The Sacred Landscape and Geomancy of Svayambhunath
by Anne Z. Parker and Dominique Susani
Svayambhunath holds a special place in the heart and history of the people of the Kathmandu Valley. As the site of the origin story of the people of the Valley, it operates, in essence, as the axis mundi or world center of Kathmandu Valley. It has this distinctive place among the other profound and compelling sacred sites of the Valley, each of which plays an important role in the lives of the Valley’s inhabitants. People are drawn to Svayambhunath to acknowledge births, deaths, and seasonal ceremonies, as well as to renew their sense of life purpose. It is a hill that magnetizes people from all over the Valley, the country, and the world. Its power to call one to darshan (sight, vision, or sacred witness) as a pilgrim or visitor is easy to sense, whether from afar across the Valley or when arriving breathlessly at the top of the long staircase on its eastern side. It is a sacred place that inspires and transforms.
This power of the sacred hill has been mirrored throughout the centuries in the stories and beliefs that surround it. Bernhard Kölver (1992: 19) notes that farm families who lived within the direct line of sight of Svayambhu avoided using plows and wielded short-handled hoes instead. These tools required them to work closer to the earth, able to see more clearly their impact on animal life in the soil, thus reducing the loss of life in accord with the custom that no animals be killed upon the sacred hill. The hill is literally covered with sacred structures: caityas (stupas), temples, and monasteries. Underlying the buildings, stories and the long-held reverence for the hill lies the energy of the hill itself. It is not simply by chance, or for the view, that this spot was identified as a sacred place.
Bijay Basukala’s cross-sectional diagram of the hill (see Figure 1) in Niels Gutschow’s The Nepalese Chaitya (1997: 90) reveals what has come to be understood by all who have surveyed and studied it: it is a large single rock outcrop covered with a moderate layer of soil produced by erosion that supports forest and other vegetation. Geological evidence reinforces the story that Kathmandu Valley was a large lake before it drained, and that the hill of Svayambhu stood above the level of this lake, as is reported in the ancient legends of the history of the Valley. Svayambhunath appears in the mythic history Svayambhu Stupa in 1920. as an eternal beacon, ever luminous, above the lake, then known as Kalirhad. MahaManjushri is said to have drained the lake by cutting open the mountain of Gorkarna in the north, Aryghat in the middle, and Chobhar in the south to give people access to crossing the valley to pay homage to “Swoyambhu Form of Light (Jyotirupa)” (Josephson, 1985). The hill itself was likely worshipped before any formal structures were placed upon it. Alexander von Rospatt has identified some sources from the fifth and seventh centuries that suggest “that the hillock was an important sacred place that was transformed into a Buddhist sanctuary upon the coming of Buddhism to the Valley” (p. 199). The location and structure of the hill, as well as its mythic, historical, and geologic history certainly make the hill stand out in the life of the Valley as a distinctive point. This would be enough to inspire us, but there is more that makes the hill a distinctly transformational place. The underlying earth energies in this spot are powerful and, given what we can determine in the present day, the people of the Valley knew well how to work with and even enhance these energies so as to magnify their transformative and healing properties. Human activity on Svayambhunath has been influenced by the ancient understanding of earth energies and how humans related to them. Geomancy, to use the English language term, is an ancient art known to our ancestors all over the world under various names— feng shui in East Asia, vastu in the Indian subcontinent, ‘the art of the master builders’ in Europe, as well as by many other names in countless other traditions and cultures.
Geomancy includes understanding of earth energies, solar, lunar, and celestial alignments, as well as elements of natural geometry used in building design to focus and magnify these energies. All of the great sacred sites of the world were understood in this light, and the ancient builders worked with these understandings within their unique cultural perspectives to build the sacred buildings. What this means in practical terms is that our ancestors knew how to find the healing earth energies that are beneficial to humans, and that they enhanced them or built sacred structures on top of them to intensify access to spiritual understanding.
The placement of sacred structures on Svayambhu is shaped by this kind of understanding, and was influenced by the patterns of earth energies beneath the hill. Our awareness of these patterns can enhance our appreciation of the wisdom of the ancestors and elders who built and maintain this sacred site. It also reminds us of the importance of the healing energies of the earth for our health and spiritual development, as well as our profound responsibility to preserve and protect our sacred sites and the living planet that is our home.
