|A golden spire crowning a
conical wooded hill, Swayambhunath Stupa is
the most ancient and enigmatic of all the
holy shrines in Kathmandu valley. Its lofty
white dome and glittering golden spire are
visible for many miles and from all sides
of the valley. Historical records found on
a stone inscription give evidence that the
stupa was already an important Buddhist pilgrimage
destination by the 5th century AD. Its origins
however, date to a much earlier time, long
before the arrival of Buddhism into the valley.
A collection of legends about the site, the
15th century Swayambhu Purana, tells of a
miraculous lotus, planted by a past Buddha,
which blossomed from the lake that once covered
The lotus mysteriously radiated a brilliant
light, and the name of the place came to be
Swayambhu, meaning 'Self-Created or Self-Existent'.
Saints, sages and divinities traveled to the
lake to venerate this miraculous light for
its power in granting enlightenment. During
this time, the Bodhisatva Manjushri was meditating
at the sacred mountain of Wu Tai Shan and
had a vision of the dazzling Swayambhu light.
Manjushri flew across the mountains of China
and Tibet upon his blue lion to worship the
lotus. Deeply impressed by the power of the
radiant light, Manjushri felt that if the
water were drained out of the lake Swayambhu
would become more easily accessible to human
pilgrims. With a great sword Manjushri cut
a gorge in the mountains surrounding the lake.
The water, draining away, left the valley
of present day Kathmandu. The lotus was then
transformed into a hill and the light became
the Swayabhunath Stupa.
Swayambhunath's worshippers include Hindus,
Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and
Tibet, and the Newari Buddhists of central
and southern Nepal. Each morning before dawn,
hundreds of pilgrims will ascend the 365 steps
that lead up the hill, file past the gilded
Vajra (Tibetan: Dorje) and two lions guarding
the entrance, and begin a series of clockwise
circumambulations of the stupa (Newari Buddhists
circle in the opposite, counterclockwise direction).
On each of the four sides of the main stupa
there are a pair of big eyes. These eyes are
symbolic of God's all-seeing perspective.
There is no nose between the eyes but rather
a representation of the number one in the
Nepali alphabet, signifying that the single
way to enlightenment is through the Buddhist
path. Above each pair of eyes is another eye,
the third eye, signifying the wisdom of looking
within. No ears are shown because it is said
the Buddha is not interested in hearing prayers
in praise of him.
The area surrounding the stupa is filled
with chaityas, temples, painted images of
deities and numerous other religious objects.
There are many small shrines with statues
of Tantric and shamanistic deities, prayer
wheels for the Tibetan Buddhists, Shiva
lingams (now disguised as Buddhist chaityas
and decorated with the faces of the the
Dhyani Buddhas), and a popular Hindu temple
dedicated to Harati, the Goddess of smallpox
and other epidemics.The presence of the
Harati Devi temple signifies the intermingling
of the pantheons of Hinduism and Buddhism
in the development of the religious trends
of Nepal. As Buddhists had no deity in their
own pantheon to protect against the dreaded
smallpox, they adopted the Hindu deity for
Atop Swayambhunath hill is another fascinating,
though smaller and less visited temple.
This is Shantipur, the 'Place of Peace',
inside of which, in a secret, always locked,
underground chamber lives the 8th century
Tantric master Shantikar Acharya. Practising
meditation techniques which have preserved
his life for uncounted centuries, he is
a great esoteric magician who has complete
power over the weather. When the valley
of Kathmandu is threatened by drought, the
King of Nepal must enter the underground
chamber to get a secret mandala from Shantikar.
Soon after the mandala is brought outside
and shown to the sky, rain begins to fall.
Frescoes painted on the inside temple walls
depict when last this occurred in 1658.
The small temple has a powerful atmosphere;
it is mysterious, stern and slightly ominous.
The complex of temples atop Swayambhunath
hill is one of my most favorite sacred places
in the world. It was here, in 1967, when
I was thirteen years old that I first became
enchanted with visiting and photographing
ancient pilgrimage shrines. Swayambhunath
stupa is also called the ‘Monkey Temple’
because of the many hundreds of monkeys
who scamper about the temple at night after
the pilgrims and priests have departed.
These monkeys and a hashish inspired yogi
first introduced me to the magic of sacred
places. Nearby the Swayambhunath hill are
other important temples such as the Shiva
Jyotir Linga temple of Pashupatinath, Boudhanath
stupa, Changu Narayan, Dakshinkali, and
Budhanilkantha. Readers interested in studying
the sacred sites of the Kathmandu valley
in detail are referred to the works of Bubriski,
Majupuria and Moran listed in the bibliography.