Origin of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal

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In Nepal, there's a place called Boudhanath Stupa in a city known for its many temples, rich religious and architectural history, and deep-rooted culture. Boudhanath Stupa is thought to have been built around the 5th or 6th century AD and has several significant renovations and reconstructions. A place that old (1,500 years) leaves a long trail throughout history. With Boudhanath Stupa, there's a pretty dark story about how it came to be. We'll start with what exactly it is now, where it's at, and then dive straight into the darkness.

What Is the Boudhanath Stupa?

If you're unfamiliar with the term "stupa" then let's start there.

A stupa is a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine. It's a religious monument originally used to house sacred relics and serve as a place of meditation, symbolizing the enlightened mind and the presence of the Buddha. How to pronounce stupa.

The term "Boudhanath" is a Sanskritized name the stupa was given during the Panchayat era of the 1960s.

How to pronounce the word Boudhanath in the Nepali language.

The prior name was "Khasti Mahachaitya", which means "great stupa of the dew drops." That phrase is interestingly tied into the place's dark origin story.

Aerial view of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, during sunset with prayer flags and surrounding buildings.
Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Modernly, Boudhanath Stupa is also known as Boudha or just Boudhanath. It's one of the world's largest and most revered stupas and is a cultural landmark for Tibetan Buddhism. It's believed to hold the remains of Kassapa Buddha, one of the ancient Buddhas chronicled in Buddhavaṃsa (a Buddhist text written around the 1st century BCE). Many Tibetan refugees settled around it, establishing monasteries and centers for prayer and meditation.

From above, it looks like a massive mandala.

Bird's-eye view of Boudhanath Stupa surrounded by Kathmandu, Nepal's dense, colorful urban landscape.
Boudhanath Stupa in urban Kathmandu, Nepal.
A mandala is a spiritual and symbolic representation of the universe, commonly used in Hinduism and Buddhism. It's a circular, intricate design used for meditation, focusing the mind, and symbolizing the interconnectedness of life. Mandalas are significant in various cultural and religious practices and are also used in modern art therapy for their calming effects. And, as you can see from the photo above, the Boudhanath Stupa is a massive mandala.

Where Is the Boudhanath Stupa?

Boudhanath Stupa is located in the capital city of Nepal, between northeastern India and China.

Google Map showing the location of Boudhanath Stupa.
Boudhanath Stupa.

Kathmandu is known as the city of temples; some say it has more temples than homes, so Boudhanath Stupa isn't the only one there. In fact, the entire valley in the area, Kathmandu Valley, is also known as the Valley of Temples. The city of Kathmandu dates back to at least 2,000 years ago and has been a center of trade and culture for a long time. Several kingdoms and city-states comprised the valley until about the 12th century when the area was unified under the Malla Kingdom's rule. Later, in the 18th century, the Shah dynasty established Kathmandu as the capital of Nepal.

There are some strange stories and legends in the area, some of which are difficult to corroborate, so I'll just briefly mention them here in case you want to dig on your own. 

  1. The Gadhimai Festival is a widely known and documented Hindu event that has attracted international attention because of its incredibly high number of ritualistic animal sacrifices. The festival occurs every five years, and some estimates put the number of animal sacrifices during the event at around 250,000.
  2. The longest game of "The Floor is Lava" ever: The Kumari is a young girl chosen as the living goddess in Kathmandu, Nepal, representing the goddess Taleju. While designated as the Kumari, she isn't allowed to touch the ground or talk to anyone except on ceremonial occasions during her tenure. When she reaches puberty or loses blood, she's retired, and a new Kumari is chosen.
  3. There are some odd reports, or perhaps better described as rumors, that there's an unusual ritual involving human skulls at a particular temple. This one isn't widely reported on, so I'll leave it at that for now.
  4. The Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, is a creature said to inhabit the high mountainous regions of the Himalayas in Asia. The Himalayan mountain range stretches across several countries, including Nepal, Bhutan, India, Tibet, and Pakistan. 
  5. The Swayambhunath Stupa has painted "Buddha's Eyes" on it that seem to follow you around as you move. Supposedly, it's an optical illusion...👀

Dark Origin of the Boudhanath Stupa

There are a few stories of how Boudhanath Stupa came to be, but let's look at the dark one. In Kathmandu, where Narayanhiti Palace Museum now stands, there used to be the estate of King Vikramjit of the Licchavi Dynasty. 

Colorful Buddhist prayer flags radiating from the golden spire of Boudhanath Stupa against a blue sky with wispy clouds.
Prayer flags Boudhanath.

During a drought, King Vikramjit ordered a new 'hiti' (a water spout system) to be built in the southern part of the palace. Unfortunately, there was no sign of water, so the hiti wouldn't work. He consulted astrologers to find a solution, and the astrologers advised King Vikramjit that the only solution to this problem was to sacrifice a person with 'swee-nita lachhyan' (thirty-two perfections). The only three people who fit this were the king himself and his two sons. King Vikramjit was unwilling to sacrifice either of his sons, and he knew the entire region would suffer greatly without a solution to the ongoing drought. So, King Kivramjit decided he would sacrifice himself—without telling his sons in case they tried to stop him.

The king gave instructions to one of his sons on where and when to find a man who fit the sacrificial criteria and to kill him without looking at his face. His son agreed. The king went to the same place he told his son about and covered his own face. When the son arrived, he killed the king. Only after the king was dead did the son remove the face covering and find his father.

The son, wracked with guilt, consulted priests for salvation. The priests told him he should take a hen, release it from the top of a temple, and follow the hen's path to see where it lands to build a new sacred site. So, the son did as the priests told him, and it landed on an existing temple. He immediately ordered the construction of a new sacred site on the spot, and somehow, the people collected droplets of dew during construction—enough that they managed to survive the drought. That's how the previous name for Boudhanath Stupa, Khasti Mahachaitya (great stupa of the dew drops), came to be.

Kinda messed up, right? Drought hits. Astrologers recommend human sacrifice. King makes his son kill him. Son seeks help from priests for guilt. Priests tell the son to follow a hen. The hen saves everyone with dew drops.

I mean...at least the king's sacrifice, in a very roundabout way, actually did abate the drought.

Other Origin Stories of the Boudhanath Stupa

As I mentioned above, there are other origin stories of Boudhanath Stupa. Newar Buddhist legends tell a similar story of patricide and the king's sacrifice (complete with the hen and dew). Tibetan Buddhist legends have a very different story, but it still involves a woman who keeps hens.

The one I wrote about in the previous section was from Licchavi records from somewhere between ~400 AD and 600 AD, though some of the details from various sources have slight differences. There are even more origin stories, but the common themes seem to be primarily a hen being involved, followed by a close second of patricide.

If we've learned one thing here, it's that we should seriously respect birds. Also, astrologists and priests have bizarre logic and convoluted solutions to problems like droughts.

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