Kathmandu: February 2009
MOZZIE BYTE (Editor): A warm welcome back to all our Daily Explorer readers and greetings to those of you who are joining us for the first time. To our regulars, many thanks for viewing our online publication and for giving us your feedback. Nearly 9,000 visitors have been to see our site in the past year, to get the latest information from Ray as he explores different parts of the world. If you are new to this site and would like to know more about what’s in our archives, check out some of our Previous Issues. We aim to maintain our high standards of journalism and presentation at The Daily Explorer, so please keep sending us your ideas to help us improve future issues. You can use the comments box online, or email ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at email@example.com
This is our third issue of 2009 and once again, it has been compiled for us by our new guest correspondent Dolly Lama (above), who joined our team recently. She is one of the most experienced online journalists of her generation. She brings us the latest news and pictures as Ray returns from Tibet to Nepal, to complete his three month tour by visiting Lumbini – the birthplace of the Buddha. Ray also went to explore Nagarkot and Bhaktapur on the outskirts of Kathmandu before leaving Nepal. We have all of the details. And in this issue, we also launch our first caption competition of 2009!
In our last issue, Dolly followed Ray as he explored the remote wilderness of Tibet, seeing in the New Year in the country known as the ‘Roof of the World’. Containing some stunning photography and full details of his seven day trip, Dolly compiled a superb issue for us. If you missed it, you can read it now at: Seven Days in Tibet
Above: The mystical Buddhist kingdom of Tibet – also known as the ‘Roof of the World’ – is a place filled with amazing landscapes, monasteries and people. If you missed it, you can read it now at: Seven Days in Tibet
“After I am no more, O Ananda!
Men of belief will visit the place with faith, curiosity and devotion…..
Lumbini, the place where I was born.
The path to ultimate peace is spiritual discipline”
As the historical birthplace of Guatama Siddhartha Buddha, Lumbini is considered to be one of the most important religious sites in the world. I asked Ray what had inspired him to make his own pilgrimage here. “I guess you could say that I just had a feeling I needed to come here, Dolly” was his initial response. “In the last three years, I have spent a lot of time in predominantly Buddhist countries and even completed a 10 day silent meditation retreat inside a Buddhist monastery. This has really deepened my interest in their philosophy and way of life and I knew coming to Lumbini was an important part of my visit to Nepal” explained our traveller. “To stand in the place where the Buddha himself was born was just too good an opportunity to miss, and definitely worth the two days on a rickety old bus that it took to get there” added Ray.
Above: Map showing the location of Lumbini, with a photograph of the Mayadevi Temple. It is about 327 kilometres southwest from the capital, Kathmandu and right on the border with India
Below: The state of the rickety, old buses in Nepal leaves a lot to be desired – “They are really noisy and uncomfortable, with wooden seats and no windows. And they spew out tonnes of toxic diesel fumes causing horrendous pollution” Ray told me. “Even worse, they are often overcrowded and you may well have two or three sweaty people pressed into your face for a large part of the journey” said our weary traveller
Despite being an important destination for pilgrimages, Lumbini is nothing like Hardiwar, Mecca or Lourdes. “Pilgrims come here in a slow respectful trickle and many stay on to meditate in the monasteries surrounding the sacred site” said Ray. “The Mayadevi Shrine complex is the heart of all monuments at this holy site. The complex also bears the testimony of several layers of construction over the centuries” he told me.
The restored Mayadevi temple was re-opened on May 16, 2003 on the 2,547th birth anniversary of Lord Buddha. The Government of Nepal and the Lumbini Development Trust jointly restored the temple. The ground floor consists of the remains of the foundations of the early Mayadevi Temple that dates back to 3rd century BC. The sanctum sanatorium is the birth spot of the Lord Buddha. The main object of worship here is the nativity sculpture. “The gardens surrounding the temple are renowned for their beauty and the shady grove of lush green trees and colourful flowers” observed Ray.
