Pokhara, Nepal: Seeing the World Peace Pagoda

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Peace Pagoda, Nepal
The aarati ceremony at the Trigajur Shivala was more low-key than the other two I witnessed, with just one priest and two bell-ringers.

The Shanti Stupa is a Great Reason to Visit this Popular Tourist town in Nepal

By Annie Chen
Senior Writer

The giant bowl of food donations grew throughout the ceremony and was blessed with incense before being given back out to the people.
The giant bowl of food donations grew throughout the ceremony and was blessed with incense before being given back out to the people.

Pokhara, the second-largest city in Nepal, is commonly seen as the launching point for trekkers hiking through Nepal, whether it’s scaling the Annapurna circuit, located just 28 kilometers away, or taking a more family-friendly two-day trip.

Pokhara is also the home of a world-famous Peace Pagoda, known around the world to Buddhists and other faithful.

Fully recognizing that I was in the minority of Western foreigners intentionally not planning on doing any treks in Nepal, I looked past the colorful posters in slightly dated font advertising more than 20 hiking packages and excursions to see what else there was to do.

Lake Fewa

Immediately greeting visitors is one of the most well-known attractions- Lake Fewa (Phewa), affectionately known to be in the shape of a bird swooping with outspread wings.

Covering a space of 4.43 square kilometers and averaging 8.6 meters in depth, the freshwater lake is the second-largest and most visited body of water in the country.

The town curves along the coast of the lake, with the main road leading right into the busy tourist downtown area of Pokhara. Several small alleys and walkways lined with boutique shops lead toward the lakeside boardwalk.

Calling Cranes

A stand behind the aarati tent at the Boudhanath Stupa sold packs of local food for the ceremony.
A stand behind the aarati tent at the Boudhanath Stupa sold packs of local food for the ceremony.

At the main entrance to the harbor, towering trees hang over the brick walls with white cranes loudly calling and rustling about. Their feathery cream-colored necks and heads stand in contrast to their all-white bodies, and though they flap around restlessly throughout the day, by the evening they’re peacefully roosting in round mounds within the branches.

Outside the public toilets to the right, taxi drivers scattered in various resting poses waiting for a family ready to go back home The long promenade stretching through metal gates is dotted with corn vendors roasting golden ears on their make-shift bicycle ovens, selling each corn on the cob for 90 NPR ($0.75 USD).

Behind the vendors, facing the lake, is a long row of restaurants advertising freshly squeezed juices, recently caught and grilled seafood, live music and nightly cultural dance shows. Metal white benches are arranged in a semicircle under small coverings in case of the occasional, and sporadic, downpour during the early monsoon season.

 More than a dozen priests played a number of musical instruments during the aarati ceremony at the Boudhanath Stupa while a man in the center compiled the food donations into a huge vat.

More than a dozen priests played a number of musical instruments during the aarati ceremony at the Boudhanath Stupa while a man in the center compiled the food donations into a huge vat.

World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara

The primary stop for me, however, was the boat service towards the World Peace Pagoda. A smaller cashier booth in the center of the promenade listed cheaper prices for tourists patient enough to walk there, while the primary cashier booth right at the main promenade entrance charged 1,500 NPR for two-way boat service to the pagoda. Life vests were required for every passenger by the committee of the harbor, so I received a small paper ticket which I swapped with a young woman in a shack, although the rowing captains clearly didn’t care about this policy.

Another five locals joined me on the paddle boat and within moments, we’d smoothly sailed into the calm center of the lake. The Tal Barahi Temple, situated on an island directly between where we’d just launched from and the dock we were targeting to access the World Peace Pagoda hike, is a picturesque and popular destination for locals.

Bells and peacock feathers keep away negative energy and spirits during the end of the ceremony.
Bells and peacock feathers keep away negative energy and spirits during the end of the ceremony.

Dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga in the form of the goddess Varahi, the island pays tribute to the defender and protector of the gods. It was built in 1864 by King Kulmandhan Shah, inspired by a dream, and we took in the pagoda outline as the bells rang out from the temple into the sunset.

Entering the Peace Pagoda

Another 15 minutes later, our group landed at the sandbank with a semi-marked trail indicating the entrance to the World Peace Pagoda. I agreed upon a pick-up time with the boat captain, and leaving the local family behind me at the small restaurant, I set off, following the uneven steps made of wooden planks and winding uphill stone pathway. Since a downpour had just passed, there was no one in front or behind me, leaving me alone with the distant odor of cattle and the occasional scuttle of a lizard.

Three priests dedicated the food offerings donated from local worshippers to the gods towards the end of the aarati ceremony.
Three priests dedicated the food offerings donated from local worshippers to the gods towards the end of the aarati ceremony.

