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Nepal: Swayambhunath Temple

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Swayambhunath Temple | Nepal | Asia

[Visited: April 2007]

It is not always easy to ask a taxi driver for directions, but in the case of Swayambhunath temple, it was: I could actually point to the towers rising above the trees on top of one of the hills dominating the skyline of Kathmandu when I asked for a ride in the early morning. Apart from driving up, you can also take a walk on the long stairway leading directly to the platform on which the great stupa of Swayambhunath sits, surrounded by two high, white towers: the Indian shikhara-style temples. The climb up is nothing enduring, but I saw some people struggling their way up very slowly, taking one step at a time; I can imagine it took them a long time to reach the top!

Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Reaching the top of the stairs at Swayambhunath

The legend of the origins of Swayambhunath temple is beautiful. It says that once upon a time, there was a huge lake in Kathmandu Valley (of which, by the way, scientists have found proof). Out of this lake grew a lotus. The name of the valley was Swayambhu, meaning "self created". A disciple of Shakyamuni, bodhisattva Manjusri, had a vision of the lotus and the lake and traveled here to worship it. Since the lake was not easily accessible by human pilgrims, he wanted to drain the lake: he cut a gorge through the surrounding mountains. After that, the lake dried up and created Kathmandu valley; the lotus turned into a hill, and the flower became Swayambhunath temple.

Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Woman with flame at Swayambhunath

Whatever its history, Swayambhunath is one of the most oldest religious sites in Nepal: it was an important destination for Buddhist pilgrims already in the 5th century CE. The view from the top could be nice, but even in the morning, the haze over Kathmandu, caused by smog makes it much less interesting. Fortunately, there is enough going on on the temple platform. Although the temple is Buddhist, it is also revered by Hindus. In fact, you can find Hariti Temple here, which is a Hindu goddess, a sign of how Buddhism and Hinduism intertwine in Nepal. Apart from looking at pilgrims going around the stupa, swirling the prayer wheels in a display of bright colours and devout faces, you will inevitably see many monkeys here. They are very playful, slide down roofs of temples, jump from one temple to the other, steal food left just before for offering, and have a great time climbing over the stupa roof. Surprisingly, I did not see pilgrims chasing the respectless monkeys away from their holy sites. It is not surprising, however, that Swayambhunath temple is dubbed Monkey Temple.

Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Detail of Swayambhunath temple: guardian animal, prayer wheels and candle holders
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Golden head of black statue at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Walking past one of the towers of Swayambhunath temple with the stupa in the background
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Swayambhunath temple is dubbed Monkey temple because of the apes around
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Monkey temple: monkey having some of the food left for offering at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Woman with colourful dress at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Women in bright colours at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Colourful beggar at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Orange-dressed monk and bell at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Souvenir stall and stupa
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Stupa, prayer flags, animal statues at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Pigeon sitting on the whitewashed wall of the stupa at Swayambhunath temple
Picture of Swayambhunath Temple (Nepal): Eyes in paint: man at work on top of the stupa of Swayambhunath temple

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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