How did Swayambhunath and Boudhanath get their names?

Boudhanath Stupa is known as Kasti chaity
Swayambhunath stupa or Swayambhunath stupas name is Swayambhu Maha Chaitya
Swayambhunath stupas name is Swayambhu Maha Chaitya but before this it was known as Singru-vihara-caitya-bhatjarika … why and how did the name change?

Do you know why the names Boudhanath and Swayambhunath end with – nath?

I hope you do. Because nobody else seems to.

If you’ve ever noticed the naming structure of places in Nepal you’ll find many end with the letters “n a t h“.

It turns out the answer is this is not as straight forward as your tour guide will make out. For some places in Nepal, the answer is easy. But for Boudhanath and Swayambunath it’s an outright puzzle.

From history teachers to scholars, tour guides to monks. Everyone has a different interpretation.

If you have definitive “cited” proof of when and why Boudhanath and Swayambunath were renamed like this let me know and I’ll credit you in my next book! Details at the end of this post.

This is what I’ve pieced together.

Where does the term nath come from?

This is relatively easy. It’s origins are linked to Adinath which is a name that is used by Shiva. However, there’s more to it than just that.

The name Nath was a naming system developed by the Natha who were a Hindu sub-tradition group.

The Natha’s origins start from around the 9th-10th century. They chose Natha from Adinath (Shiva) which means “First Lord” or “Original Lord”. This group were made up of  “lords” and gurus. Indeed the Sanskrit word natha literally translates as “lord, protector”.

Nathas in Pashupatinath
The Natha are a Hindu sect who follow Shiva but practice many dark arts in search for a higher level of spirituality and understanding

The most famous of these lords or gurus were Matsyenranath (900 CE) and Gorakshanath (1200 CE). It is said that any guru or member of the Natha will have their name ended with “nath”.

Is this the only mention of Nath or Natha in the world? No.

Avalokitesvara (bodhisattva) is worshiped as “Natha” in Sri Lanka. He is mentioned in Chola literature (Tamil) which originated from South India in the 9th-13th century. In this terminology Avalokitesvara was also known as Natha-deva.

What’s interesting here, aside from the name and terminology are the dates. They virtually correspond to the origin of the Hindu group known as Nathas. In terms of Avalokitesvara there’s little else known in connection with the name or Nepal. In terms of the Natha group, there is a lot more to know about.

Finally, there are practitioners of yoga who also lay claim to the term Nath though it’s said to have come about later. To make matters confusing, the Natha were practitioners of yoga.

Who were the Natha?

Though their origin again dates to the 9th-10th century the group of “lords” didn’t truly become known as such until the 11th century.

The Natha became primarily known for their rather orthodox challenging ways. They explored dark practices and stayed away from societies learning to explore their inner powers.

It may seem like a bizarre cult but the Natha’s popularity grew and they began forming monasteries. During this period they developed a strong following. Their dedication to walking long distances garnered them more notoriety as they sought out important sites for spiritual practice.

The Natha are commonly known as Sadhu's in Nepal
The Natha are commonly known as Sadhu’s in Nepal – wandering holymen – however there are other Natha who simply practice their beliefs at home

A sub-group of Natha even became warriors during the Islamic invasion of India during this period.

From their origins, wide spread travels and search for a higher level of spiritual power the Natha were an evolutionary belief rather than one with a written doctrine.

The Natha had two branches consisting of Sadhus (the monks) and regular householders or workers who practiced their beliefs at home. Today in Nepal the Sadhus are well known for making long distance walks to Pashupatinath during the Shivaratri festival.

The Natha and Buddhism

If you ask historians today about the Natha you’ll likely get an answer that they were a Hindu cult that also believed in Buddhism. This is an understandable generalization.

Due to their extensive travels the Natha were documented in Buddhist texts found in Tibet. However, the Natha did not directly practice mainstream Buddhism.

The Natha did however meditate and try to reach a higher understanding (enlightenment). It is this practice that often causes the generalization. Though some have delved deeper and come up with certain branches of Buddhism the Natha were meant to have practiced.

At Swaymbhu hill you visit these three Buddha statues
At Swaymbhu hill you visit these three Buddha statues including Avalokitesvara  – to the center with blue hair is the Buddha himself – To his right is the four-armed Avalokitesvara and to his left is Padmasambhava

With that, if we delve deeper into Tibetan documents Matsyenranath is often referred to as Lui-pa or the first Buddhist Siddhacharyas. And in Nepal, he is a form of Avalokitshvara. So there is, it seems, a connection.

From my own understanding.

