China's Long Reach

China's influence is on the rise globally, and Nepal is no exception. China has become an increasingly vital investor and aid donor in the country, funding everything from roads to hydroelectric plants. In the last decade China has built five new roads from Tibet into Nepal and there are even plans to connect the Tibet train line to the Nepal border.

One group eyeing this growing economic and political clout with apprehension is Nepal's 20,000-strong community of Tibetan refugees. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch claim that China's growing influence has led to increased pressure on Tibetans in Nepal amid increasingly violent crackdowns on pro-Tibetan demonstrations. Between 2008 and 2013 over 100 Tibetans set themselves on fire in Tibet protesting China's policies there. In 2013 two Tibetan protestors set themselves alight in front of the Bodhnath stupa, causing alarm that protests would spread abroad.

Chinese advisors have allegedly played a role in suppressing anti-Chinese demonstrations in Bodhnath and training Nepali border guards to catch and send back Tibetan refugees crossing the border into Nepal. The success of Communist parties in Nepal's 2017 elections is likely to strengthen ties between Nepal and China, with implications for Nepal's Tibetan community.

Visiting Tibetan Monasteries

Most Tibetan Buddhist monasteries welcome visitors and entering these atmospheric buildings can be a powerful and evocative experience. During the morning and evening prayers, the lamas (high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist monks) and novices gather to chant Buddhist texts, normally accompanied by a cacophony of crashing cymbals, thumping drums and booming Tibetan horns.

From Ladakh to Lhasa, Tibetan gompas (monasteries) follow a remarkably consistent layout. The main prayer hall is invariably decorated with intricate murals depicting the life of Buddha, alongside various bodhisattvas and protectors, who also appear on dangling thangkas (Tibetan religious paintings) edged with brocade and in statue form behind the main altar.

Many gompas also have a library of cloth-wrapped, loose-leafed Buddhist manuscripts, known as the Kangyur and Tengyur, set into alcoves around the altar. The altar itself is covered in offerings, including butter lamps and seven bowls of water. The throne of the abbot is often surrounded by pictures of past abbots and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the representation on earth of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara), the deity of compassion.

As you enter a monastery you will see murals of the four guardian protectors – fearsome-looking deities who scare away ignorance – and the Wheel of Life, a highly complex diagram representing the Buddha’s insights into the way humans are chained by desire to the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The front of a monastery may also feature enormous mani dungkhor – giant prayer wheels stuffed with thousands of copies of the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum (‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’).

This mantra also appears on the smaller prayer wheels around the outer wall and on the fluttering prayer flags outside. On the monastery roof you may see a statue of two deer on either side of the Wheel of Law, symbolising the Buddha’s first sermon at the deer park of Sarnath.

Cultural Considerations

Visitors are welcome in most monasteries, but stick to the following guidelines:

  • Remove your shoes and hat before you enter a gompa.
  • Ask before taking photos and avoid taking photos (especially flash) during prayers.
  • Do not smoke anywhere in the main compounds.
  • Do not step over or sit on the monks’ cushions, even if no one is sitting on them.
  • During ceremonies, enter quietly and stand by the wall near the main entrance; do not walk around while monks are engaged in rituals.
  • Always walk around stupas and chörten (Tibetan-style stupas) in a clockwise direction and, likewise, spin prayer wheels clockwise.
  • It is appropriate to make an offering – a khata (Tibetan prayer scarf) is traditional, or cash donations help fund the monastery and its charitable works in the community.

Stupas

The Kathmandu Valley is dotted with impressive stupas (chörten in Tibetan). The most impressive are at Bodhnath and Swayambhunath, but there are also substantial examples at little-visited Chabahil and Kathesimbhu in Kathmandu. The oldest stupas are the four in Patan that were allegedly built by emperor Ashoka. You'll pass smaller chörtens and chorten-shaped kani (arch-like gateways) on almost every trek in Nepal.

The very first stupas were built to house the ashes and relics of Siddhartha Gautama (the Historical Buddha) and became a powerful early symbol of the new faith at a time when images of the Buddha had not yet become popular. Many Tibetan-style chörtens still house religious relics or the ashes of lamas. The range of styles is immense, from the huge platforms of Bodhnath to the fragile stone chörtens atop a mountain pass.

Each of the elements of a stupa has a symbolic meaning, from the square base (earth) and the hemispherical dome (water) to the tapering spire (fire), whose 13 step-like segments can symbolise the steps leading to Buddhahood. On top of the 13 steps is an ornament shaped like a crescent moon (air), and a vertical spike, which represent ether or the sacred light of Buddha.

In Nepal, the central rectangular tower is painted with the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. What appears to be a nose is actually the Sanskrit character for the number one, symbolising the absoluteness of Buddha.