Swayambhu – Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

Previous Post: The Kathmandu Valley & Its UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites

Update: Many of Swayambhu’s structures suffered considerable damage in the earthquake of April 2015. The Anantapura shikhara to the left of the steps toppled, and there was severe damage to buildings on the west side of the stupa. See the end of the post for more images and links to video footage.

image from CBC news report on Nepal after the quake

image from CBC news report on Nepal after the quake – see at the end of the post for a link

After a three-kilometer walk from Thamel across the Vishnumati River, you soon come to the foot of a tree-covered hill called “Swayambhu” (the self-arisen).  This site figures in the creation story of the Kathmandu Valley.  If nearby Boudhanath is the #1 site for Tibetans, this one was traditionally central to Newari Buddhists. Since the early 1960s the Tibetan refugee population has also embraced it, as the gompas nearby show.

satellite shot of Swayambhunath and sourrounding area of Kathmandu Their origin myth tells of a lake which once filled the entire valley until Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom,  paid a visit to worship the lotus he had seen in a dream.  Finding the lotus and wanting to make it easier for pilgrims to reach, he cut a gorge at one end of the lake and thus drained it.  And so the Kathmandu valley came to be – and the spot where the lotus was became the top of the hill we see today.  In time a stupa was built where the lotus used to be – and eventually, other shrines and temples around it on the hilltop we know as Swayambhu.

Swayambhunath While there is a road that goes up to the top from the west side of the hill, it is really much better to take your time walking up the stone steps  – over 300 – on the east side, in the company of Buddhist pilgrims who believe that the merit gained here is worth immeasurably more than that gained elsewhere. (The Swayambhu Purana states that it is  thirteen billion times more – a pretty convincing argument for choosing Swayambhu!)

Swayambhunath - worshipper at bottom of steps on the eastern side

Swayambhu – worshipper at the bottom of steps on the eastern side

The steps to the top pass by many shrines and statues erected over the centuries by Buddhists keen to earn merit at this holiest of Kathmandu’s sites. Tibetan prayer flags flutter on the way up – the healing mantras imprinted on them blown into an imperfect world.  You see them behind the seated Buddhas in the pix above and below. They are in the “touching the earth” mudra associated with the moment under the Bodhi Tree when  Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

Swayambhunath- bottom of steps up to the stupa

Swayambhu – bottom of steps up to the stupa

Swayambhunath - bottom of the steps shrines

Swayambhunath - shrine on the way up

Swayambhu – shrine on the way up

swayambhu bottom pathway to top

Swayambhu  – the bottom of the pathway to the top platform

Swayambhunath standing Buddhas on the path up

Swayambhu standing Buddhas on the path up

Swayambhunath - two seated Buddhas - unusual mudra

Swayambhu – two seated Buddhas – unusual mudra

The pix above and below illustrate the seated Buddha in a mudra named varada. Unlike the Bhumisparsha (touching the earth) mudra,  here the palm of the right hand is turned outward and symbolizes the granting of wishes. All of the Buddha figures hold a bowl – it contains the medicine or Dharma for what ails us –  in their left hands.

Swayambhu - two buddha seated figures

Swayambhunath - the steps up to the top platform

Swayambhu –  looking back down the steps.

As you approach the top, you are met by rhesus macaques, who have been known to intimidate a pilgrim or two.  They are more likely to be found on the northwest side of the hill. Their presence here has led some to call Swayambhunath “the Monkey Temple.”  You are more likely to encounter them at the end of the day as things cool down and they venture out.

swayambhu steps up to the top

swayambhu at the top

approaching the top of Swayambhu

The first thing you see as you approach the top is #9 (map below), the Dorje or Great Thunderbolt, symbolic of a great spiritual force (the Dharma) which can cut through all things. Behind it is #2 – the enclosed shine of Akshobhya, one of the Five Buddhas.

See here for source of map - Karmapa's Swayambhu monastery renovation project

See here for the source of the map –  Karmapa’s Swayambhu monastery renovation project.

As you walk around the stupa clockwise, you pass by another three at the various cardinal points. (#s 4,5,6)  The fifth Buddha’s shrine (#3), which should symbolically be placed in the centre of the stupa, can be seen in the pic below just to the left of the Akshobhya shrine at the eastern entrance.

