Located within walking distance (3km) to the west of Thamel in Kathmandu on a hillock stands a lone white domed stupa known as Swayambhu Maha Chaitya. The stupa has several names accredited to it including Swayambhunath, Swayambhunatha, Svayambhu, Swoyambhunath / Swayambhu/ स्वयम्भू स्तूप / स्वयंभू) and Swayambhu Maha Chaitya.
Swayambhu was also nicknamed "The Monkey Temple" due to the large number of rhesus primates living there.
It's been in existence since around 500 CE, hence the many names.
The main entrance has 365 stone steps which need to be climbed before you reach the main stupa complex (can be tiring and slippery if raining). Swayambhunath was founded by the great-grandfather of King Mānadeva at the beginning of the 5th century. The main attraction is a large white stupa surrounded by many small shrines and temples.
The temple underwent a major renovation in 2010 which included over 20kg of gold to re-gild the dome.
The Anantapur shrine (one of the large white chedis near the stupa) was destroyed during the April 25th earthquake in Nepal. The monastery at the back of the stupa was also badly damaged. However the vast majority of Swayambhunath survived. Exclusive details and independent walking guides can be found in my guidebook below.
There are a couple of very small local eateries at the bottom of the temple steps.
The monkeys found at Swayambhunath are Rhesus Macaques.
Swayambhu is easily pronounced " Swahi - am - boo"
Did you know?
Swayambhunath got it's nickname "Monkey Temple" because Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning was raised on the hill which the Swayambhu Temple now stands on.
He grew his hair long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into the monkeys that now live around the temple.
Both ancient scriptures and historical evidence states that Kathmandu Valley was once submerged in water over 2,000 years ago. Buddhist mythology says that from this lake a single lotus blossom emerged. The valley then became known as Swayambhu or “self-created” or "self-existent one". A secondary legend tells of a temple that sprang from a lake which had an eternal flame over which Swayambhunath was then built. A third story says that Manjushree used his sword to crack open a mountain letting the lake waters flow out and reveal the valley. The stupa then rose up from the aforementioned lotus.
There is a written testament that suggests King Varsadeva (Vrsadeva) 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 640 CE.
What is known is that Swayambhu most likely arose from a series of smaller temples on the hill. These smaller temples finally merged into the large stupa that we see today. King Pratap Malla built the long stairs that leads to the stupa during the 17th century.
In all cases Swayambhu stupa is recognized as the oldest stupa in Nepal.
There's more to do around Swayambhunath than most guidebooks tell you (my one shows you everything). Normally it's a 1 hour trip on a tour. Get the most out of your entrance fee by getting the best guidebook to Nepal. Here are just a few highlights.
- Climb the full 365 steps to the top - take a breather on the way up to enjoy the small stupas, monkeys and watch vendors prices go up!
- Circle the stupa at the very top (clockwise)
- Do visit the small temples and shrines around the main stupa
- Visit one of the many singing bowl stores in the back streets at the top
- Enjoy the view of Kathmandu from the top
- If you have time walk down the stairs behind the stupa to the world peace pond. There are sometimes some local artisans along these steps.
- To the rear is a Buddha park while to the south is a natural history museum.
- There's also a monastery near the top behind the peace pond.
Beware of the monkeys - they steal food, shiny objects and will take things from your hand or bag! Likewise beware of souvenir store prices around Swayambhunath - a 200rps singing bowl might set you back 2,000rps here.
Looking for more? Read about the secret places to visit around Swayambhunath.
Just before you reach the top of the steps as the impressive stupa comes into view you’ll come across the huge vajra or lightning bolt that’s set upon a mandal with animals shown at its base.
It is rumored that in the 14th century Mughal raiders broke the dome in search of gold. Later on British troops found gold in the nearby forests. Since then the stupa has been repaired many times over.
It’s also here that you will notice the giant 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. One belief is that they are the guardians or Lokpals who are the directional guardians of the universe.
The eyes first appeared in the 16th century so they are relatively new. However, for most people, they are simply the eyes of Buddha gazing out over the valley. 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.
Turn to your left from the 365 steps and there will be a small building that contains one of the five elements placed in cardinal points around Swayambhunath.
This one is dedicated to Vasupura (earth). The other symbols (marked on the map) around the stupa include: Vayupura (air), Nagpura (water), Agnipura (fire), and Shantipura (sky). Each symbol also represents a diﬀerent aspect of Buddhism.
See my guidebook for full details of the elements at Swayambhunath.
To the rear of the stupa just to the left at the corner is a small red brick building that houses the dimly-lit museum. It was slightly damaged in the earthquake but has been repaired.
Inside there's a small collection of Buddhist statues and items located around the stupa over the years. It's free to enter.
At the rear of the temple is a beautiful two-tiered gilded Newari style 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.
