As promised, we’re taking a more peaceful journey today.
Today, we’ll take a trip up to Asura Cave,
one of the many sites in Nepal
revered by Buddhists from around the world.
When Buddha’s first great student, Padmasambhava, wanted to become enlightened, he didn’t try to follow in Buddha’s footsteps. Instead, he struck out on his own, hiking out into the hills in the valley, and finally settling in a cave in an area that is now known as Pharping. (Confession: Six years ago, when a young local woman was giving me a tour of the area around Asura Cave, she showed me a different cave on these grounds — and others were there as well, with a few cramming in to meditate together. I have no clue which is which, and I doubt anyone could give me a straight answer.)
Asura Cave is located on sprawling grounds with many Hindu shrines, Buddhist shrines, and a Buddhist monastery, and it’s a tough climb up some steep stairs to get to it. Hindus consider Buddha to be an incarnation of Vishnu, even though Buddha was encouraging others to leave the old ways behind, and so wherever there is a Buddhist site, you’ll find that Hindus have joined the party.
It is rumored that when Padmasambhava became enlightened, he walked through the mountain and out through another cave here in Pharping. This second cave is on the grounds where the elder care home is located, along with a Buddhist monastery, a Buddhist shrine, and many Hindu shrines.
From the cave, you can continue the steep, long climb and head to what was once the top of the site. It’s peaceful up here, with benches set up and prayer flags all around. You’re far above the noise, and can take time to catch your breath and calm your mind. You can almost imagine Padmasambhava climbing his way up, through brush and bramble, to find a quiet cave in which to meditate and be by himself.
As I just mentioned above, this used to be the top of the site. Was there more up above? Sure, but it was untamed forest and would be tough to hike up. Plus, there wasn’t anything up there.
So, imagine my surprise when I see even more steep stairs have been built into the mountain side during the past few years. You cannot see where these stairs end, and there’s just no telling how far up they go. Am I foolish enough to see where they lead? Yes. Yes, I am. So up I go.
Every 150 stairs or so, I stop to catch my breath and record the number of steps I was on, then I keep going. Trust me, after 400 or so stairs, I am starting to wonder a few things. First off, what kind of sick, twisted mind would say, “Hey! Let’s build a billion stairs up to something way at the top!” Second, exactly how much more “up” was there? And lastly, how confident am I that my bad knee is going to survive not only all this “up” but the “down” that comes after it?!
At long last, I see the end of it all far above me. Yes, there is something up there, and as far as I’m concerned, it had better be spectacular.
Six hundred and seven stairs later (give or take a few — I’ve been pretty well oxygen-deprived by this point and may have over- or under-counted a smidge), I see three things:
An unfinished temple. It is not Buddhist.
A moat. Yes, a moat.
Two young adults with their motorcycle (!!) parked to the side.
Still under construction, this is the making of a Hindu temple.
There is no way to show you exactly how far up I am at this point. The photo below just doesn’t quite capture it.
After relaxing and snapping some photos, the first thing I do is look for the road that the young couple used to get up to this same point. I’m pretty sure they didn’t take the stairs. It’s a long, slow walk back to town, and I take advantage of the opportunity to buy a small KitKat bar at a local shop (hey — I’ve earned it!), and also rest for a few minutes at Shahadev’s printing and stationery shop. Recall that Shahadev is the young man who’s nonprofit runs the elder care home.
I plop myself down on a stack of paper boxes and tell Shahadev and his business partner where I’ve been. They look surprised and tell me the name of the temple being built.
It’s a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali.
I protest. “No! She has Dakshinkali Temple! This is a Buddhist site!”
They smile. “She comes to this hill top,” they explain.
“When?! This is for Padmasambhava!” I yell.
Both young men appear sheepish. “Yes,” they say, “she is here first.”
I can’t help but roll my eyes. “Before Padmasambhava?”
“Yes, before Padmasambhava.”
In all my years (seven short years) and in all my talks with so many locals, no one mentioned Kali coming here first. No resources online, no experts — no one has known about this. But that’s the story now, and far above this peaceful site is a temple dedicated to a bloodthirsty goddess, whose name translates into, “She who is Death.”
Now, in all fairness to Kali, she is also considered by many to be the kindest and most loving of all the Hindu goddesses.
Ritual animal sacrifice aside.