Exploring the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu

posted in: Asia, Heritage, Nepal | 60

Don’t shoot me! I know I am a little delayed in sharing the next post of my Epic Indo-Nepal Road Trip. However, violence is not the solution. You got to be peaceful about it. Especially, if you are visiting the serene Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu -for that is where we went next after the Pashupathinath temple and the Budhnilkantha temple on our Day One at Kathmandu. With the earlier two temples, we got a good insight into the Hindu way of life in Nepal and what was left was to explore the Buddhist aspect of it. The Swayambhunath temple was just perfect for that.

Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu
Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu

The Boudhanath Stupa and the Swayambhunath Stupa were the two places on our itinerary. While all of us would have loved to do both, we were short of time and needed to pick one. Encouraged by our local cab driver, we chose to head to the Swayambhunath temple – the place where Kathmandu is said to have originated from.

The legend of Swayambhunath temple

A Bodhisattva by the name Manjushri is said to have had a dream of a Lotus growing in a valley. Following the same, he reached the present day Kathmandu Valley to find the very same lotus. He cut the lotus off in a manner where the water surrounding it drained away and the Lotus magically transformed itself into the present day stupa. Swayambhunath is the name given to is for it means “self-created“.

Swayambhunath Stupa with its other temples
Swayambhunath Stupa with its other temples

It is this legend that is the reason for the belief that Kathmandu originated from here. Though the present day evidence goes back to 2000 years when the first Licchavi King Manadev is said to have built the current Swayambhunath Stupa. Today, this place not just has the main stupa, but plenty of other interesting things to see.

Monkey temple or Monkey’s temple?

Located high on a hillock with 365 steps to climb, this Stupa kindled my interest with its story. Did I climb those 365 steps to attain my nirvana? Nope. Not this time. I mean, I was on a road trip with ScoutMyTrip – naturally, we used the road to reach the nearest entrance. 😉

Monkeys at the Monkey temple
Monkeys at the Monkey temple

The first thing that we saw were lots of monkeys. Based on my earlier research on the Swayambhunath temple, I knew it was called a “Monkey temple” but this was turning out to be the Monkey’s temple. They were all over the place – looking at you slyly, walking alongside you as if they were your guide and sometimes, even ignoring you to have their own drink of water. I admit that I like animals but when it comes to a monkey, I am on my guard with my bag and other possessions. I have had my share of incidences with them like the one that I described in Mandore Gardens of Jodhpur. Naturally, I had my 3rd eye open out for them.

Monkey quenching his thirst at the Swayambhunath temple
Monkey quenching his thirst at the Swayambhunath temple

Having said that, I did find them extremely amusing. It was nice to see them so comfortable in their home and coexist with the inhabitants of the Monastery within the Monkey temple. After a while, they became a natural addition to the whole environment and I ceased worrying about them.

Wishing at the Peace Pond

The Peace Pond at Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu
The Peace Pond at Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu

As you enter through the side gates (shortcut gates as I would say) of the Swayambhunath temple, you will encounter a beautiful fountain – the Peace Pond. Right at the foot of the lovely Buddha statue is a small cauldron. They say that if you manage to flick a coin into it, your wish will come true. These are not ordinary coins but ones that are bought from one of the vendors sitting there. I saw a number of people taking up the challenge and after I was done with my entire tour of the Swayambhunath temple, I did too. What did I want so desperately?

Well, I wished for a better aim and used the 10 pennies to practice just that!

Saraswathi Mandir

The Buddhist Monastery opposite the Hindu temple in the campus of Swayambhunath temple
The Buddhist Monastery opposite the Hindu temple in the campus of Swayambhunath temple

Our guide at the Swayambhunath temple decided that the grand finale of his tour should be the main Stupa and hence, we first set about exploring the other parts of this large temple complex. Our guide gave us some interesting tidbits about this place. One of them was the fact that the two chief beliefs of Nepal – Hinduism, and Buddhism coexisted and in some ways, amalgamated into each other. He pointed out at the Hindu temple opposite a monastery as an example.

The Saraswati temple surrounded by the Buddhist Prayer Wheels
The Saraswathi temple surrounded by the Buddhist Prayer Wheels

At the first look, with its prayer wheels, it looked like a regular Buddhist temple but once you walk over to the other side, you would be surprised to not see a stupa. Instead, there is a Hindu shrine with the idol of Saraswati and Ganesha resting amidst the prayer wheels. All along the sides of this section are smaller idols of various Gods – all of them coming together to give you a distinct feel of Hinduism. For me, it was quite fascinating to see such a unique blend. Goes to show, how everything can peacefully coexist in this world.

