Discover the secrets around Swayambhunath Monkey Temple

impressive Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu Nepal
Still standing proud – the impressive Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu Nepal

The unique and iconic Swayambhunath stupa

Just under two kilometers west of Thamel perched on top of a hill is one of the must see highlights of Kathmandu city. Swayambhunath or Swayambhu is a unique looking stupa complex that you’ll briefly see in the latest Marvel movie Dr. Strange. 

It benefited from a recent renovation in 2010, was damaged again in the 2015 earthquake but still stands as if transported from another world today. It’s easily visited by foot from Kathmandu city or by taxi and is one of Nepal’s premier attractions.

One of the side benefits of writing guidebooks to Nepal is that the research involved often reveals so much more to a place than just the main buildings. This is the case for Swayambhunath. Read on to truly make the most of your trip to the complex and get your full money’s worth when you visit!

365 steps to Swayambhunath

There are several ways into Swayambhunath. Today the main entrance is actually to the side where there’s a small parking lot. This is mainly used by visiting dignitaries, tour groups and monks in cars. For those with physical disabilities or health issues it also offers less steps to climb when visiting the stupa.

356 steps leading to the top of the Monkey temple (Swayambhunath)
Part of the 356 steps leading to the top of the Monkey temple (Swayambhunath)

For me the real main entrance is to the east nearest to Kathmandu city. Here at the base lie 365 wide stone steps leading to the top. Along the way you’ll see many stone chaitya and there will be several people with little souvenir stalls. You’ll also get your first introduction to the hundreds of rhesus monkeys that live here.

Why Swayambhunath is called the monkey temple

The nickname “Monkey Temple” is said to have come about when Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning, was creating the hill on which the temple stands when he decided to grow his hair long. From his hair came lice which transformed into monkeys that have inhabited the temple to this day.

*caution: the monkeys of Swayambhunath should not be touched or fed. They can be aggressive and are used to tourists so are anything but afraid. Shiny objects should be hidden and bags closed. I’ve come across many a tourist that’s lost a camera, watch or mobile phone to a monkey!

The monkeys of the monkley temple enjoying some sunshine
The monkeys of the monkey temple enjoying some sunshine

Visiting the Swayambhunath stupa

At the top of the 365 steps you get a ticket to the left, a few steps more and you are in front of the massive Vajra (lightning / thunderbolt or lock) to the stupa. Protocol dictates your should circle the stupa clockwise so take a left at the Vajra. This actually works out well as to the left is a small alcove and viewing platform.

golden Vajra in front of Swayambhunath stupa
The impressive golden Vajra in front of Swayambhunath stupa

From here you get great views of the stupa and directly behind you of the Kathmandu ValleyThere is a written testament that suggests King Varsadeva built a temple here at the beginning of the 5th century. There is also a damaged stone tablet at the site which confirms that King Mānadeva had work done here in 640AD.

Circle the monkey temple

If you are a big culture and historical lover then my suggestion is you first circle the stupa and take in all its glory and detail before making a second circle around taking in all the surrounding buildings. If you are not that interested in culture or the buildings then you can speed things up by doing it all in one circle.

Walking around Swayambhunath clockwise
Walking around Swayambhunath clockwise

The dome of the white stupa itself is said to be solid. It’s also here that you will notice the giant buddha eyes that are painted on all four sides of the upper portion of the stupa. While many call these the eyes of Buddha there is little agreement on who or what they mean. The eyes first appeared in the 16th century so they are relatively new.

Surrounding the stupa are brass prayer wheels which can be spun to bring good fortune when om mani padme hum (“hail to the jewel in the lotus”) is recited. You might recognize the verse from the many souvenir stalls and shops that play it out from their stores around Kathmandu and beyond.

Buildings and monuments around Swayambhunath stupa

All around the stupa are a bevy of monuments, buildings and statues that few people visit. Collectively they make up a cultural value on par with the stupa itself. Some of the smaller shrines join together to form elements of earth and others are dedicated to Hindu gods. It’s a fascinating collection that makes Swayambhunath a unique world heritage site.

Symbols of the five elements

The first earthly element is located to the left when facing the stupa. It’s a small building that contains one of the five elements placed in cardinal points around Swayambhunath.

Vasupura (earth) temple at Swayambhunath, Nepal
Vasupura (earth) temple at Swayambhunath, Nepal

This one is dedicated to Vasupura (earth). The other symbols (marked on the map in my guidebook to the Kathmandu Valley) around the stupa include: Vayupura (air), Nagpura (water), Agnipura (fire) and Shantipura (sky).

Each symbol also represents a different aspect of Buddhism. What’s more each of the cardinal points have female counterpoints who represent wisdom and thusly should be united with their male opposites so enlightenment can be reached.

