A Year in Nepal: Chapter 4 There’s a One Eyed Yellow Idol ….

This is likely to be the final post in chapters released from our part written book, A Year In Nepal, in which we sought feedback to help us with the remaining chapters. Here’s the fourth chapter, regarding Religion in Nepal: (You should start from previous chapters published so far here Our Book, A Year in Nepal)

Chapter 4


“There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu, There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew, And the Yellow God forever gazes down.”

The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God! I knew this poem as a schoolboy, and never dreamed I would marry someone from Kathmandu, visit Nepal many times, walk amongst monasteries and temples, and become a Buddhist myself. These are not the sort of things that happen to a boy from a poor working class background in England. But the poem somehow appealed to my imagination, was full of atmosphere and painted a picture of a different and stranger world beyond my little village in industrial Cumbria. It also made me curious about a different religion beyond the differences across Christianity we were always “bumping into” as school kids. In those days morning assembly was a religious affair and the Catholics and Jews left the room to us C of E’s, Baptists and Methodists when it was time for prayers. I always found that strange, weren’t we all praying to the same God to forgive us for taking a quick fag behind the bike sheds?

When visiting Nepal, or Kathmandu specifically, it is very noticeable that religion is everywhere. The dome shaped stupa of the Buddhists or the pagoda style shrines of the Hindus dominate hilltops, open spaces, squares and major crossroads especially in cities. Then there are the smaller shrines to a wide variety of Hindu deities on almost every street corner with red dye, yellow marigold flowers and burning incense adorning them. It seems like the Nepalese didn’t get the memo from Mao Tse Tung or his modern day Maoist Party devotees saying “Religion is poison”! Although Hinduism is the official religion of Nepal it is only because this is the box that is ticked at birth or during various census. The Newar of Kathmandu Valley are split 50:50 with the Tuladhar being Buddhist and the Shrestha being Hindu, but …… both Tuladhar and Shrestha celebrate each other’s festivals, pray at both types of shrine, and visit Buddhist Stupa and Hindu Pagoda as they see fit. Confused? Don’t be ….. it’s REAL religious tolerance with no discrimination and no religion based schools.

If Buddha were alive today he’d have a Nepalese passport! Surprised? Don’t be, because Siddhartha (Sid on our blog The Two Doctors), was born at Lumbini in the south of Nepal despite what many texts and Indians say. Birthplace determines citizenship and although modern day Nepal didn’t exist in 480 BC, neither did modern day India.
Siddhartha’s mother was Mayadevi and his father Sudhodana, a ruler of the Shakya clan and part of the Kshatriya group or ruling/warriors caste. This equates to the modern day Chettri caste and signifies that Buddha was originally a “prince” and born to rule as a warrior. As he was growing up his father ensured that Siddhartha remained enclosed within his palace and their grounds so that he was unable to witness or experience anything that would steer him towards fulfilling a prophecy of his becoming a “teacher” instead of a ruler. However one day the young prince managed to get outside the palace walls for a few hours and observed things he had never seen before; poverty, sickness, infirmity in old age, death. From that moment his life changed and the seeds of what was to become Buddhism were sown as he eventually left his father’s domain, travelling and engaging with Brahmin and other monks of the Hindu faith before his long meditation, subsequent enlightenment as a Buddha, and a further 40 or so years of spreading the main concepts of Buddhism based on “The Middle Way” between sensory indulgence and severe asceticism.
My favourite Buddhist temple area in Kathmandu is Swayambhu, popularly known as The Monkey Temple because of the large number of monkeys living in the surrounding trees. I visit here most days and it was my first temple visited in Kathmandu 35 years ago, my daughter was married here, the complex contains icons and monuments to a variety of religions, and it has a long detailed history that, in theory, goes back to Noah’s Flood! It’s a great place for mindful travel! Let’s start with that last bit: Buddhist “history/mythology” in Nepal asserts that there was a great flood encompassing Nepal and that the waters only receded when Manjushree used his mighty sword to cleave the earth to allow the water to drain away. This is Chobar Gorge, a few miles away from Swayambhu. As the water receded the first land revealed was a hill on which a Lotus Flower was growing, the hill henceforth named as Swayambhu, meaning …….. The Jewel in the Lotus!