In interacting with powerful sacred sites, geomancers work to increase the possibility of conscious spiritual connection and contact. Places where underground water, fault, and other energy patterns come together can cause the human aura to expand, body energies to come into alignment, and human gateways to open to spiritual realms.
The art of sensing earth energies with the body is key to identifying energy patterns, and the use of dowsing rods that reflect the body’s response can be a helpful way to measure or demonstrate them. The methodology of dowsing can be said to be half in the realm of modern sciences—with its focus on electro-magnetic charge and its impact on the body—and half in the realm of the spiritual sciences—since to accomplish it requires a meditative state of mind clear of distracting thought and shaped by the intention to work for the benefit of all life.
Underground water and minor fault lines create a slight electro-magnetic charge that has an impact on the human body, generally on the endocrine system. Water lines are often felt in the area of the body with the most water, the bladder area, though some people may sense water lines in their kidneys, joints or hands, etc. Fault lines, referred to here as ‘fire lines,’ are often felt in the lung and throat areas, again with variations among individuals.
In selecting locations to build houses or ordinary dwellings, geomancers choose neutral locations (free of any fire or water lines) whenever possible to avoid the taxing effect of these water and minor fault lines on the glands of the body. When a person stands on these lines, most glandular activity is somewhat suppressed, with the exception of the adrenal gland, whose activity is increased. For a restful living location a neutral spot is best. However, for a transformative spiritual experience, placing temples, stupas, and other sacred structures directly on these lines is ideal. Well placed sacred structures can magnify and create beneficial energy fields for transformation and spiritual learning.
While beautiful and inspiring stupas and statues have appeared about the bottom of Svayambhu hill in recent decades, the primary area of ancient sacred structures is on the top of the hill, including the area of the Great Stupa, the saddle with the peace pond, and the Manjushri area on the adjacent hilltop. Each of these areas has distinctive patterns of water and fire lines that have influenced the placements of the sacred structures.
Underground water lines run as you would expect: from higher to lower places, in gullies where surface water does not appear, etc. On the top of the two joined hill tops and the saddle between them, the water lines are very nascent, i.e. in the very preliminary stages of movement downward, yet they energize the structures carefully placed upon them. In contrast to the flowing patterns of water lines, the minor fault lines or fire lines as they are referred to here, follow no particular pattern; they can stop and start anywhere and they can bend or go straight for a while depending on the earth material they run through, or the movement trends in the landscape over geological time. There are also some natural and human-enhanced forms like vortexes, wider fire lines, and lemniscates that also play a role on this sacred hill top area.
The top of the hill of Svayambhu, in the area of the Great Stupa and Shantipura temple, has strong earth energies in the form of numerous fire lines, as well as one major water line. The placement of the Nagpur temple and the Great Stupa itself make good use of both kinds of lines. The stunning patterns underneath each temple are clearly designed to give the person encountering them a direct physical experience of the element or sacred aspect that they represent. This kind of direct experience makes learning far more immediate than simply seeing symbols or hearing concepts. In such locations we can feel and be directly informed by the earth, the elements, and the fabric of the living planet.
The Great Stupa, which is traditionally described as representing and manifesting all five elements, is placed directly on top of the peak of the rock promontory, according to historical commentary. Geological testing has shown that the hill is made of a single large rock body, with a moderate accumulation of clay, soil, and accompanying vegetation upon it. The Great Stupa is located over the highest area of directly exposed rock. At the north side, directly through the site of Nagpur, the only major natural water line on the hill enters under the stupa. We can imagine its movement as it proceeds down under the earth along the sides of the rock promontory area. We can feel the result of the fire and water lines being magnified by the sacred geometrical proportions of the stupa in a stunning pattern of energy that radiates all around the stupa. This energy form is referred to as a lemniscate, and there are a whole series of them around the stupa. This shape is like an elongated figure eight or infinity sign that is three dimensional. A bit more of each “eight” is inside the stupa while a loop of it extends outside. This type of pattern is said to be very rare and indicates that the stupa is superbly designed to create a healing and transformational effect.
The loops of the lemniscates extend to just about the edge of the circular walking path around the stupa. When people are walking around the stupa they are within this energy pattern. This is a living form, like a whirlpool in a river that pulsates over time. Following the cycles of the moon, the loops change direction of flow over time. The loops of the lemniscates emerge out of or enter into each of the four directional (north, east, etc.) Buddha shrines and the mid-directional shrines (southwest, northwest, etc.) of the Feminine Enlightened beings (“consorts or Taras”), looping thence into the body of the stupa at a spot between each shrine (see Map 1). The pattern is not totally symmetrical as can be seen on the map. The Vairocana shrine is not a source of a loop, but has its own very powerful vortex energy. Each shrine and each spot on the side of the stupa where the lemniscates exit and enter generates a vortex as well.
