A Trip to Swayambhunath Kathmandu
The massive Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath dominates the skyline of Kathmandu. It rises from a hill to the west of the Nepali capital, a mass of white dome and gold stupa. The temple is affectionately known as the “monkey temple” because a troop is said to guard the site. Legend has it that Kathmandu Valley was once a great lake (geologists confirm this). The hill Swayambhunath stands on, is said to have “self-risen” (“swayambhu”), like a lotus from a lake. It is also said that the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka visited the site over 2,000 years ago. King Manadeva began building a temple here in 460AD.
Today the stupa of Swayambhunath rises from a sea of square, three-storey buildings. A kora (holy circuit) of Tibetan Buddhist stupas and prayer wheels rings the base of the hill. Elderly Tibetan pilgrims circle the hill in a clockwise direction, muttering prayers and working their malas (prayer beads). The old women wear the traditional Tibetan long black bibbed dress over blouses, with colourful striped aprons. They spin the prayer wheels clockwise, streaming prayers for the happiness of all sentient beings to the four corners of the world.
We have walked four kilometres through the chaotic and dusty streets of Kathmandu to get here. The pilgrims pay us no heed. We walk around the massive colourful stupas – some are 15m-high – at the base of the hill.
Stupas are an integral part of Buddhist philosophy. The white bulbous structures, which range in height from less than a metre to the highest in the world – the stupa of Boudhanath in the Kathmandu Valley, a gangrenous 38m - are built to hold sacred relics. Some are so old that no one can remember what they contain. Mughal invaders broke into the Swayambhunath stupa in 1346 to search for gold. History does not say what they found.
The lowest level of the stupa is the plinth, a simple square platform. Atop the plinth is the white-washed kumbha or dome. Atop the kumbha is the harmika. The harmika is square, on each side is painted a pair of eyes. These eyes are known as the Eyes of Buddha or the Eyes of Peace. Atop the harmika is a tapering section of 13 stages, usually wrought in gold, representing the 13 stages of perfection to achieve the state of nirvana (liberation from suffering).
The stupas of the kora are freshly whitewashed. They tower over us. Intricate details are carved into the gold-plated decoration of the uppermost domes – ornate details of elephants, gryphons and demons. Woven into the gold are large precious stones, and waves of red, green and blue. Winged Tibetan lions guard its base. Along the back wall of the kora, behind the stupas, are painted the gods. At the topmost, prominent position is Tara in her white (compassionate) form. Tara is the goddess of enlightenment. She is also known as the female Buddha.
Just above the kora of stupas are three larger-than-life statues of a sitting Buddha. Screwed into the base of each statue is a sign: “please do not snap while seating in Buddha”. Young Nepali men sit in the lap of the Buddha, snapping away on their cellphones.
Swayambhunath is reached by a long, steep flight of stairs. We are halfway up, panting for breath, when we realise it is not one flight but two, twice as high was what we initially thought. The temple cannot be seen from the base of the stairs. The stairs are made of stone and worn smooth with footprints. The stairs to the stupa was built by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. The stairs are so old that they slope down.
“I forgot to count how many there were,” breathes my partner, as we crest the top. Kathmandu spreads out below us.
Strings of prayer flags flutter in the soft wind of the valley. The flags – red, white, yellow, blue and green – are block printed with prayers for the happiness of all beings. The wind takes these prayers to the four corners of the world. The deep drone of chanting rises above the wind-rip of the flags. Three Tibetan Buddhist monasteries ring the stupa.
The white bulb of Swayambhunath towers above us. It is massive, elegant and beautiful. We circumnavigate the stupa clockwise, disturbing the resident pigeons. We walk around the man in the square Nepali hat cleaning the thousands of small bowls that hold offerings of yak butter candles. The bowls are wrought in a lattice of iron around the base of the stupa.
Nepali women sell rolls of prayer flags and incense monks trot around the stupa base on a karmic mission. A group of men have set up a ping pong table in an open area behind a series of smaller, black and grey stupas. Yells of victory carry down the hill.
Gold details surround Swayambhunath. Doll-like statues of Tibetan gods set in enclaves into the white of the stupa. We spin the small prayer flags set in the base of Swayambhunath. The metal is warm in the sun.
I feel strangely peaceful here, walking around the massive hulk of white, the bright blue of the Nepali sky above me. The eyes of the stupa stare out over us. We sit beside a souvenir stall overlooking the vast expanse of Kathmandu. The grey earthly shadow of Swayambhunath glides over us. The view is spectacula
Posted By : Dipalee Mithbavkar