Legends say that in the aeons before human habitation the Kathmandu lake valley was a swamp populated only by serpents and hungry ghosts. The valley was hidden from humanity by the magic of the naga as well as a ring of impassible mountains.

A travelling Bodhisatva named Manjusri saw the condition of the hidden valley. He judged it wise to sow a seed in the mud of the centre of the lake.

From the seed a surpassingly beautiful lotus grew.

The lotus flowered. From the radiance of the flower's beauty, a flame (some versions indicate a crystal) of light spontaneously ignited.

Hence the name - "Swayambhunath". "The place of the Self-Created Flame".

The radiance and perfection of the lotus flower purified the valley. The serpents and evil spirits fled. The Kathmandu Valley was now a place of potential refuge for the people who suffered in the nearby wilderness and small vulnerable villages. 

Seeing the people, Manjusri was filled with compassion. He cleaved the mountainside which ringed the lake on all sides with the edge of his hand.

This caused the lake to drain and allowed the people to enter and build the wooden shanty which grew into Kathmandu.

In gratitude the people raised a mound and built a stupa around the lotus flower to honour Manjusri as their guardian and preserve the beauty of the lotus.

Where the lotus is said to have flowered, the hill and shrine of Swayambhunath still stand today. A gompa houses a community of Buddhist monks there. The surrounding forest teems with monkeys. Hundreds of tourists and pilgrims visit every day.


There is a hidden gate that nobody but the head of the monastery can open. Only the head monk enters, and goes down into the darkness of the caverns at the centre of the hill, the sanctuary of the lotus-flower.

Nobody but the head of the monastery goes down there, with only one exception known to living memory.

In a time of great civil strife, the king was invited to climb down the steps with the head monk, the king is said to have been called to receive a gift.

I knew a man who told me that when the king returned from the cold, wet, dark, he was holding a huge bronze bound scroll in his shaking hands.

Some legends say that thousands of years ago Manjusri ended his travels and decided to withdraw from the world. He returned to Kathmandu and went down under the hill to meditate.

Some say that after thousands of years Manjusri is no longer human, but he remains there, unable or unwilling to die.

In the dark under the hill or perhaps in the light of the lotus-flower. In the middle of a city of millions. Something called the king to Swayambhu that day and saved the valley.

But that is a story for another day.

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