kathmandu: swayambhunath

Friday, January 18:  After eating a great buffet breakfast in the chilly courtyard dining area of Kathmandu Guest House, I sit down over coffee with Uttam Phuyal and Lamichhane Dipak so they can help me plan my stay in Nepal.  As I didn’t have any time to plan or even read anything about Nepal before I came, I rely on their advice as native Nepalis.  They come up with a great plan, which includes a city tour of Kathmandu today (Friday), a flight Saturday to Pokhara with a two night stay there, a return to Kathmandu on Monday, a drive to Nagarkot via Bhaktapur on Tuesday, a long walk from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan on Wednesday with a return to Kathmandu that night, and finally another day in Kathmandu.  All this for the cost of $600, not including entrance fees to attractions, lunch, dinner or my stays at Kathmandu Guest House.

a wishing pool near Swayambhu

a wishing pool near Swayambhu

Of course as they tell me about this plan, the only thing I know is that my colleague Mona Lisa said Kathmandu was “magical,” my colleague Zida hated Kathmandu but thought Pokhara was beautiful, and the couple from Holland raved about Bhaktapur.  Other than that, none of the suggestions have any meaning whatsoever for me.  They could just as easily have said I’m going to blahblahblah and to Lala-land, for as much as I understood about these places.

my guide for the day: Buddhi

my guide for the day: Buddhi

I start out first thing in the morning with a driver and a guide named Buddhi (which he tells me means “knowledge”) to Swayambhu (or Swayambhunath), a 5th century Buddhist stupa that is the source of Kathmandu Valley’s creation myth. One myth states that the Kathmandu Valley was once a snake-infested lake.  Geologists actually agree that Swayambhunath may have been a hill protruding out of that lake that dried up 100,000 years ago.  In the legend, a perfect lotus flower appeared on the lake, which the gods claimed to be Buddhism’s essence, Swayambhu (“self-created”). The bodhisattva of knowledge, Manjushri, drew his sword and cut a gorge south of Kathmandu to drain the lake and allow people to worship Swayambhu.  As the water drained, the lotus settled on top of the hill, and Manjushri built a shrine, and then began to rid the valley of snakes (Rough Guide to Nepal).

Tantric Buddhists believe that an act of worship on this conical hill carries 13 billion times more merit here than anywhere else, according to the Rough Guide to Nepal.  Though many tourists call it the “Monkey Temple,” the name minimizes its importance to Buddhism.

coming upon Swayambhu

coming upon Swayambhu

We start at the hilltop to the west of Swayambhu, at Manjushri Shrine.  Manjushri is the Buddhist god of wisdom and founder of civilization in Kathmandu Valley.  At the shrine there is a wishing pool with a brass bowl in front of a Buddha image.  If you toss a coin and it goes into the bowl, your wish is sure to be granted.  I only have one coin in my possession.  I make a wish, toss the coin, and watch as it dances to the bottom of the pond.

As we walk up the hill to Swayambhu, Buddhi tells me he is Hindu but also practices Buddhism.  He recently married, a couple of months ago, and talks very maturely about how marriage is about compromise.

Near the top of the hill, we come upon a stand of artfully arranged slivers of coconut.

Coconut for sale

Coconut for sale

Buddhi tells me that Buddha’s eyes stand for world peace and the third eye is for meditation.  The all-seeing eyes stare in all four directions.  The completely solid white-washed dome symbolizes the womb.

Buddha's eyes on the stupa stand for world peace.  The third eye is for meditation.

Buddha’s eyes on the stupa stand for world peace. The third eye is for meditation.

Walking up the hill, we pass monkeys flitting about on walls and on the walkway in front of us. As we round the corner, we catch a glimpse of the stupa in the midst of numerous other shrines.  The spire of 13 gold disks atop the pillar represent the steps to enlightenment.

the Swayambhu stupa

the Swayambhu stupa

Monkeys climb and leap around from statue to statue.  They gather for a small community meeting on the walkway. Pilgrims walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, turning the prayer wheels around the perimeter.   According to Rough Guide to Nepal, there are six thousand small prayer wheels around the perimeter of the hill.

monkeys at "The Monkey Temple"

monkeys at “The Monkey Temple”

Buddhi tells me that the colors of the prayer flags represent the five elements: earth, water, air, fire and sky.  He tells me Nepal’s people are about 75% Hindu, 15% Buddhist, and 5% Christians.

another view of the stupa

another view of the stupa

We come upon the gilt-roofed Harati Mandir, built to appease Harati (also known as Ajima), historically the goddess of smallpox, but now known as the goddess of all childhood diseases. Harati/Ajima is both feared, as the bearer of disease, and revered, as the protectress from disease (if appropriately appeased).

the gilt-roofed temple of Harati Mandir

the gilt-roofed temple of Harati Mandir

Around the edges of the complex are the ubiquitous tourist attractions: a cafe in Nirvana and healing bowls offered as solutions to the soul’s distress.

