The stupa of Swayambhunath looks down from the top of a 100-m (350-ft)-high hill in the west of the city, the rays of the rising sun seeting fire to its burnished copper spire as it floats above the sea of early morning mist that fills the valley. Buddha’s all seeing eyes, in vivid hues, adorn all four sides of the base of the spire, keeping constant vigil over Kathmandu. Many believe this sacred ground protects the divine light of Swayambhunath, the self Existent One who, when the waters drained form the valley, emerged as a flame from a lotous blossom atop this hill.
The site of Swayambhunath was holy ground long before the advent of Buddhism, perhaps at a projection stone that now forms the central core of the stupa. Here, it is said, Manjushri discovered the Kathmandu lotus that floated in its ancient lake.
The stupa’s earliest known work was carried out in the fifth century by king Manadeva – confirmed by an inscription dated AD 460, some 600 years after emperor Ashoka is reputed to have paid homage at the site. Destroyed by Bengali troops in the mid-fourteenth century, it was rebuilt by the seventeenth-century Malla monarch, King Pratap, who added a long stairway leading to it, two adjoining temples and a symbolic thunderbolt at the top.
The stupa is structured like a lotus flower and there have been monasteries, idols, temples and sculptures constructed by saints, monks, kings and others in the last two thousand years; they now surround the initial stupa and the whole hilltop. Today pilgrimps and the curious climb laboriously up King Pratap’s 365 flagstone steps. Even if you have no sense of religion or history, you’ll find the antics of the monkeys, which inhabit the temples and the shops, fascinating – they use the handrails of the steps as a slide – and the views over Kathmandu as breathtaking as the stiff climb. Nepali legend says the monkeys are descended from the lice in Manjushri’s hair which, as they dropped to up as monkeys. It is also said that each strand of his hair which fell also sprang up again – as a tree.
On the stupa, the Buddha’s all-seeing eyes gaze out in the four cardinal directions. Beneath the eyes, where you would expect a nose, is the symbol for the Nepali numeral “one”, a representation of the one path to enlightenment. Above the eyes is the third eye, which represents the omniscience and wisdom of Buddha.
Mounted on a brass pedestal before the stupa is the thunderbolt, or vajra – all powerful – respresenting the divine strength of Lord Indra, King of the Heavens, in contrast to Buddha’s all-pervading knowledge Beneath the pedestal stand the 12 animals of the Tibetan zodiac: rat, bull, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, jackal and pig.
There’s a daily service in the monastery, or gompa, facing the stupa – a rowdy and, to western ears, discordant clanking of in instruments, blaring horns and a melee of safron-robed worshipers. The eternal flame, Goddesses Ganga and Jamuna, is enshrined in a cage behind the stupa where a priest makes regular offerings.
Opposite, on a neighboring hill, the serene image of Saraswati, goddess of learning, gazes on the often frantic throng around Swayambhunath in benign astoneishment.