Monkeying Around at Swayambhunath 

-Raj Kamal Thokar From Nepal

Swayambhunath stupa is an ancient Buddhist site atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu City. It is one of the ten UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) world heritage sites here in Nepal. Swayambhunath also goes by the name “Monkey Temple” as there are a significant number of monkeys that have lived in the Swayambhunath jungle for generations. According to the local legends, the monkeys came into being when Manjushri spent time on the hill that the temples are set on. He meant to cut his hair short but instead, he let it grow long and wound up having head lice, which then turned into monkeys.  

Having been born and brought up in the Kathmandu Valley, Swayambhunath is not an unfamiliar place. I have been to Swayambhunath countless times, sometimes to circumambulate (kora) during the holy month of Saka Dawa, often to hang out with friends and enjoy the view of the entire valley. However, I knew very little about its religious significance other than its origin story.  

Fortunately, for the “BSTD 205: Anthropological Study of Nepalese Religion” module, our class instructor Father Gregory Sharkey had arranged a field trip to Swayambhunath. After almost two years of online studying due to COVID and lockdowns, this was a wonderful opportunity to not only explore Swayambhunath but also to meet my classmates and instructor in person. 

On Sunday morning, we all gathered at the recently built Manjushri statue, and then we started our excursion. I was extremely excited about the trip and every time I get too excited, I always end up making mistakes. I completely forgot to take note of what Fr. Greg was explaining to us. From what I can recall from my bad memory, I remember Fr. Greg talking about the Swayambhu Purana, a Buddhist scripture about the origin and development of Kathmandu valley. According to the myth in the Swayambhu Purana – the word “Swayambhu ” means “self-arisen”, which refers to an eternal light (Jyoti) in a lotus flower at the center lake in Kathmandu Valley. Buddhas, Saints, sages, and divinities traveled to the lake to venerate this miraculous light for its power in granting enlightenment.  

Likewise, Fr. Greg mentioned that so far seven tathāgatas are believed to have visited Swayambhu. Likewise, when the Bodhisattva Manjushri was meditating at the sacred mountain of Wu Tai Shan and had a vision of eternal light. Manjushri felt that if the water were drained out then the eternal light of Swayambhu would become more easily accessible to human pilgrims. So, it is said that with his sword, Manjushri carved a gorge in the Chobar hills, thereby also facilitating the valley for human settlements. 

Then we ascended the stairway and on the way Fr. Greg drew our attention towards a small temple called Shantipur. It is named after the 8th century CE tantric master Shantikar Acharya – believed to be still meditating in the temple’s subterranean chambers. Shantikar Acharya was – or is – a great wizard who had accomplished control over the weather (a la Storm of the X-Men). Locals believe that when the valley of Kathmandu is threatened by drought, the King of Nepal must enter the underground chamber to obtain a secret mandala from Shantikar. When he brings the mandala outside and presents it to the sun and sky, the rain will begin to fall. Fr. Greg mentioned that the last time such an event occurred was in 1658, where King Pratap Malla went into the chamber alone to seek Shantikar’s help to end the drought.  

We then approached the main Stupa, where Fr. Greg pointed out a golden-colored pagoda-style temple housing, the shrine of Hārītī Ma. Fr. Greg told the story of how Hārītī, a yaksha (ogre) who devoured children, later wound up being a protector deity after an encounter with Shakyamuni Buddha. He suggested that one of the main reasons why Buddhism did not go extinct in the Kathmandu valley even after it had gone extinct in India, was due to the grace of Hārītī Ma. Hārītī Ma is a living goddess and today she is visited by many people seeking help with their day-to-day problems including financial difficulties. However, Hārītī Ma is best known for saving the lives of children suffering from smallpox. 

In the end, we did a kora (circumambulation of the stupa) together. During the tour, Fr. Greg had shared an overwhelming amount of important information about the stupa, what I’ve shared here is a mere fraction. By the end of the trip, I felt genuinely happy to have broadened my knowledge about Swaymabhunath’s historical and religious significance. Hearing and witnessing Fr. Greg’s erudition and depth of learning have been a tremendous inspiration for me as well, to find out more and play a more active part in preserving my country’s cultural heritage. I am incredibly thankful to Fr. Greg for organizing the field trip and also to my classmates for such a wonderful and memorable experience. 

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