Mini Stupas & artistic Idols of Swayambhunath temple

Mini Stupa within the Swayambhunath temple
Mini Stupa within the Swayambhunath temple

I mentioned the smaller idols along the walls of the Saraswathi temple. Well, they weren’t just there. They were all around the next few stupas that we saw. At every few meters, you would find mini stupas set in the center with prayer flags all around. While I found the stupas quite similar, it was the idols that caught my interest as I kept comparing them to the ones that I had seen in India. The proximity of the two regions – Nepal and India and their cultural similarities were so evident in these idols. These idols as the guide told us, were made by various artisans whole left them here as their way of exhibiting their skill.

The Hindu idols along the walls
The Hindu idols along the walls
The other smaller stupas at the Swayambhunath temple
The other smaller stupas at the Swayambhunath temple

Around some of these stupas, were huge bells. Some of them locked for the fear of damage over time. I found these quite fascinating and artistic and would sure have loved to hear the gongs. I even suspect that these were used to message around. If only I could ring them once!

The huge bell at the Swayambhunath temple
The huge bell at the Swayambhunath temple

The Pagoda of Ashes

The Pagoda at the far end used to store the Ashes capsule
The Pagoda at the far end used to store the Ashes capsule

One of the interesting parts of this visit was finding a Pagoda that was filled with stones. Nestled between those stones were white capsules that contained the ashes of the dead. Our guide explained to us that as per the Mahayana way of Buddhism after the dead are cremated, some ashes were stored in these white capsules and left behind in the Pagoda. The majority of the Ashes were washed away in a river, quite like the Hindu rites for the dead. With this interesting bit of information, we finally ascended a flight of stairs to reach the main stupa of Swayambhunath temple.

White capsules containing the Ashes amidst the stones
White capsules containing the Ashes amidst the stones

The main stupa of Swayambhunath temple

Swayambhunath Chaitya
Swayambhunath Chaitya

If there was indeed a lotus that turned into this stupa, it sure must have been an impressive one. The stupa commanded attention in its quiet, serene way – it was there big and bright and yet did not overpower the atmosphere. We approached the same from the side that had several smaller shrines set in a cluster. This is called the Swayambhunath Chaitya.

The various shrines at the Swayambhunath Chaitya
The various shrines at the Swayambhunath Chaitya

Design of the main Stupa

The most prominent thing about the Stupa were the eyes of Buddha in each direction, almost as if they were watching out for us. Carved on the gilded hoods or torans, are 5 Buddha figurines that represent the 5 senses. The gilded hoods (toran as they are termed) along with the eyes have been designed such that they represent certain beliefs in Buddhism. Though I tried to understand it all, I could not grasp it as well. I think it will take me some amount of dedication to get into the depth of it but for now, I am content to know that everything about the Stupa had a deeper meaning.

The 5 Buddha figurines on the Swayambhunath Stupa representing the 5 senses
The 5 Buddha figurines on the Swayambhunath Stupa representing the 5 senses

If you notice, there are some spirals that lead to the top of the Stupa (shikhara of the stupa). Each of these represents the ascent that needs to be made for Nirvana.

Around the Main Stupa

The guardian lion at the top of the 365 steps to the Swayambhunath temple
The guardian lion at the top of the 365 steps to the Swayambhunath temple

Facing the stupa in 5 directions were smaller shrines that connect to the 5 elements of nature. And right at the top of the 365 steps is a golden Vajra along with the guardian lions. There were two white colored temples around this same stupa which sadly are no more as they were destroyed during the 2015 earthquake. However, there are plenty of other smaller temples like the Hariti temple as seen below. The Hariti temple as our guide told us, was quite popular for the Goddess within the temple was said to cure all diseases.

Hariti temple at Swayambhunath
Hariti temple at Swayambhunath
365 steps to reach Swayambhunath temple
365 steps to reach Swayambhunath temple

As you walk around the Stupa, you will also, come across the 365 steps that are actually meant to be climbed to reach this Stupa. There were plenty of people doing it and as I saw them, I realized that it was one way in which grit, determination, and focus were driven into you by making you work towards nirvana.

Prayer wheels around the Swayambhunath Stupa
Prayer wheels around the Swayambhunath Stupa

All around the Stupa were prayer wheels – which you are to turn as you walk clockwise around the Stupa. It is a tradition and a ritual that every visitor here follows. You do not need to learn their prayer, just your faith is enough to allow you to finish this ritual.

