Swayambhunath, visible from afar on a hilltop site to the west of Kathmandu, takes pride in being the second most important Buddhist shrine in the Valley after Bodnath. Legend connects Swayambhu, the self-born, primordial Buddha, with the earliest origins of Kathmandu. The Swayambhu Stupa, painted with the eyes of the omnipresent god, forms the centerpiece of the temple complex.
The external appearance of the stupa has remained substantially unchanged since the 14th c. apart from minor alterations due to later endowments and repairs. An appreciation of the stupa is best gained by proceeding round it in a clockwise direction. As people walk round the prayer wheels fixed to the balustrade are set in motion, so multiplying the prayers a thousand times.
Swayambhunath is a religious complex with many shrines and temples that are dedicated to various deities. There is also a stupa as a central part of the complex.
Elaborate metalwork and beautiful woodcarvings embellish the Sitala Devi Pagoda, dedicated to a goddess popular with Hindus and Buddhists alike. Hindus worship her as Sitala Devi, goddess of smallpox, Buddhists as Hariti or simply Ajima, a Newari mother deity. Many images of Hariti date from the Licchavi period, an indication of the cult's considerable following at that particular time. In legend Hariti is said to have been a child-eating demon whom Buddha converted to protectress of the valley's young ones. Here she appears encircled by half a dozen children, holding a silver skull cup for offerings. Children are brought to the incense-filled temple to receive the goddess's blessing. Both the temple and the devotional image were renewed in the 19th c. after being destroyed on the orders of Jung Bahadur Shah. He banned the Sitala cult when his favorite wife died of smallpox (or perhaps committed suicide because it left her disfigured). While all the goddess's shrines were desecrated, Swayambhunath's Hariti Temple evidently bore the brunt of Jung Bahadur's vengeance.
A second stupa crowns the smaller hilltop at the western end of Swayambhunath's ridge. It is dedicated to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva who created the Chobar gorge with a blow of his sword, draining the water from the Kathmandu Valley so that all might worship Swayambhu. He is said to have meditated here on the hill. Next to the stupa stands a shrine to Saraswati, goddess of learning. At exam time students from schools and colleges come seeking her support while during the Basant Panchami Festival children ask for her blessing.
Buddha Shakyamuni Statue
Beyond the Hariti Mandir an extension of the precinct contains numerous chaityas commemorating the dead. The south-west corner is graced by a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Although attributed on stylistic grounds to the 9th c. the image is almost certainly a replica - virtually everything at Swayambhunath was destroyed in the 14th c. by the Muslim invaders. East of it can be seen a stupa with four Buddhas dating from the Licchavi period.
During the holy month of Gunla, which begins on the 15th day of the full moon in August, Swayambhu is the scene of the most solemn Buddhist rites. Vast numbers make their way to the shrine, usually before sunrise, to the sound of chanting, tambourines and drums.
More Swayambhunath Pictures