Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)- Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)- Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayambhu is an ancient religious architecture in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu City, on top of a hill. The stupa has drawn on Buddha's head and eyebrows. The number one (in Devanagari script) between them is painted in a nose-fashion.

Swayambhunath is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites located inside the Kathmandu Valley. It is better known as Monkey Temple among tourists. It's second only to Boudha, for Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

What does Swayambhunath mean?

For the site, the Tibetan name means 'Sublime Trees', for the many trees found on the hill. But for the complicated, Swayambhu, which means 'self-sprung,' Shing.kun may be a distortion of the local Nepal Bhasa term.


It is perhaps the holiest of Buddhist pilgrimage places, for the Buddhist Newars, in whose mythological past and the myth of origin as well as everyday religious activity Swayambhunath occupies a central role.

The complex consists of a stupa, several shrines and temples, some of which date back to the Licchavi period. More recent additions include a Tibetan monastery, museum, and library. Shops, pubs, and hostels are also situated. 

The site has two access points: a long staircase leading directly to the temple's primary platform, which is from the top of the hill to the east; and a car road leading south to the south-west entrance around the mountain. 

The Vajra is the first sight arriving at the top of the stairway. Much of the iconography of Swayambhunath comes from the tradition of Newar Buddhism in Vajrayana

But the complex is also an important site of many schools for Buddhists and is revered by Hindus as well.

Myth Behind Swayambhunath

According to Swayambhu Purana, the entire valley once was filled with a massive lake from which a lotus rose. The valley came to be known as Swayambhu, meaning "Self-Created." The name derives from an eternal, self-existent flame over which a sūpa was built later.

The northwest parts of the temple are home to the holy monkeys. They are holy, because Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning raised the hill on which stands the stupa. 

Swyamabhunath (Monkey Temple)

He was supposed to have left his hair short, but he made it grow long, and the lice of the head became. The head lice are said to have evolved into these monkeys.

Manjusri at Swayambhu had a dream of the Lotus and went to worship him there. Knowing that the valley might be a prosperous village, and he cut a canyon at Chovar to allow the place more available to human pilgrims. 

Water drained from the lake, leaving the valley now Kathmandu lies in. The Lotus was converted into a hill, and the stupa became the flower.

History of Swayambunath Stupa

Swayambhunath ranks among Nepal's oldest religious sites. According to the Gopālarājavaśāvalī, it was founded around the beginning of the 5th century CE by King Mānadeva's great-grandfather (464-505 CE), King V Um Sadeva

This appears to be confirmed by a damaged stone inscription found at the site, indicating that King Vrsadeva had ordered work done in 640 CE. It is claimed, however, that Emperor Ashoka visited the site in the third century BCE, and established a temple on the hill that was later demolished.

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

While the site is known to be Buddhist, both Buddhists and Hindus respect the location. Numerous Hindu monarch followers are known to have paid homage to the temple, including Pratap Malla, the mighty King of Kathmandu, who was responsible for the construction of the 17th-century eastern stairway.

In May 2010, the stupa was renovated entirely, its first significant renovation since 1921, and it is fifteenth in the nearly 1,500 years since its construction. The shrine of Swayambhu was re-gilded using 20 kg of gold. 

California's Tibetan funded the renovation Nyingma Meditation Centre and started in June 2008.

Structure of Swayabhunath Stupa

The stupa consists of a foundation pyramid, over which there is a cubical frame decorated with Buddha's eyes gazing in all four directions. Over each of the four sides is pentagonal toran with sculptures carved in it.

There are thirteen strata behind and above the torana. There is a small space above all the thirds above which the Gajur is present. There are other artefacts within the stupa.

Symbolism of Swayambhunath

At the centre, the dome reflects the entire universe. Once a human awakens from the chains of the universe (represented by eyes of knowledge and compassion), the individual enters the condition of awakening. 

The thirteen pinnacles at the top symbolise that sentient beings must pass through the thirteen stages of spiritual realisations to attain enlightenment or Buddhahood.

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

Across each of the four sides of the main stupa, there is a full pair of eyes which represent Wisdom and Compassion. There is another head for any set of eyes, the third head. 

It is said that when Buddha preaches, cosmic rays emanate from the third eye that acts as messages to the heavenly beings so that those who are interested may come down to earth to listen to the Buddha.

Under the human realm, the hellish beings and beings can not come to earth to listen to the teaching of the Buddha, but the cosmic rays relieve their suffering when Buddha preaches. 

A curly symbol, symbolising the nose, is depicted between the two eyes (also called Wisdom Eyes) which looks like a question mark, a Nepali sign of number one status.

This sign represents the unity of all things in the world, and the only path to enlightenment through Buddha's teachings. On each of the four sides of the stupa are carvings of the Panch Buddhas (five Buddhas). 

There are Buddha figures at the foot of stupas, as well. Panch Buddhas, in Tantrayana, are Buddha in a metaphorical sense.

They are:

  • Varochana- who occupies the central part and is believed to be the master of the stupa
  • Ratna Sambhava- Faces south and is a representation of the cosmic elements belonging to the sensation.
  • Akshobhya- faces east and symbolises the cosmic aspect related to consciousness.
  • Amoghsiddhi- faces north and represents confirmation.
  • Amitabha- Faces west and represents Sanjna.

Each morning before dawn hundreds of Buddhist (Vajrayana) and Hindu pilgrims ascend the steps from the eastern side leading up the hill, passing the golden Vajra (Tibetan: Dorje) and two lions guarding the gate and starting a sequence of stupa circumambulations in a clockwise direction.

Implications of Natural Disasters on Swayambhunath

Around 5 a.m. on 14 February 2011, during a severe thunderstorm, Pratapur Temple in the Swayambhu Monument Area sustained damage by lightning strikes.

In the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, the Swayambunath complex suffered damage.

Swayambhu Purna

Swayambhu Purana is a Buddhist scripture on Kathmandu Valley's origins and development. Swayambhu Purana provides details of all the Buddhas that have come to Kathmandu. 

This also contains details about Buddhism's first and second Buddhas.

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