A monkey at Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal
A journey up to the Buddhist temple and Unesco World Heritage Site of Swayambhunath is one of the definitive experiences of Kathmandu. Mobbed by monkeys and soaring above the city on a lofty hilltop, the ‘Monkey Temple’ is a fascinating, chaotic jumble of Buddhist and Hindu iconography.
The compound is centred on a gleaming white stupa, topped by a gilded spire painted with the eyes of the Buddha. Depictions of these eyes appear all over the Kathmandu Valley.
Coming to Swayambhunath is an intoxicating experience, with ancient carvings jammed into every spare inch of space and the smell of incense and butter lamps hanging heavy in the air. The mystical atmosphere is heightened in the morning and evening by local devotees who make a ritual circumnavigation of the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels set into its base. It is a great place to watch the sun set over Kathmandu.
According to legend, the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake – geological evidence supports this – and the hill now topped by Swayambhunath rose spontaneously from the waters, hence the name swayambhu, meaning ‘self-arisen’.
The emperor Ashoka allegedly visited 2000 years ago, but the earliest confirmed activity here was in AD 460. During the 14th century, Mughal invaders from Bengal broke open the stupa in the search for gold, but the stupa was restored and expanded over the following centuries.
There are two ways to approach Swayambhunath temple, but by far the most atmospheric is the stone pilgrim stairway that climbs the eastern end of the hill. Constructed by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century, this steep stone staircase is mobbed by troops of rhesus macaques, who have made an artform of sliding down the steep handrails. A word of advice: keep foodstuffs out of sight of these simian hoodlums!
From a collection of brightly painted Buddha statues at the bottom of the hill, the steps climb past a series of chaitya and bas-reliefs, including a stone showing the birth of the Buddha, with his mother Maya Devi grasping a tree branch. You can often see Tibetan astrologers reading fortunes here. At the top, the steps are lined with pairs of Garudas, lions, elephants, horses and peacocks, the ‘vehicles’ of the Dhyani Buddhas. Near the end of the climb is the ticket office (there’s another one at the western entrance, near the tourist bus park). When you reach the top, remember to walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction.
At the top of the eastern stairway is an enormous, brass-plated dorje (thunderbolt), one of the core symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. Known as the vajra in Sanskrit, the thunderbolt is a symbol of the power of enlightenment, which destroys ignorance, but is itself indestructible. In rituals the dorje is used to indicate male power, while female power is represented by a ceremonial bell.
Around the pedestal supporting the symbol are the animals of the Tibetan calendar; flanking the plinth are the Anantapura and Pratapura temples, two slender, Indian-style shikhara temples built by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. Nearby is a viewpoint and a raised area with telescopes for hire.
Swayambhunath Stupa The Swayambhunath stupa is one of the crowning glories of Kathmandu Valley architecture. This perfectly proportioned monument rises through a whitewashed dome to a gilded spire, from where four faces of the Buddha stare out across the valley in the cardinal directions. The noselike squiggle below the piercing eyes is actually the Nepali number ek (one), signifying unity, and above is a third eye signifying the all-seeing insight of the Buddha.
The entire structure of the stupa is symbolic – the white dome represents the earth, while the 13-tiered, beehivelike structure at the top symbolises the 13 stages that humans must pass through to achieve nirvana.
The base of the central stupa is ringed by prayer wheels embossed with the sacred mantra om mani padme hum (‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’). Pilgrims circuiting the stupa spin each one as they pass by. Fluttering above the stupa are thousands of prayer flags, with similar mantras, which are said to be carried to heaven by the winds. Set in ornate plinths around the base of the stupa are statues representing the Dhyani Buddhas – Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amocha Siddhi (Amoghasiddhi) and Aksobhya – and their shakti (consorts). These deities represent the five qualities of Buddhist wisdom.
Stupa Platform The great stupa is surrounded on all sides by a veritable sculpture garden of religious monuments. At the rear of the stupa, next to a small, poorly lit museum of Buddhist statuary, is the Kagyud-school Dongak Chöling gompa , set above a brick path . Take your shoes off to view the murals inside.
North of the pilgrim shelter is the golden pagoda-style Hariti (Ajima) Temple , with a beautiful image of Hariti, the goddess of smallpox. This Hindu goddess, who is also responsible for fertility, illustrates the seamless interweaving of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs in Nepal.
Mounted on pillars near the Hariti Temple are figures of Tara making the gesture of charity, with an upturned palm. In fact, there are two Taras – Green Tara and White Tara – said to symbolise the Chinese and Nepali wives of King Songtsen Gampo, the first royal patron of Buddhism in Tibet. The Taras are also female consorts to two of the Dhyani Buddhas.
Nearby, bronze images of the river goddesses Jamuna and Ganga guard an eternal flame in a cage. Northwest of these statues is a garden of ancient chaityas, and at the back of this group is a slick black statue of Dipankara, carved in the 7th century. Also known as the ‘Buddha of Light’, Dipankara is one of the ‘past Buddhas’ who achieved enlightenment before the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. Also note the black chaityas set atop a yoni – a clear demonstration of the mingling of Hindu and Buddhist symbology.
Back at the northeast corner of the complex is the Shree Karmaraja Mahavihar , a Buddhist temple enshrining a 6m-high figure of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. A prayer service takes place every day at around 4pm, accompanied by a cacophony of crashing cymbals, honking horns and the rumbling chanting of Sutras (Buddhist texts).
Symbols of the five elements – earth, air, water, fire and ether – can be found around the hilltop. Behind the shikhara-style Anantapura temple are shrines dedicated to Vasupura , the earth symbol, and Vayupura , the air symbol. Nagpura , the symbol for water, is a stone set in a muddy pool just north of the stupa, while Agnipura , the symbol for fire, is the red-faced god on a polished boulder on the northwestern side of the platform. Shantipura, the symbol for the sky, is north of the platform, in front of the Shantipura building.
Western Stupa If you follow either path leading west from the main stupa, you will reach a smaller stupa near the car park for tourist buses. Just behind is a gompa surrounded by rest houses for pilgrims and an important shrine to Saraswati, the goddess of learning. At exam time, many scholars come here to improve their chances, and school children fill the place during Basanta Panchami, the Festival of Knowledge.
Getting there & away You can approach Swayambhunath by taxi (Rs 80), by bicycle or as part of an easy stroll from Kathmandu. Taxis can drop you at the bottom of the eastern stairway or at the car park atop the western side. The latter is closer to the stupa but the steep eastern pilgrim stairway offers the more interesting approach. Safa tempo No 20 (Rs 7) shuttles between Swayambhunath's eastern stairway and Kathmandu's Sundhara district (near the main post office).
A monkey at Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal
Holy monkeys at Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal
The hilltop Swayambhunath temple on the outskirts of Kathmandu. This imposing structure is popularly known as the "Monkey Temple" because its often vicious wild monkeys are allowed to scamper among the trees on the temple's hill, terrifying visitors who have to hike up a lengthy stairway to reach the temples.
Swayambhunath: This is one of the world's most glorious Buddhist Chaityas. It is said to be 2,000 years old. Painted on the four sides of the spire’s base are the all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha. It is 3km west of Kathmandu city and is situated on a hillock about 77m above the level of the Kathmandu Valley and hence commands an excellent view of the Valley. This Stupa is the oldest of its kind in Nepal. It was listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Monument List in 1979.