Kathmandu’s skyline used to be outlined by slanting tile roofs and gilded temple spires, the towns were surrounded by gold and green terrace fields.
All this is now a thing of the past. The Valley is a vast concrete maze of apartment blocks and haphazard highrises under a perpetual miasma of pollution.
There was an age when the very name ‘Kathmandu’ evoked a tranquil townscape trapped in time, nestled in an emerald valley amidst a backdrop of icy Himalayan peaks shining against an azure sky. How different from the chaotic, noisy and dirty Kathmandu of today.
Amidst the Valley’s famous temples and monasteries were lesser known chiva shrines that dotted just about every neighbourhood of the towns. Also known as chaitya, these small sacred stupa were also an important part of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation.
While most of the temples and monuments have been preserved and restored, the chiva have slowly disappeared — devoured by relentless urban expansion, road widening projects, privatisation of communal land, as well as human greed and neglect.
Now a group of heritage conservationist is making an inventory of votive structures that were once so ubiquitous in the semi-public and public spaces of the Valley so that they can be restored and protected from further destruction.
“One of the problems is that people and the government do not recognise the chiva as part of our heritage,” explains Amar Tuladhar of the Chiva Chaitya Organisation. “If a temple is damaged, it will be restored, but a chiva most likely will not. These votive structures are an integral part of our identity.”
Call them chiva, chaitya or stupa, they all represent Buddhist altars that serve as a network of shrines that were indispensable features of Kathmandu’s ancient courtyards. The shrines are still worshipped everyday and are the focal point of many rituals.
Sumati Bajracharya, Buddhist scholar and author of the book Stupa ra Chaitya (The Origin of Buddhist Art and Architecture), explains that during the time of Buddha, a place of rest or meditation was referred to as chaitya. Later they became memorials for deceased family members.
“Before Buddha achieved nirvana, he instructed his corporal relics to be buried in stupa or earthen mounds,” she says. “Buddhist scriptures also mention that building a chaitya accures merit to donors. So people built them wherever they migrated.”
Chaitya are not exclusively funerary monuments, but represent dharmakaya, the transcendental form and hence are the focus of public worship. “Chaitya can be built anywhere whether a private, a semi-public or a public space, but it has to be accessible so that people can circumambulate them,” says Bajracharya.