Swayambhu Buddhist Museum

Behind the stupa to the left is a small Buddhist Museum which is free to enter. It was slightly damaged in the earthquake but remains open. Inside the single room is a collection of Buddha statues and ornaments discovered around the compound over the years.

Beside the museum is a small two-storey prayer hall that was badly damaged in the earthquake and needs to be reconstructed.

Hariti Temple (Ajima Temple)

To the rear of the main temple is a beautiful two-tiered gilded temple known as the Hariti temple. Photographs are not allowed to be taken in front of the temple where the shrine is. However you may photograph the temple from the side or rear.

Hariti Temple at Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Hariti Temple at Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

The Hariti Temple is one of the most popular in all Kathmandu for locals and there is often a crowd here. Hariti is the goddess of smallpox who brings both the disease and the cure to children. Hariti is also known as Sitala to Hindus and is an excellent example of the two beliefs working together in Nepal today.

Shakyamuni Buddha (Dīpankara Buddha)

Just around the corner from the Hariti temple at the back of the courtyard is a black stone buddha statue.  Carved from a single piece of stone sometime during the 7th century there is none other like it in Nepal.

Shakyamuni Buddha, Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Nepal
Shakyamuni Buddha, Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Nepal

It’s in front of the statue that you will come across dozens of small stone chaitya.

Here’s a look at this part of the Swayambhunath temple complex from a virtual walk by the Digital Archeology Foundation.

Shantipur (Sky Element)

Take a left with the black stone buddha statue behind you down the second street to your left and you’ll come across a large colorful buddha statue sitting opposite and facing to the side of a damaged building known as Shantipur. Though it looks unused Shantipur holds one of Nepal’s most splendid stories.

Built over 1500 years ago it was originally dedicated to the sky god. However its current name came from a Vajrayana priest Shantikaracharya.  The priest became so powerful it’s rumored that he could command spirits, spells and even gods. He is also said to have conquered death. 

Shantipur Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Nepal
Shantipur Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Nepal

After the priest sealed himself into the third subterranean chamber King Pratap Malla entered the temples underground chambers and found the priest looking emancipated but alive. Shantikaracharya pointed to a mandala on a scroll which the king took outside and it began to rain. So proud was the king he wrote a poem about it which is inscribed on a stone inside the temple.

World Peace Pond at Swayambhunath

To the left of Shantipur there’s a staircase leading down to the modern world peace pond. In front of the pond is the parking area entrance mentioned earlier. It’s here you’ll get a lot of monkeys gathering as there’s a small forest area just behind it.

Small stupa and bell beside the world peace pond
Small stupa and bell beside the world peace pond

Up above is a pathway leading to a picnic area and later to Whochen Thokjay Choyaling Monastery. 

Outside and just down the road is the Natural History Museum and just further on is Buddha Park which has some huge golden Buddha statues.

There’s more to Swayambhunath than just the Monkey Temple

As you can tell there are plenty of secrets and things to discover at Swayambhunath than just the main stupa. The area is filled with little known but important shrines and vessels.

There's plenty more to Swayambhunath than just the main stupa!
There’s plenty more to Swayambhunath than just the main stupa!

My free online guide to Swayambhunath has details on many of these areas, entrance prices, maps and more.

However, the best way to make the most out of Swayambhunath is to get my guidebook to the Kathmandu Valley along with maps of the area which includes all these discoveries – it’s the best you’ll find anywhere.

Get my latest Kathmandu Valley Guidebook to learn more about Nepal!

The most up-to-date, popular and dedicated guidebook to the Kathmandu Valley in the world. Take a look below and you’ll find out why!Kathmandu Valley Travel Guidebook

Get your copy here!

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20 Replies to “Discover the secrets around Swayambhunath Monkey Temple”

  1. Fascinating stuff. Not the type of info you’d get in a guidebook. Well done.

  2. National Geographic could not have done a better job! I was just reading about the different elements at the temple. Nepal seems to have such a different background than just Buddhists!

  3. It’s interesting about the black Buddha there. I do hope these items are protected out in the open. They survived the earthquake but perhaps not the environment.

  4. I have your guidebook and compared it to this. Really good. I would like to know if there is tour company in Kathmandu that can also tell us and show us these things at this level?

  5. I really enjoyed this. There’s always more to a place than the main attraction!

  6. So how much trouble did you get for photographing the Ajima temple! Kidding.

    It’s so interesting that they have different religious temples in the same place. Why is that?

    1. None! That’s the back of the Ajima temple, it’s the front you can’t photograph.

      The Kathmandu Valley was founded by people who became the Newari a blend of Hindus and Buddhists who developed their own ethnic ways. It was during the Malla reign that built most of the glorious temples you see today.

  7. Great, that temple is looking so good and it is one of the best temple of nepal. i really like beauty of that temple and so stunning photos you shared.

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