In April 2015, Nepal suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes in the country, killing over 9,000 people, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless, and damaging many of its heritage sites. An avalanche in Mt. Everest made it the deadliest day on the mountain in history.
While a lot of the heritage sites had been damaged, most have already been reopened, including the Swayambhunath Stupa, or the Monkey Temple, which I visited in February 2014.
Tell any traveler that there is a need to climb 365 steps to reach a destination and the likeliest answer would be a grunt or an incredulous “no way!” The weak of heart (or the weak of knees) would probably opt to stay in the downtown area of Kathmandu to shop for souvenirs and knickknacks.
For the travel enthusiast who is up for anything, though, all the climbing would be well worth it once the Swayambhunath Stupa, also known as Monkey Temple, comes into full view.
Swayambhunath is a religious complex perched on top of a hill at Kathmandu Valley, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites which suffered minor damages in the earthquake last April. Its construction is believed to have been ordered by the great-grandfather of King Manadeva in the 5th century.
It got its nickname from a local legend saying that the monkeys residing in the temple area grew from the head lice of Manjusri Bodhisattva, who represents wisdom in Buddhist tradition, as he was forming the hill on which the temple now stands. The monkeys are considered holy by the locals and are thus left free to roam around the temple grounds and do as they please.
The Monkey Temple, which is by far the most popular tourist spot in Kathmandu, can easily be reached from Thamel. I took a cab there together with an English guy I met on the plane. For the whole day’s “tour” which included the Monkey Temple, Pashupatinath Temple, and Boudanath, the cab driver charged us 600 rupees each.
The way to the main temple starts with 365 steep steps. It’s no coincidence that there’s one step for each day of the year, as climbing the stairs at a leisurely pace on days with few visitors is sure to provide an opportunity to reflect on the passing of days. The stairway itself is a prime tourist stop, providing a great view of Kathmandu as you ascend.
Perhaps what makes Swayambhunath all the more unique is that its history contains interwoven threads of both Buddhism and Hinduism.
Although originally built as a Buddhist shrine, which is evident in the painted eyes of the Buddha watching the valley from the stupa, the temple is also an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus. Several Hindu kings are known to have paid homage in the temple.
Travelers often feel entitled to having the best views and access to the best spots, but Swayambhunath erases all sense of entitlement and simply leaves visitors in awe of its beauty and history.
Monkeys are scattered throughout the temple area, as are souvenir sellers and their patrons. But all these do not detract from the beauty of the place. The architecture is nothing short of magnificent, and ancient carvings can be found on almost every corner.
The main attraction is the large white dome of the stupa, which is believed to symbolize the womb of creation. A gilded spire is painted with the Buddha’s eyes, which are looking out in four directions. A gilded spire with 13 tiers signifies the steps to achieve nirvana.
Circling the base of the dome are Tibetan prayer wheels. Walking around the dome while chanting and spinning the wheels is said to send up a devotee’s prayer to heaven. While I’m not a Hindu or Buddhist, I still sent up my prayers while spinning the wheels. You never know.
Whether you are looking for an authentic spiritual experience or simply wanting to take a beautiful panoramic shot of Kathmandu, a visit to the Monkey Temple, the Swayambhunath, should definitely be on your bucket list when you’re in the capital of Nepal. Check out this 3-day itinerary of the city as well.