Swoyambunath Stupa, Nepal

In October, 2008, my partner and I spent a week in the Kathmandu Valley. We stayed at the Hyatt overlooking the Boudnath Temple, more correctly spelled Boudhanath stupa, although you’ll find it both ways. I’ll do another post on Boudhanath, this post is to write about our visit to Swayambunath stupa.

Swoyambunath Stupa

Swoyambunath Stupa, Nepal

Both Boudhnath and Swayambunath have similarities. Devotees circumambulating (big word for walking around) the temples. Both of these temples attract a large Tibetan following. While I was sweating in my short sleeves and light pants, many of these folks were wearing heavy parkas. Ok, not all, but it’s always interesting to see what the weather does to people. Interesting, too, because it was fairly warm in Nepal, where I understand it’s pretty damn cold in Tibet.

I bought a little book after I returned because I wanted to learn more about Swayambunath and I’d taken so many pictures as usual. The book was written by an Englishman named Richard Josephson who lived there for three years and learned about “Swoyambu” from the locals and the pilgrims who continually come to visit in great numbers.

“The origin of the Swoyambhu Valley and its human habitation, with its first town, Manjupattan, is based on the prehistoric legends of the Swoyambhu Maha-chaitya.

Among all the established chaityas and stupas in the Asian continent, the Swoyambhu Maha-chaitya is one of the most ancietn ones, and it is distinguished by its uniquely significant and artistic structures. It is a central symbol of the Buddhist heritage of Nepal.”

-page 1, Swoyambu “The Origin of the ‘Swoyambhu Mahachaitya’

So, I think it’s in order to start off with a definition of stupa, which is (usually) a dome shaped architectural monument protecting some aspect of the Buddha’s personhood, such as ashes, hair or tooth. In Nepal, where Tibetan Buddhism is widely practiced, the stupas are worshipped by circumambulation, as mentioned above.

When we arrived there a monk was chanting while flipping the pages of a small Buddhist canon. I appreciated his graciousness to allow me to take a video of him. I watch this over and over and never get tired of it.

Mani Wheels (Prayer Wheels)

As Tibetan Buddhists walk around the stupa, they twirl each mani wheel while reciting mantras, such as ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ stimulating compassion.

Mani Prayer Wheels at Swoyambunath Stupa

Shakyamuni Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha, Swoyambunath, Nepal

Adshobhya Buddha statue

Adshobhya Buddha statue, Swoyambunath Stupa, Nepal


Deva Avatar Bodhisattva

Deva Avatar Bodhisattva, Swoyambunath

Shukavati Lokesvara

Shukavati Lokesvara, Swoyambunath, Nepal

Prayer Flags (Everywhere, they’re so wonderfully colorful and alive)

Prayer Flags, Swoyambunath, Nepal

Naga and the Buddha

Nagas are everywhere in Buddhist art and architecture.

In order to visit Angkor Thom in Cambodia, you need to walk across a bridge adorned on either side with the Naga balistrade. Here the Naga provides protection from the moat and linkage between heaven and earth. King Jayavarman VII, who reigned in Cambodia during the building of Bayon and Angkor Thom, among other major temples of the period late 12th to early 13th century. (See angkorwat.marlandc.com for a full set of Angkor Wat photos taken during my travels there in 2001.)

During my visit to the Prasart Museum in Bangkok (for more information on Prasart see earlier post), I took this picture of a sandstone carving which was originally the corner piece of a pediment at a temple in northeastern Thailand. It depicts a Naga emerging from the mouth of a Makara. According to a website, The Naga and Makara, the Makara is a creature combining the crocodile, the elephant and the serpent. This turns out to be a common theme among Naga carvings and sculptures throughout SE and Central Asia.

Cornerstone decorated with Naga, sandstone, Khmer, 11th century.

Another recurring story is that of Mucalinda, the serpent who protected Gautama or Sakyamuni Buddha while he was meditating in Bodh Gaya. It rained for a week, causing the waters to rise, but Mucalinda wrapped its coils beneath the Buddha to create a seat and covered his body with its seven heads to keep him dry.

Buddha meditating under Naga, Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka.

In Laos, the naga has a special place in Mekong River lore and daily life. At the end of Buddhist Lent, locals claim to witness a naga fireball rising from the river. As well, people sacrifice to the naga for protection from danger while traveling on the river.

Naga guarding temple entrance, Luang Prabang, Laos.

Naga stairway at Doi Suthep at Chiang Mai

Sukhothai, 15th century Buddha Image

In late 2005, during a trip to Bangkok, we visited the Prasart Museum on the outskirts of the city. This continually expanding museum is the realization of Prasart Vongsakul. His lifelong love of Thai antiquities matched with his years of being a successful businessman allowed him to fulfill his dream. As he puts it so eloquently,

The Prasart Museum is the realization of my dream to house in one place prehistoric artefacts, Buddha images, statues of Brahman gods, pottery, Thai furniture, Thai paintings, and Thai and Chinese porcelains, as well as objects from other parts of Asia and elsewhere.

