So, I’ve been postponing the moment when I sit and try to write about what I’ve been experiencing (mostly emotionally, because I am mostly an emotional person). I know this might sound cheesy, but I will embrace it: I just don’t know how to put in words the kinds of feelings I’ve been discovering here in Nepal. I actually apologized to my boyfriend the other day, who arrived a month before me, because I was getting frustrated at his apparent lack of articulation to describe me things while he was already here and I was still -super curious- in Brazil. Now I am here too, and I can barely put a sentence together that will make justice to what I’ve been feeling. Because Nepal is just so much (information/culture/history/colours/smells/feelings…..) that anything I say will make it sound so much less. And then I end up not saying anything. Does that make sense? Probably not. But that’s all part of what I’ve been going through. And I really like it. Except I would like to try and share some of those feelings.
So here it goes.
Two Sundays ago I went to Boudhanath Stupa (-namely, a Buddhist meditation place) in Kathmandu. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Stupa in Nepal, and supposedly the holiest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet. It was truly spectacular. The Stupa as seen from the sky looks like a Kalachacra mandala.
The top part of the Stupa has fallen during the earthquake of April 2015. So as seen from my (slightly low) eye-view, the place is full of bricks, dust, and wood, and it basically looks a bit like a very beautiful white construction site, decorated with colourful prayer flags, with lots of people working on it, and other lots of people walking around it. But even so, it still feels like a magical, serene, imposing place that gets you lowering your voice respectfully. Even with the dust, the noise, the crowd, the clear signs of the earthquake’s footprint… it has a peaceful aura going on that envelops anyone entering its space. Basically, the place is truly beautiful, peaceful.
Devotees walk around the Stupa clockwise, while rotating the small prayer wheels that surround its walls, and chanting mantras (loudly and/or mentally). It is said that this Stupa is so powerful, that once upon a time, an old mad who was notoriously bad and unpleasant, run clock-wise around the Stupa because he was chasing a dog. That one time of going clockwise around the Stupa was enough for the Buddha to intervene for him after his death and give him a chance to enter heaven instead of going straight to hell. (I went around it several times, just in case. And also because it was a beautiful walk).
The buildings around it are all stuck to each other wall-on-wall. They are colourful and well kept, and display the most interesting array of shops, cafes, restaurants, art galleries, musical instruments, jewellery and beautiful people. And this last point is what really got to me: the people there. Some were visibly locals, some were visibly tourists (me!), some were visitors from other parts of Nepal, some were wearing Tibetan traditional clothes, some seemed to have come from the country side. This is an important peregrination site for Buddhists, and I fully understood that once I let myself be embraced by the energy of the place. I know the ‘energy’ of the place sounds a little too vague, perhaps too ‘new era’. But seriously (and this brings me back to my first point of this blog: the truth can sound cheesy), I don’t know how else to put it in text.
When we first arrived I was overwhelmed. I was just trying to do what I usually do: look around, admire, photograph, make up my first impressions, organize my thoughts, notice what sensations does this place bring to me… It was only much later, after spending a few hours there, that I kind of opened up and realized where I was, the immensity of that place. And then I felt it. As soon as I was ready to be in that place and feel it completely, a beautiful feeling hugged my chest and formed a knot on my throat all at the same time.
I think it hit me how special this place is when I started better observing the people there. One thing that surprised me immensely about Nepalis, by the way, is that they are not taken aback by our curiosity about them, our sometimes obnoxious touristy behaviour (photographing, staring…). Whenever someone noticed I was observing, they would smile, talk, pose for pictures without me asking, or just walk away smiling, leaving me smiling to myself, quite admired. Anyhow, reactions I had never encountered before by someone being photographed or being stared at by a total stranger. They would welcome my curiosity and make me feel included, pop my bubble of a separate individual (tourist) and completely throw me in the middle of it all, where life was happening. Where their faith was so openly being celebrated. Instead of observing, I would be invited to become part of it, feel, get involved in their own rituals, laugh… And then I cried. Overwhelmed with the beauty of their gestures and the feelings this place brought to me.
Everywhere I turned, I would be surprised by kindness and spontaneity. At one point, for example, I was photographing away, doing the regular touristic ‘business’, when this very, very old lady walked towards us saying ‘dhanyabad, dhanyabad!’ (thank you! thank you!) with the biggest, most genuine smile that was just so contagious and unexpected and honest and spontaneous that it hit me very, very strongly as the most beautiful human interaction -with a stranger- I have ever witnessed. To just walk to strangers, throwing your appreciation at everyone, at the universe, and just look at everyone in the eye and envelop them in your absurdly open smile (almost toothless smile)… For nothing. Just spreading smiles. Leaving a trail of smiling people behind her. Just because that’s how she is. I just thought that was extremely beautiful.
I felt like layers of trained suspicion/protection/distance that I kept from strangers were slowly being broken, leaving me completely exposed. And it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t dangerous… It was just plain beautiful to interact in that way with people I don’t know. To see their faith, to feel their joy. Plus, -and here is a huge factor of that place that makes it special- the people there looked like they had a purpose. They just looked SO happy to be there, walking around the Stupa. And they were happy to share that with anyone. With me.
An Italian anthropologist asked a nepali man back in the 1980s what he thought about occidental tourists coming to seek religion in Nepal. The nepali man said that in occidental society, people’s lives are emptying themselves of meaning, and so they will go (or come) to search for meaning where there is still such a thing to be found. Whatever that ‘meaning’ could look like, it made perfect sense to me while I watched those people at the Stupa.
There were impossibly old people, walking with difficulty and with this immense joy in their eyes. They were so thankful to be there that it was contagious. Walking clockwise around that Stupa, distributing smiles and thank you’s and namaste‘s, they were creating this current of positive energy that simply carried me away with it. I followed the current and let myself feel that, and it felt so warm and beautiful that I didn’t want to leave.
I thought this was it. Then, all of a sudden, we hear beautiful chanting from outside. We walk in this gorgeously decorated temple, and on the top floor we find a group of maybe 30 people seating on the floor and chanting while admiring the Stupa. We walk in slowly, afraid of disturbing or invading. This very old lady, wearing all red as a Buddhist monk, walks with difficulty towards us with this huge warm smile and places a chair right there for us to sit. Yet another gesture of human solidarity, warm welcoming, compassion, completely free kindness given to curious strangers. I was so touched. And the music, it just filled up the space and made me realize even more clearly how sweet it felt to be there. Outside, people lined up and passed on bricks to each other, carrying them to the top of the Stupa where once stood an even bigger monument. They were rebuilding it. The earthquake made it fall, and there they were, participating on building it again.
When I left, I turned around and dedicated a namaste gesture, with a humble bowing of my head, and I was so thankful for having been there. People were leaving and doing the same, people were arriving and looking overwhelmed like I had been hours earlier. The cycle continues, destruction happens, the places are re-built, and the people come to visit, and they are gifted with smiles and thank you’s and beautiful energy. I did that, and now I share the story. Boudhanath is a very, very special place.