The locals mentioned that it would take 45 minutes to reach the pagoda, but I assumed that meant 30 minutes at a brisk pace. In the end, with pointy rocks along the path and slippery mud, I passed the final cafe, complete with a sweeping view of Pokhara, and colorful flag pendants atop the 1,100-meter-hill after 50 minutes, slightly out of breath. The priests sweeping the entrance didn’t glance up as I huffed by, and emerging onto a clearing with a flower garden, I finally saw the Shanti Stupa, a.k.a. the World Peace Pagoda.

Massive White Stupa

Standing at 115 feet tall and boasting a perimeter of 344 feet, the massive white stupa was built by Japanese Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujii, founder of the Nipponzan-Myōhōji order of Buddhism. He famously met Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, then gave his life to non-violence.

He channeled this idea into the creation of 100 peace pagodas all over the world. At the moment, only 80 have been completed, and the Shanti Stupa is the 71st. There are two in Nepal, with the other World Peace Pagoda being located in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.

The Shanti Stupa has a long history from its initial concept and design to its completion. After Fujii began construction in 1947, it was burned down and then rebuilt with the new regime.

In 1973, the stupa was partially finished when they were forced to stop because of security restrictions with the height and size of the building, but with a bit of persistence, finally, in 1992, the cornerstone was laid. Seven years later, in 1999, a formal inauguration ceremony was held for the stupa. 

There are two flights of stairs and levels for visitors to walk around, although before reaching the stairs, shoes are expected to be removed about 20 meters from the base of the stupa. Silence is to be respected, a rule which is clearly stated on multiple large signs but many teenagers around me did not obey, much to the chagrin of the security guard.

Signs in Chinese and English describe the Buddha’s relics housed inside the stupa as well as descriptions of the four Buddha statues facing four cardinal directions. Each one came from a different country – Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Japan – and is posed in a symbolic manner for the Buddha’s life.

On the way back down to meet my boat captain, I looped around the backside where a small temple with four priests, cross-legged on the floor, were drumming rhythmically in prayer to their god. No pictures or videos were allowed although many visitors to the Shanti Stupa peeped through the open door and took in the incense and large Buddha statue in the center of the room. The back route continues onto the village of Chhorepatan where people can take a minibus back to central Pokhara if they don’t want to travel by boat again.

The back wall of the Trigajur Shivala temple had a number of different gods embedded within the waterfall.
The back wall of the Trigajur Shivala temple had a number of different gods embedded within the waterfall.

I found my boat captain without any issues and we headed back towards Pokhara, listening to the loud cranes along the coast during their final dusk feeding frenzy before their bedtime. As we passed the Barahi temple, I noticed a large crowd at the dock and what I initially thought were three dancers with candles. It turned out to be the aarati, a worship ritual performed by Nepalese Hindu priests using lit butter and oil lamps as offerings to the gods.

The aaratis are considered the highest form of prayer, and can take place at major attractions or religious festivals but in many holy points and locations of Hindu countries, it can be held daily.

As a sacred site, the Shanti Stupa requests all visitors to remain silent out of respect and remove their shoes before proceeding up the two flights of stairs.
As a sacred site, the Shanti Stupa requests all visitors to remain silent out of respect and remove their shoes before proceeding up the two flights of stairs.

The dock of Lake Fewa, facing the Barahi temple in the lake, saw aaratis done twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, seven days a week. The idea is to extend protection and wellness for all human beings and humanity.

The Lake Fewa ceremony wasn’t only about watching the priests, but had a unified and participatory environment as all the spectators and attendees sang and chanted the Bhajan, which are religious songs for everyone to join in with and represent the mind.

The priests’ circular motions with the oil lamps, ghee, which symbolizes the element of fire, were the center of the aarati, keeping the gods in the center of one’s life.

The three priests wore traditional clothing on raised platforms, while a man nearby cued the audience into the chants and shouted into a microphone. A box sat on the ground for visitors to give donations, and the elderly members of the audience sat in chairs arranged in rows, clapping their hands and nodding along to the music.

At the end of the ceremony, the priests waved peacock feathers and yak tail fans, representing air, to wish away the evil spirits and negative energy, and blew into shankhas, white conch shells that represent ether, and are also significantly used at other major moments of life events, such as a birth or a death. A holy flame was lit and left by the donation box afterwards, and visitors touched their foreheads to the ground and warmed their palms by the flame for the day’s blessings before returning home.

The aarati ceremony is meant to be participatory and many locals rejoiced and danced all around the priests.
The aarati ceremony is meant to be participatory and many locals rejoiced and danced all around the priests.

