It is not the stupa of the Buddha that alerts visitors they are approaching the entrance to the temple, but the trees. Limbs violently shake and leaves tremble as scores of monkeys leap from one to the other, following the cars at a speedy tempo as their babes cling to their back and stomach. The car halts to a stop at a banana stand in front of the entrance to Harati Devi, as do the monkeys, eagerly awaiting a treat from the visitors.
Affectionately known as ‘Monkey Temple’ by Kathmandu locals and tourists alike, this destination is arguably one of Kathmandu’s most popular attractions. The monkeys that dwell here are regarded as holy monkeys, and by the way they behave, they know it too. Scores of them prowl the various chaityas and temple domes, looking for offerings of food to snatch or fights to pick with one another, providing hours of entertainment to visitors.
One of these holy beings stared at me now, its head cocked to one side as it gnawed voraciously on a stub of fruit. It clung by its fingertips and toes to the head of a small deity in a chaitya, a small shrine, that was part of dozens situated in neat orderly rows across from the main stupa. Each shrine possessed subtle differences, noticeable only under a studious gaze, with the deities in various states of frozen movement. A shriek and blur of actual movement interrupted my inquisition as the monkey that had been staring at me only moments before attacked another for stealing his snack.
The temple complex itself has been a centre for worship for the past 1,500 years, with various emperors and kings making pilgrimages to the site. In Buddhist tradition the large white dome at the bottom of the stupa represents the world. Surrounding the dome are enormous prayer wheels, where women and men push with their fingertips, chanting prayers slowly as their footsteps revolve around the complex. Gazing upwards, the sharp eyes of the Buddha stared in all directions, as brightly coloured as the prayer flags and the women’s saris that surrounded it. At the very top of the stupa sat 13 pinnacles, each representing the stage a person must go through to achieve enlightenment.
More than the dome, more than the Buddha’s piercing glare, it was the combination of the colour and detail of Harati Devi held my attention. For more than a thousand years, artisans and monks devoted their lives to the most minuscule decoration of the shrines and statues at the site in the hopes of gaining enlightenment. Every single detail, from the tiny border design around a chaitya to the expansive size of the dome, represented the religious care and following the Buddhist and Hindu disciples showed. It seemed reminiscent of those tomes monks poured over in their Medieval abbeys, dedicating their lives to decorating every calligraphic letter with images that unfolded a story in their writing in the glorification of Christ. No matter the religion, or which part of the world you happened to be, people seemed to expressed their religious devotion in the same, yet equally unique, way.
Descending the 365 steps from the stupa, I paused by the sprawling lion statues to look at the cloudy panoramic views of Kathmandu. Each morning hundreds of Buddhists and Hinduism followers ascend these steps to ambulate around the stupa and spin the prayer wheels, but by the afternoon the steps were filled with tourists and families feeding the monkeys and throwing coins into the wishing well for luck. Sensing I was leaving, one of the holy monkeys made a last ditch attempt to appeal to me for food, with squeals and a pitiful stare. It’s eyes hardened into a glare at mine as my hand brought forth no food, and after a short pause scampered off to find another visitor to try on its holy powers of charm and persuasion….
For more information about visiting Harati Devi Temple ( also known as Swayambhunath) check the Lonely Planet guide here.
Do you have any questions or experiences of Harati Devi? Leave a comment! 🙂