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Swayambhunath Stupa

humans were denied the view of the
sacred flame and had to content themselves with a glimpse of Stupa only.
Swayambhunath Stupa

“When you think of Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, you think of Tibet and the Tibetans” so goes old Nepali saying. There are innumerable stories regarding the great Stupa of Swayambhunath, standing majestically atop a hillock west of Kathmandu. Many are stories of visitors, for countless historical and legendary figured from historical and legendary countries have come to the Kathmandu Valley, drawn by the presence of the Maha Chaitya, the Great Stupa.

The hill has been known in legend as the Gopuchha Parbat. Gopuchha in Nepali means “cow’s tail” and parbat means hill. The Maha Chaitya is designated maha not merely by virtue of its gargantuan physical proportions, but also because it symbolizes the three different philosophical worlds or realms: Karma dhatu (the realm of wordly existence or pleasure), Rupa dhatu (the realm of physical forms) and Arupa dhatu (the realm of formless elements). As well, the Pancha Mana-Bhutas (the elements plus the atma or soul) are symbolically represented by the Stupa at five cardinal points. The unique symbolism of the Stupa of Swayambhunath has always played a vital role in engendering feelings of respect and devotion, and bringing devotees to its doors from throughout Asia.


The historic, mythological and literary basis for most legends connected with the Swayambhunath stupa is provided by two ancient texts, the Swayambhu Puruna. They provide accounts mostly of a period from the visit of the legendary Vipashwi Buddha to that of the historic Indian saint and emperor Ashoka. Emperor Ashoka’s piligrimage to Swayambhunath is credited to his religious guru, Upagupta, who encouraged him to follow the footsteps of Lord Gautama Buddha, on the strength of the belief that the Lord himself had undertaken the long trek from Lumbini to Kathmandu and delivered sermons not only atop the Gopuchha hillock but also at Namura or Namo Buddha, some thirty-five kilometers east of Kathmandu. Gautama, if he indeed came to the Valley, must have preceded Ashoka by some two hundred years, arriving two and one-half millennia ago.

Available Nepalese historical inscriptions do not push the antiquity of Swayambhunath beyond the life and times of Shankara Deva, the grand father of Man Deva (c. 467 A.D.), the first Lichhavi king of historical importance. But if we were to go by Chinese records such as the T’ Ang Annals, to which scholars ascribe dates more than sixteen centuries prior to the composition of treatises such as the Swayambhu Purana, the exact antiquity of this great Stupa poses a baffling problem.

In any case, few grudge it the distinction of being one of the most ancient of all the chaityas in Asia. In most accounts the origin of Swayambhunath has been associated with the founding of the Valley’s first human habitation, and its legendary visit by the savant Manjushree. All kinds of ancient Buddhas, be they Dhyanis (devotional Buddhas), Manushis (human Buddhas), Taras (female deities) or Bodhisattvas in fact every body that mattered in the Buddhist pantheon are believed to have come to the legendary holy land of this Valley in Buddhist mythological times. And they came from all sorts of places, afar and near. They include Sikhi Buddha from Arun Nagar (wherever that might have been, followed by Vishwobhu Buddha, Maha Manjushree from Maha Chin (China), and Krakuchhanda Buddha from Kshemavati (“country”). Some hold that it was a king of Gauda (Bengal), Prachanda Deva, and Shantikara, a savant, who enshrined the Swayambhu Jyotirupa (the divine flame-from of the primordial Buddha which rested in the Valley) with in the Maha Chaitya. From then on, humans were denied the view of the sacred flame and had to content themselves with a glimpse of Stupa only.

But one of the most curious stories is almost contemporary, the story of a Bhutanese visits to Swayambhunath.

Narabhupal Shah, the eighteenth century King of Gorkham had been issuekess. In his efforts to beget a son and successor, he invited a great lama from Bhutan, renowned for his spiritual prowess, to invoke divine benediction. Sometime later, when a son in the person of Prithvi Narayan Shah (the king who later unites the country of Nepal) was born to him, a highly obliged Narabhupal wanted to return the favor. “I will ask for a favor at the appropriate time. “I will ask for a favor at the appropriate time,” the lama is said to have replied.

When Prithvi Narayan Shah not only succeeded Narabhupal but also extended his way over the Kathmandu Valley, the lama returned. He reminded the king of his father's promise and asked for a land-grant of an area encompassing the Swayambhu hillock along with the right to conduct the religious affairs of the Stupa. The request was promptly granted, and the arrangement lasted until the advent of the Rana regime in the person of Jang Bahadur, its first prime minister.

This story, like so many of the stories of Swayambhunath and its visitor, may some century pass from history to legend. And new visits will take its place and will, as well, become legends some day.

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