Swayambhunath or ‘The Monkey Temple’ was actually our last day in Nepal. After Chitwan, Lumbini and Pokhara we had two days left back in Kathmandu before we flew back to the UK, the second to last day involved a bit of shopping in Thamel and the last was an afternoon at Swayambhunath. The weather by that point was thundery but pleasantly warm; people moan about the rain and say things like “Oh it’s a shame it rained on your holiday.” and I always give them a quizzical look as to why it’s such a shame? It’s actually a very beautiful experience to feel the rain in another part of the world because it is so different to the rain in your home country plus most of our holidays do not involve lying on the beach every day, most destinations we visit are not beachy-cocktail sipping-going lobster red kind of holidays so the rain really isn’t a shame, I love the rain actually, it’s colour and smell is different in every country.
So, the monkey temple was actually my least favourite place in Kathmandu, I hated those monkeys! Literally hated them. Monkeys are one of my least favourite animals, I do not find them cute, most monkey species have their butts on show and they are nasty little buggers. Even as a child I was not impressed by the monkeys or apes at the zoo, I even skip the monkey enclosures. Unfortunately Swayambhunath temple is swarmed by monkeys and these monkeys are opportunists, never hold carrier bags because they will snatch them out of your hands and make sure all strings, toggles, zips, pockets, hoods are neatly packed away because they will attempt to pull on things. The whole time I was walking around Swayambhunath I was extremely nervous, these monkeys follow you in small groups and if you get too close they do snarl and lash out at you. Thankfully the locals keep a pack of dogs up there too, these dogs keep the monkeys from running amok because they are afraid of the dogs. I actually felt like I was being watched and that the monkeys were planning a group attack so I couldnt fully appreciate the beauty of Swayambhunath and the views below without fear of being stalked or attacked by a dirty monkey.
From Thamel you can jump in any of the numerous taxis driving around, you will NEVER be short of a taxi, there must be twenty per tourist (and I am not joking), it takes about 5 maybe 10 minutes to get to the bottom steps of the temple and some monkeys are already sat there.
Swayambhunath is an ancient religious architecture atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu city. The Tibetan name for the site means ‘Sublime Trees’Swayambhunath occupies a central position, it is probably the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism, it is second only to Boudhanath. The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples, some dating back to the Licchavi period. A Tibetan monastery, museum and library are more recent additions. The stupa has Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows painted on. Between them, the number one (in Devanagari script) is painted in the fashion of a nose. There are also shops, restaurants and hostels.The entrance stairway of 365 steps flutters with colourful prayer flags and getting up to the huge stupa at the top of the hill involves a certain amount of fitness, stamina and strong legs and by the time you have gotten to the top you’ll be sweaty, breathless and on the verge of crawling because your legs will feel like they’ve power walked on a step machine at your local gym! It is all worth it though because the views are out of this world. At the top of the steps you see the biggest vajra (thunder-bolt scepter) you have ever seen, the vast white dome of the stupa and plenty of monkeys. Much of Swayambhunath’s iconography comes from the Vajrayana tradition of Newar Buddhism. However, the complex is also an important site for Buddhists of many schools, and is also revered by Hindus.
According to Swayambhu Purana, the entire valley was once filled with 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 sūpa 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 Manjushri, 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 head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys.
Manjusri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley can be good settlement and to make the site more accessible to human pilgrims, he 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.
Swayambunath is not just an ancient religious site but an active, living one with pilgrims performing clockwise circumambulations around the stupas. The continual soft chanting of ‘om mani padme hum’ and the smell of incense and yak butter lamps create a magical atmosphere in the early morning. And if you are a person who likes monkeys then all the better: they are everywhere. Aside from the monkeys, this place is very peaceful as it is a lovely quiet escape from the chaos and noise of Kathmandu. The best time to go is very early in the morning or during sunset because it will add a touch of magic to the colours of the skyline as you take in the views of the valley below.
Stay tuned for our next destination! We stay in an eco-lodge in the jungles of Chitwan!
If you missed previous blog posts about Nepal click on the links below.