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Kathmandu's Famous Monkey Temple

by Tony Page

Climb up to the top of the nine-storey high Besantapur Tower in Kathmandu's Royal Palace and you can see the ever-watchful eyes of Swayambunath's famous stupa gazing at you from across the valley. The all-seeing eyes painted on the four faces of the central tower are supposed to be looking out for good deeds, but their piercing glance and slightly forbidding aspect always makes me feel that they rarely miss bad ones either.

Swayambunath is Nepal's most popular Buddhist temple and squats atop an isolated hill just west of Kathmandu, on a site perhaps 2000 years old. It's a welcome, tranquil retreat from the bustle of the city's narrow streets, although you have to watch out for the numerous monkeys who inhabit the hill - they're inveterate thieves!

The best way to get to the temple from Kathmandu is by the Himalayan answer to Hertz and Avis: the rented bicycle. A mere five rupees a day buys you the freedom of the not-so-open road and is guaranteed aerobic exercise. No namby-pamby ten-speed lightweight racers here, just good solid Indian copies of 1950 vintage Raleigh tourers - one gear and you can have any colour as long as it's black. If Henry Ford had made bicycles, these would have been the ones.

But surprisingly, it's not too difficult to get around on these heavyweight steeds. And there's no doubt that riding on Kathmandu's crowded back-streets can give you colourful experiences that will live in (or haunt, depending on your point of view) your memory for a long time. I mean, where else can you accidentally run into an elephant ("my brakes failed, officer") and get knocked over by a cow (sacred, so don't kick it) in the same day? This must be the only place in Asia where gangs of 'Hell's Angels Pedishaw Drivers' race furiously through scattering crowds of pedestrians in the effort to be first to the next corner.

Swerving with gay abandon through the local populace and ringing the shiny chromium bell on my handlebars continuously in good Nepali fashion, I rode down the bumpy lane from Kathmandu towards Swayambu village. The Bishnumati River was low, reduced to several minor streams meandering between wide mud-banks. The latter's dun tones were alleviated by green patches of vegetation and bright splashes of colour where some women had spread their washing. Beyond the ten foot wide bridge spanning the river lay a small hill and the hamlet's single main street, terraced houses on either side, open-fronted shops doing desultory business, people congregating in conversation and, as always, walking along the dusty road to some unknown destination.

I rattled past, eliciting waves and cries of encouragement, the spectacle of a foreigner riding a bicycle in the same suicidally erratic style as a true born Nepali causing no little amusement. Soon the temple mount rose up before me, and Swayambunath's far-seeing eyes fixed me in their gaze. To be sure, they have a forbidding quality. Perhaps this stems from the fact that, as well as having heavily emphasised eyebrows, the 'face' on the stupa has no mouth. The effect is similar to that of masked robber whose bandanna conceals his lower features: recognition is prevented, but more importantly, the humanising potential of a smile is denied us.

Locking my bicycle using the cunning built-in system universally fitted here, I left it in the care of a street-wise but friendly urchin, with the promise of 50 paisa if it remained unscathed on my return. Though by no means always necessary, this can be a useful method to adopt in doubtful circumstances - and on this occasion I was unsure whether my cycle's pump worked!

Two giant hand-painted Buddha images greet you at the main archway at the foot of the hill, beyond which more are to be seen beside the stone flight of stairs leading up to the temple itself. I began the long climb at a steady pace; with 320 odd steps to go under the hot afternoon sun, few mad dogs (and certainly no Englishmen) would see fit to rush it. The slopes of the hill are wooded, and a stoutly-built, shaven-headed monk dressed in purple and red robes, his arms folded authoritatively across his chest, stood rooted stolidly at one side of the path in tree-like immobility, his eyes fixed firmly on a painter putting the finishing touches to the huge archway below.

Halfway up the hill, a troop of young monkeys played fearlessly near the steps, swinging from hanging branches and chattering continuously. My approach warranted nothing more than a brief glance from the diminutive simians, who resumed their activities with scarcely a break after observing my slow-footed passage.

The long, straight staircase is comprised of two parallel flights of steps divided by a double handrail. The stone steps have been worn smooth and hollowed slightly by the feet of countless devotees over the centuries, and towards the top, where the incline gets appreciably steeper, the rail has been highly polished by the grasping hands of weary pilgrims, not to mention monkeys' bottoms, as the little animals have developed a predilection for sliding down the iron banisters!

