Perched on a hillock west of Kathmandu, Swayambhunath is, perhaps, the most eminent Buddhist monument in Nepal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also mentioned as the ‘Monkey Temple’ owing to the presence of a large number of monkeys around the area.
The oldest written reference to the stupa dates from the 5th century, but it could have existed much earlier. It is said that when Sultan Shamshuddin from Bengal invaded the Kathmandu valley in 1346, he broke open the dome to see if there were gold and valuables hidden inside. It was renovated over the centuries. Legend, however, has it that the stupa evolved spontaneously at the time of the valley’s creation.
Pilgrims circumambulate the base of the hill of the stupa. A steep climb up a stone stairway on the eastern flank of the hill takes you to the dome of the stupa where the first thing one comes across at the end of the ascent is the huge vajra, or thunderbolt, also called dorje. Around the periphery of the circular base of the white dome at intervals are placed the five meditating Buddhas enclosed in the walls within iron veils, ostentatiously to protect them from theft. Prayer wheels of copper inscribed with the chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ are fixed along the periphery of the dome, and pilgrims rotate the wheels as they circumambulate the stupa.
The stupa is one of the several shrines and temples in the complex. There are two white shikhara-style temples constructed by King Pratap Malla of Kathmandu in the mid 17th century known as Pratappur and Anantapur facing east on either side of the vajra. To the west of the dome, there is a two-tiered temple of Ajima, or Harati, known as the protector of small children and the goddess of smallpox. According to legend, Harati was a mother to 500 children and was used to kidnapping others’ children to feed her own. On the plea of those who had lost their children to Harati Ajima, Buddha one day made off with the youngest of her children and hid him beneath his begging bowl. When she came to know that her child was lost, she was overwhelmed with grief and inconsolable. The Lord then told the grief stricken mother that if she was so overwhelmed with grief at the loss of one child (she had 500), then imagine the pain caused to other mothers who had lost their only child to her. The Lord then returned the child safely to her. From then on she became the ultimate protector of children, and the temple is dedicated to her.
On a hillock west of Swayambhu is a shrine dedicated to Manjushree who is credited to have drained the lake and made the valley habitable. The idol of Manjushree is also worshipped as Saraswati, or the ‘Goddess of Learning’ by Hindus. A large number of devotees and students, in particular, visit this shrine during the Basanta Panchami in February with prayers for knowledge and education. Parents bring their very young children and have them scrawl alphabets on the walls of the shrine in the belief that the goddess will make them studious and scholarly.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Kagyukpa order north of the Swayambhunath stupa called Karmaraj Mahabihar. On a clear day, a beautiful panoramic view of the Kathmandu valley can be had from the platform surrounding the chaitya. Access: Swayambhunath lies 2 km west of Kathmandu and is a 40-minute walk from the city centre. There are public buses and tempos that will drop you at the foot of the hill. From there, it is a steep climb up the eastern stairway. Alternately, the easier route is ascending from the western side.