I took a number of photographs with my little Nikon Coolpix 4500. Photographs were not allowed inside some of the buildings. This photo of a Buddhist image was taken in the interior of the chapel. Every building on the property is a replication of some form of traditional Thai architecture. This chapel was built to replicate a Rattanakosin style viharn, or sermon hall. The viharn is the most popular building at a Buddhist Wat, open to everyone.

BUDDHA IMAGE gilded bronze, Sukhothai, 15th century Photograph
by Cheryl Marland

William Warren in The Prasart Museum – Treasures of Thailand, 1990 offers a description of this image as follows,

“This image, in the attitude of Subduing Mara, was probably made in the satellite city of Kamphaeng Phet at a time when the political power of Sukhothai had already succumbed to the rising force of Ayutthaya. This is a post-classic image and although the proportions of the body are still those of the golden period of Sukhothai art, the face is somehow less spiritual than those of the classic period. Other stylistic differences are the more elongated proportions of the flame and the equal length of the fingers.”

Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

The Golden Mountain Temple

Dambulla Cave Temples Exterior

We arrived at the Dambulla Cave Temples in the late afternoon. Our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our guide, a middle aged wiry Sri Lankan, who we quickly learned possessed a passionate wealth of knowledge about Buddhism and the Cave Temples.

Meditating Buddha in Cave 1I had my camera and tripod because I wanted to get good pictures of the amazing Buddhist artwork in the caves. I had no idea we were also going to learn so much from our guide. He was insistent, as most great teachers are, that I pay full attention to him before shooting photographs. I was happy to oblige.

Dambulla Cave Temples is one of the largest cave temple complexes in SE Asia. It is also well visited as a pilgrimage site. In one cave our guide asked, “why do you think there are so many Buddhas side by side lining the walls of this cave?” Being the clueless, non-Buddhist Westerner that I am, I wondered the same thing! It’s very simple. This is so that there are plenty of Buddhas for the pilgrims to pray to. While it was nice to be there when it wasn’t very crowded, being witness to hundreds of pilgrims would have been an amazing experience.

Seated Buddhas Meditation under Naga

Our guide spoke emphatically of Buddhism being a philosophy rather than a religion with the most important message being the teaching of meditation or “no mind.” Everywhere in the caves are Buddha images in meditation. I felt at peace just being in the presence of such quiet meditative wisdom (or non-wisdom). Not only that, but the artistry on the walls and ceilings of the caves was captivating. All of my senses were alive with the wonder of it all.

Background and History

The cave temples, otherwise known as the Golden Mountain Temple, are located in central Sri Lanka. According to UNESCO, around the 3rd century BC, this area became the location for the largest Buddhist monastic settlements on the island of Sri Lanka.

There are 5 caves with the Maharaja Vihara being the oldest and most architecturally significant. A vihara was an early Sanskrit word for Buddhist dwelling, which took on greater meaning as time went on. Caves 1, 2 and 4 where built in the 1st century BC. The 3rd cave was built during the reign of Kirti Srirajasimha, the King of Kandy, in the 18th century and the 5th is the newest, repainted in 1915.

Cave 5In this picture in cave 5, you can see that the paint is peeling. This is due to the use of chemical rather than natural paint pigments, which have proven to be less resilient. Also the later cave statues were created using plaster vs. stone in the older caves.

Nirvana and parinirvana were major elements in each cave temple, as I’ll demonstrate in pictures that follow. The following attributes of parinirvana were explained by our guide. The picture on the left illustrates the feet of the Buddha in parinirvana. The feet are are exactly one above the other in the nirvana pose. The picture on the right shows the flame above the Buddha’s head in nirvana. This is missing in parinirvana.

Parinirvana Feet Nirvana Flame

Characteristics of Parinirvana
1. Eyes are half closed vs. open
2. No flame above the head
3. Open palm
4. Empty (flat) stomach
5. Feet slightly apart

Painted Buddha
Cave 4: Photography was banned for a time in recent history because a tourist sat on a Buddha statue to have her picture taken. You can see in this picture that this Buddha is more brightly painted than any other in this room. If you visit these sites, you must be respectful.The rule in the cave temples is that while you can take photos of the Buddhas, you cannot take photos of people. This prevents people from taking disrespectful photos of themselves or others with the Buddhas.

What follows is a slide show of some of the photos I took while climbing the stairs to the caves and inside all five caves. If you click on any picture, you will get a description of it. The Dambulla Cave temples are a magnificent artistic tribute to the Kandyan artists of the late 18th century, who brought the walls to vibrant life, especially in Maharaja Vihara or Cave 2, the largest of the cave temples. However, some of the surviving art goes back much earlier and has survived amazingly well.

Wat Sene, Luang Prabang

Wat Sene was built in 1714, otherwise known as the Temple of the Patriarch. This temple is located right on the main road in all its conspicuous glory with gold stencilling applied directly to the outer walls. The doors are carved with gilded figures of divinities and mythical animals. The windows are adorned with gold stencilled balusters.

The monks work on the restorations of these temples. This one was restored in 1957 commemorating the Buddha’s birth 2500 years earlier. I wrote a short description with each photograph, to see click on the photo.