Desecration on the hippie trail

June 23, 1995

In the late 1950s when I decided to study the art and architecture of Nepal, I had very little published literature to guide me through a bewildering maze of monasteries and temples, monuments and mansions jostling one another in the five principal cities and towns of the Kathmandu Valley. Most shrines could only be reached on foot, there were no maps and certainly no guides, either of the two-legged kind or the printed variety.

In the late 1960s and 1970s Nepal became a mecca for hippies, particularly American youths disillusioned with the Vietnam war. Tourists and scholars, especially from Europe, "discovered" Nepal, descending on what was still a "picturesque and tranquil" country thereby catapulting it into the modern world. One unfortunate result was the depredation of many of its monuments due to the avarice of hippies turned entrepreneurs, many of whom are respectable dealers today. They were aided and abetted by the citizens of Nepal who appear quite indifferent to preserving their heritage.

A graphic example of the indifference towards and even wilful damage of art works can be seen in this book. The beautiful face of Siva in a 6th century sculpture has now lost its elegant nose. And the half-buried garuda (sun bird) image on the roadside in Indrapur in Kathmandu has been neatly decapitated, presumably to satisfy a collector somewhere. It is incomprehensible why the authorities did not remove the sculpture to a museum.

Although a number of books have been published since the 1970s on the cultural heritage of Nepal, most are meant for scholars. In that sense, this guide by Michael Hutt and his co-authors will serve a very useful purpose. A guide for the serious tourist, it will also provide an informative and easily readable introduction to the art and architecture of the Kathmandu Valley at least at the undergraduate level.

With this dual goal in mind the book has been organised in two sections. The first begins with a sketch of the political and cultural history of the Kathmandu Valley as well as some areas outside. Then an outline is provided of the two major religions - Hinduism (dominant now) and Buddhism - that have co-existed in the country for centuries and have inspired the much-admired art and architecture. This chapter will be helpful in understanding the religions as practised today and as an introduction to the numerous deities represented in the art.

The book then provides brief overviews of the history of the architecture and the various art forms such as sculpture in stone, metal and wood as well as painting. The Newari craftsmen have been particularly deft in wood-carving and their handiwork was admired as early as the 7th century by the visiting Chinese ambassador Wang Hsuan-tse. Alas, here again some of the finest and earliest examples left the country in recent years.

The weakest is the essay on painting which could have been illustrated with one or two examples from museums and libraries in the valley or in the West. Indeed, in the second part of the book as well, very few of the existing murals are illustrated even in the otherwise adequate discussions of individual buildings where such murals do exist.

The second part of the book contains a detailed guide to the numerous monuments and wayside shrines, palaces and noteworthy mansions that give the urban centres of the valley their distinctive character. They are veritable labyrinths of narrow streets and quaint buildings and are difficult to navigate without any street signs or marker posts. Thus the book will be enormously helpful to the keen visitor strolling through the lanes and byways of Kathmandu or Patan.

However today the visitor is likely to be enveloped in thick layers of smog which, alas, will undoubtedly contribute to the spoliation of the monuments, just as devastatingly as the art thieves. In addition to the three principal cities, the several sacred precincts of Deopatan and Changunarayan with their rich artistic heritage are also discussed and it is nice to see a short section on Kirtipur, a typically Newari town which may not be on every tourist's itinerary but well worth the effort.

The book should have closed with the Kirtipur account. Curiously, as if as an afterthought, a chapter was added entitled "Three sculptures of the Gupta period," where the two sleeping Vishnu images of Balaju and Budhanilkantha and the Varaha at Dhumvarahi are introduced. Why they needed such exclusive treatment is not clear.

Even less comprehensible and justifiable is the use of the expression "Gupta period" in the chapter heading. In the context of Nepal "Lichchhavi period" would have been more appropriate.

Except for this strange blemish, this is a good synthesis of the great deal of scholarly research that have been done on Nepali history and culture since the late 1950s. Handy and transportable, the volume is enriched with 290 illustrations and 22 maps and plans, as well as a chronology, glossary, bibliography and index.

Pratapaditya Pal is senior curator, Indian and Southeast Asian Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Nepal: A Guide to the Art and Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley

Author - Michael Hutt with D. N. Gellner, A. Michaels, G. Rana and G. Tandan
ISBN - 1870838 76 9
Publisher - Kiscadale
Price - £25.00
Pages - 238

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