After the usual earthy breakfast, I leave for an interesting walk to the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, called the Monkey Temple for the many primates living in its vicinity. Swayambhunath is one of the symbols of the city, located on top of a hill two kilometers west of the center. Swayambhunath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other sites included in the Katmandhu Valley. The walk is pleasant and takes me from the chaos of Thamel shops to the dirt roads on the outskirts of Katmandhu. I cross a long bridge in the company of several locals; in the dry river bed below, several women wash and spread out to dry wool that has just been sheared.
The entrance to the staircase that leads to the top of the hill is suggestive; a high and colorful arch sits before a huge and multicolored statue of a seated Buddha. On the walls nearby, dozens of prayer wheels with inscriptions depicting the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Um’ are turned continuously by various visiting pilgrims. Inside the buildings that fence off the hill there are majestic prayers cylinders at least four meters high; when turned, different bells attached to the ceiling start to emit sounds, a spectacular scene. Outside, dozens of religious devotees light candles and pray without stop.
The 365 steps staircase is quite steep; on the sides along the climb there are various stalls selling Tibetan handicrafts. Some of the artisans can be seen at work while inlaying thin sheets of stone with minutes chisels, an art that requires practice and lots of patience. Every now and then I cross temples that feature animal figures in colorful stones, invaded by insolent and mischievous monkeys; I was warned that some may even attack people, but I did not notice any aggressive behaviour, yet it is advisable not to take with you food or drinks easy to spot!
At the top you can enjoy breathtaking views of the city; just past the entrance to the temple is a bronze trident symbol of male power in Buddhist belief, and to its side a bell, in turn symbol of feminine wisdom. Behind, majestic and very tall, the stupa of Katmandhu’s most famous and sacred temple with its classic form of an inverted funnel – in Nepal there are three main types of temples: pagodas are used by Hindus, those shaped like a mountain are for both Hindus and Buddhists, while stupas are purely Buddhist.
Long crisscrossed lines of prayer flags hang from the top of Swayambhunath stupa; upon swaying, they issue imaginary sacred chants into the air. The stupa base, painted in white, symbolizes the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – while the 13 copper rings that make up the perimeter of its top are the steps needed to reach nirvana, here symbolized by the very tip of the stupa. The Buddha’s eyes painted on the stupa facades observe the valley in its entirety; between the two eyes, above the eyebrows, there’s a third eye, symbol of Buddha’s clairvoyant powers, and the nose painted in the shape of a question mark is no more then Nepalese number one (ek), symbol of unity.
In the nearby monastery there is the statue of a Tibetan goddess, and her story is nothing short of original: it is said that the valley in which Katmandhu is located was previously occupied by a lake. This Tibetan goddess would cut an entire hill with her sword, allowing water to flow eastward and make room for what would later become the site of the present city.
I’m lucky and I happen to get here on a festival day; hundreds of people, mostly Tibetans, celebrate, sing, eat and play cards sitting on thick carpets and under colorful and vivid tents that protect them from the warm rays of the winter sun. The view of the city from up here is special. Inside the Tibetan monastery, a dozen monks recite prayers to the ceaseless and rhythmic sound of huge and elongated brass instruments and loud gongs. The entrance is crowded, everyone wants to take pictures, but unfortunately my camera misfires and the shutter gets stuck. I am consoled by the fact that the best pictures are shot by our own eyes, or so they say. Outside, a group of bored children monks dressed in yellow shirt and crimson robe, wander absorbed and thoughtful, throwing crumbs to the dozens of birds around. Some of them feature luxurious-looking wrist watches, which spoil a bit the homogeneity of the place.
I am satisfied with the visit and decide to get back to town. It was a beautiful day, which culminated unfortunately in an awful dinner at an Indian restaurant…
To learn more check en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swayambhunath
See Unesco page: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/121