Manymany legends ago, the valley of Kathmandu was turquoise like, so beautiful that sages who came to meditate along its shore considered it sacred. Upon its waters rested a single lotus from which rose a flame as colourful as a rainbow. In time it was called Swayambhu, the self-born, self-existent one. Among those who heard of its divine reputation was the great Mongolian saint Manjushri, who came to pay homage. When he saw the lotus for himself, so great was his desire to approach it that he cut the Valley wall with his flaming sword of wisdom to allow the water to drain away. The lotus settled on a low hill and there Manjushri worshipped and caused a shrine to be built. As people settled in the new valley, the city they built was called Manjupatan.
A combination of legend and history places the origin of the great stupa of Swayambhunath about two thousand years ago. While repudiating divine intervention, geologists support the belief that the Kathmandu Valley was once under water. Swayambhunath hill was probably an island, which in a way it is today, a forested island in emerald fields, which attracts pious individuals and religious institutions as certainly as it did the sages of old.
Several Tibetan monasteries have begun to ring the hill and even climb it. An adjoining hill is covered with buildings housing such diverse people as neohippies, Tibetan refugees, Buddhist nuns, the first Western Rinpoche, artists and Tibetologists. One of the nuns, who claimed to have lived centuries ago when the reigning Malla king was so impressed by meeting her that he gifted her land and money for a monastery, tells fortunes and unhexes the hexed. I've taken a problem to her. She's quite impressive.
Leading to the top of the hill are a flight of ancient steps and in recent years, a motorable road that stops reverently short of the summit. To take the 365 steps is not only meritorious but rewarding as well, for it climbs through trees and piled rock, past huge painted images of the Buddha and the traditional vehicle of the gods, a horse, an elephant, a peacock, a garuda, a lion. There are also the imprints of Manjushri's feet in stone. And hordes of monkeys, which have given Swayambhunath stupa the popular tourist name, 'monkey temple'. A slightly irreverent legend accounts for them also. When Manjushri had his hair cut on the hill, every hair became a tree and the lice monkeys. A completely serious and learned survey by a foreign agency has concluded that the number of monkeys always remains the same.
Where the steps grow suddenly steep below the summit, iron handrails have been thoughtfully provided, that help the falling pilgrim only when children and monkeys permit. It's a fairly shattering experience the first time around to find monkeys sliding towards one at vast speed, chattering happily to themselves as they pass by. The children merely imitate them. I've always wished one could slide rapidly upward, for legend again promises nirvana and all the bliss in it to those who can climb the 365 stairs in a single breath.
At the foot of the stairs are three old and enormous statues of Gautama Buddha in meditation. Old people make obeisance as they pass, touching their foreheads to the crumbling pedestals. The young climb the statues happily in play or to pose for tourist cameras. The benign expressions never change. The huge hands remain at rest. If their meditation permits, what amazing sights they must have seen!
Every twelve years in a field nearby, the reigning king of Nepal comes as Vishnu incarnate, and an aspect of Buddha, to receive the homage of hundreds of gilded Buddha statues brought from all over the valley. Countless Hindus and Buddhists climb the hill to worship, for Swayambhunath is sacred to them both. As I sat to sketch, procession after procession, each led by a band of flutes, pipes and drums, descended the hill, marking the last day of the holy Buddhist month of Gunla.
Now a colourful Tibetan style gateway stands at the entrance to the stairs and a wall of prayer wheels promises to circumscribe the hill. Not far away is a small new monastery that enshrines some miraculous images. Long ago in Tibet, when an agnostic king tried to stamp out Buddhism, he came to the original monastery and declared to the assembled monks that if their deities were truly divine they would feel the cut of his sword. As he slashed at images about him they miraculously cried out in pain. Brought to Nepal in 1959, they remain happily mute.
It is possible to see Swayambhunath hill from every corner of the Kathmandu Valley. There are magic moments when from a cloudy sky that shadows the entire landscape, a shaft of light illuminates the hill, its stupa and its golden spire. It is easy, then, to remember the ancient legend. The divine lotus floating on a lake. The mystic flame. The self-born, self-existent one-Swayambhu.