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Restoring faith

Volunteering for a restoration project of an ancient stupa is as far as you can get from a typical sightseeing holiday in Kathmandu. But the experience still offers a satisfying glimpse into the heart of the city

travel Updated: Apr 16, 2010 17:52 IST

I landed in Kathmandu with a heavy heart and non-refundable tickets, with no desire to do the required sight seeing or take in the much-advertised treks and hikes in Nepal. 
I just wanted to be, take in the days as they came, stroll the streets of Kathmandu and do something different. So I set out to meet various travellers, photographers and expats in town who were introduced to me by friends. One of them turned out to be the anchor of my experience in Nepal.
After a rejuvenating, hot solar-powered shower in the coffin-sized room of my staid hotel, I made my way to meet the director of the Swayambhunath stupa renovation project. Exhausted from battling the Kathmandu traffic, I stared at the 365 steps that I had to climb. Little did I know that there was another path with fewer steps, which I had just missed! The prize at the top of the steps was a magnificent gold-coated vajra, symbolising a thunderbolt sceptre, which is commonly seen in souvenir shops in Thamel. Behind the vajra was the lofty white dome and glittering golden spire of Swayambhu stupa, colloquially known as the "monkey temple".
Revered by all
The shrine is a perfect example of overlapping cultures, traditions and religions one encounters in Nepal. Hindus, Newari and Vajrayana Buddhists alike revere this holy site, where it's tough to decipher where Hinduism ends and Buddhism begins. The journey of Tibetan Buddhism started in the valleys of Nepal centuries ago and Swayambhu is considered the second most important shrine in that lineage. According to legend, the entire Kathmandu valley was once filled with an enormous lake, out of which grew a mystical lotus. In order to make the site more approachable to pilgrims, Bodhisatva Manjushri cut a gorge through the mountains. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the seat of the flower became the Swayambhunath stupa, meaning "self created".
On the Buddhist path
The dome at the base of the stupa represents the world. When a person is free from the bonds of the world, he reaches a higher state and crosses through the thirteen stages
represented by the rings on the golden spire before finally attaining nirvana. A symbolic structure, the stupa embodies the teachings of Buddha. Turning prayer wheels while circling the stupa to offer prayers to the Buddha is a way many people in Kathmandu begin their day. Newari Buddhists circle in the opposite, counter clockwise direction. On each of the four sides of the main stupa are a pair of big eyes (covered temporarily), symbolic of God's all-seeing perspective. There's also a representation of the number one in the Nepali alphabet between the mesmerising eyes, signifying that the single way to enlightenment is through the Buddhist path.
The restoration work at this 5th Century stupa is a complicated project, keeping in mind the cultural and architectural significance of this World Heritage site. The shrine is entrusted to the families of priests, called Buddhacharyas, who perform the daily rituals and have also been important decision makers atop the hill for centuries.
Recreating the self-created
I stood in awe in the small project office as I learned of the magnitude of the project; recreating a part of the "self-created" is a special responsibility. It's the fifteenth major renovation in the last 800 years with 70 master artisans from around the country contributing their expertise to prestigious project such as this. It's a comprehensive renovation where each detail -- whether in wood, stone, copper or gold -- is restored to its original condition while keeping in mind the use of traditional arts and restoration techniques of Nepal. The project was initiated and is fully funded by the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC), one of America's oldest Buddhist organisations with roots in Tibet, India and now Nepal.
I offered my help and joined the ranks as a volunteer. What I now carry with me from Nepal are memories of the hours I spent photographing the workers and scenes as they unfolded at the renovation site. Cutting through the barriers of language with smiles, nods and broken conversations, my lens and I peeked into a different verve for a couple of weeks. I patiently spent my days chasing the light as it moved through the rooms, capturing the processes and the people with old melodies of Mukesh and Lata in the background. In spite of all that hammering and soldering, calm prevailed and the pride and dedication of the workers was evident in their hectic routines.
The project was almost 75 per cent done while I was there at end of 2009. With the stupa scheduled for completion in April 2010, the team was gearing up for some of the most important work ahead.
The task ahead
All major departments were hard at work. Wood was being sourced for repairing the sections of the stupa and decisions were being made on the quality and quantity of wood to be used. The scaffolding had to be installed in order to bring down the copper and gold pieces from the thirteen rings.
In the workshops, the copper repoussé continued on the pieces of the nine shrines at the base of the dome. The copper pieces were examined and if a new piece needed to be made, the original design was copied, inch by inch. Original pieces are preserved as much as possible. Once ready, copper pieces are sent for re-gilding, gold mixed with mercury is applied to the copper sheets and then burnt off, leaving a layer of gold covering the entire surface. The pieces are then washed, scrubbed and polished.
Another Kathmandu
I cannot say I travelled through Nepal, but I can definitely say I experienced Kathmandu even though I probably missed all the important tourist landmarks in the city. In between breaks from the work at the stupa, I walked through the streets of this picturesque city. There was a splash of red everywhere. Everyday is a festival in the town, many locals joked.
As textbook tourists, we sometimes miss out on experiences, which are right at the surface. If we put away the sightseeing list aside and take in the journey as it unfolds, we see a life a little more up-close. I was separated from a unique travel experience by only two degrees of separation.
Madhu Reddy is a full time traveller and a part time photographer and writer.
(Note: Lok Sakya, the head of the restoration workshop, passed away recently following a heart attack. His wife is now heading the project.)

Getting there
Air India and Jet Airways has daily flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Kathmandu in Nepal.
Around town
Walking on foot or using the bike is the best way to explore Kathmandu. You can also hire a taxi to take in the sights of the city. But buses are often too crowded for comfort.