The Harati Goddess temple is on the northwest side of the Great Stupa, just outside the walking path around the stupa. As can be seen on the map, it lies on a very large fire line that has likely been magnified by the use of stones or the temple itself. It also lies within a loop on a fire line that encircles it on three sides. The fire line may be the reason for placing the temple in its exact location. The effect in this area is very powerful. Fire line energy is often a major expression in Goddess temples.
Placed around the Great Stupa on nearby areas of the hilltop are five separate temples that each represent one of the five elements. Agnipur represents the element of Fire and the energy of the human body. This large smooth stone that protrudes from the ground is located on a crossing of two fire lines and at the source area for the only natural underground water line detectable in the immediate area of the Stupa. It is thus a very strong transformational spot for the human body where fire and water meet (typically at different levels in the earth‘s structure underground, although the energy felt at the surface is in one spot). When fire and water lines cross it is often a place where the chakras of the body are in essence “cleaned out.”
Nagpur, named for the Nāgas who are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells, and rivers, is on the north side of the Stupa, in a rectangular hole containing a long thin horizontal rod shaped symbol carved in bas-relief on the large stone at the bottom of the hole. It represents the element of Water and the blood of the human body. The underground water line that originates at Agnipur descends to Nagpur and then enters under the Stupa. This is quite a strong spot on the walk around the Stupa.
Vasupur temple is a small building on the southeast side of the Great Stupa area. It represents the element of Earth and the human body. As can be seen on Map 1, a significant fire line that connects the two tower temples extends into Vasupur at exactly the spot where the main Goddess statue sits. The Goddess of the earth is thus seated directly on this major earth energy.
Vayupur temple is a small building on the southwestern side of the Great Stupa. It represents the element of Air or wind and the breath of the human body. The western half of the temple is on the magnified fire line that runs through the Harati Temple. Since fire lines are often felt in the lung area, one may feel a strong sensation in this part of the body when standing here.
Shantipur temple is a large rectangular building to the northwest and just downhill from the Great Stupa area. This temple represents Spirit or all of the elements. It is located on a highly charged crossing of three fire lines.
In addition to the temples for the five elements, there are three towers in the immediate area of the Great Stupa. Bhairaba Temple is the smallest of these three tower temples. Within it, facing towards the east, is the protector deity of the hill, Bhairaba, in the form of a statue. Three fire lines cross here, making this a highly charged spot. Pratap Pur (North) and Ananta Pur (South) Tower Temples are the two tall tower temples that frame the Stupa when viewed from the east. They are each on a crossing of three fire lines and are connected to each other along one of these lines which also passes beneath the powerful Vajra at the top of the long staircase. Their location at these fire line crossings may be the reason that they were not placed symmetrically along a straight north-south line.
Down below the hilltop of the Great Stupa is the saddle between the two hilltops, also referred to as the Peace Pond. In this area the existing fire and water lines have been put to creative use. Some stupas are located on fire lines and some at the very start of water lines. There are a number of stupas placed on neutral ground as well. The associated Pulasegu area has a stupa and other significant shrines well placed on fire and water lines.
On the west side of the second hilltop lies the Manjushri area, where the powerful Manjushri/Saraswati Temple is located. Here again we find a massive fire line that appears to be enhanced or expanded by the temple itself. Under the central gold lotus in the ground in front of the temple a water line begins. Another water line also begins within the temple itself and goes under the pedestal behind the temple before heading down off the ridge. The large stones imbedded in the stone platform in front of the temple within the overall area of paving stones may play an important role in directing and widening the fire energy in front of the temple where offerings are made. Like the location of the Harati Temple, this is a very strong area of earth energy. The small shrine by the tree to the side of the main temple also marks the beginning of an underground water line. As with the hilltop and the saddle areas, this is an area of water lines in the very preliminary stages of movement downward.
