With the Gunla Festival going on, Swoyambhu is bathed in the music of traditional Newari instruments as the World Heritage Site opens its doors to devotees and visitors alike
Numerous Nepali patriotic songs describe the eyes of Buddha and that those eyes taking care of all the humankind. The huge white stupa of Swoyambhunath, Swoyambhu, is one of the signifiers of Buddha’s eyes. And the Swoyambhunath Stupa too suffered damages in the earthquake of April 25 and its big aftershocks, especially of March 12. Swoyambhunath recognised by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Zone has returned to its ‘normal life’ though it will take several years before the destroyed artefacts are reconstructed.
After the tremblor
Anantapur and Pratapur, also believed to be the bodyguards of Swoyambhunath and situated on either side of Swoyambhunath, have partially collapsed. Though having suffered damages, Pratapur still stands with the help of wooden or iron rod supports, but the earthquake broke Anantapur in half.
Likewise, Shantipur is also damaged and wooden or iron rods are supporting it. However, Vayupur, Agnipur, Nagapur and Vasupura have not faced much damage. “These purs symbolise the four elements — air, fire, water and earth,” said Swoyambhu’s head priest Amrit Man Buddhacharya.
“Around 200 artefacts (not known before the earthquake) that include small idols and stupas where the biggest artefact is 10-12 inches tall were recovered from Mangaldwar chaitya or Tashi Goma, which has collapsed totally,” informed Buddhacharya.
About this Suresh S Shrestha, Chief of the Department of Archaeology said, “We have figured out the list of the artefacts that were found in Swoyambhu and with government representatives, UNESCO and local community we have made a legal document and those artefacts are safe at the National Museum.”
Talking about the value of Swoyambhunath, Rosha Chitrakar, Founder of Crafted in Kathmandu shared, “The Swoyambhu hilltop carries 1,600 years of history of Nepal, each artefact carries its own piece of lineage unveiling our trading relationship with our neighbouring countries. Each physical valuable item like scriptures and stone idols while dismantling the monastery unfolds a page of history. Had there been no earthquake, it could never have been revealed to us. But the most valuable artefact is the faith of people, which is unaltered.”
There are 40 households of the priest clan where 18 houses have been damaged. However, like the other heritage sites in and around the Capital, Swoyambhu is now open to the public as the bodies authorised have cleared the area and have separated a tour lane along with a restricted area. A visitor with his friends from Bangladesh Utsav Bhetuwal expressed, “Swoyambhu is our spiritual and personal asset and in every way we are related to Swoyambhu. And I felt safe coming here and seeing the main chaitya standing solid, I felt good.”
As committed by the government, it will take five to seven years or more to rebuild the heritage site where Shrestha expressed, “We are looking forward to build the damaged heritage and we cannot exactly say when the heritage sites will be completely built. Earlier we did not have the conservation guidelines, but now new conservation guidelines related to earthquake are being made and we will execute according to it.”
Story of Yashi
The first thing you notice while visiting Swoyambhunath is the main dome of Swoyambhu with the golden-coated pinnacle. If you take a round of the dome, you can see five Buddhas placed one after another. The dome is supported by a 22-metre wooden pole known as Yashi in Newari language. The Yashi is inside the dome and has been changed only three times. About this Buddhacharya narrated, “Yashi is the wooden pole that is inside the dome and the dome is placed in such a way that the circular tier of the pinnacle does not touch the Yashi, making it flexible. Whenever there is an earthquake, they move on their own. As a result there is lesser damage in the structure. Till now three Yashis have been changed.”
According to him, the previous Yashis were 16 and 18 metres long. The priest clan of Swoyambhu have to treat Yashi as a person, which is a long standing tradition. He shared, “When the new Yashi is going to replace the old one, the new one is treated like a bride and every ritual done during welcoming a new bride is performed and is placed in the dome. As for the old Yashi all the rituals when a person dies are performed.”
However, one can notice several gaps that look like cracks on the dome. About them Shrestha said, “Those are not cracks caused by the earthquake. To assess the damage caused by the earthquake, we removed the surakhi (traditional plaster) of the dome and as it is the rainy season, we have done treatment on the dome.”
The Gunla festival
This year the Gunla festival that began on August 15 will end on September 15. Gunla is the name of a month in the Newari calendar where around 18 Gunla Baja Khala (Gunla musical group) of Kathmandu visit Swoyambhunath playing traditional Newari musical instruments like Dha, Taa, Nyakhi, Bhushya, Chuchya and Basuri (flute). The Buddhist Newars from the Shakya, Bajracharya, Tuladhar, Manandhar and Prajapati clans are the ones who pay homage to Swoyambhunath during Gunla, to which anyone is welcome nowadays, as per Ratnakar Bajracharya, a member of Keshchandra Gunla Baja Khala.
It is a tradition that from various bahals and bahis (squares) of Kathmandu musical troupes go up to Swoyambhunath. With their location is predetermined, they stay at a particular place and play the musical instruments along with doing the needful puja. However, these 18 musical troops this year have decided not to go up the Swoyambhu hill as they do not want any casualty should another tremor occur and cause panic. About this Bajracharya opined, “There are 18 Gunla Baja Khala and in each group there will be numerous people that will form a crowd. And even if a small earthquake occurs, there are chances that people will panic and cause accidents. So we are avoiding that as each group has its own space around the Swoyambhu stupa to play the instruments and those areas are either restricted or parts of damaged structures have been place. That’s why we are not climbing up the hill.”
When asked whether it would affect the necessary rituals, he said, “One member of the group will climb the up the hill and do the needed pujas.”
There is no restriction to roam around Swoyambhu however, the flow of people visiting the area has dropped drastically. Shrestha shared, “The area has been cleared and the danger zones have be restricted. It does not make sense to restrict people from visiting Swoyambhu where the government itself has approved it.”
Pradip Buddhacharya, who owns a curio shop at Swoyambhu added, “Due to the earthquake, the area does look a little different but it is totally safe for visitors. All the debris have been cleared and the damaged houses have been taken care of.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 30, 2015 of The Himalayan Times.