A fascinating Buddhist iconography of Kathmandu valley | Sunday Observer
Swayambhunath temple:

A fascinating Buddhist iconography of Kathmandu valley

30 July, 2022

The Swayambhunath temple which is on the West of the city on a hilltop is a recognisable Buddhist iconography of the Kathmandu valley in Nepal. Swayambhu overlooks and gives a panoramic view of the Kathmandu valley.

No tourist to Kathmandu would miss a visit to this UNESCO world heritage site which provides a fascinating experience with unique Nepalese traditional architecture, paintings, carvings, mystical features of Mahayana Buddhism as well as a spiritual atmosphere heightened by the fragrance of burning incense and butter lamps.

This is colloquially known as ‘monkey temple’ and the visitors can instantly realise the reason behind naming it so. Simians have mobbed the place which gives the place another unique attraction.

For an elderly person, reaching the top of the hill where the stupa is through the Eastern stairway by climbing the steep stairs may be taxing. However, that is also the scenic route.

The other is the Western route which can be approached by a vehicle and climbing is not as taxing as the Eastern stairway and is a short walk from the car park. It is decorated with small huts that sell traditional and modern artefacts.

Foreigners are required to obtain an entrance ticket. The ticket fee varies as per the region. Visitors from SAARC and BIMSTEC countries are required to pay a lesser amount in comparison to those from other countries.

It is said that the glorious Kathmandu civilisation began with the manifestation of the hill where Swayambhunath stupa stands today. The Kathmandu valley had once been a lake and the geological evidence supports this. Legend has it that the hill on which the Swayambhunath stupa stands rose spontaneously from the lake. Thus, the place became known as ‘Swayambhu’ meaning ‘self- arisen’. Geologists also believe that this place had been an island in the lake during ancient times. However, no strong archaeological evidence can be solicited to determine the exact period of forming this place.

Reports state that there had been a place of worship here during King Manadeva’s reign in 460 AD. Historical records also show that Emperor Asoka of India had paid a visit to this place 2000 years ago. It is believed that during the 13th century, this place had been an important hub for Buddhism. As per records, Mughal invaders who also invaded most parts of Northern India had not spared Nepal and had destroyed construction here, probably a dome of the stupa in search of treasure during the 14th century. Following the destruction by the Mughals, the stupa had been restored later by the rulers of Kathmandu. This is also the oldest Buddhist stupa of Nepal.

King Pratap Malla of Kathmandu had constructed a long steep stone stairway up to the stupa in the 17th century. The stupa or the other constructions that stand today do not, however, depict the original construction. Subsequent invasions and natural disasters such as the 1935 earthquake had destroyed the original identity of the place. The stupa that stands today is a more recent construction. The 2015 earthquake that shook Nepal and incurred major damage to the country could not destroy the stupa. The structure, however, sustained minor damage.

Religious harmony

Although Swayambhunath had originally been a Buddhist place of worship, at present, the temple is worshipped equally by Hindus too. This temple has gained fame as a place for religious coexistence as a visitor can witness how the features of Hinduism have been incorporated into a Buddhist place of worship. The religion of Nepal is a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism and cannot be separable or distinguishable.

Devotees, mostly consisting of Hindus visit the temple throughout the day. However, a steep rise in the pilgrims can be observed in the evening. A vast torrent of pilgrims can be observed during Vesak (Buddha Jayanthi) too. Devotees who make their presence at the temple light butter lamps (they use butter instead of oil) and circumnavigate the stupa (performing Kora) while spinning the prayer wheels.

Eastern entrance

There is a huge prayer wheel at the entrance, and two red stone seated Buddha statues at the base of the hill. Halfway up the hill, there are plenty of stonework depicting the different stages of the Buddha. An enormous stone footprint which is said to be of the Buddha is also found on the Eastern entrance. A visitor ascending the hill through the Eastern entrance can see the statues of the vehicles of Dhyani Buddhas such as elephants, Lions, Garundas, peacocks and monkeys.

If anyone reaches the stupa from the Eastern stairway, a huge dorjee which is made of brass is the first religious symbol to be found. Dorjee (thunderbolt) is known as Vajra in Sanskrit and is one of the core symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. Dorjee denotes ‘expelling of ignorance and attaining enlightenment’ as per Tibetan Buddhism.

It is reported that two Shikhara temples on the two sides of the stupa were introduced to this place of worship by king Pratap Malla of Kathmandu. Shikhara is an Indian style of making temples.


The stupa stands gloriously behind the Dorjee. The stupa is constructed to depict some important aspects of Buddhism. The dome of the stupa is not pure white as found in Sri Lanka. Some places of the dome are decorated with yellow paint.

The dome, as per Buddhist scholars, denotes the earth while the 13 tiered gold-plated structure denotes the stages that a person is required to pass to attain Nirvana.

The stupa is ringed by prayer wheels embossed with the scared mantra of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum (Hail to the jewel in the lotus). Prayer wheels are an inseparable part of Tibetan Buddhism and said to eliminate negativity when they are spun and denote good karma and wisdom. They are hollow and cylindrical wheels made of metal, wood, or stone mounted on an axis which enables rotation. Devotees can spin each prayer wheel as they perform Kora.

Another distinct feature is the prayer flags which are attached to the spire of the stupa. Buddhist Mantras are written (printed) in these prayer flags. Prayer flags is another significant feature of Mahayana Buddhism. It is believed that the Mantras printed on prayer flags are carried to heaven by the winds.

The distinct feature of any Buddhist stupa found in Nepal is the piercing eyes of the Buddha painted on a gold-plated upper square of the stupa (known as Harmika). This feature is popularly called by tourists as ‘Buddha is watching you’. There are eight eyes painted on Harmika on four directions. Devotees also believe that this depicts the Buddha’s all-seeing eyes. The eyes of the Buddha stare out across the Kathmandu valley, as explained by the local devotees. The squiggle below the eyes which denotes Buddha’s nose, symbols unity as the number one in Nepal language is written that way.

Goddess of smallpox

There is a shrine dedicated to the Harithi, the goddess of smallpox behind the pagoda. Near the Harithi temple there are stone pillars and small pagodas bearing the carvings of various deities of Nepal. White and green Tara figures are also found here.

On the Western entrance the World Peace Pond is located where the visitors can throw a coin to the box below the feet of the Buddha statue.

It is said that those who can throw a coin inside the brass box which is covered with grills are fortunate to have their wishes fulfilled. Often the majority of the visitors fail to throw the coin inside the box.

There is a renowned Saraswati temple to the left-hand side from the Western entrance. Students throng this shrine during exam time to get blessings from Goddess Saraswati who is the goddess of learning.