One of the travel wonders of Kathmandu’s overwhelming images is that of Swayambhunath perched high on a hilltop overlooking the Nepalese capital. As the humidity leaches energy from every pore as you clamber up the 365 step stairs to the revered and historic Buddhist Temple, its nickname of Monkey Temple becomes patently clear. Primates slink around the staircase, perch on the railings and joyously leap on unsuspecting travellers. Young monkeys cling to mother’s chests soaking in the lessons preparing them for a lifetime of leaping around this spiritual hill.
As the legs grow tireder, the large whitewashed dome of the temple looms into view. The colourful Buddha eyes stare forth, the hooked nose being the Nepalese number one symbolising unity and the third tiny piercing eye symbolising Buddha’s divine insight.
The mythological story behind the giant Buddhist temple (or stupa) is fascinating. The story goes that the entire Kathmandu valley was once a primordial lake (geologists support this claim). A lotus growing from the lake attracted an enlightened Buddhist who drained the lake and built Swayambhunath where the lotus sprung.
The temple area is awash with statues, religious icons and small shrines, along with makeshift vendors flogging postcards and pointless plastic trinkets. Somehow they seem so incongruous to the location but happily spread their blankets between the centuries-old sculptured figures eking out their living. Other Buddha statues are mixed with animal statues and symbols for the earthly elements such as water, air and fire.
Interestingly, in a world of increasing religious intolerance, the Hindus who represent the major religion in Kathmandu also revere Monkey Temple. Having also adopted the temple, the Hindus have built their own shrines and temples on the same mountain in harmony with the Buddhist Monkey Temple. In a healthy lesson, the two religions happily share this deeply spiritual location, statues and shrines intertwined across the hilltop.
Walking around the stupa (always in a clockwise direction), prayer flags flutter overhead while devotees spin the prayer wheel, the inscribed prayers and mantras sailing heaven-ward on the breezes. Many locals mark a daily pilgrimage circumnavigating the stupa several times after climbing the huge staircase, providing an inbuilt exercise program and calves like Olympic cyclists. The leathery grizzled faces of many of the pilgrims show glimpses of the hardened resilience of a tough life in Nepal, their strength of spirit showing through in each shuffled step as their wrinkled hands spin the prayer wheels in their daily ritual.
Worthy of a breathless climb up a sweeping historic staircase, Swayambhunath is one of the travel wonders of Kathmandu offering startling vistas over the city and highlighting the strange mix of travellers and pilgrims, souvenir-sellers and the faithful, all under the all-seeing eyes of Buddha.
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