Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) is one of Nepal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is a dynamic site with 2 main entrances and 3 side entrances. In addition, there are a lot of monkeys that will keep you on your toes. It also has a beautiful attached mythology and architecture. Swayambhunath’s history and symbolism also make this site one of my favorites in the Kathmandu valley. Come explore the Monkey Temple with me.
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What does Swayambhunath mean?
Despite the common name “Monkey Temple”, Swayambhunath doesn’t mean monkey or temple. In Tibetan language, it is reference to the many beautiful trees that were once at the site. The name comes from its mythology; Swayambhu means self-created.
The nickname Monkey Temple also originates from its mythology.
Note: the monkeys are very bad here. They will steal items like food, water, and combs from you.
Swayambhunath is believed to have originated from a self-created lotus flower growing out of the center of a lake that filled the Kathmandu valley. An enlightened deity found the lake and decided to drain it by destroying a dam. After all the water rushed out, the lotus flower was the only thing left.
The deity saw the significance in this and began creating a hill to honor the self-created lotus flower. In the process or in disobedience to his mother, he let his hair grow long and eventually contracted head lice. The deity, unfinished with his work left to get the lice removed. But, when he left, the lice jumped off his head and became the monkeys that roam the temple grounds.
The lotus plant, realizing what had happened, rapidly grew thick and dense. It turned itself into the hill and its flower became the stupa.
The earliest record of the construction of Swayambhunath is from the 3rd century B.C. Emperor Ashoka is thought to have built the first temple on the hill, but it was destroyed by an unknown cause.
According to ancient text, the current Swayambhunath was built by King Vrsadeva at the beginning of the 5th century (460-500) A.D. An engraved stone found on the site identifies a work order for the temple, issued by King Manadeva in 640 A.D.
In the 17th century, the king of Kathmandu, King Malla, ordered the construction of the eastern staircase up to the stupa.
The stupa has been renovated 16 times from its construction to 2018.
Swayambhunath has a stupa, multiple shrines and temples, a Tibetan monastery, museum, book store, gift shops, restaurants and a hostel.
The Stupa is a large, white, half sphere with a cube on top of its apex. Each open side of the cube faces north, east, south, or west. Painted on the side of the cube are Buddha’s eyes and a nose, which is a number 1. On top of the cube are 13 tiers and a Gajur at the very top.
The symbolism of Swayambhunath
The base of Swayambhunath, half sphere or dome, represents the world. When a person becomes enlightened, their eyes open and they ascend to the level of Buddha’s eyes. The 13 tiers above the eyes represent the stages of spiritual realizations needed for Buddhahood.
Buddha’s eyes represent wisdom and compassion. Buddha’s nose, the symbol for #1 represents the unity of all things existing in the world and the path to enlightenment.
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How to get to Swayambhunath
If you are staying in or near Thamel, you can walk to the Monkey Temple easily. Walk west for 40 minutes to get to the bottom of the eastern stairs. You will have to cross a bridge to get there.
You can also get to the stupa by taxi or private car. If you are brave, you can try your hand at public transportation, but you might end up someplace that’s not Swayambhunath.
It is located on the top of a large hill and is easy to spot, if the sky is clear.
You can also buy a half day tour of Kathmandu and see Swayambhunath and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of these sites include Patan Durbar Square and Boudhanath Stupa.
Occasionally there is someone charging entrance fees at the top of the stairs on the eastern side of the stupa. The entrance fee is $2. You can also enter the area for free by coming in from the western entrance and any of the side entrances.
Depending on how interested you are and how much you want to see or experience, you can spend 1 to 3 hours here and be satisfied. I could spend an hour just watching the monkeys harass people.
When to go
Mornings are the best time to go, any time before 8:00. Any day of the year is fine too. Just note you might have to bring rain suits if you go during the monsoon season.
If you are interested in planning a visit, you can reach out Upper Himalayan Treks and Adventures.