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A visit to Nepal would be incomplete without sampling some of its sacred treasures, especially those that are part of the great arc of spirituality stretching from India across south and south-east Asia.
Perched on a hill in the Greater Kathmandu Valley, Swayambhunath is a Buddhist temple. “Swayambhu” means “self-created” and refers to the belief that the hill emerged spontaneously from the great lake that once covered Kathmandu Valley. It is also known as the Monkey Temple, thanks to large simian population that lives here and feeds off pilgrim offerings. The Buddha’s serene visage bears a nose, shaped like a question mark. It stands for Ek or One, a symbol of the oneness of life. Behind the stupa is a shrine dedicated to Hariti, Hindu goddess of smallpox who is also considered a Buddhist deity.
This Buddhist shrine was built around 600 AD by King Songsten Gampo whose Nepali wife converted him to Buddhism (his other queen was Chinese). With the arrival of thousands of Tibetans in 1959, Bodhnath has become an important center of Tibetan Buddhism. From the air, the complex resembles a huge mandala (Buddhist representation of the cosmos). Looking out at the mountains from the base of the stupa, with the chants of Om Mani Padme Hum echoing softly around is a deeply calming experience.
Close to the Indian border in the district of Rupandehi is Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. Surrounding Lumbini is a zone dedicated to various schools of Buddhism. Visitors can see the ancient bathing pond, Puskarni, where the Buddha’s mother, Maya Devi, is believed to have bathed before giving birth. When the Emperor Asoka came visiting to pay his respects, a pillar was erected to mark the occasion; it was found during nineteenth century excavations. A Bodhi tree and temple dedicated to Maya Devi complete the tranquil ambiance of Lumbini.