The Hariti Temple is one of the most popular in all Kathmandu and there is often a crowd here. Hariti is the goddess of smallpox who brings both the disease and the cure to children. For now it’s important to know that smallpox was once the scourge of Kathmandu that showed no mercy from the very poor to royalty. More details on the Hairti temple can be found in my detailed post on the temples around Swayambunath.
Walk to the rear of the Hariti/Ajima Temple and take a left past the chaityas to the back of the Swayambhunath compound. There in a red brick alcove standing tall and large is a black stone Buddha. Carved from a single piece of stone sometime during the 7th century there is none other like it in Nepal. The image is said to be that of Siddhartha Guatam.
The tall white temple in front of the monastery has been rebuilt several times. A fire damaged it in the early 2000s and it collapsed shortly afterwards. It was then rebuilt but in 2011 was struck by lightning and damaged again. The temple opposite it (Anantapur) was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake but now fully restored.
The rebuilt building off to the north of the main compound holds some of Nepal’s most famous tales. Built over 1500 years ago it was originally dedicated to the sky god. However its current name came from a Vajrayana priest Shantikaracharya.
Shantikaracharya became so powerful it’s rumored that he could command spirits, spells and even gods. He is also said to have conquered death. After sealing himself into the third subterranean chamber he came out brieﬂy when King Gunakamadeva beseeches the priest to help with a drought.
The priest came out with Nagas and water was brought back to the city. Later King Pratap Malla entered the temples underground chambers seeking similar help. He found the priest looking emancipated but alive. Shantikaracharya pointed to a mandal 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 inside the building.
Down a flight of steps from Shantipur is a collection os smaller stupas, a bell and the world peace pond. To the rear of the pond is a small forest. Meanwhile opposite the world peace pond is the side entrance to the stupa complex.
Just up the hill is Whochen Thokjay Choyaling Monastery. Meanwhile outside the stupa's side entrance is the natural history museum and further along the road Buddha Park which contains some impressive giant Buddha statues.
For day trippers or those wanting to make the most out of their visit it's highly recommended you read about the buildings and secrets around Swayambhunath or for even more value for money my Kathmandu city guidebook and Kathmandu Valley Heritage Walks.
In recent years there has been a call by local Newari communities (indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley) to revert the name of the stupa to "Swayambu" or "Swayambhu Maha Chaitya" which is closer to its original Newari name.
This essentially means dropping the "nath" ending to the stupa's name which is considered by some to be a "Hindu" term and of no connection to the stupa.
There is some truth to these names but historical literature adds more.
First written mentions of the buildings name come from 5th century by the Buddhist king Vrsadeva. Evidence for this is in"an inscription provided by the Gopalarajavamsavali which states that Vrsadeva consecrated the "Singru-vihara-caitya-bhatjarika". The identification of Singuvihara as Swayambhunath is secured through the colloquial name for the entire sanctuary - Sigu" - Gutschow: The Nepalese Chaitya.
In regards to the name Swayambhunath or Swayambhunatha. "Swayambhu" we know in Sanskrit means, "Self created" or "Self Manifest". The name "nath" is an abbreviation of "natha" meaning "Lord". Again, referring to historians "These nathas, 'lords', were a group of 84 saints worshipped alike in Hindu and Buddhist tradition, from Bengal to Tibet. They have not passed the Swayambu some of them are represented on the stupa itself ".. - Kotch: Re-Building a Stupa.
Like many other heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, this ancient stupa respectfully goes under several names depending on the speaker - Swayambhunath / Swoyambhunath / Swayambhu / स्वयम्भू स्तूप / स्वयंभू.
The official name is Swayambhu Mahachaitya. However, some feel that the dome holds more importance than a "chaitya". Mahachaitya means it is a large or monumental chaitya. In other words, just a large version of one of the smaller chaitya you'll see around. There is no official evidence to suggest there are holy relics or parts of the Buddha's body buried here which would usually give a structure like this the title "stupa". That said, due to its origins, age and legendary stature the term stupa seems graced upon it by many.
One name that is certainly being frowned upon by all but the tourism industry is the name "Monkey Temple". To many it is simply a "tourist catch phrase" that's starting to wear a little thin for those seeking pride in their past.
For now, Swayambhu Mahachaitya is the official name while just "Swayambhu" seems to be reaching an overall acceptance. Read more about how Swayambhunath and Boudhanath got their names.
The current fee for foreigners is 200rps. The ticket office is at the top of the steps with another ticket office by the main parking area (normally where tours drop people off).
Contact telephone number of Swayambhunath office: 01- 4281889/4277236
By walking: The temple is about 60min-90min walk from Thamel in Kathmandu. If not too hot it's a pleasant walk with a few small side streets and stores along the way. There's another Buddhist monument nearby (Buddha Park - beside ring road), along with a very small museum of natural history so you could turn this into a full day out.
By taxi: It's about 10-15 minutes from Thamel in non-rush hour. Taxi's will try to overcharge, set the price before getting in with a friendly bargain. Average price is about 150 rupees.
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