries of Nepal speak volumes on the cultural assimilation.
Suggested reading list to understand more about Buddhism in Nepal
Spirituality, deeply embedded in everyday life, draws a major number of tourist footfalls to Nepal. To understand Buddhism deeply, the following books are recommended reads:
- Buddhism in Nepal by Sushil K Naidu
- The Mystery over Lord Buddha's Roots by KOJIMA Mitsuaki
- Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to Lhasa by Abdul Wahid Radhu
Best time to visit Nepal
Barring the monsoon months, Nepal is a pleasant destination for rest of the year. Kathmandu valley is hot and humid during the summer months. Colder region starts spreading from Pokhara, as the land elevates to merge with rolling mountain ranges.