Swayambhu is an ancient religious temple complex atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of the city. A large number of Buddhists and Hindus alike visit Swayambhu throughout the day. For Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism especially, its sacredness is second only to Boudenath Stupa. Swayambhu is the temple’s Hindu name. The stories surrounding the site are cherished by the locals, and have been passed down through generations, holding a sacred space in their hearts.
The architectural theme of the entire surrounding is simple and elegant. The complex consists of a stupa, a number of shrines and temples – some dating back to the Licchavi period (approximately 400 to 750 CE). This makes the complex over 2000 years old, and it is often referred to as “the oldest known stupa” in Nepal. It is a marvel, built and rebuilt several times throughout history. A Tibetan monastery, museum and library are more recent additions. The dome of Swayambhunath was renovated in 2010 with over 20 Kg of gold to re-guild its top along with other constructional reforms. Maybe because of this simplicity, most of the monuments here survived the earthquake of 2015 without much damage.
The stupa at Swayambhunath stands tall and proud at the heart of the temple complex, radiating the wisdom and enlightenment of the Buddha. Topped with a spire, crescent moon and sun, this grand, white-washed tomb structure symbolizes the perfect balance of male and female elements. The stupa has Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows painted on. Between the eyes, in Nepal script, the number one is painted in the fashion of a nose.
You can access the site in two ways. A steep staircase consisting of 365 steps leads directly to the main platform of the temple. Each of the steps is believed to represent different stages of the human life cycle. The second option is a road around the hill from the south, leading to the south-west entrance. This road was made to ease the hike for travellers with physical disabilities and health conditions.
Swayambhunath is also known as “The Monkey Temple”, as it is home to hundreds of playful and mischievous rhesus monkeys that roam the grounds, delighting visitors and locals alike. These monkeys are considered holy to Buddhists and Hindus. They’re often seen climbing the temple walls, swinging from trees, and playing with each other. They are an integral part of Swayambhu’s history with several myths revering them as the protectors of Swayambhu.
Many visitors make a point of seeking the monkeys out during their visit to the temple, and they are believed to bring good luck and prosperity. Whilst they are generally friendly, they can apparently be quite territorial, so rather keep your distance and respect their space. They also steal food and shiny objects from unsuspecting tourists, so keep your belongings secure!
The rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), colloquially called the rhesus monkey, is a species of Old World monkey. Humans and Macaques share 93% of their DNA, and they have long been used as experimental research animals. In 1940, the rhesus factor (named after them) was discovered in their blood. The rhesus factor was later found in humans. This important finding henceforth prevented fatal immune reactions in blood transfusions and during pregnancy.
Rhesus monkeys have the largest geographic range of any non-human primate. They inhabit a wide range of altitudes and habitats, and their average life expectancy is 20-30 years in the wild. In captivity, they have been known to live up to 40 years. This is because in the wild, they are prone to predation and hierarchical fights. They live in active, noisy troops that can number up to 200 animals.
Rhesus monkeys communicate using a variety of facial expressions, vocalizations, body postures, and gestures. They have demonstrated a range of complex cognitive abilities and even self-reliance. They are mostly herbivores and feed mainly on fruits, but many also eat seeds, roots, buds, bark, grains, insects, and small animals. They can hoard their food in their pouch-like cheeks.
The colour of their fur can vary from pale brown to auburn or grey. Their face is generally hairless and light pink in colour – in fact, they have slightly humanoid faces with long, pointy ears that sit on the top of their head. There is something about those ears that reminds one of Mr Spock in Star Trek! Their round eyes usually have a yellow tint to them, and their nostrils point outward.
Dr Mukesh Kumar Chalise is an associate professor of zoology at Tribhuvan University. He has been observing these monkeys since 1991, and has recorded some 425-450 individuals in Swayambhunath. That said, the number of individuals has remained remarkably constant. Such a high number of macaques in such a small area (2.5 hectares) is due to human food scraps, as this size area would, under normal conditions, support only 40-50 individuals.
This increased contact with humans, and the consequent feeding of these animals, has already begun to have a detrimental effect on their health. This large population in such a small area results in great competition among the monkeys (translate: aggression), and the abundance and nature of the food have resulted in highly unusual reproductive habits. Whilst single babies are the norm, mother monkeys here are aften giving birth to twins and even triplets. Research has shown, however, that these cannot survive for more than a month because the mother does not provide enough milk. In the natural habitat [forest], the macaque mother starts reproducing at the age of four or five and allows at least two years between pregnancies. In Swayambhunath, females begin giving birth at the age of two and continue to do so about every six months. The list goes on and on… This once again highlights how important it is to respect nature, and that includes NEVER feeding a wild animal!
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team