Wonder of wonders in Nepal
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
THREE of the holiest Buddhist shrines south of the Himalayas are in Nepal’s Kathmandu valley. Boudha and Swyambhu (the monkey temple) are just a 40-minute walk from the centre of the capital.
These are undeniably vibrant sites, surrounded by monasteries. But the World Heritage-listed Namobuddha appears more of a holy mirage.
My first quest to reach this famous place of pilgrimage was from Dhulikel, a couple of hours from Kathmandu, where my wife and I were enjoying a weekend at a labyrinthine resort. Namobuddha was supposed to be a breezy two-hour walk.
We set off at 10am, following a tracery of footpaths along terraced hills, through villages and forests.
Occasionally we questioned passersby, who told us Namobuddha was just beyond the next rise. Its beauty was confirmed as ‘‘unimaginable’’.
At 3pm we reluctantly retreated. That night we dined alone and deflated.
Two years later I was with friends in the historic town of Panauty and a glance at the map showed Namobuddha to be not far away. There was rumoured to be a bus, but its where- abouts was a mystery, while a guidebook hinted at a walk taking just a few hours. So off we went. After some hours we stopped to chat with villagers. Why were we walking to Namobuddha? A bus, they said, would be along soon.
We also learnt that the road ends below a steep cliff and that our majestic prize commands the summit, up a punishing stairway. A bus did come, but it was heading to Panauty.
We pushed on. And there, around a couple more corners, over a rise or two, was a white vision, floating like a play of light on the horizon, but much too distant to reach. So we turned back.
Recently I was contacted by Hari, a former colleague. He wanted to take me by motorbike to his village, not far from Kathmandu. We left at dawn for the countryside. At a fuel stop, Hari proposed we visit a temple near his home. I assumed it would be to a Hindu deity.
The bitumen ended and as we bounced along channels of dry mud, I saw ribbons of prayer flags and buildings of a quality to signal a Buddhist settlement. And so, finally, I entered Namobuddha.
At one of its shrines, there is a sculpture of the young Buddha generously feeding himself to a tigress. Hari prayed, demonstrating the admirable eclecticism of many Nepalis.
Everyone I met at a wedding back in Kathmandu that evening was thrilled that I had been to Namobuddha — so beautiful, so inspiring, so unforgettable, they chimed. I asked when they had been there. There was an embarrassed hush. But oh, it is such a famous, holy wonder, they chorused.