The most likely outcome is that they began practicing their own form of Buddhism as part of their sub-skills and exploration for higher spiritual power.

The Natha and Nepal

There is very little documentation on the “Natha group” in Nepal. This despite an obvious connection with their namesake ending. However, there is overwhelming evidence of Matsyenranath, Gorakshanath and indeed Avalokitshvara in Nepal.

The Seto Machchhendranath temple in Kathmandu’s Jana Bahal along with the Machchhendranath temple in South Patan is dedicated to Machchhendranath. The change in spelling due to differing languages is commonplace in Nepal so it’s not an issue.

Machchhendranath temple at Jana Bahal, Kathmandu
Machchhendranath temple at Jana Bahal, Kathmandu

The Gurkhas of Nepal take their name from Gorakshanath. Indeed the state of Gorka is also named after him.

Avalokitshvara is represented through many Buddhist scriptures and many statues are said to be of him.

What about the Natha though? The only documentation of the Natha is said to be an inscription at Swayambhunath according to the late historian Mary Sussler.

For those wondering. I’m not including Pashupatinath temple here as it is dated to the 5th century and the likelihood is that the term nath here is indeed a direct link to Shiva as Adinath. Whereas Swayambhunath and Boudhanath both have Buddhist points of origin or at least non-Shiva specific origins.

The real name of Swayambhunath

Mythology says a bodhisattva, Manjushree, let the water out of a lake and the Kathmandu Valley appeared with a lotus blossom becoming a “Self Awoken, lord”. This is where the stupa or a building where it now stands was built. It thereby holds the title of the Valley’s first building.

Swayambhu Maha Chaitya is the official name of the stupa commonly referred to as Swayambhunath. However, its first recorded name was “Singru-vihara-caitya-bhatjarika”. 

It was in fact a monumental chaitya rather than a stupa at the start. The first written evidence of the stupa comes from King Manadeva who had work done here in 640 CE so it predates the Natha. King Pratap Malla built the long stairs that leads to the stupa during the 17th century.

In all likelihood, Swayambhunath was built up over the centuries. The “Sway” part of the name comes from “Singru” which came from the original location known as “Sigu”.

Swayambhu-nath stupa
Did the Natha come to Swayambhu-nath? Inscription say they did

How are the Natha and Swayabunath related? Well, both were known as “lords”. One has Buddhist origins the other has a vague delving into Buddhisim. Why is there a Natha inscription at the stupa?

When did the name change from Swayambhu Maha Chaitya to Swayambhu-nath? Records also name it as Swayambhu-natha. Very clear evidence from that period of the Natha. But little else.

Read more about Swayambhunath.

The real name of Boudhanath

The great white stupa at Boudha dates back to the Licchavi period in 400 CE. The area was known as Boudha.

Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas whose original documented name is Kasti chaitya
Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas whose original documented name is Kasti chaitya – why then is it called Boudha-nath?

The earliest known name for Boudhanath is Khasti or Khasa Chaitya from the Newar Chronicles. There is no reference to the Natha here. The only connection between Swayambhunath and Boudhanath aside from Buddhism is the name Nath at the end and, interestingly, the presence of an Ajima temple at both sites. Ajima is revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike often being cited as a Newar deity.

Read more about Boudhanath.

When did the name ending of – nath get used?

This is the million dollar question so to speak.

Nobody seems to be able to cite a reference as to when these terms were first used in Nepali history when it comes to Swayambhunath and Boudhanath. Again, the likes of Pashupatinath and  Machchhendranath all make sense. But Swayambhunath and Boudhanath had different original names. Why and when were they changed?

There are many theories, but no hard facts. I find this, quite strange.

One theory is that the term “Natha” has both Hindu and Buddhist origins so it was added to respect both beliefs in Nepal. But again, nobody can put a date on when this occurred.

There is some un-cited writing that a “king” changed the names so that both iconic sites would be a representation of Hindu and Buddhists alike. When pressed, nobody can name the king nor the year this happened.

As always in Nepal, the answer is probably very obvious and out in the open somewhere. There’s probably a person who knows this or knows where it is written.

Something so obvious nobody has thought to actually it write down anywhere.

Boudha-nath in Kathmandu with the roof of the Ajima temple
Boudha-nath in Kathmandu with the roof of the Ajima temple to the front … everyone knows its name but nobody seems to know when or who changed this name …

Then again, there’s also a strange silence in Nepal to many things that people are uncertain about. There’s a mentality that it’s better left silent than figuring out the answer. Easier too by many accounts.

