Swayambhunath is one of the world’s most glorious and famous Buddhist Chaitya built more than two thousand years ago. Its existed since around 500 CE and stands alone on the west hillock in Kathmandu valley.
Located 1524m. (5000 ft) above sea level and 76.2m (250 ft) above Kathmandu valley atop a green hill, the Swayambhunath Chaitya is visible from far-off places within Kathmandu valley. The hill of Swayambhunath is overgrown with evergreen trees bearing blossoms of gorgeous color and sweet fragrance. The hill also contains various rocks and mines of many kinds of metal. One can see the name of the god carved in stones in the Tibetan language.
The Swayambhunath hill is a favorite place for the religious people, people who come for the picnic party, the holidaymakers, and the morning walkers or health-conscious ones. The hill’s varied names such as Gosringa Parbat, Bajrakuti Parbat, Gopuchba Parbat, Padmagiri, and Sambhyangun.
The Main Swayambhunath Stupa
The Swayambhunath Stupa is a large hemispherical mound, representing the Garva (womb) serving the seat of creation as a monumental shrine with stone Buddha images tugged into niches around the base and with a cubical tower atop the mound. The mound bears four pairs of mystic unwinking “all-seeing eyes” of Buddha painted in orange, white, blue, and black colors facing all four directions. The “Q” mark in between the eyes is often called “nose” represented by number ‘1’ of the Devanagari Script is a wrong interpretation according to Associate-Prof. Dr. Milan Ratna Shakya. He says, it is in fact the symbolic process that occurs and is felt during the intense meditation called “Utkranti”, for the overall Buddhist lesson is to perceive and consume it in the meditative way of Samatha meditation.
On the upper side, the tiers are further surmounted by a spire of successively diminishing rings of burnished metal culminating in a gilded umbrella representing the stages to heaven. The stupa is said to have been first introduced into Nepal as early as in the 3rd century Bikram Sambat.
There are 211 prayer wheels holding the sacred Mantras “Om Mani Padme Hun” encircling the white dome of the Swayambhunath. The Chaitya (Stupa in Nepali) which forms the main structure is made of a solid hemisphere of brick and earth supporting a lofty conical spire capped by a pinnacle of copper gilt. It is surmounted by a gold gilt square projection, which in turn is crowned by the Chudamani, a conical canopy of gilt rings.
The Meaning of Swayambhunath
According to Buddhist mythology, a lotus growing out in the lake (which now is Kathmandu Valley) of Naghrad spouted brilliant flame with five colored rays. It shone with gold and glistened like precious stones brighter than the Sun. It was recognized as the miraculous manifestation of Adi Buddha or Swayambhunath, the self-existent god, where “Swayam” means “oneself” and “Bhu” means “created” in the Sanskrit language. The valley then became known as Swayambhu or “self-created” or “self-existent one”. The stupa has several names accredited to it viz Swayambhunath, Swayambhunatha, Svayambhu, Swayambhunath / Swayambhu Swayambhu Maha Chaitya, and Monkey Temple.
History of Swayambhuanth
Long ago Kathmandu valley was a deep lake of about sixteen miles in circumference and surrounded by hills and lush forests. The lake was filled with clear green water where Karkota, the King of Nagas (King of serpents) lived. The lake was called Nagbas or the abode of Nagas. Similarly far from the lake, there was a large city named Vindumati, where a King named Vindumas ruled. The King had a son named Vipasya Bhagawan who converted many people to a Vikshu (Buddhist mendicant). One day Lord Buddha send Vipasya Bhagawan with his pupils to Nagbas Lake (now Kathmandu Valley ) to throw some seeds and told his pupils that a glowing lotus would grow out of it.
After Vipasya Bhagawan’s death, King Arun of Arunagar kingdom happened to visit the lake and saw a flame-Diety in lotus and King Arun disappeared immediately after the sight. Years after the incident another King, Buddha Vipaswi of Anupoorna came to the northern mountainside of the lake and he too saw the flame-Diety. He bathed in the lake, drank water from it, picked some evergreen grass, and offered it to the deity. Then some followers of the flame-deity appeared who told Buddha Vipaswi that the Bodhisattva would appear when the lake dried. And from the lotus, a huge mountain will be formed which would be known as Phulchowk and only a man of high lineage will be able to raise a great stupa there then he shall build a large city around it.
