24-30 April 2015 #755

Circumambulating with Swayambu Billy

On the trails of Gunadhya with the yoga teacher who translated 'Nepala-Mahatmya'
Lucia De Vries

When yoga teacher William Forbes suffered a serious accident in 1985, some predicted he might never walk again but fate had something else in store for the American iconoclast better known as ‘Swayambu Billy’.

Forbes came to Nepal in 1970, and like many of his contemporaries, took the long road to Kathmandu overland on the hippie trail. The young adventurer flew to Luxembourg, where he bought a Volkswagen van, crashed it in Morocco and continued by local buses, travelling through Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. His wife, Susan Burns followed a few years later.

While studying yoga and meditation, Forbes met renowned teachers like Jiddu, UG Krishnamurti and TKV Desikachar. He also met American poet Ira Cohen, Hettie Maclise (German actress and wife of Velvet Underground Angus Maclise) and Finger Eight Eddie (Legendary guru of Goa hippies).

During a 1985 trekking accident, he broke a leg in several places and suffered a concussion. Doctors warned him that it would take years to get back on his feet, if ever. So he decided to learn Sanskrit.

A couple of years later, Professor Theodore Riccardi recommended Forbes to translate the ninth-century Sanskrit texts, Nepala-Mahatmya and Himavatkhanda.

“Slowly but surely the stories behind Kathmandu’s sacred destinations came to life,” Forbes recalls. During the translation of the Nepala-Mahatmya Forbes came across this sentence: ‘When he arrived in the Holy Land of Nepal he took a ritual bath in the holy Bagmati River, worshipped Pashupati, and circumambulated the sacred Kathmandu Valley.’

After reading the story about the pilgrimage of Gunadhya, Forbes started a search of the forgotten routes. “In the fall of 1992, I started visiting the places with friends. Some were easy to identify, others I had never heard of. Finding the shrines was a true adventure. Although the temples are often located not far from the city, we often had the feeling that we visited a remote area where time stood still,” Forbes told us.

Having identified most of the 37 places, Forbes and Burns, together with Sanskrit teacher Shri Chaube, decided to walk the entire pilgrimage route in the spring of 1994. Forbes says, “It was a very special experience. It took almost two weeks to reach all the spots. We started and ended at the Pashupati temple. We were unable to find two places, but located the rest.”

Source: The Glory of Nepal

Forbes’ book, with the translations and a map of the pilgrim route (below), was published in 2000, entitled The Glory of Nepal – A Mythological Guidebook to Kathmandu Valley. The translator believes that his life has been greatly enriched by the knowledge of Sanskrit scriptures, and the experience of the pilgrimage. His second book, on the Bagmati River, will come out soon. Based on the Himavatkhanda, it describes the origins of the holy river, and includes the Bagmati Tirtha pilgrimage from Chobar to Bagdwara, with its 150 bathing places.

The Swayambu scholar is presently working on a translation of the Vaishvanara Purana about another ancient pilgrimage destination: the area of holy flames burning off natural gas connected to the goddess Jwala, located in Dailekh. In his introduction to the book, Forbes notes: “In these days of global warming, when the pristine Himalayan snows are shrinking, and the sacred rivers and bathing places are becoming polluted and drying up, it is important to encourage people to visit them while they are still there. At the same time, in my small way, I am giving back to Nepal the cultural riches and blessings it has bestowed on me.”


Read also:

Creating the Nepali past, Kanak Mani Dixit

In the name of the lord, Alok Tembahangphey

An unholy holy river, Pranaya SJB Rana

Cleaning up the Bagmati

Coming soon: The Bagmati Heritage Walkway, Tufan Neupane