I happened to catch two other aaratis in Kathmandu. I visited the Trigajur Shivalay, a recently-built temple and little-known attraction, on my first day in the country. It has a unique history; formed in the shape of an enormous golden cow, the temple was designed by a five-year-old boy, Balgyani Guru Aditya Dahal. Born in 2013, at the age of four, Dahal suddenly developed the skills and knowledge to communicate and convey information about technology, science, finance, Hindu scriptures, and the ancient languages, such as Chinese, Nepalese and  Hindi, without any education.

While he doesn’t speak, he can write and respond and became revered as a blessed individual sent by the gods, believed by some to even be a reincarnation of a god himself. Now at nine years old, he lives behind the temple, which features waterfalls on the side of the wall, and a large serpent atop the cow.

The aarati ceremony was similarly held at dusk with fire lamps, but with fewer visitors and pomp. Two priests rang bells, replacing the shankhas as the element of ether, situated at the entrance to the inner temple while a third waved the ghee lamp and peacock feather around. Sitting alongside the seven other visitors, including three children who ran over from their home just minutes before the ceremony began, I watched from yoga mats placed facing the entrance. The holy flame was once again lit at the end for worshippers to receive its divine blessings for the evening before running home.

A waterway runs past Pokhara and drains into Phewa Lake.
A waterway runs past Pokhara and drains into Phewa Lake.

I also caught the aarati at the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest in the world, while I was in Kathmandu. The entire site was packed with tourists, throughout the day and night, so for the aarati, the priests set up a tent where a group of musicians could play the Bhajan and sing without being disrupted. A large bowl stood in the center of the tent, and two priests took donations in the form of cash or bags of food, which were sold just behind at a few makeshift tables.

From Sarangkot, a community on a hill overlooking the lake and Pokhara, paragliders take off to get a panoramic view of the area.
From Sarangkot, a community on a hill overlooking the lake and Pokhara, paragliders take off to get a panoramic view of the area.

The cash was stuffed into a canvas sack whereas the bags of food were emptied out into a massive pile in the bowl and blessed with incense and prayers. At the end of the ceremony, locals stuck their hands out with plastic bags and the priests filled their bags with food to give it back to the people who are in need.

From our eagle-eye perspective, we could see three of the top ten highest mountains in the world off in the distance.
From our eagle-eye perspective, we could see three of the top ten highest mountains in the world off in the distance.

Paragliding Over Pokhara

On my final morning in Pokhara, I set out to get a view of Lake Fewa and Pokhara from a higher angle – via paragliding. A popular activity, paragliding can be signed up for at a number of various tour operators throughout town. I chose the 20-minute flight, which cost $40 USD. The operators picked me up from my accommodation and collected other customers along the way in a 15-seat minivan, and we hastily filled out waiver forms in the car.

Bumping along the dirt road, we headed out of Pokhara, stopping briefly at a checkpoint for the travel agency to register how many people they were bringing up towards Sarangkot hill, the launching point for all registered paragliding companies. The winding road took about 25 minutes, and we had to stop at a second checkpoint at the entrance to Sarangkot with local municipal police asking for permits and waiver forms.

Two young gurung Buddhist villagers walking home after collecting Laliguran blossoms from a mountainside near Pokhara.
Two young gurung Buddhist villagers walking home after collecting Laliguran blossoms from a mountainside near Pokhara.

Dozens of Paragliders

Just moments after the checkpoint, we took a sharp turn and the panoramic view came into sight. From a moderately steep cliff, off the side of the road, dozens of paragliders dotted the hillside, taking in the lake and mountains in the distance.

Four colorful parachutes, strung out on the grass, were connected to guides preparing their customers with a respective harnesses.

The unspoken etiquette among the guides and agencies was visible in the loose line of paragliders waiting their turn, from harnessing into their guide to unfurling the parachute.

As I watched pairs taking off into the wind, after assessing the appropriate gust and direction, my guide brought me freshly picked orange berries from the nearby bushes.

I stuffed my bag into my harness which came with a seat and storage pocket, which was surprisingly spacious, and before I knew it, we were running in tandem down the hill and a strong wind lifted us both off the ground.

As we swung up and around the hill, the view of the lake and surrounding local houses and communities was unbeatable. The World Peace Pagoda was visible in the distance, as well as Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu, three of the top ten highest mountains in the world. The guide offered to take me acrobatic paragliding, which involved extreme flips and loops for an extra 1,500 NPR but I could feel the motion sickness settling in by the end.

After 20 minutes, which included a spontaneous Nepalese song performance from my guide, we soared towards the landing patch on the far side of the lake.

Narrowly flying over water buffalos, grazing in shallow water, we came to a gentle stop on the grass where dozens of others were already waiting for their friends and unstrapping themselves from the harnesses. I took a moment to steady myself on my feet once more, as other pairs landed with a “watch out!” and porters rushed to fold up the parachutes quickly into their bags to prepare for the next adventurers.