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Andrew Dispatch

Fistful of Bananas
June 24, 2000

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Our not-too-distant cousins, the primates, rule this temple
Do you like monkeys? Here in Kathmandu there is a Buddhist temple called Swayambhunath, but it is more affectionately known as the Monkey Temple. So grab a fistful of bananas and let's visit it together, shall we?

Swayambhunath is a leisurely walk from the center of Kathmandu and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, since it is perched high atop a hill that overlooks the valley. In fact, all of Kathmandu Valley was once a lake and the hill where Swayambhunath stands was once an island. But that was long before the monkeys came.

When we walked toward the temple I noticed banana peels and discarded coconut shells strewn about, but I didn't think anything of it at the time. Did you? I just enjoyed the warm walk down the streets filled with fakirs, sadhus, bicycle rickshaws and numerous temples and shrines to various Gods.

Even looking up at the Monkey Temple, I hadn't at first thought about the obvious fact that to reach it, we will actually have to climb up that steep hill. But it should be worth it to reach one of the World Heritage Sites (along with places we have already visited like the Taj Mahal and the pyramids). This temple has gained international recognition as a central and prominent site of Nepalese Buddhism and as an ancient symbol of the creation of the universe. Pilgrims from all over the Himalayas are attracted to this place -- not only for the monkeys. In fact, this ancient site has been a place of pilgrimage for over 1,500 years! Since the average monkey around here lives only fifteen years, that is the same time as one hundred generations of monkeys. That's a long time and it must be worth it, so let's get going up that hill.

"The stupa is topped with a gold colored square block from which the watchful eyes of the Buddha gaze across the valley in each direction. The question mark-like nose is actually the Nepali number ek or one and is a symbol of unity." -Lonely Plant, Nepal

Most of the present buildings on the site are not that old. They were built within the last hundred years (not by the monkeys). Still, it is the site itself that is special and even somewhat arduous to reach. Though not so tough to get to as it once was. Not too long ago, Swayambhunath was a rural sanctuary atop a wooded hill. The Buddhist pilgrims, coming mainly by foot through Kathmandu proper, would make the 90 meter/ 295 feet climb through the dense forest, up narrow paths, assisted by branches (as a monkey might). During the walk they would be unable to see the temple above them because of the trees. When they reached close to the top, however, the view of the gilded tiers of the stupa would reward their efforts. Nowadays, there are flagstone steps that not only give the pilgrim (or the monkey) a clear view of the stupa, but also make it a lot easier to walk up. But not too easy.

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Just the beginning
There are over three hundred of those flagstone steps to climb in order to reach the stupa atop the hill. Before we start them and when we are still on level ground, we need to find the elaborate, colorful gate. That will be no problem. Keep your eyes out for the dozens of beggar children (not to be confused with the monkeys) who will pester us as we pass under this archway, and we will know that we're in the right place.

We shouldn't pass through the intricate gate without spinning the prayer wheels that sporadically line the way to the tippety-top of the towering temple. So let's give these a whirl, toss a rupee to one of the sadhus, and be on our way up.

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Pious monkey contemplates the wheel of life
At the base of the hill are two huge stone Buddha figures. These are brightly painted in yellow and red, and sit comfortably on either side of the pathway. Slightly below them, however, are the sometimes menacing (though all in all benevolent) figures of Ganesh and Kumar keeping guard.

As we begin our climb (these steps are steep, aren't they?) we see more figures of Buddha. There is a scene showing Buddha being born and taking the seven steps he miraculously took minutes after his birth, and there is his mother holding a tree branch (Still no monkeys, though).

On the way up the steps, there are people selling all kinds of things. Decorated monkey skulls, prayer beads, Coca-Cola, watermelon and coconut slices, flutes, and various trinkets. There are also people offering different services. Do we need a guide? No, I think we can manage without one. Would we like our palms read? Well, not really (and if the fortuneteller could really predict the future with any accuracy, he would have known our answer before asking, don't you think?). How about a massage? Well, maybe on the way back down. We might need it then.

