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The Monkey Temple of Kathmandu

When my friend, Rosemary, returned from Kathmandu in 1967, all she talked about was the “monkeys.” She said they were “everywhere.”

“Something must have happened to the monkeys,” I said when I visited Katmandu in 2014. I had seen very few, and most were at the airport.

Then, I discovered the  “monkey temple” in the inner city of Kathmandu.

Finding the right spot

The last day I was in Nepal, the tour group I had joined was scheduled to fly over Mount Everest in a small airplane. We arrived at the airport early in the morning, eager to get on our way. The aircraft was loaded to take off when the Captain said it was too foggy for us to see the mountain range.


Rather than spoil the day, I set out to find monkeys. Asking around, I was told about the Monkey Temple. It was on a hill on the other side of the city from the airport. The only way to do it was straight through the morning traffic. Grabbing a local cab, I was off.

The traffic and road through town were horrific.

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Traffic in Katmandu

When I arrived at the Monkey Temple, there was no doubt this was at the right spot. Monkeys were everywhere.

Monkey Temple, Kathmandu
Monkey Temple, Kathmandu
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Monkeys in Katmandu

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Swayambhunath – The Monkey Temple

The “Monkey Temple,” or Swayambhunath, is one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal. The centerpiece of the complex is a large stupa. The stupa is surrounded by hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu shrines and temples.

Stupa at Monkey Temple
Stupa at Monkey Temple

The history of the Swayambhunath has roots in fact and tradition. Some credit its beginning to the fifth century King Vṛsadeva. Others say it was built by Emperor Ashoka in the third century.

It is the mythology of the Swayambhunath religious complex, however, that Buddhists and Hindus revere. 

According to legend, an early Buddhist deity (Mañjuśrī) was led to the place that is now Swayambhunath to find a holy lotus flower he had seen in a vision. Reaching the site, he saw it was covered by a vast lake. He envisioned the area as an ideal settlement for humans — a valley with a stupa sitting on a hill high above it — just like a lotus flower atop its stem.

Mañjuśrī cut a gorge to drain the lake, which now is the valley where Kathmandu lies. 

Monkey Temple above valley of Kathmandu
Monkey Temple above the valley of Kathmandu

Monkeys come into the story because Mañjuśrī was supposedly a young man with short hair when he began building the hill and stupa.

His hair was long and filled with lice when his work was done. Monkeys symbolize the head lice that jumped out of his hair.

Monkeys at Swayambhunath, Kathmandu
Monkeys at Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

Many believe that holy monkeys reside at the temple, hence, the “Monkey Temple.”


Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims flock to the holy place. They climb 365 steps to reach the top of the hill.

365 Steps to the Monkey Temple
365 Steps to the Monkey Temple

Shrines and temples galore

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Praying in Katmandu
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Katmandu Monkey Temple








Vendors and shops all around the temple grounds


Shops at the Monkey Temple
Shops at the Monkey Temple
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Shopping in Katmandu

For me, it was not about stores and shopping this time. It was all about the monkeys.

Monkey Temple, Katmandu
Monkey Temple, Katmandu

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