There’s also this horrible mentality in Nepal of “those who have the knowledge, have the power” and will not share it for fear of losing this power. It’s an idiotic mentality, not a powerful or smart one.

That said, I’ve searched and come across many “tales” and un-cited reasons. But nothing concrete has come about.

What I do know is that from 900 CE to around 1700 CE  Boudhanath disappeared from the record books. It was rebuilt thereafter. During this period Amsuvarma Buddha’s relics were found there.

One can only assume then that the term Boudha-nath came after the stupa was reconstructed? But is this correct and why was it renamed?

Swayambhunath stupa in Kathmandu
Swayambhunath stupa and Boudhanath seem to be missing a large chunk of their history – do you know it?

It seems the historians Sussler and Kotch were left to come up with their own theories based on what written evidence there is. Are we left with this methodology or is there an answer out there?

Do you know why & when Boudhanath & Swayambhunath were renamed?

Over to you. I’ve chased Nepali legends and names for over a decade. As mentioned above, the answer is usually right there. But, I need evidence. Not just talk or hypothesis. Nobody seems to know this.

Do you know the answer?

If you have written evidence or can cite or refer to where the documentation is, with an answer to the above, I’ll give you written credit here and in my next book. I’m thinking of all you good students out there. It might help you in the future to be credited with this.

The challenge is open to all comers. Just so long as there is some evidence to back up your claim.

I need written proof. Not hypothesis. There’s a lot of hypothesis in Nepal and a lot of “talk”. A citation, or written reference from a history book, news, thesis, research paper, ancient text, inscription e.t.c.,

Again – when and why were Boudhanath and Swayambhunath given the name endings of “Nath” – with a written historical reference!

Comments will be closed after 30 days. If there’s no answer by then or you don’t want your name appearing here, feel free to email me.

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20 Replies to “How did Swayambhunath and Boudhanath get their names?”

  1. I will ask this question to some people. Not all information in Nepal is available which is great shame.

  2. This is a question I cannot answer! But, I will say I never knew these places had so many names. Not sure why they kept changing. I guess we just accept what we are told and move on. It’s interesting though.

    1. Nepali history had periods with little documentation. Inscriptions in stone were about it. There are ancient texts. Hence Swayambhu Maha Chaitya is known, but such texts not updated until the next great documentation was done centuries later.

  3. I find this interesting. Places that can’t explain their names. It’s historic detective work at its finest. I hope you figure it out!

  4. I’ve asked but nobody know. They say Nath means God. But they don’t know why it is used here. I think you have done a great service by letting us know this.

  5. Cool naming system here Dave. Kathmandu was a blast to visit. I note “nath” names from Indian buddies/readers too. Fascinating.

  6. I think the answer is… Nobody knows. Sooner or later one cookie will claim they know based on some random news article. In this case, I think your own conclusions above are pretty much well researched and the way forward.

    1. Thanks Mark. I’ll hold out some hope. Again, I’m sure there’s some dusty bit of paper sitting in a locked room somewhere that has the information. Meanwhile, one can only make educated calculations on the whys and whens.

  7. I do not believe that Syangu mahachaitya (Swayambhu) and Khasti mahachaitya (Bauddha) are of any Natha of hindu temple . Its always a mistake .
    Khasti mahachatya is being started to call Bauddhanath for just 40/50 years .

    1. As I wrote, both Swayambhu and Boudha stupas have Buddhist origins. The fact that they were renamed, indicated it was purposeful. Again, if 40/50 years ago the renaming occurred, then where is the documentation? It’s important to separate one’s belief structure from the facts. I believe the facts will answer many questions if they can be found. If not, then as mentioned in the main article one will will need to deduce from the historic literature on when the renaming and why it occurred. This has been done.

      What would be great is to actually know why and when the renaming happened? With written documentation to back it up.

  8. If you do a quick google, you will find that Swayambhu is now popularly known as the “monkey temple”. People use terms they find easier to remember. Bauddha means Buddhist. Khasti is dew-drop in Newari. As Khasti is a Newari word, non-newars used Bauddha and the nath came to be used very much later. But, like most Newari names for places, the goverment tend to not use it.

    1. Over the past 20 years the term “monkey temple” was brought about by a few guidebooks as a nickname but by no means a replacement nor official name to Swayambhu. It’s now largely seen as disrespectful other than a side joke for the amount of monkeys around the temple. Though its roots lay with a fable about Manjushri’s hair lice turning into monkeys. There’s an lot more about Swayambhunath Stupa here.

      The other names are mentioned in the main article here.

      Again, the question is why and when was “nath” first used. As of yet, nobody can show any written documentation.

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