I heaved myself up the last few steps and stood panting in the entrance gateway. Behind me the grey stone steps fell away sharply, the iron rails leading my eyes down the wooded hillside.  Some Indian ladies in brightly coloured saris were making their laborious way below, step by step in a sort of crab-like motion, grateful for the support of the railings. A marauding monkey dashed out and made a spirited grab at something one of the women was holding, eliciting screams of mild feminine terror and a fortuitously inaccurate fusillade of rocks hurled by her companions.

Entering the temple courtyard, I found myself standing before the largest Thunderbolt (Vajra in Sanskrit, Dorje in Tibetan) I had ever seen. Nearly two metres long, this massive 'Diamond Sceptre' was originally an emblem of Indra, the Indian Zeus, god of thunder and lightning. But for many centuries now Buddhists have used it as the symbol of the highest spiritual power that is irresistible and invincible.

The temple of Swayambunath covers the top of the hill, taking the form of a large, low-walled courtyard with a huge central stupa. Shaped like an inverted bowl, the stupa dominates the area, and is surrounded by several other shrines and buildings. As always, my gaze was immediately drawn to the gigantic painted eyes high above my head on the central tower. Covered in gilt, the four-side tower is surmounted by the traditional conical section topped by an honorific umbrella. Many red, blue, green, yellow and white prayer flags were strung from the top of the umbrella to other buildings, and the flimsy cloth squares fluttered in the breeze like tethered butterflies.

I walked around the enormous central stupa, clockwise according to Buddhist tradition. Brass prayer-wheels (engraved cylinders containing fragments of paper with prayers written on them) are set into the white stucco in rows, whilst four gilded and heavily ornamented shrines are built into the side of the stupa, facing north, south, east and west. Behind a protecting grill in each shrine sits a Buddha, and the fragrant smoke from the many sandalwood incense sticks burning before them fills your nostrils as you pass by.

Nepali and Tibetan worshippers were devotedly spinning the prayer wheels as they muttered the sacred mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, which loosely translates as "Hail, thou jewel in the lotus." In reality it has a far deeper symbolic significance. Close by, a saddhu, or holy man, his long hair and beard bleached white by years and the sun, accepted alms donated by some Indian tourists. And in a prayer hall, a shaven-headed, purple-robed monk reverently placed smoking incense sticks before a golden Buddha.

Swayambunath is sometimes known as the Monkey Temple, and with good reason. Some 300 monkeys, divided into several troops, live in and around the hilltop shrine, fed by Nepalis to whom Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, is a favourite deity. An American studying the monkeys remarked that they used the temple as a cafeteria, and it's wise to be watchful if you're carrying food, the little beggars aren't averse to a bit of self-service!

To the north west of the courtyard is a small, pagoda-like temple within which is to be found an image of Hariti, the goddess of smallpox, who indulged her cannibalistic instincts by devouring small children. She only desisted from this regrettable habit when she came under Buddha's influence, and hence the connection. Close to this shrine are souvenir shops and a hall where food is reputedly provided on certain occasions when, with my usual flawless sense of timing, I have never managed to be present.

There's a marvellously panoramic view over Kathmandu from Swayambunath, and I sat on the steps of a convenient shrine enjoying it. The late afternoon sun was pleasantly warm, a friendly Japanese girl had given me a crisp green apple, and the chattering group of French tourists had tired of feeding the monkeys and retreated to the aseptic safety of their air-conditioned coach. Indeed, all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I fell asleep and dreamed of Japanese ladies and monkeys stealing my apples.

When I awoke the sun had nearly gone and the rim of the valley was touched with a pinkish tinge, the distant haze softening the outlines of the far-off Himalayas which still glowed bright in the gathering twilight. Over Kathmandu, blue-grey smoke from thousands of cooking fires rose up into the still air, and the pleasantly acrid smell of burning wood and charcoal carried across the fields to my nostrils.

The last rays of the setting sun struck the gilt face of the stupa and it gleamed luminously, almost as if it had absorbed the light during the day and was now freeing the trapped energy to rejoin its fast-vanishing progenitor. It was very peaceful in the temple now. Strangely, I did not feel at all stiff after my sleep, in spite of my awkward position and stony bed. The temple had a tremendously evocative atmosphere. A deep feeling of relaxation and contentment seemed to soak into me by some mysterious osmosis, as if just being in the precincts was sufficient to affect my state of mind directly.

But Kathmandu - and, I must admit, hunger, called, so I made my way towards the giant vajra and the entrance gateway. A solitary devotee was ringing the bell outside one of the shrines to attract the attention of the gods; a monk was still sitting before the large Buddha image in the prayer hall, quietly chanting mantras in a low monotone. I took a last look at the ever-watchful eyes above me, but the light had fled and the gilt faces were dark and asleep. Slowly I began the long descent to my waiting bicycle.

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