Above: Hundreds of prayer flags adorn the trees. The sacred gardens at Lumbini are renowned for their beauty, the shady grove of lush green trees and colourful flowers and contain the Mayadevi Temple in which you can see the spot where the Buddha was born
For people who are interested in the history, Mayadevi, the Queen of Sakya married King Śuddhodana. They did not have children for twenty years into their marriage. One day however, according to legend, Queen Māyā dreamt of a divine Bodhisattva on a white elephant touching her side, and became pregnant. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha-to-be was residing as a Bodhisattva, in the Tushita heaven, and decided to take the shape of a white elephant to be reborn, for the last time, on Earth.
Māyā gave birth to Siddhartha circa. 563 BC. The pregnancy lasted ten lunar months. Following custom, the Queen returned to her own home for the birth. On the way, she stepped down from her palanquin to have a walk in the beautiful flower garden of Lumbini Park. She was delighted by the park and she reached for a branch to take a rest. Again according to legend, at this time Prince Siddhārtha emerged from her right side and was born. It was the eighth day of April. Siddhārtha means “He who has accomplished his goals” or “The accomplished goal”. Queen Māyā died seven days after the birth of the Buddha-to-be.
Around this time, a seer predicted that the boy would become a great teacher or a great king. Eager to ensure the latter, King Śuddhodana shielded him from all knowledge of the world outside the palace. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left the city for the first time and came face to face with an old man, a sick man, a hermit and a corpse. Shocked by this sudden exposure to human suffering, the prince abandoned his luxurious life to become a mendincant holy man, fasting and meditating on the nature of existence. After some severe austerities, the former prince realised that life as a starving pauper was no more conducive to wisdom than life as a pampered prince. Thus was born the ‘middle way’. Finally, after 49 days meditating under a Bodhi tree on the site of modern day Bodhgaya in India, Siddhartha attained enlightenment – a fundamental grasp of the nature of human existence. He travelled to Sarnath, near Varanasi, to preach his first sermon and Buddhism was born. Renamed Buddha (the ‘enlightened one’), Siddhartha spent the next 46 years teaching the ‘middle way’ – a path of moderation and self-knowledge through which human beings could escape the cycle of birth and re-birth and achieve Nirvana, which is a state of eternal bliss. The Buddha finally died at the age of 80 at Kushinagar, near Gorakhpur in India.
Above: A monastic site has evolved around the sacred spot of Buddha’s birth. The Mayadevi Temple (left), seen from the outside, protects some of the most religously significant pieces of history, and many people come to the temple to walk among the excavations inside (right) to get a closer look at the exact spot …..
Below: ……. where the Buddha was born (left). The marker stone was discovered after meticulous excavation of the sanctum sanatorium in 1996. The exact size of the stone is 70cm x 40cm x 10cm. It is now covered with bullet-proof glass. The image of Mayadevi, also known as the Nativity Sculpture (right), dates back to the 4th century AD and depicts the Queen holding the branch of a tree with her right hand for support. Next to her, Gautami Prajapati (her sister) is standing in supporting posture at the time of the delivery. The newly norn Prince Siddhartha is standing upright on a Lotus pedestal with two celestial figures receiving him
As well as containing the temple itself, the sacred gardens also contain the ruined foundations of dozens of ancient stupas and monasteries, and the Ashokan Pillar. “According to history, the Indian Emperor Ashoka visited Lumbini in around 249 BC, leaving behind an inscribed sandstone pillar to commemorate the occasion” said Ray. “It bears the first epigraphic evidence relating to the birthplace of Lord Buddha and is the most noteworthy monument. The inscription engraved by Emperor Ashoka is still intact and testifies the authenticity of the birthplace” he told me. After being lost for centuries, Ashoka’s Pillar was re-discovered by the Governor of Palpa in 1896. The six metre high pillar has now been returned to its original site in front of the Mayadevi Temple. “It isn’t much to look at, but it is highly revered by Nepali Buddhists” added Ray.
