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Swayambhunath monkey temple, Kathmandu, Nepal
There is a legend behind why Swayambhunath in Kathmandu is called the ‘Monkey Temple’.
It’s all to do with a group of monkeys that have lived in the northwest part of the Swayambhunath temple complex for generations.
It’s said that they came into being when the Buddhist ‘deity’ Manjushri spent time on the hill that the temples are set on. He was meant to cut his hair short but instead he let it grow long and got head lice. These lice then turned into the monkeys.
As I explore Swayambhunath and see some of the monkeys run in front of me, I think about this story… but focus more on the part about the lice than the divine. They may be holy but these primates still look a bit scary.
Visiting Swayambhunath in Kathmandu
As it turns out, though, the monkeys are just a small part of the experience of visiting Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu.
My visit begins with the long and steep walk up the 365 steps from the road to the main stupa. Along the way are smaller shrines and shops selling overpriced souvenirs (perhaps with buyers really just looking for an excuse to have a rest).
At the top of Swayambhunath, the first thing you find is enormous vajra (lightning bolt) and beyond that the enormous main stupa.
The eyes of Buddha, painted on the stupa with the Nepalese number one used as a nose, look down on me. The spire at the top is painted gold (apparently 20 kilograms of gold was used in the latest restoration in 2010) and prayer wheels circle around the base.
I begin to walk clockwise (as is the custom at Buddhist monuments) along the path of the prayer wheels and realise that there is much more to this central area than just the stupa.
There are different shrines, smaller stupas, offering places, and even gravestones. At the cardinal points around the stupa are buildings dedicated to the five elements – earth, air, water, five and sky.
There are some tourists here, but it’s an active place of worship. Amongst the locals, you’ll see people praying, perhaps even using Buddhist prayer beads.
It’s when I am on the opposite side of the main staircase, while I’m standing near the gravestones and respectfully watching the local crowd make offerings and spin the prayer wheels, that a troop of monkeys scurry past me.
I had forgotten about them for a while. Unlike some similar places I’ve been, they don’t fill the site and require constant vigilance. In fact, I don’t see many monkeys for the rest of the time that I’m here.
It’s nice. It lets me focus on the cultural and religious story behind Swayambhunath, and leave the ‘Monkey Temple’ to the marketing department.
History of Swayambhunath
Swayambhunath is one of the most sacred religious sites in Kathmandu. For Buddhist Newars, it is the most important. And in Tibetan Buddhism, it is the second most important.
A large reason for the significance of the complex is its history. Although the exact details are not certain, it’s generally believed that King Vrsadeva founded the site in the 5th century. Over the years, there would have been a number of temples on the hill, and the stupa has been renovated and modified during this time as well.
The legend says that the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake filled with water and this hill was an island in the water with a natural crystal stupa on it. The story says that Buddha visited it and declared the stupa would help people on their path to enlightenment.
The legend continues that Manjushri (the same one who wouldn’t cut his hair) emptied the lake so that people would be able to visit the crystal stupa. Near the main stupa is a shrine where he supposedly left his footprints while he was getting rid of the water.
By making the valley habitable, Manjushri effectively founded Kathmandu, according to the story, which led to the creation of Nepal. Hence Swayambhunath has a significance for all Nepalese citizens, regardless of faith.
Therefore, it’s fitting that from various points around the temple complex, I can look out and get beautiful views of the Kathmandu Valley, filled with houses and roads, surrounded by dramatic mountains.
I think the best view is actually at the second peak of the hill, which takes just a few minutes to walk to along a path. To get there, you pass more small stupas and the World Peace Pond.
You’ll know you’ve reached the second peak when you can see the Whochen Thokjay Choyaling Monastery, which is different to the Karma Raja Maha Vihara Monastery near the main stupa.
Kathmandu World Heritage Site
Since 1979, Swayambhunath has been part of a World Heritage Site that is simply called ‘Kathmandu Valley.
There are seven groups of monuments and buildings that make up the site, each one chosen for their historic and artistic qualities.
I think Swayambhunath is one of the most significant and, as the legendary birthplace of the Kathmandu Valley, is a great place to start. But the others are also very important.
Of particular note are Patan Durbar Square and Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, the complexes of temples and official buildings around old royal palaces.
I have put together this map that shows you where you’ll find each of the places that are included in the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site:
Unfortunately many of them suffered significant damage during the 2015 earthquake but there has been a concerted effort to repair and restore the sites. Work is continuing and there are constant improvements.
You can get taxis between each of the sites (and even walk between some of the central ones) but I think you’ll get a lot more out of the visit if you have a guide to explain things to you. It will also take the hassle out of the transportation.
I would recommend one of the following tours:
Many visitors just pass through Kathmandu on their way to trekking adventures in the Himalayas or other natural areas. But even if you’re short of time, the monkey temple of Swayambhunath is one of the most important places you can visit, so I would recommend making an effort to get there.
If you can see even more of the World Heritage Site, that’s a bonus you won’t regret!