October 2, 1864

Swayambhu Mahachaitya, Nepal

Prince Trailokya reached the base of the hill stopped looked up traced the innumerable roughly-hewn stone steps lining both sides of the steep stairway that lead uncertainly up to Swayambhu Chaitya. Although invisible from where he stood, he knew that Swayambhu loomed on top of the hill, watching over the valley, tranquil yet shrouded in an aura of mystery. Beggars daemons spirits monks scowling gods lined both sides of the path, some carved of stone and others of flesh and bone. From where he stood it was difficult to discern which was which. Flickering memories of his first official visit to Swayambhu, now many years ago, passed through him. But the images were disconnected, blurred by time. They only increased in Prince Trailokya the sense of mystery emanating form Swayambhu.

He started walking up the stairs with resolve, steadying himself on the occasional brush or statue lining the steep path. Jung Bahadur’s spy, masquerading as an umbrella-bearing servant, kept pace immediately behind him. The presence of Jung Bahadur’s men vexed him as always. But after so many years, he was almost getting used to their presence. His attention was temporarily diverted by the sight of a monkey on a nearby wall: it peeled a banana rather elegantly, and started eating the flesh with relish. The monkey looked Trailokya straight in the eye. Trailokya startled…

How can this lowly animal have such deep, knowing eyes?

Beggars of various ilk lining the paths wailed दुहाई… दुहाई … at Trailokya. Some had entire legs missing. Some brandished their arms, gnawed off from leprosy, mere stumps sticking out from shoulders. One woman grabbed Prince Trailokya’s legs with manic enthusiasm as he passed by, and shoved the face of a blind child directly at him. The child had चिप्रा around its eyes, semi-dry snot running down its nose. Trailokya wondered whether the woman was the child’s mother, and asked himself: would it be better if she were, or would it in fact be better if she were not?

In the mean time, Jung Bahadur’s guard had managed to scold the woman away. Outwardly, Prince Trailokya kept a stony face as he had been trained to do, but this scene pierced deep into his soul and troubled him for some strange reason. He climbed up a few more flights of stairs in gloomy silence. Then remembering something he reached into the large sack carried by the bodyguard, and began doling out the appropriate amounts of rice and coins to the beggars, starting back with the intruding woman.

Now at the top of the long flight of stairs, Trailokya paused in front of the enormous metal object that essentially blocked his path. Resting on a decorated pedestal, flanked by two fierce lions, this object appeared to be made of copper, and had bulbous arches which ballooned out on both sides from the center. Trailokya would have guessed it was a weapon of war, but the middle of the object, where the warrior would grasp the weapon if this were indeed one, was a large sphere and would have provided an awkward grasp.

Why does this object, which I know nothing about, exude a sense of power and quiet confidence?

Trailokya reminded himself to ask his royal instructors about it upon his return to the palace.  But now his attention was drawn to the main attraction that lay imposing in front of him… the formidable structure that drew in all pilgrims, the motif that could be seen from every corner of Nepal valley if only the supplicant were to look up towards the hills. An enormous dome that filled the sky. So enormous that he could not see the top from where he stood.

Trailokya walked away towards the open space to the left so that he could see the entire dome.  He stopped, transfixed. Those sad, burdened, eternal eyes gazed serenely at him. At all of Nepal valley. Those tranquil knowing eyes that seemed to absorb all दु:ख and emitted but light. Whose eyes were they? What were they feeling? Why did the tika between the eyes spiral out like a swirling vortex? And why was the nose apparently shaped like the number one? Trailokya drifted through these questions for a long time, transfixed by the solemn gaze of the one that seemed to see all and know all.


[To be continued….]


Image 1: Pata depicting the Swayambhunath complex. Late 17th century. 90 x 70 cm. Private collection, Paris. ]

Image 2: Detail of the harmika from Swayambhu mahachaitya, depicting the eyes of Adi Buddha. Photo © Author. 

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