No trip to Kathmandu is complete without making the trek to Swayambhunath Temple, located on a hill on the western edge of the city. It’s one of the numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites that dot Nepal’s capital, and a gorgeous tribute to the city’s cultural and religious heritage.
The temple complex, which perches on the hill’s summit, can be accessed one of two ways. (I’m writing “hill” because Nepal is home to the Himalayas. Pretty sure, after making the climb, that anywhere else this would be considered a mountain). The first is via a long stairway comprised of 365 steps. At dawn each day, hundreds of both Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims ascend this stairway, passing between two golden lions guarding the entrance, and circumambulate the stupa, spinning prayer wheels, burning incense, and lighting candles.
The second, on the western side of the temple, allows you to make most of the ascent via car and then walk up a shorter flight of stairs to the top. If one were pregnant, carrying a toddler, and had recently been laid low by food poisoning, one would be wise to consider the second option. You can still take the traditional route on the way back down, haters.
The temple’s most unique feature is its resident monkey population. Considered holy by believers, hundreds of monkeys live in the temple complex and on the mountainside. They perch on stairs and railings, sunbathe in walkways, and slouch on shrines and window ledges.
They have a much older to claim to the mountain, having lived there for centuries. The monkeys are fearless, used to the company of people, and bold in their efforts to unburden tourists of potential snacks. We were cautious around the monkeys. Very cautious.
The complex is organized around the stupa’s soaring white dome, topped with a golden spire. Temples and shrines are arranged like a mosaic around it, decorated with a fascinating mixture of Buddhist and Hindu iconography.
Brightly colored streamers flutter from trees and dance from temple rooftops. It gives the impression of a chaotic celebration – bright, crowded, beautiful – not unlike the city below. The view from the top is stunning. It’s easy to imagine, looking out over Kathmandu, why followers of several religions have worshipped on the mountain for over fifteen hundred years.