The Naturally Arisen Stupa
Arriving as a modern day pilgrim in Swayambhunath, you find yourself in a place that feels very old, yet still simmers and crackles with activity at the top of its monkey hill. The first thing you notice is the stupa’s eyes, gazing out over the Kathmandu Valley in witness to centuries of great masters paying homage there and infusing the site with blessings. It is easy to imagine that the stupa knows of the miraculous stupa of light, lying deep within – an old friend protecting a secret treasure.
This is where the Lotus-Born came in his search for a spiritual consort with whom to deepen and enhance his practice of Secret Mantra. Magically drawn to the Swayambhunath Stupa, the very heart of the valley, he encountered there the Princess Shakyadevi – his predestined consort and a wisdom-mind emanation of Vajravarahi. Much later, the Guru’s journey would bring him again to Swayambhunath, to subdue the local spirit hordes who used it as a gathering ground, and to adorn the site with his crystalline terma-treasures.
How to get there
The stupa is found in the northwest of the valley, on what is known locally as Semgu Hill. It's located just along Kathmandu's Ring Road, and is conveniently reached by either taxi or local bus.
food and accommodation
Several small restaurants, cafes, and stores can be found at the top of the hill, in the small buildings that surround the stupa. There are hotels at the foot of Swayambhunath Hill, though you may want to stay in Boudhanath or Thamel (4 km away), as the food and accommodation are generally much better there. Two notable exceptions are the Benchen Gompa guesthouse and the Vajra Hotel with its exquisite garden.
Around the stupa itself there are many further stupas, temples, painted images of deities, and numerous other sacred objects.
Shantipur Temple: 27°42'56.3"N 85°17'25.6"E
The inconspicuous temple of Shantipur, “City of Peace,” is located on the north side of Swayambhu Hill. Shantipur is “the most sacred and secret of all of the esoteric shrines of Newar Buddhism.” Dedicated to Chakrasamvara, it is said to cover the entrance to an underground network of rooms that connects with the hidden inner core of Swayambhunath Stupa. The first vajracharya of Newar Buddhism, the tantric master Shantashri or Shantikar Acharya, is believed to still reside in these caves to this day, in a rainbow body or as a Chakrasamvara icon. No one is allowed to enter the temple other than vajracharya priests, although visitors are permitted to enter as far as the porch.
According to the writings of Situ Panchen (1700–1774), Shantikar Acharya was Vikramashila’s western door-keeper, known as Acharya Vagishwarikirti (~10th century). Vagishwarikirti was a great tantrika and Chakrasamvara practitioner, who later settled in Nepal. Taranatha (1575-1634) states that the king of Nepal built a temple to Chakrasamvara at Shantipur, inviting Vagishwarikirti to come and conduct a ganachakra feast. Towards the end of the ceremony, the inquisitive king peeped through the temple doorway. To his surprise, he saw all the deities of the entire Chakrasamvara mandala, with Vagishwarikirti seated in the center, having attained the rainbow body.
Hariti Temple: 27°42'54.3"N 85°17'25.0"E
As at the Boudhanath Stupa, there is an elaborate shrine dedicated to the protectress Hariti at the Swayambhunath Stupa. Offering rituals are performed here regularly. Hariti was a wild, much-feared yakshini who used to devour children – until she was tamed by the Buddha and became a protector of the Dharma.
Image of Dipamkara Buddha: 27°42'54.8"N 85°17'24.3"E
Dipamkara was the buddha before Shakyamuni. This beautiful, large image, connected to the popular Newar alms-giving festivals, was carved from a single block of black stone. You will find it on the upper platform, behind an array of smaller stupas.
Vasubandhu Stupa: 27°42'56.3"N 85°17'22.5"E
The Vasubandhu stupa is located in the saddle between Swayambhu Hill and Manjushri Hill, at the western entrance to the complex. The 4th Khamtrul Rinpoche (1730~1780) explained that it marks the site where Vasubandhu passed away, and that his relics were enshrined in this stupa.
Manjushri Hill: 27°42'57.4"N 85°17'16.1"E
To the west lies the hill where Manjushri, in the form of the vajracharya Manjudeva, stayed with his two companions after draining the Kathmandu lake. His disciples later built a stupa in this spot, dedicated to both Manjushri and his consort Saraswati.