Swayambhunath temple

Shopping at Swayambhunath temple

Shopping at Swayambhunath temple
Shopping at Swayambhunath temple

Being one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Asia and the fact that it is a prime tourist attraction, there is a bit of commercialization that you see at the Swayambhunath temple. From trinkets to curious and clothes, you will find plenty of shops selling goodies that you can take home as a keepsake. Remember one thing – they are priced higher than what you would get in the city. Hence, there is heavy bargaining to be done. Even if you are not looking at buying something, I suggest you do some window shopping. Trust me, the sights you are bound to see are quite amusing and interesting.

Shopping at Swayambhunath temple
Shopping at Swayambhunath temple

Once we had seen the main stupa, we returned back to our Oyo rooms Kathmandu to get ready for a cultural evening – in a Nepalese way. What I mean by that – Aha! Coming soon! For now, just relish the tour of the Swayambhunath temple and message in on what you thought of the same.

Swayambhunath temple

Getting here

  • You can choose to do a road trip from India to Kathmandu as we did or just take a flight in.
  • Once in Kathmandu, just hire a taxi to get you to the famous Swayambhunath temple. The taxis are easily available in the city. Ideally, try going in for a round trip to the temple is a little away from the center of the city.

Travel Tips

  • The entrance fees for the Swayambhunath Stupa is Nepali Rupees 50 if you are an India. For a foreigner, it is Nepali Rupees 200
  • You can hire a guide at the entrance of the temple for Nepali Rupees 1000. Ensure he takes you for the tour of the entire campus and not just the Stupa.
  • Cover your shoulders when you visit the temple
  • Be careful with your belongings – more so, as there are tons of monkeys around
  • Please do not hurt the monkeys here. Buddhism is all about non-violence and peaceful coexistence. As a mark of respect for this place, please do heed to it.
  • There are plenty of small cafes and shops within the campus.
  • Restroom facilities are also, available here.

 

P. S: I visited this temple as a part of my Indo-Nepal road trip with ScoutMyTrip.com

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60 Responses

  1. Thelittlelai: Beyond limits

    Wow, this is truly such a wonderful temple. There’s always something about temples that left me in awe whenever I get to visit them. I like the intricate design, the colors and the rich history behind it. This is another temple to visit..

    • Ami

      Yes, and this one is quite unique with its Hindu and Buddhist ways put together. You should visit it.

  2. thejourneyingduo

    I will have to add this temple to my list of places to go when I get to Nepal. I hope those monkeys are friendly! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kevin Nightingale

    Wonderful post. The monkey temple (monkey’s temple) sounds amazing. I do agree though that you must keep your wits about you.

  4. ambujsaxena05

    Brilliant narration of a rich cultural and natural heritage site. I am sure many readers would know more about Buddhism after reading your post! Hinayan Buddhism is spread in India but Mahayan Buddhism is spread in all parts of the world especially South East Asia and China!

    • Ami

      Thank you Ambuj. I can’t claim to have understood it all but whatever I have, well this is it!

  5. Sandy N Vyjay

    Nepal with its culture and tradition that blends Buddhism and Hinduism has always been a source of fascination for me. The Swayambhunath temple indeed seems to be a microcosm of this very culture. Each and every nook and corner of the temple seems to hold in its fold an intriguing story. The huge bell in the premises reminded me of a similar one that I have seen in Sarnath.

  6. Joan Narciso

    You always have a very informative yet so engaging way of recounting the experience. It’s like you’ve taken me to this temple, too. 😀

  7. soumna

    I am usually wary around Monkeys too. It is so interesting to know the legend of the lotus and how Kathmandu supposedly came out of it. Swayambhunath temple seems to be such an interesting Buddhist temple and would love to visit one day. 365 steps actually seem doable.

    • Ami

      Thanks Soumya. The temple steps are doable. Saw a lot of people climb those. You must mark this as a place to go if you are in Kathmandu.

  8. kopikang

    This temple seems very interesting and unique in its own. I would love to visit one day. Shop and take photos. Observe and admire the structures… I don’t know if I could get acquainted to the monkeys though. I am still a bit indifferent with these cool creatures.

    • Ami

      It definitely will appeal to you then and I do hope you get to it soon. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. traveldejavu0

    Beautiful temples I have heard that there are so many best temples in Kathmandu. I think this is certainly one of them. Thanks for sharing this! I would definitely visit it someday! Cheers!

    • Ami

      It sure is a lovely cultural experience being here. Hope you get to it soon. Thanks.

