It is common knowledge that Boudhanath Stupa is one of the largest stupas in the world, measuring almost 100 m in diameter and 40 m in height. If you get to visit the Patan Museum in Patan Durbar Square, you’ll be able to see comparative models of various stupas (a.k.a. chaityas), that form part of a comprehensive exhibit on the stupa,mand you’ll be surely struck by how Boudhanath stands out from the crowd. Indeed, whether it is the model or the real thing, this world heritage monument is a magnificent sight. Not only that, the area in which it is located, that is Boudha, was once almost like a kingdom in itself. Here’s the story.
In 1853, when the Sino-Gorkhali war was coming to its conclusion, peace discussions were proposed and agreed to by both the warring parties. On the Gorkhali side, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana wasn’t too comfortable at the prospect of going into peace talks without an able interpreter who could speak both Nepali and Chinese. On asking around, he realized that there was a Chinese man called Taipo Shing living in the Boudha area. He was a Szehuanese Nyingampa Buddhist, who had, during the course of a pilgrimage, ended up at Boudha, a place he decided to henceforth call home. Taipo Shing proved to be a capable interpreter and his work was appreciated all around. What’s more, he continued to do a lot of good work in and around the Boudha area, and in 1859 he was rewarded with the abbotship of Boudhanath Stupa, the pride and joy of Boudha, and the holiest of all Buddhist shrines in Nepal. It was a high honor, indeed!
Taipo Shing thus became the very first Chini (Chinese) Lama of Nepal, and he further consolidated his power by marrying the daughter of Jung Bahadur’s favorite concubine. In addition, his power was made all the greater by the Dalai Lama appointing him as his consul to the Kingdom of Nepal. Subsequent head abbots of Boudhanath Stupa, even if they were not Chinese, came to be known as Chini Lamas, a term that is reserved only for the head abbots of Boudhanath Stupa. Because of their high standing, the earlier Chini Lamas (from the mid-19th century to the time of Punya Vajra (1886-1982), the third Chini Lama, Boudhanath’s stature as a major Buddhist pilgrimage site grew to significant heights.
After Punya Vajra’s death, the running of the famous stupa became the responsibility of a committee (guthi), the members of which were mainly families and descendants of Tamang disciples living close to the stupa. One of the better known descendants (reportedly, the fourth son of a Chini Lama) is the renowned photographer Mani Lama who has carved out a name for himself both nationally and internationally as an accomplished photographer of art, landscape, travel, wild life, portrait, etc., as well as for his many documentaries. If you are in Boudhanath early in the morning, look out for him, because obviously, Boudhanath is his favorite haunt, and he has said that he never gets tired of capturing the different moods of this world famous site. So, you might well get to meet him there, a genuine descendant of a Chini Lama!
Not many people know all this about Boudhanath, and it provides fascinating insight into the history of Nepal’s holiest Buddhist stupa, and one of the world’s largest. Now, what’s there about the other world famous stupa, an icon in its own right, that is, Swayambhunath Stupa, that’s quit off the beaten track, something not many have any inkling of? Here’s what few know—this iconic stupa, situated on the top of a conical hill, was once in very real danger of slipping down the hill. Towards the end of 1978, architect John Sanday received a distress call from UNESCO while he was in England. Sanday was a consultant to this august organization, and had shown his mettle in and round 1972, when he was in charge of restoring Hanuman Dhoka in time for Nepal’s event of the century, that is, King Birendra’s coronation.
The missive Sanday received from UNESCO was that Swoyambhunath Stupa could slide down the hill from where it towered over the valley, because the top of the hill was apparently shifting this way and that! UNESCO was deadly worried, the magnificent stupa was something dear to their heart, and since they had designated it as a world heritage monument, it was their responsibility, too, to ensure its safety. Sanday, their able consultant, had already earned quite a reputation as a restorer par excellence, and he immediately set about doing his bit, which, as it turned out, was fraught with danger. He and his team began the sensitive work of excavating below the two conspicuous towers to see what the situation was with the foundations. It was a ‘frightening excavation’ for Sanday. However, they kept on digging, and went down to almost 25 ft before reaching the bedrock.
What they discovered was that the foundations were based on a ledge, which meant that if something wasn’t done soon, the risk would always be there of ‘slippage’; a simple enough term, but full of risks when applied to the foundations of a huge monument like Swoyambhunath Stupa. In fact, what Sanday realized was that the huge monument had always been in danger ever since the time it was built because of the faulty foundations. Corrective measures followed the ‘frightening excavation’, which resulted in giving this most ancient of all holy shrines in Nepal the stability and poise to once again preside over the whole of Kathmandu Valley from its lofty abode. Hail Sanday! Hail UNESCO!