16 July 2008 by Emma Martin
On Sunday I went with my host Mother, Kalsang, to Swayambhunath, an important Buddhist site to the south of Kathmandu. Unlike Boudhanath, Swayambhunath sits on a hill overlooking the city, so for the first time in a few weeks I got to look up from my text books and have a really good look at the cityscape. Swayambhunath is affectionately known as the Monkey Temple, due to the many monkeys who live in and around the stupa. I’d been warned that these monkeys could be pretty mean and vicious, but the monsoon rains seemed to have dampened their spirits as they just watched as we climbed the steps to the smaller hill that sits to the west of the main stupa. This site holds a smaller shrine to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, and while Kalsang had her reasons for visiting the shrine I also had high hopes that Saraswati would give me a little helping hand with my Tibetan studies.
We were there for a very particular reason: Kalsang had read the Tibetan calendar and consulted her Lama, and Sunday the 13th was a very good day for dedicating a series of prayer flags that she had bought. As the rain started to pour, Kalsang wrote her family’s names (including mine) on a series of white silk scarves called Khatas. The khata is an important part of Tibetan culture, given as offerings in the gompas and stupas and also as gifts between people. Once all the names were written, each scarf had a small prayer said when it was placed on the forehead and then each was tied to a series of prayer flags.
Once the prayer flags were ready, the boys and men working at the stupa nimbley climbed the many trees to find a good place to attach the flags, so that their prayers could be sent out into the world. Kalsang gave offerings of juniper twigs to the stupa fire and recited a small mantra, to ensure the prayer flags’ success. Finally, handfuls of tsampa (roasted and ground barley flour) were offered and thrown into the air.
Athough, the rain poured down, and it was unusually cold, Kalsang was happy with the day and was sure the prayer flags had been successful. I think she was right as my reading has really improved this week.
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