Swayambhu Buddha shrines and prayer wheels

Swayambhu Buddha shrines and prayer wheels

Swayambhunath - Dorje with Stupa in background

Swayambhu – Dorje (thunderbolt)  with Stupa and two Buddha shrines  in the background

Swayambhunath -detail of stupa temple door

detail of one of the Five Buddha shrines around the base of the stupa

Swayambhunath - birds of stupa

Swayambhu – birds on the  stupa

The stupa itself is made up of four main parts: the whitewashed dome, a cube which sits on the top, a cone with thirteen progressively smaller rings up to the top, and an umbrella. The dome is often splashed with saffron-coloured water; on each of the four vertical sides of the cube or harmika are painted the Buddha’s eyes, as well as ek, the Nepali number 1 (which some take to be the nose!). Between the eyes – and just above them – is the urna curl, the tuft of hair which is one of the key marks of a Buddha. It is sometimes interpreted as the Buddha’s third and all-seeing eye.

chorten symbolism – see here for a detailed explanation

Swayambhunath stupa view

pilgrim leaving an offering at one of the small shikharas

All around the stupa at shoulder height are prayer wheels inscribed with the words “Om Mani Padme Hum” (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus), a petition to Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He is known as Chenrezig in Tibetan Buddhism and has the Tara as his female equivalent. Elsewhere this bodhisattva takes on a  female form and is known as Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan.  Spin the wheel and release the prayer into the world so that all sentient beings may benefit!

Swayambhunath - prayer wheels

Swayambhu – prayer wheels

Swayambhunath - statues and shrines around the stupa

seated Buddhas in different mudras

Swayambhu- around the top platform

standing Buddhas and mini chaityas to the side of the stupa

The standing Buddha in the pic below is shown in the Abhaya (Have no fear) mudra, with the right-hand palm outward; the left hand is in the varada mudra, also seen in a few of the pix above.  The stray dog may well be a dead dog. On our first visit to Kathmandu in 1996, we were struck by the hundreds of stray dogs roaming Thamel, especially early in the morning before the streets came alive.

swayambhunath standing buddha and dead dog

Swayambhu standing Buddha looking over a stray dog in bad shape

swayambhu stupa and surroundings

tourists and vendor – the postcards seem so 1996 – which is when the photo was taken

Later that day from the rooftop of our hotel in the Thamel area, I pointed my telephoto lens west towards Swayambhu and got this shot of the lit-up stupa and the two slender Malla-era shikharas. As the images and film footage below show, the earthquake toppled the one on the left.

Pashupatinath - nightime view from Kathmandu

Since the April 2015 Earthquake:

Swayambhunath After the Earthquake

Swayambhu after the earthquake – a snapshot of images in a Google search window

A May 20th video from the New York Times looks at Swayambhu and the fate of the salvaged statues and other objects from the ruins. See here.

A Canadian Broadcasting Corp News item from May 7 (“Saving Nepal’s Heritage Sites”)  has perceptive commentary by Adrienne Arsenault and some video on sites like Swayambhu and Lalitpur (Patan) and Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.

Swayamblhu earthquake damage April 2015

Swayambhunath suffered some damage from the earthquake and the aftershocks of April 2015. Check out this link for a drone-filmed view of the damage on the hilltop – An Aerial View of Earthquake Damage in Kathmandu

Swayambhu gompa damage April 2015

Swayambhunath - damage to shrines and monastery around the stupa

Swayambhu - damage on the top to the Tibetan monastery

soldiers going through the ruins at Swayambhunath

soldiers going through the ruins at Swayambhunath – see here for photo source and article

Swayambhunath after the quake

Next Post:  Boudhanath Stupa: The Heart of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

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4 Responses to Swayambhu – Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

  1. Amy Poster says:

    Your best blog ever. I visited this sacred site in the late 1970s, and appreciate your sensitive and articulate description of the site and the aftermath of the Earthquake.

    Best, Amy

    • true_north says:

      Kathmandu was the first really foreign destination – i.e. not North America or Europe – that I visited and I found it totally captivating – and occasionally overwhelming – from the moment we landed. It must have been even more special in the late 1970’s. Time magazine has a nice piece on the Kathmandu of those days – The Glory That Was Hippie-Era Kathmandu Finally Died In The Nepal Earthquake. Swayambhunath and the other sites in the valley – atmospheric! And now we have another life lesson to contemplate…

  2. Amy Poster says:

    Here are two more compelling stories, both associated with New York’s Rubin Museum of Art:

    WSJ article on the new Nepal initiative at the Rubin Museum of Art:


    Here is a wonderful interview that Jan van Alphen has given on our WNYC Radio today:


    • true_north says:

      Sounds like a worthwhile exhibit at the Ruben. The five- minute interview with Van Alphen was informative and certainly made clear the massive task which lies ahead. I remember being in Bhaktapur in the mid-1990’s and seeing the signs about German aid money to rebuild some of its structures from the last earthquake. Now it begins again.

      Van Alphen’s emphasis on the unique cultural synthesis which is religious worship in the Kathmandu Valley – the animism, shamanism, Shaivite and Vaishnava Hinduism, and Buddhism- was exactly what I was reading about when your comment arrived! The book is Power Places of Kathmandu with incredible photos and text by Keith Dowman. It has been a decade since I last opened it.

      Thanks for the links. They’ll provide readers with more background. I’ll be spending the weekend with the book and putting together a post on Boudhanath.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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