A path to spirituality

Nangchen Stupa

A path to spirituality
It is not often that one gets to witness a historic event that can easily be termed as once in a lifetime. I was fortunate enough to be present at the inauguration of Ashoka Stupa by Gyalwang Drukpa, spiritual head of the Drukpa Order, in Nangchen. 

According to Buddhist scriptures, Emperor Ashoka commissioned the construction of this stupa in order to spread the message of Buddhism. Legend has it that over 84,000 such stupas were built to enshrine the relics of the Buddha, and that 19 such stupas were built in China. Incidentally, sariras is the Sanskrit word for relics that are the remains of a body part usually after cremation. In Buddhist context, sariras refers to the crystallisation of the solid remains of Buddha after his cremation. Emperor Ashoka collected all these and stored them in pagoda-shaped shrines, before sending them to different parts of the world. The stupa at Nangchen fell to ruins in the last few centuries, and the discovery of a pillar inscribed with the history of the stupa at the site revived its importance. Devotees resurrected the site under the leadership of the late Trulshik Adeu Rinpoche.

The Indian connect

While there are no verifiable records of Nangchen Stupa’s history, according to a legend, an old monastery once stood on the site of present-day Chamdo Monastery, to the west of the stupa. The monks there constructed a building to house devotees who protected the structure.

I was eagerly looking forward to see the restored version, and I was in awe of what I saw. The Ashoka Pillar reflects the Indian connection — perhaps a sign that religion can still be the hope for better relations between India, China and Tibet. The new temple has a pillar with a stone containing an original inscription, and is prominently placed between a renovated structure and the stupa. In 2012, a 115-foot statue of the Amitabha Buddha was installed at the site, as part of the restoration project. The golden-coloured Buddha statue, also consecrated on this occasion, is worth close to a whopping $6 million, and took 10 years for a Bhutanese sculptor to complete.

The restored stupa is a grand structure in white and gold, with a towering new golden Buddha statue, and has five tiers. The lowest level has a statue of the stupa’s protector Mahakala, a protector deity in Hinduism.

The five levels of the stupas embody the five eras of Buddhism. It houses five million mini stupas made by local villagers over three years, 150,000 mani stones and 160,000 engraved stone tripitakas, containing Buddha’s teachings. The next level has a mandala of Avalokitesvara or Lord Shiva. Each of the 500 mini stupas, adorning the exterior hemisphere, has a story of its own. The gold-plated stupa forms the cover for remnants of the original stupa, which is kept in a glass case. “All five stages of Buddha’s lives are depicted through murals, and the eight different types of stupas commemorate the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism,” explained monk Yeshe Namgyal, who took me on a tour.

What adds an aura to the stupa is the location — Nangchen. After landing in Beijing, you will need to take two flights (from Beijing to Xining and Xining to Yushu), and then hit the road for a two-and-a-half hour scenic drive through the countryside.

Nangchen, which lies close to the Tibet Autonomous Region at an altitude of 13,000 feet, was formerly one of five independent kingdoms in the traditional Tibetan region of Kham. What struck me was that the landscape changed consistently, and the only common element was the sparse settlements between the tall mountains of the Tibetan plateau. Grazing yaks in barren hillsides, flowing streams, mountains covered with a carpet of green and a cool breeze are sure to invigorate the senses of urban souls.
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