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The Pigeon Temple

 

One Quiet Corner of Kathmandu

THE PIGEON TEMPLE. Nobody calls it that for real. A friend made up that name after seeing it for the first time. The real name is Kathesimbhu – a shortened down devolution of Kathmandu-Swayambu. It was built as a replica of Swayambunath, the Monkey Temple, the ancient monastic complex that sits on an acropolis just outside the town of Kathmandu. Kathesimbu was built for pilgrims too old or weak to make the climb up the steep hilltop upon which the real Swayambunath Temple sits. I’ve taken many photos that could easily be mistaken for the more famous and much older original. But, they can only be mistaken when looking up at the white dome and the golden harmika with the mysterious eyes painted on it. Unlike Swanyambunath, Kathesimbhu is surrounded by buildings, set in an ancient courtyard or “chowk” along one of Kathmandu’s main old streets. I came upon it many years ago when I was staying for an extended period in Thamel, the trekkers ghetto. Kathesimbu was a magical respite from the noise of the streets, car and motorcyle horns, two-stroke whining engines, rickshaw bells, voices in five languages, and the perpetual clank and rush of commerce. There are two alleys leading off the main street into the courtyard and so the incessant sounds of the traffic fall away as you walk down the steep-faced corridors into the sudden open space.  Once there, you can find peace and quiet, and just listen to the purring of pigeons.  

The pigeons are special. Every morning, Tibetan women circumambulate the dome of the stupa and the pigeons follow them. Circumambulation is a ritual observance in which worshippers walk around and around a sacred object, in this case, the main stupa of Kathesimbhu. While the women do this, they continue to throw grain and rice into the air and along their pathway. This attracts thousands of pigeons, who, following the offerings, circumambulate the temple themselves. In the air, they form a swirling vortex of wings around the central golden spire. Since Buddhist thought holds that each pigeon is a distinct sentient soul, each circumambulation is another prayer to the Buddha. Even these days, with the lurking threat of Avian flu, it’s a strongly moving experience to be around these little flying prayers. I try to make a pilgrimage to the pigeon temple on my first morning in Kathmandu each time I come. Adventure travel is an act of faith, and Kathesimbu gives new meaning to the phrase, "On a wing and a prayer."




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