Swayambhunath / Swoyambhunath (स्वयम्भूनाथ स्तुप), sometimes also referred to as Monkey Temple, is one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal. This enormous complex of Hindu and Buddhist places of worship is located about three kilometres west of downtown Kathmandu, atop a hill which towers above the rest of the area. If the weather is good, you can get an interesting view of the city and partly the valley surrounding it, and in the distance, you can apparently see the white walls of the Himalayas.
It is Adi-Buddha, the Primordial Buddha, who chose this place. Back then, the water was surrounded by the mountains and the valley was filled with the Snake Lake. In the era of Satya Yuga, also called the Golden Age, a lotus seed was planted in the lake by a past Buddha, who was travelling from the town of Bandhumati. A single lotus flower radiating a blue flame emerged from the water. Coming from China, the great bodhisattva Manjushri cut through the mountains with his flaming sword, thus creating the Czobar Gorge and draining all the water away, which with the stream of Bagmati River flew into the great Ganges. Manjushri’s disciples erected the town of Manju-Patan. Bodhisattva appointed Dharmakāya as king and returned to China. In the era of Treta Yuga, King Praczanda Deva covered the flower with the stupa.1
According to another legend, the bodhisattva Manjushri drained the valley and the lotus flower settled on the hill, transforming magically into a stupa. Therefore, the term Swayambhu, which means self-existent or self-created, would apply not only to the Buddha, but also to the stupa itself.
Certain sources claim that the construction of the first temple, which was later destroyed, had been commissioned by the Emperor Ashoka, who had visited the hill in the third century BC. However, the oldest inscription dates back to about 460 AD and says that the temple was founded by King Mānadeva.
In 1346, the stupa was destroyed by the troops of Sultan Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah of Bengal, and in 1372, it was rebuilt into the form similar to the one which is today. This was obviously not the end of the improvements and the complex is still being expanded today. Interestingly, despite the Buddhist character of the place, Hindus also participate in these developments. A large contribution to its present appearance was made by perhaps the most famous king of Kathmandu, Pratap Malla. During his reign, a large part of the Royal Palace and the monuments clustered around Durbar Square were erected. The king also built a road linking the centre of Kathmandu with Swayambhunath, a bridge on the river along the road, the stairs leading to the hill and two shikharas next to the stupa.
It is best to visit Swayambhunath in the morning before the usual influx of tourists. If you want to watch the pilgrims, come here on Saturday, when the Nepalese have a day off from work.
There are about 365 stone steps leading to the hill from the east. To reach the top, you need to go through the colourful gate and climb slowly, passing by smaller stupas, polychrome Buddha statues and ragged beggars. Right at the top of the stairs, there is a pedestal with 12 animals of the Tibetan calendar carved on it (hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog, pig, mouse, ox and tiger) and Vajra2, the symbol of male power. A little bit further, you will find a bell which symbolizes female wisdom and two lions lying lazily and guarding the entrance to the complex. The stone lions look quite harmless and seem not to be bothered by the visitors swarming around. This cannot be said, however, about a very real guard checking the tickets, which as tourists we have to buy for 200 rupees.
During the climb up the hill, you can notice a characteristic element of the Swayambhunath landscape, namely numerous Prayer Flags, which sometimes seem to obscure the sky. Another interesting fixture is monkeys, which, according to the legend, transformed from the lice on bodhisattva’s head.
Now that you have reached the top, you can see the main Stupa. If you walk around it following the direction of the sun, you will spin the prayer wheels placed around, releasing the famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (Behold! The jewel in the lotus!). On your way, you will pass five shrines devoted to the five spiritual realizations of Buddha. The individual elements of the Stupa have their symbolic meaning. The square base symbolizes earth, the round dome represents water, the cone shape of the Stupa represents fire, the canopy represents light and air, and the peak symbolizes space and ether. There are also thirteen golden rings on the spire which symbolize the thirteen steps towards full enlightenment. Symbols of the five elements are also located around the hilltop. Behind the Anantapura temple, there are two shrines, Vasupura (earth) and Vayupura (air). To the north of the Stupa, you will find Nagpura (water). Northwest of the Stupa base, there is Agnipura (fire) – a red-faced god resting on a polished boulder. The fifth element (sky and ether) is symbolized by Shantipura, which is north of the Stupa, just outside the Palace of Peace.
On both sides of the Stupa, there are white twin Shikhar temples built in 1646 by the aforementioned King Pratap Malla. The one on the left is Anantapura, while the one on the right is Pratapura. One interesting fact I read somewhere is that the king founded the two Shikhars to win favour with the gods in the war with Tibet.
Covered with a distinctive, two-storey pagoda-style roof, Harati Devi Temple is dedicated to the goddess of smallpox and other epidemics. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The Newa people refer to goddess Harati as Ajima and venerate her as the protector of children, which is why the temple is especially popular with mothers, who come here to ask for Ajima’s blessing on their offspring. The image of the goddess dates back from the nineteenth century; the former was destroyed by King Rana Bahadur Shah (1775-1805) after his wife died of smallpox. Apparently, taking his revenge on gods was not the best of ideas, because the king got to live only 30 years.
Behind the Stupa, there is a gompa, which is a Buddhist monastery. Apparently, every day at about 4 pm, there is an interesting ceremony here during which the faithful sing and play various instruments. Climbing up the stairs, you can reach the monastery’s roof located approximately at the level of Buddha’s eyes. Right nearby, you will have a chance to admire a tall statue of Avalokiteśvara. The plate indicates that it comes from the seventh century AD. On a small square, there are dozens of small stupas. And here is yet another Buddha, yet another shrine. The place is busy with pilgrims, tourists, salesmen and beggars, who all mix together. Small shops are full of wonderful souvenirs.
Northwest of the Stupa, there is the Shantipur temple, sometimes also called the Palace of Peace. The legend has it that under the temple, there is a hidden vault where the holy man Shri Shanti has been living and meditating for 1500 years now. The master helps the local people when needed. In 1658, King Pratap Malla descended to the secret vault to seek help with the ongoing drought. The king had to go through several underground rooms, each more frightening than the last. In the first one, there were huge bats and hawks, the second was home to hungry ghosts, and the third full of snakes that chased him until he calmed them down with milk. Finally, the king found the saint, skinny as a skeleton but still alive and meditating. The master agreed to help and soon the long awaited rain fell.
The stairs will lead you down to the western part of Swayambhunath, where you will find more stupas, bells and monkeys. Everything is placed under the roof of colourful Prayer Flags, whirring endlessly in the wind and sending prayers to heaven. At least we can assume that these are prayers, because we were unable to read them, and, to our surprise, the flag sellers were unable to give us any reliable information on that.
There are vast hoards of moneys. They run, jump on the stupas, play, cuddle, chase and fight. They feel quite confident here as this is their home. It is rather a tourist who should watch out for them, because sometimes they like to be mischievous and cheeky, just like people. One was showing off in front of me with its circus skills, jumping on the hanging strings of the Prayer Flags. It looked rather pleased with the fact that someone was watching it... until something went wrong and it fell down on the ground. Then, it ran up to me, kicked me and scurried away. Monkeys.
Andrzej Strumiłło, Nepal, Łódź 1987, s. 146-147.
Vajra in Sanskrit literally means diamond, but it symbolizes thunderbolt, which is the main weapon of god Indra. In Buddhism, Vajra is the symbol of indestructibility and firmness of Buddhahood; it is also a ritual tool.
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