The temples, great statues, and other stupas located below the hilltop area, around the base of Svayambhu hill, have also often been well placed on earth energy lines, and are in themselves charged spots for the human body. In addition to the specific earth energies influencing and driving the location of each temple throughout the whole site, the temples generate their own energy fields over time, as well as interconnections among one another. The temples thus are linked by large energetic lines which represent a compounding of the impact of each temple by its relationship with the other ones nearby, an outcome undoubtedly hoped for by the builders of these monuments. All of this further suggests that the features of Svayambhu as a whole—the land, the stupa, and all the temples—join together in a very powerful overall energetic field that draws us, the pilgrims, into alignment and contact with more subtle dimensions and understandings.
Natural or Sacred Geometry
Throughout the world, ancient stone circles, temples, and great sacred buildings have been built on places determined by the natural geometry of the latitude and shaped by the movements of the sun and the moon in those locations, thus creating geometric proportions that magnify the earth energies beneath the buildings. The natural geometry of each location on earth expresses itself as a naturally arising mandala specific to its latitude, which is based on the locations of sunrises and sunsets at the time of the summer and winter solstices. The design of the Great Stupa of Svayambhu, which was shaped by the South Asian tradition of working with these alignments and energies known as vastu, draws on these geometric proportions to magnify and enhance the earth energies below and align with the celestial above, particularly the solar and lunar patterns. The key to the natural mandala for Svayambhu, shown below, reveals the angles of the solstices and equinoxes specific to the latitude and place. These angles of the latitude generate a rectangle called the Sosticial Quadrilateral (known as the SQ). The mandala and the SQ together provide the blueprint for the work of sacred and harmonious building. Drawing or seeing this pattern and the mandalas arising from it tunes our bodies to the energies of Svayambhu, which are even stronger when we are there in person.
When the SQ is turned at exact right angles (see Mandala 1), we find the Lunar Quadrilateral (known as the LQ), which marks the full 18.6 year cycle of moonrises and moonsets at Svayambhu. Thus the patterns of the sun and moon in this exact spot are fully expressed in the energetic patterns of the mandala. When the SQ and LQ are enclosed within a rectangle (see Mandala 2), we find the Mother or Earth Square.
Around the four corners of the Mother Square a circle is generated which is known as the Mother or Earth Circle. This is the outer limit of the specific energy pattern or mandala of that particular place. Within this area the sacred building can be designed to meet and join these heaven and earth energies. Thus buildings built in alignment within this space will be highly energized, harmonious, and beneficial to life.
When a natural mandala forms by designation of a central spot (see Mandala 3), the circles of the elements automatically manifest, somewhat like the pattern of ripples that form when a stone is thrown into water. These are not simply geometric patterns; they are energy harmonics that can be felt by the human body. The elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Quintessence (or Ether) and Air form as concentric circles within the dimensions of the Mother Circle and Square. Most traditional Newari and Tibetan Buddhist mandalas— paintings or sand mandalas—show these circles of the elements in an artistic manner around the central figure or pattern of the mandala. This is because it is the natural pattern in that place. Note that these circles of the elements also coincide with musical notes, as shown on Mandala 4.
The Mother Square (see Mandala 4) generates within it the harmonics of what are referred to as the “sons and daughters of the Mother.” These vertically and diagonally aligned squares within squares create proportions that also often serve as the basis for the size and proportions of temples built within the mandala. The proportions shown in each of these mandalas provide the basis for analyzing the shape, size, and alignment of the sacred buildings on Svayambhu. As mentioned above, in this mandala, the circles of the elements are shown with their corresponding musical notes, mirroring the natural harmonics of the place. Now we come to placing the Great Stupa of Svayambhu within its energetic mandala, noting how it has been designed to harmonize and magnify the natural energies. First it is useful to observe Bijay Basukala’s diagram of the Stupa from Niels Gutschow’s book The Nepalese Chaitya (1997: 89). Here we see that the four Tathagatas—Amitabha, Ratnasambhava, Akshobhya, and Amoghasiddhi—are each enshrined in a golden niche spaced around the Stupa, located generally in the cardinal direction with which each is usually associated. The fifth Tathagata, Vairocana, who is most often indicated by the center or whole of a stupa, is shown enshrined in his own golden niche on the southeastern side of the Stupa. Balancing these male Buddhas are their five female consorts, with Tara, Sapta Locana, Mamaki Tara, and Pandara each with their own golden shrine, and Vairocana’s consort Vajradhatvisvari located in a stone niche.
