Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley is home to hundreds of sacred sites, and to a distinct and authentic form of Buddhism practiced by the Newar people. Lacking a monastic tradition, the Newars instead directed their worship to chaityas, or shrines, which abound in the urban landscape and the sacred topography of the valley. Chaityas were, and have continued to be erected in the memory of a deceased family member for the accumulation of merit by the deceased, by members of surviving generations, and by all sentient creatures. But instead of being limited to private devotion as funerary monuments, chaityas instead became the focus of public worship for members of the community, as almost all of them are in public or semi-public spaces.
They appear in a range of scales, from the monumental, like the mahachaitya, or “great chaitya” of Swayambhunath, down to less than the height of a person. The oldest of them were erected in the Licchavi period, named after the ancient kingdom that ruled the Kathmandu Valley between the fifth and eighth centuries, while a revival of the construction of chaityas took place in the seventeenth century. The typical votive chaitya resembles a building in miniature, sitting on a plinth, adorned with carvings at different levels, and surmounted by a dome and prominent finial. Representing some of the best stone architecture in Nepal, the carved decoration depicts the saints and divinities of the Newari Buddhism pantheon, including the five versions of the Buddha and a profusion of Bodhisattvas. The shrines also contain carved inscriptions that address the sacred object directly and give information about the donor and the year of its creation. Some even contain admonitions not to destroy the shrine, and warn of terrible consequences for those who do.
But the chaityas’ function as public monuments in the urban landscape places them in the middle of competing demands on public space. Historically rural, Nepal has been urbanizing rapidly over the last several decades, with the Kathmandu Valley at the heart of this trend. Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to sprawl and the loss of open space, and encroachment or outright destruction of smaller chaityas. In response, concerned citizens have mobilized to document the location, condition, and history of the chaityas and compile a reliable database. Inclusion on the 2020 World Monuments Watch supports local efforts surrounding the preservation of this intangible heritage that can help maintain livability and quality of life for the residents of Kathmandu.