The Swayambhunath stupa in Kathmandu looks exactly like a pilgrimage destination in Asia should. There is a giant white dome, and below it, the eyes of the Buddha watch over the Kathmandu Valley. Hundreds of small candles are placed around rows and rows of ancient Buddha statues, their flames miraculously burning for hours even in strong wind. An old Buddhist nun, dressed in maroon robes, slowly makes her way up the stone steps that lead up a steep hill to the stupa. Colorful prayer flags hang from trees. Women in bright red saris carry offerings of flowers, candles and food.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Swayambhunath is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Nepal and one of the oldest religious sites in the country.
- It is also one of the main tourist attractions in Kathmandu.
- Good for: Buddhists, and anyone who wants to learn more about Buddhism.
The Origins of Swayambhunath Stupa
Swayambhunath stands on top of a hill on the western edges of Kathmandu and is one of Nepal’s oldest religious sites. It is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site and an important stupa for Tibetan Buddhists. Legend says that a lake once covered the Kathmandu Valley and out of the lake grew a lotus flower. When Manjusri, a bodhisattva (an enlightened being), used his sword to create a gorge and to drain the lake, the lotus settled on top of a hill and transformed into a stupa.
I walked to Swayambhunath from the center of Kathmandu. I could have taken a taxi, and I could have also taken a taxi up the hill to avoid climbing the 365 stone steps that lead up to the stupa, but I have this idea that holy places should be difficult to reach, and that pilgrimages (even if they are very short) should involve at least some discomfort. So I walked up, out of breath after a few dozen steps, while Buddhist pilgrims happily climbed next to me and Nepalese children ran up and down, laughing. Lining the stairs were scores of monkeys — holy monkeys that have given the stupa its nickname “Monkey Temple” — darting in and among the tourists and worshippers.
What to See in Swayambhunath
Buddha statues guard the stairway, and there are prayer wheels to spin: It is the motion of the wheels being spun and the flags waving in the wind that sends prayers onward. The all-seeing eyes of the Buddha look to four directions on the four sides of the stupa; between the eyes is painted the Nepalese number one that signifies unity, and the third eye above it is a symbol of looking within.
Around the main stupa are smaller temples and shrines, hundreds of Buddha images, a monastery, a library and a museum, and even a Hindu temple. The Harati Devi temple is dedicated to Harati, the goddess of smallpox and the protector of children. But despite the crowds of tourists, the local worshippers, the pilgrims, and the monkeys, Swayambhunath feels peaceful.
- You can walk to Swayambhunath from central Kathmandu in half an hour, or take a taxi.
- Saturdays are busy with Nepalese visitors and a good time to observe how locals perform puja (rituals and ceremonies).
- Walk around Buddhist sites in a clockwise direction, never point your feet at a Buddha image, remove your shoes when entering a holy site, and dress respectfully (cover up) when visiting Swayambhunath.