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The stupa is the big one in the background
Continuing up the stairs we pass three seated Buddhas in a row. They are about three meters (ten feet) high, and sit facing us as we climb our weary way up the steps. Sure they can smile serenely, as they are just sitting there comfortably, while we wear ourselves silly with this long climb! Look, behind them is a dense growth of trees and bushes, but slinking its way up the side of the hill is the last narrow staircase that will bring us to the top. Shall we race?

Well, you are all much younger than I am, and I am sure in much better shape. I tripped over one of the blind beggars who sat on the steps on my way up, but still, it was a long way, wasn't it? Sorry you had to wait so long for me. Three hundred plus steps to get up here, past all sorts of stone peacocks, lions, elephants, and horses. Did you see any monkeys in the trees? I felt eyes upon us…

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Andrew asks dutifully,
Just to the top now, past the huge pair of lions (they shouldn't hurt us, they're made of stone). These are called shikharas. To our right is a big bell and in front of us is the stupa. It is huge. I cannot even see to the top when we are up so close to it, can you? Let's walk around it, but we have to walk around it clockwise, never the other way. We can spin the prayer wheels as we go.

Wait! I hadn't even realized it, but there they are! There are the monkeys! They are everywhere! We've been surrounded. They are atop the stupa, ringing the bells, jumping out of garbage cans, and stealing from the collection plates! Big monkeys, small monkeys, old and young, everywhere! These red-bottomed, shifty-eyed, chattering, fur-clad conniving little simians act as if they own the place. Which, in a manner of speaking, they do.


fakir - holy man
sadhu - wandering Hindu holy man
arduous - difficult, fatiguing
stupa -hemispherical Buddhist religious structure that houses relics
menacing -threatening
benevolent - kind
clairvoyant - able to read minds, see the future

The thousands of monkeys who live in and around the temple are servants to Manjusri (the God who cut open Chobar Gorge so that Kathmandu Lake emptied out and become Kathmandu Valley- remember I told you that this hill was once an island in the middle of a lake?). Their presence on the hill is not only tolerated, but also welcomed. This is their realm, and their occupation of it is complete. Sure, there are monks (not to be confused with monkeys) who are the caretakers for the temple, sweep up monkey mess, and administer religious incantations. But we know that their smaller hairy brothers are in charge.

Pilgrims feed the monkeys to acquire merit. The monkeys are so used to their human cousins that they will come right up to us and take food from our hands. They will take just about anything else you have too, so keep a tight grip on your bags. I advise you take off dangly earrings.

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Remember that big bell? You can ring it if you want to. It is called the Great Thunderbolt. It is supposed to combine male force and female wisdom. And look up at that stupa! The eyes painted on all four sides are those of the Buddha, who is watching in all directions (maybe it was not just the monkeys' gaze we felt earlier). The little mark above and between the two eyes is his third eye, symbolizing his clairvoyant powers. All those prayer wheels that we just spun contain prayers that we helped send up and away to wherever prayers go. And do you see all of those colorful prayer flags all hanging from the top of the stupa, going out in each direction? The breeze drifts their mantras and prayers to the heavens, too.

There is so much more to see up here but… do you notice how the monkeys are watching us closely? A little too closely. And there are so many of them. I think it's time that we left. Tell you what- I'll create a diversion, and you all run down the steps to safety. After all, I got you into this mess. If you don't see me in the next stage (China) you'll know what happened. Perhaps I will become the monkeys' dinner, or maybe I will be raised to be Prince of the Primates. Either way, watch your step on the way down and remember what we witnessed here today!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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Kavitha - Semester in Nepal
Kavitha - Return to Nepal
Team - Making a Difference - Do As I Say, Not As I Do, And No, You Can't Have Any of My Weapons: Getting MAD About Nuclear Proliferation

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