Based on the myth, years later Buddhist god Manjushree the incarnation of Viswakarma, the architect of gods saw something unusual in his meditation. He saw a golden lotus floating in a lake, with the flame-diety in it. He was requested by the gods of heaven to dry up the water of the lake to establish Swayambhunath Stupa where the golden lotus bloomed.
Manjushree along with his wife, King Dharmapala, and pupils mounted on the lion and arrived at the border of the lake. They all were amazed at the sight. He offered a variety of jewels to the flame-deity before drying up the lake to build a city on the spot for people to worship the flame-deity. He went to the southern hillside which had lower elevation than the rest and opened a passage named Chandrahas with his Saber (also spelled Sabre is a heavy military sword with a long cutting edge and, often, a curved blade. It originated in the 18th century mainly used in battles).
When the water drained out many serpents living in the lake also swept out, but Manjushree allowed Nagraj Karkota to live in the valley and created a rather smaller lake named Taudaha on the Southern side of the Valley. He explained to Karkota that the lake had to be dried to build a city on the spot in order to perform religious service to the Swayambhunath. Manjushree then requested the Naga King to bring rain in due season so that the city might be well suited for agricultural purposes. Also foretold that the Buddha’s disciple called NE (a guru) would arrive and the valley would be named Nepal after him.
Manjushree found abundant Jewels and Nagamani (Jewel crown of Nagas) , gold, and riches at the bottom of the dried lake which he deposited in Karkota’s Taudaha. Manjushree then laid the foundation of the Swayambhunath Chaitya on the spot where golden lotus grew and built a beautiful city called Manjupatan around the stupa.
Manjushree pronounced Dharmakar as the king of the city and gave him instructions to perform religious services, to be virtuous, liberal, strong, and meditative. Dharmakara is believed to be the first King of Nepal. After Krakuchchandra, Dharmapala, Prachanda Dev, and Gunkara were the descendants of Manjushree, then came Santasri a devoted yoga and meditation practitioner.
One day when Santasri was in deep meditation, he saw that the golden lotus decked with jewels would be stolen by the people with the commencement of Kaliyuga or Iron-age. Upon seeing such a terrible thing in the meditation, he visited his guru Gunkara who advised him to obtain a degree in Vajracharya. Following the instuction of his Guru, Santasri went under severe meditation to become a Vajracharya. The structure of Swayambhu Chaitya built by Manjushree was already falling apart by the time Santasri succeded the throne. Therefore, with the intention of refurbishing the Chaitya, he built a solid base for the Chaitya, covered the golden lotus and its flame-diety beneath a stone, and a solid hemisphere of Chaitya.
Santrasi dug a hole in the ground and buried the sacred flame and precious stone in it. It is said that in order to perform their duties Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswar, four Mahoragas, and eight Lokapalas descended down to the place too. Santasri brought a huge timber and placed it in the middle of the foundation stone. After building the Sanctum with bricks and mud he placed the image of Aksobhaya Buddha in the east, Ratnasambhava in the south, Amitabha in the west, Amoghasiddhi in the north, and lastly Vairochana again in the east and the right side of Aksobhaya round the stupa.
Moharaga is a race of deities in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism often depicted as anthropomorphic beings with serpentine bodies from the waist down. Lokapāla are the “guardian of the world”.
He then placed four Buddha Shaktis Lochana, Mamaki, Pandura, and Aryaent in four intermediate spaces. He erected a square basement for a superincumbent spire on the top of the hemisphere. The basement was surmounted by a torus (semi-circular structure). One can see a pair of an eye known as Panchachaksu on each face of the basement. He also built a monastery around the Chaitya and performed the ceremony of vivifying Swayambhunath by offering him flowers, fruits, and sweets.
Along with other images all around the Chaitya, he built five temples for devotees. He placed the images of Vasundhara at Vasupura; the image of air at Vayupur; the image of the fire at Agnipur; the image of Naga at Nagpur, the fifth mansion was called Guhapur. He placed the secret gods at the center.
Santasri then placed the images of six Bhairabas i.e. Prithvi-Bhairaba to the south of Guhapur: Ap-Bhairaba to the east of Swayambhunath; Tej-Bhairaba on the slope of the hill; Uaya-Bhairaba at the foothill on the southern side; Akash-Bhairaba on the western side; Surya Bhairaba and his consort on the eastern road. He placed the images of Kalinga, Purba Ganesh, and Dakshina Ganesh middle of the eastern road. Then he placed the images of four Mahoragas and sacred circles inside the sanctum. After building and securing Stupa from all sides he went to Guhapura to practice meditation and disappeared from the world eventually.
