Going regularly to a temple is big part of Nepali culture. You will often see people of all age going to a temple early in the mornings. While in Nepal, we tried to go to different temples as well. For us it was more of going to see the place than for religion but if we were to get blessed while we were there then even better :). One of the temples we visited was Swayambhunath, also know was Monkey Temple by tourist in Kathmandu.
One day we were invited for lunch to our aunt’s house, which is near to Swayambhunath, so we decided to visit the temple before we went for lunch. Swayambhunath is an ancient religious complex atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu city. Even though Swayambhunath is a Buddhist stupa, yet it is equally popular with the Hindu pilgrims as well.
Legend has it that Kathmandu Valley was once an enormous lake, out of which grew a lotus. The valley came to be known as Swayambhu, meaning “Self-Created.” The name comes from an eternal self-existent flame (svyaṃbhu) over which a stupa was later built.
Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the north-west parts of the temple. They are holy because Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning was raising the hill which the Swayambhunath Temple stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and so head lice grew on them. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys.
The Bodhisattva Manjusri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley could be a good place for settlement and to make the site more accessible to human pilgrims, Manjusri cut a gorge at Chovar. The water drained out of the lake, leaving the valley in which Kathmandu now lies. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the flower became the Swayambhunath stupa.
As we were driving to the hill where Swayambhunath stupa is, we could really see how beautiful the temple is. Around the bend of some roads, the temple comes into full view, and we can see the large Buddha’s eyes, sitting below a golden roof at the peak, keeping watch over the valley.
These large pair of eyes, which represent Wisdom and Compassion, on each of the four sides of the main stupa. Above each pair of eyes is another eye, the third eye. It is said that when Buddha preaches, cosmic rays emanate from the third eye which act as messages to heavenly beings, so that those interested can come down to earth to listen to the Buddha. The hellish beings and beings below the human realm cannot come to earth to listen to the Buddha’s teaching, however, the cosmic rays relieve their suffering when Buddha preaches.
The dome at the base represents the entire world. When a person awakes (represented by eyes of wisdom and compassion) from the bonds of the world, the person reaches the state of enlightenment. The thirteen pinnacles on the top symbolize that sentient beings have to go through the thirteen stages of spiritual realizations to reach enlightenment or Buddhahood.
When we reached the gate leading to the steps, there were many monkeys all over the place. Some people were feeding monkeys which were running everywhere. I am scared of monkeys as a monkey had snatched a bag from my hand when I was kid so I went and hid behind my husband and brother when I saw them running towards us. I have to say they are pretty well behaved as they don’t bother you unless you annoy them.
On the side of the gates, there were ladies selling Puja items like candle, flowers and souvenirs.
There are 365 steps and it is believed that there’s a step for each day of the year, starting at the gate and ending at the stupa. We started to climb the stairs and more monkeys emerged. I stayed close to AS and I was fine. We took a few photos as we climbed up and as we went higher the view got even better. There were many beggars sitting on either sides of the stairs as well and some of them I felt really sorry for as they had small children with them.
As we reached the top, we could see more monkeys everywhere. There were also stalls selling the usual touristy items. There were many interesting, well-done acrylic paintings of the Himalayas, Nepali hand puppets and other handicrafts.
There were also lots of people worshipping in the temple with diyo and candles. I could see prayer flags around the stupa and lots of diyo lit in front of the temple next to stupa. The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples, some dating back to the Licchavi period as well as a Tibetan monastery, a museum and a library.
As we walked around the temple, we rotated the prayer wheels. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical “wheel” on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. According to the lineage texts on prayer wheels, prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma).
At one end of the temple area, there is a viewpoint from where you can see the entire Kathmandu. I remember coming there when we were young and we used to try to find our house from there but these days due to population and pollution, you can’t see very far. I felt really sad to see how Kathmandu has changed in the last decade and definitely not for the better in terms of the environment.
After looking around for a few more minutes, we decided to back down to the car. As you come down, there is a golden statue of Buddha surrounded by water. People were throwing coins into a bucket there and it is believed if your coin enters the bucket, it will bring good luck. My brother and SIL were trying their luck so AS asked me to throw some coins as well. It reminded me of the Trevi fountain when we were in Italy. There were lots of coins lying around the statue there as well but I am sure, the amount of money thrown here is nowhere near the amount in the Trevi fountain.
After our visit to the temple, we were really hungry so we went to our aunt’s house for lunch 🙂