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Oldest pilgrimage site of Nepal: Swayambhunath

By Devik Balami at

Swayambhunath is one of the scared ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site in Nepal situated at the hill in the west direction of Kathmandu city. The Tibetan name for Swayambhunath is Phakpa Shingkun which means "Sublime trees" since many varieties of trees are found on the hill. This pilgrimage site for Newar Buddhists occupies a central position while for Tibetan Buddhists, it places in the second position after Boudha. According to the stone inscription found at the site, the Swayambhunath stupa was built by King Manadeva. Apart from the main stupa, there are other varieties of shrines and temples, some of which dated back to Licchavi period as well.


According to Swayambhu Purana, the Kathmandu valley was filled with water being an enormous lake. There was a lotus which was illuminating itself. Manjushree visited the place to worship. When he reached the site, he had a different vision. He thought that the site has the possibility for good settlement. Thus to make more accessible to humans Manjushree cut off a gorge at Chovar. The water drained out of the lake, leaving the valley ready for settlement. At the site of the lotus, he raised a hill and built a stupa.

While raising the hill, he was supposed to leave his hair short but instead, he made it long and hence head lice grew in his hair. It is believed that these head lice transformed into the monkey and thus are regarded as holy. These holy monkeys live in the north-west parts of the hill. Therefore, Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple.


According to the Gopalarajavamsavali, it was founded by the great-grandfather of King Manadeva, King Vrsadeva in the early 5th century CE. However, Emperor Ashoka is said to have visited the site in the third century BCE and built a temple on the hill which is believed to be destroyed later. After the main stupa was constructed, other shrines and temples were constructed one by one in different dynasties. The eastern stairway of the Swayambhunath in the 17th century is constructed during the reign of Pratap Malla.

Even though the site is considered Buddhist, the place is visited by both Buddhists and Hindus.

Pilgrimage Sites at Swayambhunath

Vajradhatu Mandala

As the 365 long stairs finish we get the view of an impressive gilt Vajra on the top of a smooth base of gilt copper, representing the dharmadhatu, in the form of the mandala of Manjushree. It was placed by King Pratap Malla. He also built other two shrines in the premises.

Temple of Harati: the protector of children

The temple of Harati is right behind the main stupa, near the statue of Amitabha Buddha. The temple is constructed in pagoda style of architecture. The people pay a homage to the temple especially when their sons or daughter are very sick. It is believed that when they pay a homage to the temple of Harati, the diseases will be cured.

Standing Buddha Statue

At the far side of the stupa, there is a statue of standing Shakyamuni Buddha made of a black stone. The statue is completely different from other Buddha statues as the statue doesn't wear a robe and the halo behind the head is in the oval shape and others have round halo.

Small Stupas and Images

There are many statues of deities and stupas both of Hindu and Buddhists. These sculptures were constructed by Kings, devotees and wealthy persons from the valley.

Vasubandhu Stupa

The Vasubandhu stupa is located between the Swayambhu Hill and the Manjushri Hill, at the western entrance to the Swayambhunath. The 4th Khamtrul Rinpoche explained that it marks the site where Vasubhandhu passed away and that his relics were enshrined in this stupa.

Chakrasamvara Mandala

Far right in the swayambhunath hill consists of a building which houses huge three-dimensional mandala of Chakrasamvara. Behind the door, there's a little courtyard where people place offerings and so on. There is mural inside, which are centuries old and have been preserved quite well. Inside the building, there are several doors going down into this huge mandala complex of Chakrasamvara.

Manjushree Hill

In the west of the Swayambhunath hill, there lies Manjushree hill. It is believed that Manjushree and his two companions stayed in this hill after draining out the water. Later his disciple built a stupa dedicated to him.


After the construction, the stupa was renovated 15 times in nearly 1500 yrs. The first major renovation was in May 2010. This renovation was funded by the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center of California.

At different periods due to various reasons the temples, shrines were damaged. Pratapur Temple suffered damage from a lightning strike on 14 Feb 20011 and previously it was damaged due to fire. In April 2015, the temple complex suffered huge damage due to the major earthquake. The renovation is still in process in the premises.