I always use the main entrance from the city via a large gateway at the bottom of the hill and steel myself to run the gauntlet of women selling beads, bangles and bags, then the craftsmen/merchants with their stalls selling Buddhist trinkets such as carved slate, coloured stones, prayer beads etc. This is where I developed the “1000 yards stare” and a steady determined pace ascending the first layer of steps, otherwise it would take me a very long time to reach the summit. Steadily climbing the steps I always take in lots of smaller stupa around me, and some small wooden shelters for “pilgrims” to shelter from heat or rain. One of these shelters is owned by my family who mostly use it on Buddha’s birthday when they buy and hand out 1000s of bottles of water to the worshippers who ascend the hill to mark the day. I continue steadily upwards, passing through the pair of large Buddhas before being confronted by the steepest section. I take it slowly, holding the rail, ignoring the countless beggars. I always tell myself to focus on the large brass vajra you will see at the top of the steps, God’s Thunderbolt.
On the left now, I pay the small fee, and am rewarded with an amazing complex of stupa, a monastery, a full circle of prayer wheels, a pagoda temple to the goddess Ajima, shelters from the sun, merchants selling incense in different forms, and the obligatory trinket sellers around the perimeter. Relax, slow down, get your breath back and enjoy the place. But remember Swayambhu is a very religious place in Kathmandu, show respect, as you would expect visitors to do in YOUR church, cathedral, mosque, so be mindful! I have a simple routine having reached the stupa which begins with giving the large bell to my left a big resounding CLANG to release its supernatural properties. I now begin my clockwise walk around the stupa, spinning the embedded prayer wheels with my right hand and invoking the prayers within them for the peace of my wife, my daughter and my late son. I reach the monastery on my left and enter, marvelling at the enormous encased Buddha inside the entrance before entering the lamp room and lighting several butter lamps as one does with candles in a Christian church. Finally I wander around the initial corridor of the monastery to the prayer and meditation room, especially if I’m early enough to listen for a while to the monks chanting and praying to the mesmeric beating of a drum, bell ringing and horn blowing. This is well worth getting out of bed pre-dawn to experience whether you are a Buddhist or not!

My visits to Pashpatinath, the main Hindu Temple in Nepal, have been quite different and I freely confess I have only ever been there twice! Though dating back to the 5th century BC the current temple complex was rebuilt in the 5th century AD on the banks of the River Bagmati and is dedicated to Nepal’s national deity, Lord Pashpatinath. It is the site of an annual holy pilgrimage by over 1 million Hindus for the festival of Shivaratri. It is also where cremations are carried out daily on the banks of the river in full view of mourners, pilgrims and tourists alike. The view of the wood pyres with a body on top, the flames, and the smell of incense and sandalwood can be quite overpowering, but this is NOT why I don’t revisit. Clearly I am unwelcome as a white skinned westerner to enter through the main gate into the temple itself, although I do appear to be welcome to hand over my cash to beggars, unscrupulous “guides” and the sadhus who pester you quite aggressively to pay them a great deal of money for a photo. On our first visit with my wife and children I was mildly amused, then quite angry that they were allowed in but I wasn’t. A brown skinned Buddhist with her two children were OK but her white skinned husband wasn’t ….. my children have never forgotten it and neither have I. On a second visit my wife and I took some mountaineering friends to show them the outskirts and the funeral pyres on the river which they enjoyed, until a “guide” was seen by one of my friends to be “manhandling” my wife to persuade her to buy his services and was physically taught the error of his ways by Andy, better known as “Beast”!

