Print Edition - 2012-11-03  |  On Saturday

THE first word

  • Sermons in stones
THE first word

Nov 2, 2012-

Pilgrims who go puffing up the stone steps to Swayambhu may want to give Tirtha Raj Manandhar a thought. A hundred years ago, this officer and a gentleman built the wide stairway leading to the top of the hillock, making life easier for visitors to the World Heritage Site.

The stone stairway looks like it has always been there, gently climbing up the wooded hillside dotted with stone sculptures. Elderly devotees, some spinning prayer wheels, others fingering rosary beads or murmuring mantras, take leisurely steps up the path, their eyes on the gilded spire soaring up from the massive white dome at the summit. Younger followers in tracksuits and sneakers charge up the steps, overtaking the lumbering seniors. The most striking sight would be of the resident monkeys sliding down the railing installed along the centre of the stairway. People often shout in annoyance and scatter as the forest dwellers push their way through.

Before the philanthropist built the stone steps, the way up to the stupa was a winding dirt track that required pilgrims to possess hiking skills. During the monsoon, the route would be turned into a water slide. The holy month of Gunla, when crowds visiting Swayambhu swell tremendously, occurs during the rainy season, and it was double trouble for them. Tirtha Raj was a daily visitor to the hilltop shrine, and a witness to the woes of the faithful. As a man of means, he decided to build a set of stairs for the convenience of people coming to the shrine. He thought that if the way was made easier, more devotees would be able to visit the holy place.

So in 1908, Tirtha Raj hired a team of skilled stonemasons and launched his project. The stairway on the eastern side of the hill was completed four years later in 112. There are 360 steps from the base to the stupa. The topmost step is of white marble, and the names Nhuchhe Raj and Tirtha Raj are inscribed on it, the first one being that of his father. Tirtha Raj was born in Makhan, Kathmandu. He was an officer in the Nepal government, and after more than a decade of service, retired to go into business. He turned into a successful trader, and used the income to finance projects for the public good. Building the stairway at Swayambhu has earned him a place in history, besides bringing joy to sightseers. An interesting story is told about the construction of the steps. Halfway up the hillock, the builders got stuck as none of the cut stones they had seemed to fit, and they didn’t know what to do. They were sitting around with their heads in their hands, clueless about how to proceed. Just then, five men wearing pleated gowns walked down from the stupa towards them. They pointed to a stone lying nearby, and told them that it should fit. The stone was a perfect match, and work progressed without a hitch after that. Thinking back to the incident, the builders wondered who those five men might have been. The faithful think they were the Pancha Buddha, the five transcendental Buddhas in human form.

Tirtha Raj Manandhar’s merit-earning act makes me recall my own grandfather’s contribution at Swayambhu, and my heart swells with pride. In 1918, freshly-returned from a tour of duty in Lhasa where he owned a business house, granddad Pushpa Sundar Tuladhar donated the Buddha statue installed at the top of the steps. The gilded image of Vairochana is housed in a niche set into the dome. The shrine and new statue were part of the refurbishment project, which was completed in 1921. The image is one of the noteworthy legacies he left behind, and something his descendants cherish greatly. A few years after it was installed, Pushpa Sundar went to Lhasa again and did not return. He died on the trade route, succumbing to the harsh climate of the high Tibetan plateau like so many others of his generation.

Every time I visit Swayambhu, I make it a point to peek though the chainmail at the statue of Vairochana. Labouring up the stone steps that seem practically vertical at times and pulling myself up at the giant vajra at the top, I stagger to the front of the shrine while still trying to catch my breath. Gazing at the serene face of the Buddha, I wonder about the times my grandfather lived in, a man I never actually saw. The image, at least, is a link to the past, and to him.

Published: 03-11-2012 09:36

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