Located on a small hillock named Swayambhunath, to the northwest of the Kathmandu Valley, the famous Swayambhunath Temple is known as the monkey temple, which becomes pretty obvious as soon as you arrive – there are monkeys everywhere. It is home to over a hundred resident monkeys that roam the area. Ever fantasized about having a pet monkey when you were a child? As cute they are, they are adorable tricksters and will attempt to steal anything you leave hanging from your bag. This tourist destination receives pilgrims and tourists from every nook and corner of the world. According to mythology, the glory of this destination started from this structure.
History of the Stupa
This religious site is located 3 km to the west of Kathmandu. It is one of the holiest Buddhist religious sites in Nepal. The hillock is assumed to be created from a primordial lake that was present in the region, around 2000 years ago. The existence of this temple has been indicated in an inscription made in 460 AD. Thus, it is assumed that the temple has been in the location since 460 AD or before that. Renovation works were made during the 7th century. It is said that there used to be a temple built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC but was destroyed. There is no concrete evidence for the same. It is said that King Manadeva built this temple. By the 13th century, this temple became an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. Later, in 2010, the structure was completely renovated, around 1500 years after its construction. The dome of the stupa was re-gilded using gold (20 kg). However, a few regions of the temple were destroyed by lightning in 2011 and an earthquake in 2015.
The Mythology of Swayambhunath Temple
According to legends, Swayambhu means “self-occurring.” It is believed that an ancient river suddenly had a lotus flower bloom in the middle of it. Slowly, the flower spread throughout the river and across the valley. A large illusion of Sakyamuni Buddha was seen on top of the lotus. This illusion was seen by Manjushri, who came in search of the place. The hill was raised from the river by Manjushri, a Bodhisattva of learning and wisdom. According to the etiquettes of a bodhisattva, he should keep his hair short and clean. However, he let his hair grow down and got infected with lice. It is said that these lice jumped out and became monkeys. Thus, the hill is full of monkeys.
The monkeys are quite the pranksters at the temple
The Stupa’s Architecture
The base of this stupa is cube-shaped. On all four sides, there is a pentagon-shaped Toran. On each side of the stupa is a pair of eyes. This indicates that God is omnipresent. Above each pair of eyes, there is another eye, which is the eye of wisdom. There is Panch Buddha (five Buddhas) on each side of the stupa. If you walk past the stairs leading to the temple, you will find two lion statues guarding the entrance. This staircase is the most recommended route that pilgrims take to enter the stupa, on foot. However, if you are ready to drive to the west side of the stupa, you can find another entrance with lesser steps.
A monkey solemnly staring into the lens
At the bottom of the staircase, on the eastern side, there is a large gate with a 12-foot tall Tibetan prayer wheel. It would take two strong people to move the wheel. For every revolution, a bell sound is heard. Near the gate, there are numerous small wheels for tourists to spin and perform prayers. Right before the stairs, you will find three 17th century Buddha statues. These statues are worshipped by women. Along the stairs, you will find many inscribed Tibetan stones. You can also spot small shops where merchants sell such stone replicas to tourists. The stairs will take you through the forest region inhabited by numerous monkeys.
The main stupa building is a white-domed structure. The stupa is filled with numerous statues and artifacts. From the tower, you can find a 13-level golden spire. The umbrella on top of the spire holds a bowl full of precious stones. There are numerous other shrines around this main building. Each one was donated by kings and other political figures.
Although the monkeys are somewhat active during the day, the stupa truly becomes a monkey temple at night when hundreds of monkeys frolic in the sacred area and even slide down the banister of the primary structure. To take the pilgrimage, climb the 365 stairs to the summit. Along the climb, you’ll find Buddha statues, prayer wheels, flags, and many vendors selling religious artwork and jewellery. Alternatively, you can take a taxi to the top backside of the stupa. There is a standing Buddha wishing fountain where you can toss a rupee into Buddha’s begging bowl to get your wish granted; you’ll find many coins lying at the bottom of the fountain. Entering the stupa from either entrance, you must pay an admission cost if you are not Nepalese.
Best Time to Visit Swayambhunath
It is best to visit the temple early in the morning before 9 am. This is the time you can find many rituals taking place and pilgrims in the complex. As the day progress, you will be surrounded by tourists taking pictures and doing other touristy things. If you visit during Saturday, the temple will be jam-packed with locals and tourists. Saturday is a day-off in the entire country; hence, you can find many prime activities during Saturday in this temple.
With regards to climate, the spring and fall are the best times to visit Kathmandu. September to mid-May is the right time to visit the temple.
With regards to religious festivals, Buddha Jayanth in April/May and Losar in Feb/March are the best time to visit this temple. Gunla celebration takes place in August or September.
Top 5 Tourist Attractions Around Swayambhunath
Before sunrise, you can find thousands of pilgrims walking up the 365 steps to the top of the hill. Apart from the main white-domed stupa, there are numerous other structures around it.
1. Harati Devi Temple
This is a notable temple dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Harati, the eradicator of smallpox. This shrine is built in the brick pagoda style. Women and children visit this structure to seek blessings. This temple holds the 19th century statue as deity. Stew, bread, and rice are offered to God.
This is a box-shaped temple, which is said to contain a living man, who has been there for 1500 years. It is said that Shanti Sri had locked himself inside a vault under the temple since the 5th century. He vowed that he would remain inside the vault until he is needed by the valley of Kathmandu. He is believed to be in a mystic living state. In the 17th century, when the valley of Kathmandu was in distress due to drought, the king of the region, PartapMella, visited this chamber. He mentioned that he had to go through several underground rooms filled with frightening elements like snakes, hawks, and ghosts. In the last room, the king found the saint alive and meditating. The saint gave a relic, which the king brought back to the kingdom, resulting in immediate rain.
3. Pratapur and Anantapur
These are two temples in the shape of a bullet. These are found on either side of the stupa. These temples were built by King Pratap Mella to mark his victory over Tibet in the 17th century. There are twin bells in front of the temple that have inscriptions describing his victory.
On the side of the stupa, there is a Dharmadhatu mandala. On it, the priestly symbol– a gold plated Vajra, is placed. This is the iconic Vajrayana Buddhism symbol.
5. Shri Karma Raj Mahaveer
This is an active monastery located in the northeast corner of the temple complex. The monks of this monastery perform rituals every evening at 3 pm or 4 pm.
How to Reach
The temple is located just 5 km away from Kathmandu. There are daily flights from India to Kathmandu. Once you reach Kathmandu, you can take a bus or taxi to reach the temple.
The stupa is approximately a 10-min taxi drive from downtown Thamil. You can hire a taxi to take you there or hire a car for the day and do day trips to major sites in Kathmandu such as Pashupatinath, Bodhnath Stupa, Kathmandu Valley, and Patan.
Walking might take you around 45 minutes from Thamil. The walk won’t be everyone’s cup of tea as the road to the stupa steepens as you get closer. But you’ll pass through streets lined with local shops, hotels, and neighbourhoods, which can be pleasant for some.
Open from dawn to dusk. The temple is open throughout the week.
People of any creed or religion can visit this temple.
Entry fee for foreigner: NPR 200 per head
Entry fee for SAARC citizens: NPR 50 per head
Entry is free for locals and children aged below 10 years
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