Visiting 1,500-year-old temples isn’t on the average tourist’s agenda, but then again, Nepal isn’t the average tourist’s destination. Today’s temple tour helped us learn about Nepal’s religions, including how Hinduism, Buddhism, and folk religions interweave in a rich tradition of festivals and personal devotion.
Swayambhunath was the first stop on our tour. The “Monkey Temple,” as some call it, is an enormous temple complex set on a hill overlooking Kathmandu, built around 400 A.D. We began in a quiet section of the temple, where prayer flags strung by Buddhist families drifted in the trees. We were soon greeted by the temple’s inhabitants: monkeys, which some consider holy—hence the temple’s nickname. They bounded around us as we walked and our Five14 guide coaxed them toward us with crackers.
Next we walked to a Tibetan monastery on the far side of the complex. Worshipers were chanting, spinning prayer wheels, and burning incense. As I watched them, I noticed the peaceful way they worshiped, slowly, methodically—without concern for their next destination.
A friendly merchant greeted us as we headed for our next stop: the temple’s peak. The merchant asked me to sit in his shop, and he placed a Tibetan singing bowl (a traditional Buddhist instrument) on my head, one in each hand, and one in my lap. Then he gently struck each bowl with a mallet, creating a beautiful melody from the notes they created. It was definitely one of the more unique experiences I’ve had in Nepal.
After thanking the merchant, we finished our ascent to the top of the temple. The sight of the enormous golden stupa that rests at the pinnacle of Swayambhunath stunned us. A pair of Buddha’s eyes, representing wisdom and compassion, were painted one each side of the stupa, literally keeping watch over Kathmandu Valley.
Hundreds of Hindus and Buddhists worshiped at smaller shrines around the stupa. While the monastery worshipers were peaceful, these people were fervent, crying out, pacing around the ring of prayer wheels encircling the stupa, and burning offerings of food to their gods. What we saw was more confusion than peace, a mishmash of different rituals and rites. After watching them for a while, we left for our next destination: Kathmandu Durbar Square.
The ride to the next site gave me a chance to reflect on the morning. As a Christian, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through the minds of the worshipers. Were they just going through ritual motions? What were they hoping for? As our van made its way through the street of Kathmandu, I looked on the people we passed: were their hopes the same as the worshipers’?
We arrived in Durbar Square, one of the busiest religious sites in Kathmandu. The square lies outside the former royal palace of the Kingdom of Kathmandu. Numerous temples line the square, most of them hundreds of years old and showcasing traditional Nepali architecture. Here, too, we saw hundreds of people worshiping in diverse ways. Some made offerings of rice at various shrines, while others prayed before statues, like the statue of Hanuman Dhoka, for whom the square is named.
We didn’t stay long in the square as the afternoon heat set in, but again my thoughts wandered to the worshipers. What motivated them? Were they driven by fear? Love? Duty? Considering these questions challenged me to understand the places I saw on the temple tour, which also helped me to understand the people we saw and ultimately Nepal as a whole.
Interested in booking a temple tour or other cultural tour around Kathmandu?
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