Kimdol Vihar: 27°42'43.9"N 85°17'19.9"E
Kimdol Bihar is an important and ancient monastery near the foot of Swayambhunath Hill. When Songtsen Gampo married the Newar princess Bhrikuti, she brought with her the famous Jowo Mikyö Dorje statue, a representation of Buddha Akshobhya, which had previously been in Bodhgaya. According to the 8th Dalai Lama, Jampal Gyatso (1758-1804), this statue remained for seven months at Kimdol Bihar, on its journey from Bodhgaya to Tibet. Over the centuries, many great masters have spent time here. The local resident nun of Kimdol Bihar praises it first and foremost as the residency of Marpa Lotsawa during his stay in Nepal. Other great masters who spent time here included Sakya Pandita, the 13th Karmapa, the 10th Shamarpa, the 6th Drukpa Rinpoche, the 8th Situ, and Khatok Rigzin Chenpo.
Parbatsthan: 27°42'56.0"N 85°17'20.9"E
According to the Swayambhu Purana, Buddha Shakyamuni came to Parbatsthan and taught the Dharma here.
Bidhjeswori: 27°42'50.2"N 85°18'02.9"E
Bidhjeswori is one of the four yogini temples of the Kathmandu valley. It is situated on the bank of the Bisnumati River, between Thamel and Swayambhunath. In his pilgrimage guide, The Nectar for Snow Covered Ears, the 4th Khamtrul Rinpoche calls it the Vajravahari Charnel Ground. It could well be the charnel ground where Shakyadevi dwelt.
The Four Yogini Temples
Bidhjeswori: 27°42'50.2"N 85°18'02.9"E
Balaju Guhyeshwori: 27°44'41.2"N 85°17'52.3"E
Balaju Guhyeshwori is a Newar yogini temple located about 5 km north of Swayambhunath. It is said that this was the “original” Guhyeshwori temple among the four yogini temples. Over time, devotees of the Pashupatinath yogini temple managed to redirect the attention of pilgrims towards their temple. Thus, Balaju Guhyeshwori fell into oblivion.
Ramadoli Charnel Ground: 27°41'32.2"N 85°18'07.8"E
Ramadoli, nowadays called Teku Ghat, is located in Teku, south and west of Kathmandu city centre, on the banks of the Bagmati – the river that separates Kathmandu and Patan – at its confluence with the Bishnumati River. Another cremation site named Pachali Ghat lies on the opposite bank of the Bagmati, a few hundred metres to the east. Separate but adjacent road and foot bridges span the Bagmati between the two cremation sites. There is a small attractive temple with a red stone spire, a number of carved stone statues of the Dhyani Buddhas, and some covered cremation sites. On the same side of the river, next to the bridge and roughly opposite Pachali Ghat, is the Pachali Bhairav Temple: 27°41'39"N 85°18'18"E. Here a huge Bodhi tree forms a natural sanctuary for a reclining brass image of Pachali Bhairav. Along the river bed there are also some ancient Buddhist statues: 27°41'36.2"N 85°18'19.7"E.
Ramadoli, or Karabir Maman, was an ancient charnel ground where many great siddhas practiced in the past, including Rwa Lotsawa, Naropa, Marpa Lotsawa, Maitripa, Tangtong Gyalpo, and Padampa Sangyé with Machig Shama’s niece Tsünchungma. The importance of Ramadoli in more recent times was emphasized by both Dudjom Rinpoche and Chatral Rinpoche, who travelled there together and practiced the ganachakra feast-offering.
Nagarjuna Hill: 27°44'43.3"N 85°16'01.5"E
Nagarjuna Hill is situated to the north-west of Swayambhunath. According to the Swayambhu Purana, this is where Buddha Vipashyin cast the seed that grew into the blossoming lotus in the heart of which appeared the Swayambhunath Stupa. The stone stupa that was built on this spot to commemorate the event can be seen on clear days from Swayambhunath. There are caves on the hillside, too, where great masters of the past lived and meditated. The hill got its name from the legend that Nagarjuna flew here and lived in one of the caves, where he also passed away.
Mahakala, Protector of Swayambhunath: 27°42'14.4"N 85°18'49.9"E
A long way from Swayambhunath, at the entrance to New Road that leads to Durbar Square, there is the Ratna Park Mahakala – the designated protector shrine of Swayambhunath. Legend tells that an invading army was encamped near the statue. When darkness fell, some of the officers got drunk and beat the statue with sticks, breaking its nose. That same night, the whole army perished in its sleep, and the valley was spared. In more recent times, when the locals tried to construct houses or office buildings in the statue’s line of sight across to Swayambhunath, the buildings simply collapsed. Special sun-glasses were prepared, with a picture of Swayambhunath on the inside of each lens, and these were placed on the statue’s eyes. Since then, it has been possible to erect buildings between Swayambhunath and the statue. The statue still wears these “glasses” to this day.
Kathesimbu Stupa: 27°42'34.4"N 85°18'35.2"E
Within walking distance from the Mahakala shrine is Kathesimbu Stupa, which was built from the remains of the Swayambhunath Stupa. It is said that there are relics of Shariputra inside this stupa.