Above: At first glance, the Ashokan Pillar (left) looks like something you might find on a modern council estate, but is highly revered by Nepali Buddhists
Below: Monks lead a group of people as they chant their way around the pillar (left). And a closer view of the text on the Pillar (right), written in Brahmi script and pali language, is translated as follows: “Twenty years after his coronation, King Priyadarsi, Beloved of Gods visited this spot in person and offered worship at this place, because the Buddha, the Sage of the Sakyas, was born here. He caused to be built a stone wall around the place and also erected this stone pillar to commemorate his visit. Because the Lord Buddha was born here, he made the village of Lumbini free from taxes and subject to pay only one-eighth of the produce as land revenue instead of the usual rate”
Above and below: Many pilgrims come here and many stay on to meditate in the Sacred Garden or in some of the monasteries surrounding the sacred site” said Ray
The Puskarini or ‘Holy Pond’ is close to the Ashokan Pillar on the southern side of the Mayadevi Temple. “It is believed to be the holy pond in which Queen Mayadevi took a bath just before giving birth to the Lord Buddha. It is also the site where the infant Prince Siddhartha was given his first purification bath” said Ray. “The pond has terraced steps and is riveted by beautifully layered bricks. The remains of the Kapilvastu Palace can also be explored here” added our budding Nepalese historian.
Above: The Puskarini or ‘Holy Pond’
Below: Holy men sit and pray under one of the huge trees in the sacred garden (left) and two Nepali kids look on with great interest as our global adventurer leaves the Sacred Garden to explore some of the monasteries in the complex
In 1967, the United Nations Secretary General, U. Thant, made a pilgrimage to Lumbini which became a milestone in the recent history of its development. Deeply influenced by the sanctity of the place, U. Thant discussed the matter with the King and suggested the Nepal Government develop Lumbini as an international pilgrimage and tourist centre. The United Nations Development Programme contributed nearly one million dollars for preparation of a ‘master plan’ for Lumbini, including numerous engeering and archaeological studies. The world renowned architect, Professor Kenzo Tange of Japan, was assigned the task of leading the design team. Since the ‘master plan’ was finalised in 1978, Buddhist nations from around the world have constructed extravagant monasteries around the birthplace of the Buddha. Each reflects the unique interpretation of Buddhism of it’s home nation and together the monasteries create a fascinating map of world Buddhist philosophy.
Above: General U Thant (left), and Japanese architect Professor Kenzo Tange (right) were the two men whose vision for Lumbini helped create what you see today. In the centre is a map showing Tange’s ‘master plan’, with the Sacred Garden area to the right (the circle), the monastic zone (the area in the middle) and the new Lumbini Village (on the left). Tange’s vision for the garden was to create an atmosphere of spirituality, peace, universal brotherhood and non-violence. The monastic zone is divided into two enclaves by a central canal. There are a total of 42 plots allotted for the construction of new monasteries from the Theravada and Mahayana sects. The new village caters for visitors and includes shops, hotels, restaurants and a library. The complex covers an area of over 72 square kilometres. Lumbini, as of 1997, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site specifically nominated for the international World Heritage program
Below: The Eternal Flame, located on the edge of the Sacred Garden area, at the beginning of the central canal which runs through the monastic zone. I was very impressed with Ray when he told me what the Nepali inscription reads: “This eternal flame symbolising Peace was lit by the Chairman of the Lumbini Development Trust, His Royal Highness Prince Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah on the occasion of the International Year of Peace, on the 1st November 1986″. I asked Ray “Have you been learning Nepali?” to which he replied “No Dolly, the inscription is also written in English below, and is out of shot of the camera” he laughed
Above: If you are having a “deja vu” experience, don’t worry! The World Peace Pagoda at Lumbini is virtually identical to the one Ray saw in Pokhara (see From Pokhara to Patan), as it was designed and constructed by the Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Monks. It was completed in May 2001
Below: “Signposts at the entrance to the monastic zone give you an idea of how fast this area has been developing” said Ray. “The whole area has undergone a major renaissance in recent years. Lumbini appears to be to Buddhist monasteries what Las Vegas is to casino’s” observed Ray. “Every country under the sun either has, is building or wants to build a new monastery within this huge complex and they are springing up faster than you can say “Om Mani Padme Hum” joked our global explorer
Above: Ray sent us a few pictures of the different monasteries at Lumbini, to give you an idea of the contrast in styles and to see some of the construction going on. The one on the left was built by Buddhists from Myanmar. On the right, the distinctive monastery from the people of The Royal Thai Kingdom is an imposing Wat built from gleaming white marble – “The construction of the Thai monastery was actually sponsored by Thai Airways” observed Ray. “Perhaps the involvement of the corporate world is something we are going to see more of in this type of thing” he mused
