Swayambhu (or Swayambhunath), magnificently set atop a conical hill 2km west of Thamel, is a great place to get your bearings, geographically and culturally, in your first few days in Nepal: the hill commands a sweeping view of the Kathmandu Valley, and the temple complex is overrun with pilgrims and monkeys.

The ancient stupa – which has benefited from a recent renovation – is the most profound expression of Buddhist symbolism in Nepal (many bahal in the valley contain a replica of it), and the source of the valley’s creation myth. Inscriptions date the stupa to the fifth century, and there’s reason to believe the hill was used for animist rites even before Buddhism arrived in the valley two thousand years ago. Tantric Buddhists consider it the chief “power point” of the Kathmandu Valley; one chronicle states that an act of worship here carries thirteen billion times more merit than anywhere else. To call it the “Monkey Temple” (its tourist nickname) is to trivialize it.

The apparently simple structure belies an immensely complex physical representation of Buddhist cosmology, and the purpose of walking round it is to meditate on this. The solid, whitewashed dome (garbha) symbolizes the womb or creation. Set in niches at the cardinal points, statues of dhyani (meditating) Buddhas correspond to the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and a fifth, placed at an angle, to the sky or space. Each represents a different aspect of Buddhahood: the hand positions, colours and “vehicles” (the animal statues below) of each are significant. The dhyani Buddhas are the same characters who appear on virtually every chaitya around the Kathmandu Valley. At each of the sub-cardinal points sit female counterparts, who in tantric Buddhism represent the wisdom aspect that must be united – figuratively speaking – with the compassionate male force to achieve enlightenment.

The gilded cube (harmika) surmounting the stupa surrounds a thick wooden pillar, which may be considered the phallic complement to the female dome. The eyes painted on it are those of the all-seeing Adi-Buddha (primordial Buddha), staring in all four directions. Between the eyes is a curl of hair (urna), one of the identifying features of a Buddha; the thing that looks like a nose is a miraculous light emanating from the urna (it can also be interpreted as the Nepali figure “one”, conveying the unity of all things). A spire of gold disks stacked above the pillar represents the thirteen steps to enlightenment, while the torana, or gold plaques above the painted eyes, also show the five dhyani Buddhas, known collectively as the panchabuddha. Finally, the umbrella at the top symbolizes the attainment of enlightenment: some say it contains a bowl filled with precious gems.

Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the surrounding area has become home to many exiled Tibetans. You’ll see them and many other Buddhist pilgrims making a full circumambulation (kora) of the hill, queuing up to spin the gigantic fixed prayer wheels and the six thousand smaller ones that encircle the perimeter, and frequently twirling their own hand-held ones. The place is so steeped in lore and pregnant with detail you’ll never absorb it all in a single visit. Try going early in the morning at puja time, or at night when the red-robed monks pad softly around the dome, murmuring mantras.

A paved road circles the base of the hill. Although there are several other ways up, the steep main path from the eastern entrance, with its three-hundred-odd centuries-smoothed steps, is the most dramatic. The Buddha statues near the bottom are from the seventeenth century, while a second group further up was donated in the early part of the twentieth century. The chiselled slates sold by entrepreneurs along the path are mani stones, inscribed, in Tibetan script, with the ubiquitous Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum – “Hail to the jewel in the lotus”. Swayambhu stupa is surrounded by an incredible array of shrines and votive items, most of which have been donated over the past four centuries by merit-seeking kings and nobles.