In the reign of Gunakamdev, it so happened that the king’s innumerable acts of barbarity and licentiousness offended deities so much that Gunakamdev was showered with a heap of curses. The curses consequently led the country to suffer famine for seven years.
Gunakamdev to atone for his sins worshipped Swayambhunath offering flowers, Sweets, and fruits. He also confessed his wrongdoing to his Guru Santasri. To find a remedy for the scarcity of rain Gunakamdev went to Shantikara Vajracharya, Shantikara Vajracharya sent his eight colleagues to Karkota. Karkota invited all the serpents to Shantipura and they all wrote their names with their blood on the leaves of a peepal tree. Shantikara Vajracharya collected all the leaves and displayed them in the sunshine, the act brought immediate rainfall in abundance.
The people of the valley were relieved of peril thusly and Karkota who was imprisoned by Shantikara Vajracharya underneath the stone steps eventually attained salvation from the curse too.
Almost a month later Sakya Simha visited Swayambhunath and seated himself on the Lion throne which was built by God Viswakarma between the Chaitya of Puchagha and Manjushree.
King Pratap Malla, the King of Kathmandu in the 17th century renovated the Swayambhunath Chaitya and offered a thunderbolt (Bajra), and constructed a stone stairway to the Stupa on the eastern side of the hill. The last Malla king of Nepal Jaya Prakash Malla also renovated the Swayambhunath Chaitya during which many Buddhists from Lhasa (Autonomous Tibet) and the northern region of Nepal came to Swayambhunath to offer their worship.
Five Elements at Swayambhunath
There are small structures containing Panchamahabhutas, the five elements placed at the cardinal points around Swayambhunath. Each of the structures represents different symbols namely: Vasupura (earth), Vayupura (air), Nagpur (water), Agnipura (fire), and Shantipura (sky).
To the rear of the stupa, at the left corner is another small red brick building that houses the dimly-lit museum. It suffered partial damage in the historic April 2015 earthquake which now is refurbished. The museum has a small collection of Buddhist statues and items located around the stupa over the years.
Harati Mata Temple
A two-tiered gilded pagoda-style temple known as Hariti Mata Temple (Mother Goddess temple) is located on the Western corner of the Swambhunath complex. Photographing the temple while the temple door is open with a visible shrine is strictly prohibited.
The Hariti Mata Temple is one of the most thronged temples in Kathmandu. Hariti aka Ajima (Mother Goddess in Newar language) is a goddess of smallpox who supposedly gave birth to the disease and also found a cure for it. Therefore children suffering from short or long-term illnesses are brought to this temple for the Ajima’s blessing.
To the rear of the Hariti Mata Temple on the back of Swayambhunath Stupa there is a red brick alcove standing tall and large is a black stone statue of Buddha called Buddha Shakyamuni. Carved from a single piece of stone sometime during the 7th century and there is none other like it in Nepal. The image is said to be that of Siddhartha Gautama himself.
There is a tall white temple in front of the monastery that has been rebuilt multiple times and it is known as Prattappur Temple. A fire damaged it in the early 2000s and it collapsed shortly afterward. The temple was rebuilt in 2011 only to be damaged again by a lightning stroke.
Behind the hilltop is a temple dedicated to Manjusri or Saraswati – the Goddess of learning. The temple has the idol of Goddess Saraswati and Lord Ganesh resting amidst the prayer wheels. All along the sides of this section are smaller idols of various Gods. The base of the hill is almost entirely surrounded by prayer wheels and deities. Devotees can be seen circumambulating the stupa at all times.
Other Landmarks around Swayambhunath
Down a flight of steps from these temples is a collection is smaller stupas, a bell, and the world peace pond. there is a small forest on the upper side of the pond. And opposite the world peace pond is the side entrance to the stupa complex.
Just up the hill is Whochen Thokjay Choyaling Monastery. Outside the stupa’s western entrance is the Natural History museum and further, along the road is the Buddha Park which has huge statues of Buddha Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, and Maitreya.
This ancient structure was listed on a cultural world heritage site by UNESCO in 1979 A.D.
On the major festivals such as Losar, Saga Dawa, Buddha Purnima, Saraswati Puja, Gunla Dharma and New Year’s day Swayambunath has huge celebrations. The visitors circumambulate the stupa clockwise while spinning the prayer wheels and chanting an invocation to heaven. They offer butter lamps and new prayer flags. And monks splash saffron-color paint on the stupa dome to create a lotus leaf pattern on it.