During all of the time I have spent in Nepal I have tried to understand more about the architecture of Buddhist temples, shrines and monasteries, as well as the practice of Buddhism as a religion through reading, observing religious occasions and festivals, talking to family, and of course personal meditation. I have no specific insight to offer, each must find their own “way”, but maybe I can offer here what I believe are the essential rudiments and concepts to begin with?
Firstly, because Buddha as Siddhartha observed a myriad of suffering in everyone’s life …. poverty, sickness, infirmity in old age, and death …. he contemplated on such suffering and how to overcome it. So in one sense Buddhism is seen to be about human suffering and it’s eradication. In modern parlance, “shit happens, get over it”!
Secondly, Buddha observed people trying to achieve this through either extreme asceticism or sensory indulgence; in other words the two extremes of constantly striving for pleasure or completely cutting oneself off from the world physically and emotionally. What Buddha prescribed is known as The Middle Way, but this doesn’t mean having a little of each alternative extreme!
Thirdly he described the “Four Noble Truths”, meaning four elements which if followed meant that the follower was a truly noble person. The Four Truths are often stated as:
1.Pain (Dukkha): Often presented as “suffering” which is an incorrect translation. Physical pain arising from birth, illness, ageing, death. Also the mental pain of being in contact with things we don’t like, or losing things we do like, also not being able to get what we desire.
2.Origin of Pain (Dukkha-Samudayo): The cause of our pain, simply put, is craving and attachment, even clinging to things which are impermanent, because EVERYTHING is impermanent.
3.Ending of Pain (Dukkha-Nirodha): We can end our pain by ceasing or giving up our craving and recognising the impermanence of everything.
4.The Path (Dukkha-Nirodha-Gamini-Patipada): The 8 Fold Path based on Morality, Mental Discipline and Wisdom as a means to end the pain

I have seen simpler ways of describing these Four Noble Truths and the one I understand best is from Thich Nhat Hanh who transcribed them into opposites, Well Being and Suffering, with opposite paths to “attain” each like this:
1. Well Being: Our mental state when we stop craving and attachment to things which are impermanent. (The equivalent of No 3 above, Dukkha-Nirodha)
2. Path To Well Being: We can achieve well-being by following Buddhas 8-fold path (The equivalent of No 4 above, Dukkha-Nirodha-Gamini-Patipada)

3. Suffering: Our physical pain arising from birth, illness, ageing, death. Also the mental pain of being in contact with things we don’t like, or losing things we do like, also not being able to get what we desire. (The equivalent of No 1 above, Dukkha)
4. Path To Suffering: This path is the opposite of everything in Buddhas 8-fold path ….wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong diligence, wrong mindfulness, and wrong concentration, all leading to craving and attachment. (The equivalent of No 2 above, Dukkha-Samudayo)

Fourthly, Buddha described The 8-Fold Path to achieving Well Being and these steps in three sections are as follows:
{Morality … avoidance of unethical deeds}
1.Speech: Avoid lies, slander, impoliteness, malicious and abusive language. Speak only truth
2.Action: Actions must be compatible with your thoughts and intent promoting moral, honourable, peaceful conduct. Don’t kill, steal, rape, molest, deceive, abuse …
3.Livelihood: Don’t have a job or profession that harms others such as arms dealing, drugs dealing, killing animals, human trafficking.
{Mental Discipline …. control of the mind}
4.Effort: Having the determination, persistence and energy and the development of good habits by regular application of The Path
5.Mindfulness: Total awareness of body, mind, emotions, ideas, thoughts, things …..
6.Concentration: Training your mind to obey you, not the other way around, by discarding the bad thoughts, desires, attachments through total focus on “all states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way”.
{Wisdom … development of insight}
7.Intention (Right Thinking): From understanding the 4 Truths we must have the intent to APPLY this knowledge to non-violence as opposed to hatred, ill will, detest, spite; selfless renunciation and altruism as opposed to insatiable desires and selfishness; detachment; compassion as opposed to cruelty and callousness.
8.Understanding (Right View): Be able to see things as they are as described by The 4 Truths and with a clear understanding of them, particularly impermanence, non-self/insubstantiality, suffering/ dissatisfaction. Without understanding these things the Path is useless!
Once again, Thich Nhat Hanh has reordered them so that No’s 8 & 7 become No’s 1 & 2, which certainly helped me to follow the path practically through my actions once I had Understanding and Intention.

It has not been my intention here to preach to anyone or to write a theoretical description of Buddhist concepts. But clearly Buddhism has become an essential element of my life having married a Buddhist in 1971 and spent so long in Nepal. It also sustained me through the grief of our 22 years old son dying from cancer in 1997 and the many trials and tribulations of running a business in England then creating an aid organisation in Nepal in the face of rampant incompetence and corruption. It even sustains me through the frustrations of writing this book especially when the words won’t flow (if they ever did), or the occasional self doubt that nobody will read it anyway!