Now some interesting patterns emerge (see Mandala 5). When observing the Great Stupa within its energetic mandala, we can see that it is aligned to 12 degrees east of true north. Because the declination of magnetic north from true north in Kathmandu is at 0 degrees 3 minutes East, we can determine that the Great Stupa and the temples have not been aligned 12 degrees off of true north because of magnetic declination, i.e. they have not been aligned with magnetic north instead of true north. Taking into consideration the margin of error created by estimating the angle of the solstice at the (relatively unclear) time period when the Stupa is said to have been built, and the inaccuracies that arise out of working with handheld compasses, we can see a clear possibility emerge for a reason that the Stupa is aligned at 12 degrees from true north. The feminine principle appears to ground and activate the key elements of the mandala. Sapta Locana aligns closely with the direction of sunrise at the summer solstice, while Pandara, located exactly opposite her, is aligned with sunset at the winter solstice. Tara and Mamaki, who are opposite one another, mark the furthest points of the Lunar Quadrilateral and thus delineate the full extent of the movement of the moon rises and sets. The Tathagata Vairocana, regarded as the oldest or first Tathagata, marks the sunrise at the winter solstice, while his consort Vajradhatvisvari grounds the Stupa by being aligned with the corner of the Mother Square. The four remaining Tathagatas, based on this hand drawing, range from 12–20 degrees off the exact cardinal direction they are associated with. Thus it appears that the Stupa is aligned specifically to the locations for the consorts and Vairocana, with the Tathagatas accommodating the alignment. This pattern beautifully expresses grounding the solar and lunar cycles of this latitude and location, and demonstrates a joining of the earth and celestial energies in this spot. Knowing the alignment of the mandala allows us to further understand the placement, proportions, and alignments of the other temples and shrines of the hilltop. It is interesting to note that the temples Vasupur, Vayupur, the smaller tower of Bhairava Temple, Hartima, and Shanitpur, as well as the two tall tower temples, Pratap Pur (North) and Ananta Pur (South), are all each individually aligned to 12 degrees from true north. In seeing these patterns and the choices made by the builders of the Great Stupa and the temples, we are able to track the wisdom of the ancestors, rediscovering and admiring their efforts to work in harmony with heaven and earth, leaving to all subsequent generations a place that enhances insight, learning, and spiritual awareness.
Our exploration of Svayambhu hill has revealed the elegant energy patterns generated by the earth and the Great Stupa that create a healing and transformational space for pilgrims to walk within as they circumambulate the Stupa. Each major temple has been carefully placed to enhance both the physical and spiritual experiences of those who come to pray, meditate, worship, or simply visit there. The temples for each of the elements are literally placed on top of an energy associated with that element, so that we are invited into a direct physical awareness of the element as we stand there. Although we may speak different languages and experience, at any moment, feelings and insights unique to our needs and sensibilities, we may all sense and feel the power of Svayambhu as a healing place that well deserves its designation as a World Heritage site. Svayambhu also deserves our active support to preserve and maintain it, not only through words, but through actions. It is important to note the AC electrical current is not compatible with the energy generated by the Great Stupa and is actually detrimental to it. It is hoped that over time the AC electricity used in the area can be converted to DC and solar power to protect and preserve the healing energies of this sacred place.
Sacred buildings are aligned with the energies of the earth below and celestial bodies above to support spiritual awakening. We as human beings located between heaven and earth are responsible for joining these energies through our pure intentions, deep gratitude, and reverence for all life. If we are open to the instructions of the earth, the elements, the celestial bodies, and the sacred fabric of life around us, we in turn become an embodiment of the healing energies of Svayambhu hill.
This is an invitation to all who visit Svayambhu to sense, feel, love, learn from, and protect it. It is a place of ongoing inner and outer renewal that invites us to our own periodic renovation.
We would like to express our warm thanks to the families of Svayambhu, and especially Acharya Ishwor Buddhacharya, for their kind generosity. We are grateful to Tsering Gellek, Karen Monesi, and Nicholas Susani, as well as all the staff of the Stupa renovation project for supporting the research that underlies this chapter. Finally, we are deeply grateful to the beautiful sacred hill of Svayambhu for her teachings and blessings.
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von Rospatt, Alexander. “A Historical Overview of the Renovation of the Svayambhucaitya at Kathmandu” (Journal of the Nepal Research Centre 12 (2001), pp. 195–241).
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Around the world we have built many Healing Structures, from Chakra Paths to Labyrinths, Cromlechs, and Medicine Wheels. You can click on the points and see some of the structures!