Nepal is famous for its stupas.
The Swayambhunath Stupa was built on top of Swayambhunath hill, home of the Adi or Primordial Buddha and a place of worship prior even to the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. Swayambhunath means unborn and a stupa is a dome shaped religious monument worshipped by circumambulation. It is regarded as sacred by both Hindus and Buddhists alike and worshippers mix freely and without conflict – a great example to the rest of the world.
Originally, the Kathmandu valley was a lake where Vipaswi Buddha threw some lotus seeds. One of these seeds grew into a thousand petalled lotus flower from which shone a five coloured light representing the five Buddhas – Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddha. Manjursri looked out over the lake from the hill called Nagarjun, wondering how he could drain the lake to allow people to worship the light. With his flaming sword of wisdom, he cut through the valley walls at Chobhar and it came to rest on the peak at Swayambhu. The light was later enshrined in a chaitya (small stupa) to keep it safe.
There are now many shrines, chaityas, monasteries and temples here attended by local people at all times of the day for worship. It is said Shakyamuni Buddha preached here and that Maitreya will preach from Swayambhunath in the future.
Three hundred steps lead to the top of the stupa. Each element of the building adheres to strict guidelines and has symbolic meaning. The dome, resembling an upturned bowl of rice, symbolises the strength of the ten perfections. Around the side of the dome are prayer wheels interspersed with niches containing gilded statues of the five Buddhas and associated Taras (see below) although the niche for Vajra Dhateswari Tara is empty.
Above the dome is a four sided brick pillar - the four noble truths, with the eyes of wisdom painted on each side. The nose, looking like a question mark, is the Nepalese number one, ek and a symbol of unity. Torans (embossed metal plates) depicting the descendants of the five Buddhas are on each side. The thirteen metal discs that rise above the pillar represent the thirteen degrees of the teachings. A lotus flower rests on top of the discs and this is topped by a gilded umbrella representing purity. Prayer flags and garlands flutter everywhere sending prayers and blessing to the four winds.
The Buddhas appear in various different meditative poses as listed below. Each Buddha has a vehicle associated with them and these appear in niches below. Hopefully, the following will help you identify them.
||Preaching pose (Lion) and Vajra Dhateswari Tara (empty niche)
between Akshobhya and Ratnasambhava
||Earth touching gesture (Elephant) and Lochani Tara facing East
||Gift bestowing pose (Horse) and Mamaki Tara facing South
||Meditation pose (Peacock) and Padmani Tara facing West
||Protection pose (Garuda) and Arya Tara facing North
You will see many people walking around the base of the hill twirling prayer wheels before the begin their ascent of the stairs. At the foot of the flagstoned stairs and just behind a stone wall, there is a stone carving representing Buddha's footprints; they are next to Yama Loka - gateway to the world of death. As you begin the climb, there are three immense painted statues of Akshobhya Buddha. Many other statues including pairs of stone animals - vehicles of the gods flank the steps. Monkeys dart between the trees and over the rails and steal anything.
A huge vajra dominates the top of the staircase. The base is carved with animals representing the calendar months. Many pilgrims touch their forehead to the vajra before they circumambulate the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels as they go. Remember to always keep the stupa on your right.
Surrounding the stupa, there are many other statues, shrines, monasteries and chaityas as well as stalls selling everything from carpets to Coca-Cola. Families at worship mix with tourists and holy men (saddhas). Remember never to enter a Hindu shrine wearing anything leather and to remove your shoes before you enter a Buddhist monastery. If in doubt, don't; Swayambhunath is a place of worship not a tourist venue.