I mentioned Buddhist architecture above and this predominantly relates to the different forms of stupa, those dome like structures seen at temples, monasteries and shrines. Buddhist temples are easily recognised by this stupa, a mound or hemispherical structure supposedly containing “relics” of monks, nuns or even Buddhas within them. They are often part of monasteries or places of meditation. They originated however as pre-Buddhist tumuli just like those found around Neolithic Britain such as the one at Silbury Hill near the Avebury Stone Circle and Stonehenge in Wiltshire. There are 8 different shapes of stupa, each representing a life stage of Buddha but also the stupa itself has a significance generally. For example the dome at the base represents the entire world and the thirteen pinnacles on the top symbolise that sentient beings have to go through the thirteen stages of spiritual realisations to reach enlightenment or Buddhahood.
Another favourite stupa and temple complex in Kathmandu is at Boudha, and there is one particular visit with some of my mountaineering friends I would tell you about involving Everest Base Camp, a steam iron, a world record, and the High Lama of The White Monastery! The full story of the steam iron and our foray into the Everest region to Everest Base Camp will be described in the chapter on Mountaineering later in the book!

We exited our minibus at the entrance to Boudha with a mixture of emotions, from excitement to trepidation. We were a group of 5 mountaineers en route to Everest Base Camp before attempting to reach the summit of Imja Tse at around 21,000 ft ……. with a steam iron and an ironing board! Today we had an audience with the High Lama to give us a blessing for our expedition and in 10 minutes time were due to meet him at The White Monastery just behind Boudha. This had been pre arranged by my good friend Padam Shrestha, the joint owner of Sherpa Expeditions one of the first mountaineering agencies to be formed in Nepal and who were providing us with porters and equipment for some climbs in Langtang as well as in the Solu Kumbhu, the Everest Region. The little bit of fun with the steam iron was part of the renowned Extreme Ironing challenge where lunatics like ourselves got into extreme situations and proceeded to take out the board, iron and a shirt before performing the required pressing. I can still see the puzzlement on the Lamas face as he handled the iron and asked how we would power it up to full steam on top of a mountain. I told him we were seeking divine intervention and perhaps he could arrange it! To this day I can still hear him laughing!

Religion: A Few Things to Understand and Remember
  • Nepal is officially classed as a Hindu country, but has Buddhism in equal measure.
  • Buddha was born in Nepal, at Lumbini.
  • Stupa equals Buddhist, Pagoda equals Hindu.
  • Show respect, a Buddhist monastery for example is not just a tourist attraction.
  • Observe local people decorating shrines and effigies daily with flowers and incense.
  • Try to find out about specific religious festival days you could observe, they are extremely regular.

Don’t forget, I need your feedback, comments and suggestions, if you’re a newcomer stopping by here, then sign up to follow this blog so you get weekly alerts to published chapters. 🙏🙏👍 

7 thoughts on “A Year in Nepal: Chapter 4 There’s a One Eyed Yellow Idol ….

  1. God’s Thunderbolt is a likely a Hindu explanation. It is a Tibetan Dorje, it means diamond scepter it is indestructible and the symbol of male energy and bliss. It is a tantric symbol. It was a gift from Sherap Geltsen Rinpoche to H.H. The Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje who’s monastery is just right of it when standing with the steep stairs behind you. There is a more detailed explanation of the Dorje if you are interested.

    I really liked the reminiscent story of your childhood in the beginning it might be worth developing this some more or perhaps it is the beginning?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the additional information. I found myself in a quandary as to using specific Buddhist, Tibetan or Newark terms and in the end opted for “something English” that the casual reader would easily understand. I’ve done the same in my mountaineering chapter avoiding technical terms such as Abolokov Thread for example, better to say a wire hook … But I take your point👍

      Liked by 1 person

        1. What will I do now? First I will review all of the feedback in a few days time. But I can already see that people are mostly commenting on content, which is ok up to a point, but it’s conflicting. Some say, I wanted more about food, others say I wanted less on food and more stories. I was hoping for more on “style” “readability” etc, but I’m not criticising, its just the way it is. I enjoy eclectic blogging …. travel, wine, politics, philosophy, the occasional conversation with Sid and I’m still exploring my ancestry. It’s really an issue, I’m coming to realise, of living and writing for the moment, waking up and thinking “ah, I must write about that ….” and within an hour it’s done. A book is different …

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I think the most important thing is what do you want to have as a writing style for the book. It needs to be unified not a little of this and some of that. Tell us a story with a few extras about Buddhism and Nepal in the side. But really decide what you want that’s best.

          Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.