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Designated as UNESCO World Heritage site, Swayambhunath Temple is probably the most sacred among Tibetan Buddhist sites in Nepal and the main destination of pilgrims here. The temple is popularly known as the ‘Monkey Temple’ because of the hundreds of free-roaming sacred monkeys that traipse along the grounds. They dominate the place and oblivious of the people around them. The Temple is also the most instantly recognizable symbols of Nepal. Ask any local about places to visit in the city and the Monkey Temple will be the first one they will mention.
grinning monkey at one the mini stupas
You might be wondering why monkeys are considered sacred in Nepal, I do too. Well, it is believed that monkeys are regarded sacred here because Manjushri, the ancient bodhisattva (holy man), was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long which got infested with head lice. It is said that the head lice eventually transformed into monkeys – hence the veneration of the monkeys till now. It is quite interesting to see that for the more westernized cultures the monkeys might be associated with our distant evolutionary cousins, but for the Buddhist and Hindu population here the monkeys are revered for very different reasons.
adorable mother and child monkey
It took me a while to get over the eerie ‘lice-into-monkey’ transformation story but I guess that’s what it means to be open to new cultural experiences – it requires not only lots of conceptual adjustments but sometimes also a strong stomach.
My local friend offered to be my guide and was kind enough to teach me some facts about the iconic stupa. After about half an hour of hiking uphill and talking about our very different lives, we reached the foot of the Eastern Stairway and then had to climb the 365 stone steps all the way up to the Temple. The exhausting climb to the hilltop was made interesting by the stories we shared and the hissing monkeys perched along the stairway, which can be a bit scary! They were looking firmly on passing visitors, examining each and everyone with utmost scrutiny and shocking them with their utter lack of manners.
on my way up to the main stupa
monkeys scattered around the west gate entrance
some of the souvenir items that can be bought inside the complex
We saw groups of teenagers stood at the various landing of the steps playing happily. Then the moment we get close to them, they stop to beg – collecting donations from visitors for various causes. There’s also fortune tellers and souvenir sellers sat or squatted all along the way, calling out to me as I stopped to catch my breath. We reach the apex, though not without a struggle. I keep telling myself I’m breathing heavily because of the high elevation, and not because I’m not fit for such activity hehehe 😉
TIP #1: If you’re not into hiking and stair climbing, there’s a car road to the top of the hill from the South leading to the South-West entrance. From there it’s only a short walk to the Temple grounds.
Once we reached the top of the stairs, we paid a small ticket price of 200 RPS ($3.26 USD as of this writing) to enter the temple. On top is a platform filled with shrines, relics, and people covered in flowers and colored dyes. There is a song, and incense in the air and yak butter candles shine in every darkened corner of this elaborate plaza. And of course, Monkeys!!!
burning or yak candles
playing chess is one of the favorite pastimes of locals living within the complex
There are suddenly monkeys everywhere! They emerge from the shrines, from the trees, from the entrails of the mountain. They are terrifyingly brazen, not afraid to walk right up to anyone. The locals just ignored them, and the monkey, in turn, excluded them from their ‘target list’. It was a clear display of ’monkey discrimination’ at its finest. Unfortunately, I was the outsider and soon I discovered that my name was also on their target list.
all senses alert! …. in search for food
Before I knew what was happening, a young monkey rocketed past me snatching a box of mango juice from my hand. Looking in shock at the dark reddish smear on my hand where my box of mango juice had been just a moment ago, I become terribly worried, thinking that I might be now infected with rabies. I didn’t feel any pain but I knew that in a state of shock one can be badly wounded without realizing it right away. I washed the multi-colored dirt off my hand and examined it anxiously for any scratches or bites. Fortunately, the ‘monkey attack’ left my skin unbroken and required no visit to a doctor for a preventive injection.
TIP #2: Avoid feeding and touching the monkeys or provoking them in any way. Even though these are not enforced rules and the monkeys are accustomed to humans, they are still wild animals, and it is best to enjoy them from a distance.
the main stupa
The stupa itself is something to behold. It consists of a lofty whitewashed dome with a gilded spire, from where four faces of the Buddha stare out across the valley in the cardinal directions. The nose like squiggle below the piercing eyes is actually the Nepali number ek (one), signifying unity, and above is a third eye signifying the all-seeing insight of the Buddha. The 13 tiered structure signifies the stages that humans must experience to achieve nirvana. Historical records found on a stone inscription give evidence that the stupa was already an important Buddhist pilgrimage destination by the 5th century A.D. i.e. before the official coming of Buddhism into the valley.
Spinning the prayer wheels around, sometimes offering prostrations as they chant.
One of the unique features of every Tibetan Buddhist temple is the rows of colorful prayer flags strung along wires, fluttering in the breeze. This pre-Buddhist shamanic tradition has been incorporated only into the Tibetan version of Buddhism and is not found in any other Buddhist traditions. The flags are made of cloth and are in five specific colors: blue, white, red, green and yellow, representing the five oriental elements. The written contents of the prayers are believed to be carried away to the heavens by the winds.
little monkeys playing with the prayer flags
stunning city views from the top
It is worth noting here that unlike in other countries, here in Nepal, Buddhism and Hinduism co-exist in a perfect harmony and it’s often even hard to distinguish one from the other. The temples are typically used for worship by devotees from both religions without any strive even though they are not equally represented in the society where Hindus accounts for 80% and Buddhists just for 10% of the total population of Nepal.
As we continue to explore the place, we saw a small cafe at the top sitting alongside the Stupa itself with a spectacular view of the valley and the City as well as the surrounding rainforest. Even if it’s cloudy, this vantage point is a beautiful spot to gaze out into the valley. I can just simply sit here and let the time stood still. Even with all the minor noises and tourist activity, the place still emulates peace and tranquility. There’s really something special about the energy of the place, perhaps rendered stronger by its location high above the city 🙂
TIP #3: Go in the afternoon for a better view of the city.
At the end of the tour, I took in one last final view of the main golden stupa and have this photo taken! Then I made my way down the stairs feeling happy and pleased with the entire experience. Visiting the magnificent Swayambhunath Temple was definitely worth the climb for me.
TIP #4: If you decide to visit the Swayambhunath Temple one day, just remember, this is indeed a Monkey Temple in a full sense of the word. Keep a watchful eye on them.
- The Monkey Temple is located about a 50-minute walk west of Thamel in Kathmandu. If not too hot, you can walk your way up to the hill. There are a few stores and a small museum along the way, so you could turn this into a full day activity.
- grinning monkey at one of the mini stupas Photo from jonistravelling.com
- burning of yak candles Photo from holeinthedonut.com
- little monkeys playing with the prayer flags Photo from urbanadventures.com
- mother and child monkey on stairs Photo from paul-d-holmes.blogspot.com
Have you been to the Monkey Temple? What is your favorite part of the tour? Share your experiences by commenting below 🙂