In the tranquil embrace of a small hillock northwest of the Kathmandu Valley lies the revered Swayambhunath Stupa, affectionately known as the “Monkey Temple” since the 1970s, as it was quite a challenge to utter for visitors. This sacred site, a beacon of peace and prayers, offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the valley, standing as a testament to faith and harmony over centuries. A fusion of Buddhist serenity and Hindu reverence, Swayambhunath weaves together the spiritual tapestry of Nepal, with whispers that the glory of the Kathmandu Valley itself emanated from this very point.
Perched on a hillock 3 km west of Kathmandu, Swayambhunath unfolds its history as one of Nepal’s oldest and holiest Buddhist stupas, believed to have emerged spontaneously over 2,000 years ago when the valley took shape from a primordial lake. Its ancient grounds host numerous shrines and monasteries, a testament to the enduring spiritual significance that has withstood the test of time.
“Swayambhu,” translating to “self-existent one,” traces its origins back to 460 A.D., an architectural marvel attributed to King Manadeva. By the 13th century, it had blossomed into a vital center of Buddhism, enveloped in legends that narrate its birth from a lotus flower within a forgotten lake that once blanketed the Kathmandu Valley. A colossal image of the Sakyamuni Buddha graces the stupa’s western boundary, perched on a lofty pedestal beside the Ring Road. Behind the hillock, a temple honors Manjusri or Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. The stupa complex unfolds with chaityas, statues, and shrines paying homage to both Buddhist and Hindu deities. At its base, prayer wheels and deities form a sacred perimeter, circled by devotees in perpetual circumambulation.
The ascent to the shrine involves challenging stone steps, yet an accessible motor road provides an alternative route, culminating in a brief walk to the pinnacle. Swayambhunath serves as a magnet for Buddhists and Hindus alike, epitomizing religious harmony in Nepal. The grandest gatherings become one big celebration on Buddha’s birthday, an annual festival usually observed in May.
Within the hallowed precincts, monumental treasures beckon exploration—the immense gold-plated Vajra ‘thunderbolt’ adorns the stupa’s east side, a Buddha statue graces the west side, and the enigmatic Sleeping Buddha captivates onlookers. The Dewa Dharma Monastery, distinguished by its bronze Buddha icon and traditional Tibetan paintings, adds another layer of cultural richness. Notably, the temple dedicated to Harati, the goddess of all children, stands as a testament to transformation, recounting the legend of her metamorphosis from an ogress into the nurturing caretaker of all children under Lord Buddha’s benevolence.
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