Nirvana

Nirvana

A courtyard full of monuments are the gravestones of monks who have lived and died here.

cemetery of monks

cemetery of monks

At the northeast corner is the Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar, an active Buddhist monastery with its big Buddha and numerous butter candles, which Tibetan Buddhists light much as Catholics do.

Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar

Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar

On top of the stupa, a monk splashes arcs of saffron paint around the stupa in a lotus-flower pattern.

a monk splashes arcs of saffron paint over the stupa in a lotus-flower pattern

a monk splashes arcs of saffron paint over the stupa in a lotus-flower pattern

On the east side of the complex, at the top of over 300 time-worn steps up to the stupa, is a bronze sceptre-like vajra, the pedestal of which is carved with the twelve animals of the Tibetan zodiac.  It is a tantric symbol of power and indestructibility.

an oversized vajra, a tantric symbol of power and indestructibility

an oversized vajra, a tantric symbol of power and indestructibility

There are twin bullet-shaped shikra on either side of the vajra installed by King Pratap Malla during a 17th century dispute with Tibet.  This one is Anantapur; the other (shown above behind the vajra) is Pratappur.

the bullet shaped shikra of Anantapur

the bullet shaped shikra of Anantapur

Inscribed on a large prayer wheel attached to the stupa are words in Nepalese that are translated roughly by Buddhi as: “Hail to the jewel and the lotus.”

pilgrims and tourists rove around the stupa

pilgrims and tourists rove around the stupa

We look out over the polluted city of Kathmandu, but it’s not a pretty sight.

the view of Kathmandu from Swayambhu

the view of Kathmandu from Swayambhu

around and around the stupa

around and around the stupa

I’m surprised to run into the couple from Holland who I talked with last night at dinner.

I run into the couple from Holland who chatted with me over dinner last night

I run into the couple from Holland who chatted with me over dinner last night

As nice as Buddhi is, I find myself wishing I didn’t have a guide to I could spend time in a clockwise walking meditation around the stupa, turning the prayer wheels slowly.  I have enjoyed these kinds of walking meditations before, especially using labyrinths in the Episcopal Church.   I like moving slowly on predetermined paths that I don’t have to think about and trying to still the incessant chatter in my mind.

colorful prayer flags representing the 5 elements of earth, water, air, fire & sky

colorful prayer flags representing the 5 elements of earth, water, air, fire & sky

After we leave Swayambhunath, we head to Durbar Square, home of the old royal palace and a multitude of other monuments.

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10 comments on “kathmandu: swayambhunath

  1. Really getting into your itinerary! Thank you for the history lessons! Some of this stuff I did not know, but the mantra is more closely translated as “Behold the jewel in the lotus”.

  2. Enjoyed reading your detailed account of Swayambunath Cathy.
    The little I know about Nepal is from a book titled ‘Blood against the snows’ about the tragic massacre of the entire royal family by the crown prince. Look forward to more of your photo essays.

    • Thanks so much Madhu! Thanks for mentioning this book; I put it on my to-read list on Goodreads. I just finished a book of short stories by Samrat Upadhyay called Arresting God in Kathmandu. I really enjoyed it.

  3. That last photo is gorgeous, and I enjoy your comment about wishing to just do the walk. Makes sense – there are always those regrets when one travels to wonderful places. I too love walking a labyrinth!

    • Yes, Lynn, whenever there is a guide involved, you feel you can’t linger like you would do when you’re on your own. I think it would have been a logistical nightmare to see all these sights in such a short time WITHOUT a guide, though. So, there are positives and negatives obviously.

      Have you done many labyrinth walks? I’ve done a number in different places, and I always find them so enlightening on some level. I actually have a character in my yet unpublished novel who is fascinated by labyrinths. 🙂

  4. So sad to see the view of the polluted city next to the photos of the old temples..
    I didn’t know there were so many monkeys in Katmandu.
    I love how you were able to book your ticket with 6 days notice and trusted that the people at the guest house would help you make your travel plans. Its a good lesson for folks like me…

    I’ve only done one labyrinth walk. Gosh I’d also love to do one in Katmandu!

    • Rosie, I’ve traveled alone so many times in the last 3 years that now I have it down, I think. I depend on local travel agents or the hotels to help me out with local tours. In Jordan it was just random people at the hotel who shared a taxi/guide for the day. I prefer these small or private locally-arranged tours to any big tour company. The have always worked well for me wherever I’ve gone.

      I didn’t see any labyrinths in Kathmandu. As far as I know they are mostly geared toward Christian meditative practice, but I don’t know for sure.

      You’re right, Rosie, it really is a shame about all the pollution in Kathmandu.

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