Below: The stunning Golden Stupa in the grounds of the Myanmar monastery. It is one of the oldest structures in the compound
Above: The Great Lotus Stupa, constructed by Germany (left). The elegant Zhong Hua Chinese monastery (right) is one of the most impressive structures at Lumbini – “Reached through a gateway flanked by Confucian deities, this pagoda style building looks like something from the Forbidden City” said Ray
Below: The huge gilded Buddha inside the Zhong Hua Chinese monastery
Above: “We want one too!” Cambodia’s monastery is at an early stage of construction
Below: Not to be outdone by the Chinese, the South Korean’s are building a huge new temple across the road
For more pictures and information about Lumbini, you can visit the web site of the Lumbini Development Trust
With time fast running out before his departure from Nepal, our intrepid explorer headed to Bhaktapur, the conch shaped historic city about 12 kilometres east of central Kathmandu. It is the third largest city in Kathmandu valley and was once the capital of Nepal during the great Malla Kingdom until the second half of the 15th century. “A lot of other travellers had recommended a visit here” Ray told me, “primarily because traffic is banned from inside the old city, which gives visitors a stronger sense of the ancient when they are walking around and there is far less noise and pollution”. The name Bhaktapur means “City of Devotees” and it is renowned for its elegant art, fabulous culture, colourful festivals, traditional dances and the typical Newari lifestyle.
Above: Map showing location of Bhaktapur
From time immemorial, Bhaktapur lay on the trade route between Tibet/China and India. This position on the main caravan route made the town rich and prosperous. Each autumn, the traders from Tibet came with sheep, fitting nicely with the main Hindu holidays (‘Mohni’) when nearly everyone in Nepal sacrificed male animals to the goddess Durga. On the return trek the traders brought back to Tibet grains, sugar or Buddhist scriptures. This prosperity fuelled the cultural life i.e. the temple builders developed a Pagoda-style, spreading it through Tibet all the way to Japan.
The rivalry between the three kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley extended to include arts and architecture. Some fabulous pieces of work can be found in the Durbar square area which is surrounded by temples and palaces. Most of the buildings were constructed during the 15th century.
Above: Bhaktapur’s impressive Durbar Square is surrounded by spectacular architecture and vividly showcases the skills of the Newari artists and craftsmen over several centuries. The square was serverely damaged by an earthquake in 1934 and hence appears very spacious when compared with the other ones located in Kathmandu and Patan
Below: Although Mount Everest is breathtaking and the landscape of Lumbini mysterious, visitors to Nepal still don’t feel their sojourn is complete unless they have experienced Bhaktapur, Nepal’s ancient “City of Culture”
Above: Our global nomad stops for a few minutes to meet some of the city’s charming local children – “Despite the fact that these kids have very little material comfort, they are always so happy and full of energy and vitality” observed Ray
Below: A typical dwelling in the old city
Above: Some of the ancient buildings have seen better days – “It amazes me that people are still living in places like this” said Ray. “It reminded me of a scene from a Dickensian London story” added our traveller
Below: The world famous 15th century ‘Peacock Window’ – “It is reputed to be the finest carved window in Kathmandu Valley and is the subject of countless postcards and photographs” said Ray
Above: This Bhaktapur butchers shop displays some of the remnants of a recently slaughtered goat – “Mmmm – lovely!” thinks Ray
Below: Unlike our privileged, affluent societies in the West, most people cannot afford anything that is not essential to their survival. So, some of the kids get really inventive, like these two who have constructed their own ping-pong table and net in the small courtyard where they live, using bricks and building materials
Above: Taumadhi Square is home to the five-tiered, heaven piercing Nyatapola Temple (left) and the smaller three-tiered Bhairab Nath Temple (right), as well as many other fine buildings
There are various places around the edge of Kathmandu Valley that offer great mountain views, but the village of Nagarkot, around 32 kilometres to the east, is generally held to be the best. “It seemed to be a fitting place to spend my last two days in the country” said Ray. “I came to Nepal for the mountains and this was an opportunity to be with them once more and take away a lasting imprint in my mind” explained our global nomad. “I made my way to the Green Valley hotel, perched high up at an elevation of 2,195 metres on the side of a hill and booked a room for the night, so I could watch both the sunset and the sunrise the next morning” he recalled. “The view from the balcony was completely uninterrupted and at around £5 per night, probably the best value for money room that I have booked in the last three years!” he told me.