  10. 100cobbledroads

    I’m always fascinated by information, folklore and legends related to monuments and temples. I wonder why there are 365 steps exactly. The giant bells are stunning…would love to take back a miniature souvenir.

    • Ami

      You should buy the miniature prayer wheels as souvenirs. They are really cute. Thanks for stopping by

  11. gokulr27

    That is a beautifully sculptured temple. Love those stupas. Monkeys are a usual thing in Buddhist temples.

    • Ami

      Not sure of the usual thing but these monkeys were just all over. Thanks for stopping by Gokul

  12. Tarah Mason

    I have seen a lot of temples as I lived in Thailand for 7 months, but this one is unlike anything I’ve ever seen! Definitely something I would love to check out if I was in the area

    • Ami

      These are a lot different from the Siam ones. I am sure you will enjoy comparing them. 🙂 Thanks Tarah for stopping by

  13. Jodie

    As an animal lover I can’t help but be attracted to the monkeys. Like you, I find them interesting to watch but also have eyes in the back of my head until they’re out of sight! I also love the story of how the stupa came about. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ami

      They sure are pesky unpredictable creatures. Best to be on guard. Glad you enjoyed the post Jodie. Cheers

  14. Bhusha

    That’s another interesting temple from Nepal! That pic of the little monkey bent down to drink water out of the temple outlet is so adorable! Its interesting to see a Saraswati temple as well, we have very very few…

    • Ami

      It was quite adorable to see it too…the monkey bending over the tap. Interesting temple indeed Bhushavali. You would have loved it.

  15. gobeyondbounds

    We have a great fascination for Buddhist temples and for the same reason Nepal and Bhutan have been high on our list. The swayambhunath temple looks beautiful with all those artwork and sculptures around the temple.

    • Ami

      I am sure you will enjoy Nepal. Though there is more of a Hindu influence here. Hope you plan a trip soon.

  16. Wendy

    I Always love the legends and it seems you have many great stories over there. I am not a fan of Buddhist temples, but these ones look nice. I would love to see the one with the monkeys.

    • Ami

      I enjoy the temples for the stories that they tell. And these ones have a lot. Wendy, you should just visit for these tales.

  17. Mimi & Mitch

    We can’t wait to go to Nepal! This temple looks so beautiful, would be great for photography and we can’t wait! Monkeys are so adorable too! Beautiful photos – really inspired us to go!

  18. Tom @ Adventurous Travels

    I’ve been to Nepal and loved it. Kathmandu is so fascinating. I love the temples and Durbar Squares. Thanks for writing about the legend – that’s really interesting!I love to hear about the ancient traditions.

    • Ami

      The legends is what I love about these places. They breathe life into it…don’t you think so, Tom?

  19. AllGudThings

    As I am reading your series of Nepal trip, I am getting more and more fascinated to visit Nepal. The Swayambhunath temple is a another marvel. I loved the main stupa and other sculptures around it. The overlapping of Hindu and Buddhist culture is another interesting things and climbing 365 stairs might be holding some deep significance for sure. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Ami

      More and more interesting things here in Nepal. Stay tuned Suruchi. I hope that by the end of the series, you will be booking your hotels here.

  20. CJ Haughey

    I’m not particularly religious but I’ve always been curious about the Buddhist traditions and the culture surrounding their many temples and sacred sites. My mind was blown in Myanmar by the vast scale and number of buddha statues and stupas. This site in Nepal looks fascinating and having some friendly monkeys just makes it even better!

    • Ami

      It is quite a different religion and grasping it all does take time. I still am figuring it all out. But it is fascinating nonetheless. Am sure you will enjoy this site for just that.

  21. Bethanny Sudibyo

    I love reading about temples and I enjoy visiting them. I’ve never been to Kathmandu before, and you’re pictures brought me there. Hope you had a wonderful time during your visit?

  22. WorldGlimpses

    Such a nice story about the lotus flower! And your pictures are amazing. Now I’m even more amazed by Kathmandu, after reading your post! 🙂

    • Ami

      Thank you. Happy that my post triggered that off for you. Stay tuned for more of interesting Kathmandu.

  23. travelscoutadventure

    I can totally see a lotus in the architecture. I love history like this. I would probably avoid the monkeys. Unpredictable little creatures.

    • Ami

      Totally, just stay away from the creatures and you will find them and the place nice.! Thanks for stopping by.

  24. Anita

    It looks like a very special place to visit. Thanks for your detailed description and useful information and tips. It would be great to see it some time.

Would love to know what you think