An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

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A golden spire crowning a conical wooded hill, Swayambhunath (Swayam:  Self, Bhu: Born, Existed, Nath: God, Lord) Stupa, listed as a Unesco World Heritage List, is the most ancient and enigmatic of all the holy shrines in Kathmandu valley.

An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

Swayambhunath’s lofty white dome and glittering golden spire are visible for many miles from all sides of the valley. The local Nepal Bhasa name for the site is ‘Singgu’, meaning ‘Self-sprung’. Much of Swayambhunath’s iconography comes from the Vajrayana Sampradaya of Newar Buddhism. However, the complex is also the significant site for Buddhists of many schools and is also revered by Hindus.

 

An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath
An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples, some dating back to the Lichhavi period. A Tibetan monastery, museum, and library are recent additions. The Stupa consists of a dome at the base, above which is a cubical structure painted with Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows praised on. There are also shops, restaurants, and hostels. The site has two access points: a long stairway with 365 steps, leading directly to the dominant platform of the temple which is from the top of the hill to the east; and the car road around the south hill from the south leading to the south-west entrance. The earliest vision on reaching to the apex of the stairway is the largest Vajra

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(Thunderbolt Scepter). Behind this Vajra is the immense, circular, white dome of the stupa, atop of which were two giant Buddha eyes wisely looking out over the peaceful valley which was just dawning to come alive. There is pentagonal Torana present above each of the four sides with statues engraved on them. Behind and above the Torana there are thirteen tiers. Above all the tiers there is a small space above which Gajur is present. The stupa has many artifacts inside it.

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An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath
An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

There is a collection of legends about Swayambhunath. A 15th century Purana, Swayambhu Purana is a Buddhist scripture about the origin and development of Kathmandu valley, provides detail of all the Buddhas who came to Kathmandu and also provides information about the 1st and the 2nd Buddha in Buddhism. According to Swayambhu Purana, the entire valley was once filled with an enormous lake, out of which grew a miraculous lotus, planted by a past Buddha. The lotus mysteriously radiated a brilliant light, and the name of the place came to be Swaymbhu, meaning “Self-created” or “Self-existent”. Swayambhu, the name comes from an eternal self-existent flame over which a stupa was later built.

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Saints, sages, and divinities traveled to the lake to venerate this miraculous light for its power in granting enlightenment. During this time, the Bodhisattva Manjushree was meditating the sacred mountain of Wu Tai Shan and had a vision of the dazzling Swayambhu light. Manjushree flew across the mountains of China and Tibet upon his blue lion to worship the lotus. Deeply impressed by the power of the radiant light, Manjushree felt that if the water were drained out of the lake, the valley can be a good settlement and to make the site more accessible to human pilgrims, he cut a gorge at Chovar. The water drained out of the lake, leaving the valley in which Kathmandu now lies. The Lotus was transferred into a hill and the flower became the Swayambhu stupa. Swaymbhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the north-west parts of the temple. They are holly because Manjushree, the Bodhisattva of wisdom and learning was raising the hill which the Swaymbhu Stupa stands on. He was supposed to do leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys.

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An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath
An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

According to the Gopalrajvamsavali: Swaymbhu was founded by the Great-Grandfather of King Manadeva (464-505 CE), King Vasudeva, about the beginning of the 5th century CE. This seems to be confirmed by a stone inscription found on the site which indicates that King Manadeva ordered work done in 640 CE. However, Emperor Ashoka is said to have visited the site in the 3rd century BCE and built a temple on the hill which was later destroyed. Pratap Malla, also known as Kavindra the most powerful king of Kathmandu is responsible for the construction of the eastern stairway in the 17th century. The stupa was completely renovated in May 2010, its major renovation since 1921 and its 15th in the nearly 1,500 years since it was built. The dome was re-gilded utilizing the 20 kg of gold.

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The dome at the base represents the entire world. When a person awakes, represented by a large pair of eyes, on each of the four sides of the main stupa, of wisdom and compassion, from the bonds of the world, the person reaches the state of enlightenment. Above each pair of eyes is another eye, the third eye, signifying the wisdom of looking within. No ears are clearly shown because it is said the Buddha is not interested in hearing prayers in praise in him. There is a curly symbol, symbolizing the nose, is depicted which looks like question mark between the eyes, which is a representation of the number one in fair Devanagari script, which is in the fashion of a rose, signifying that the unity of all things existing in the world as well as the single way to enlightenment i.e. through the Buddhist Path.

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An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath
An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

There are carvings of the Pancha Buddhas on each of the four sides of the stupa. There are also statues of Buddhas at the base of the statues. Five Buddhas are Buddha in a metaphorical sense in Tantrayana. They are:

  1. Vairochana: He occupies the center and is the master of the temple.
  2. Akshobhya: He faces the east and represents the cosmic elements of consciousness.
  3. Ratna Sambhava: He faces the south and represents the cosmic element of sensation.
  4. Amitabha: He represents cosmic elements of Sanjna (name) and always faces the West.
  5. Amoghsiddhi: He represents the cosmic element of confirmation and faces the north.

 

An Essay on Architecture, Mythology, History, and Symbolism of Swayambhunath

 

At the top of Swayambhunath hill, there is another fascinating, though smaller and less visited the temple. This is Shantipur, the ‘Place for Peace’. Swayambhunath’s worshippers include Hindus, Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and Tibet, and the Newari Buddhists of central and southern Nepal. Each morning before dawn hundreds of Vajrayana Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims ascend the 365 steps from the eastern side that lead up the hill, passing the gilded Vajra (Tibetan: Dorje) and two lions guarding the entrance, and  begin a series of clockwise circumambulations of the stupa (Newari Buddhists circle in the opposite, counterclockwise direction).

Essayist-Kushal Khatri

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