|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
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
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
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.