Nagarkot is considered one of the most scenic spots in the Bhaktapur district. It is renowned for its sunrise view of the Himalaya, including Mount Everest as well as other snow-topped peaks of the Himalayan range of eastern Nepal. Nagarkot also offers a panoramic view of the Kathmandu Valley. “In truth, you can only see a tiny part of the tip of Mount Everest from here” said Ray, “but nonetheless, looking at the awesome vista and breathing in the fresh, cool mountain air is still a memorable experience that I will never forget” he told me.
Above: Nagarkot is the perfect place to view the sunrise and sunset over the mighty Himalayan mountains. The arrow points to the Green Valley hotel, where our traveller stayed overnight to spectate on one of the best visual feasts nature has to offer in Nepal
Below: “You really needed to be there, Dolly” said Ray, who sent me this stunning picture of the dawn, in which the outline of the mountain peaks are just starting to come into view
“These two photographs sum up in a nutshell the strange contrast that is Nepal” said Ray. “One the one hand, you have the most spectacular scenery you have ever seen in your life and some of the best trekking available anywhere on the planet as you can see in the picture above. And you have some of the finest architecture, most amazing temples and monasteries that the Eastern world has to offer, as witnessed in the picture below. On the other hand, you have a country that is so poor, the infrastructure is crumbling. There is no electricity for 16 hours a day, the roads have huge potholes and craters, the dust is unbearable and forces everyone to wear masks, there is limited access to quality fruit and vegetables and the people are habitually used to leaving garbage everywhere they go – just look at the pile of it at the foot of the temple in the picture below” said Ray. “Having said all of that, it is still somewhere that I am thrilled to have experienced” he told me
Editors Note: Our thanks to Dolly Lama, who has done such a brilliant job for us in the short time she has been writing for The Daily Explorer. We wish her well as she leaves us (for now) to continue with her other work in Nepal and Tibet. As we were finalising this issue, we heard that Ray was in London for a brief visit and planning to spend about a month in California, USA prior to returning for a while to Chiangmai in Thailand. This is what he told us:
“This year, I want to undertake a somewhat daunting personal challenge that I have been thinking about doing for a few years now” said Ray, rather mysteriously. “I am going to try and run my first marathon and have secured a place to run in New York on 1st November this year” he told me. “I am very excited about it to say the least. In my mind, I have a list of “Things to do before I die”, a bit like my own “Bucket List” I suppose. One of them was “Run a Marathon by the time I am 50″ and since I will be 49 this year, time is of the essence, so I decided it was now or never” he explained to me. “When I leave the USA, I am going to spend 5-6 months in Thailand, training to get ready so that I am able to complete the race in a time of four hours or less, which is my goal. Fortunately for me, Matt Campbell, a friend who lives in Chiangmai, has run six marathons and has agreed to be my mentor!” said our grateful virgin runner. “Naturally, I will be in touch with everyone I know in due course as I intend to raise loads of money for a couple of charities that I am talking to, although I am open to suggestions from readers who think they might know of a worthy cause for any funds raised. If you want to let me know, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org”
Our first competition of 2009 is now open and the winner will be announced in our next issue. All you have to do is look at the picture below, taken by Ray in the Sacred Garden in Lumbini, and come up with a humorous caption to match what is going on in the photograph. Please send your entries in an email to ‘Caption Competition’ at email@example.com. You can send as many as you like!
Above: Our guest correspondent, Dolly Lama, came up with: “On your marks, get set…. go!”
We aim to maintain our high standards of journalism and presentation at The Daily Explorer, so please keep sending us your ideas to help us improve future issues. You can use the comments box online, or email ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at firstname.lastname@example.org. The next issue of The Daily Explorer, with an update about Ray’s visit to London and his trip to the USA, will be online in a few weeks.