Across time and space



Across time and space

Nepal: Old Images, New Insights, edited by Pratapaditya Pal, Marg Publications, Rs. 2,500

PRATAPADITYA PAL introduces Marg's new book on Nepal in an agreeably fanciful manner, with a remark that Sherlock Holmes could have made but did not:

"No other people on earth, Watson, has produced such intricate beauty in as small a space as the Valley of Kathmandu. One trenchant observer has described it best as a kind of coral reef, built up laboriously over the centuries by unrecorded artisans. As a human achievement, it ranks with the creations of Persia and Italy."

"Good Lord, Holmes, and no one even knows of its existence ... ."

Professor Riccardi of Columbia University imagines this dialogue in a recent study, and though one could challenge the comparison with Persia and Italy on quantitative grounds, the sheer concentration of splendid art-objects in so small a space sets Nepal apart. Till the 19th-Century and well into the 20th-Century, Newari artists were little known, yet they were as skilled as any in the subcontinent. The book provides an overview of their work spanning 1,700 years, from the Second to the 19th Centuries.

Stone sculptures are not as common here as in other Asian countries, and generally stand out in the open. The oldest is a full-length portrait of King Jayavarman, over five feet tall, dated 185 C.E. and discovered as late as 1992. Others are related to the cult of Vishnu, revered more than Shiva in Nepal. A huge one, 18 ft. long, shows the God asleep on the naga Sheshya, his relaxed posture contrasting sharply with the powerfully twisted coils on which he reclines. Naga myths of both Hindu and Buddhist origin abound, and are frequently represented in Nepali art.

A magnificent work reproduced on the book cover depicts baby Krishna taming Kaliya, where again tension is created by the juxtaposition of opposites. The snake's body rises in wildly knotted coils to form a dramatic pyramid topped by his human head and torso, as Krishna thrashes it with a whip. As Pal points out, the unknown sculptor shows a remarkable understanding of the psychology of the divine child pitted against the monster arrogant in his self-delusion.


A seminal chapter is devoted to explaining Tantric concepts that have shaped the theology and iconography of Nepali art in both its Hindu and Buddhist forms. The mandalas are seen as symbolic representations of time and space that mediate between the mundane and cosmic worlds, but these dimensions are also depicted in anthropomorphic terms. A huge painting shows a many-headed Guhyakali with her thousand arms outstretched to encompass space, and two of her four feet resting on the gods of the sun and the moon. It would help the reader's understanding of this rather abstruse chapter if the author had indicated which illustration is described at a given point in the text, as the other contributors have done.

In Part 2, devoted to painting, the mood is light-hearted and the colours so vivid that they appear to spill out of the pages. The first chapter describes a large family portrait of a size (roughly six feet by five feet) rarely found in South Asia. Dated circa 1470 it was discovered very recently by the Editor of this volume. The inscription identifies the subject as the military governor of an important town, with his two wives, their elaborately rendered clothing and jewellery indicating their affluence and social standing. Each background detail, for instance the brocaded canopy embroidered with Chinese dragons and foliage, enhances this impression, and various pictorial strategies suggest that the scene is an amorous one taking place in a bedroom.

Toilette requisites such as a silver mirror, a jewel box, hairpins, are scattered over the floor, and erotic emblems include a pair of parakeets and a wife offering a paan to her husband, both of which are mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Here is a painting unique in its subject, and outstanding for virtuosity of execution. Further, it has left us an invaluable record of a particular life-style in medieval Nepal nowhere else so faithfully delineated.

Contrasting with the intimate domesticity of this painting is an equally accomplished one dated two centuries later, showing the temple of the goddess Taleju in Kathmandu busy with the activity of a great occasion. In the top register is the temple, towering over the human participants and dominating the composition. At the entrance stand the king, his wife, sons and courtiers weighing a young prince in a balance against gems and precious metals. They wear jamas, turbans and jewellery in the Mughal style fashionable in the Himalayan kingdom at the time, and the trappings of horses and elephants, the large number of musicians, and indeed the ritual itself, look oddly Islamic. However, the temple with its three-tiered pagoda-type roof, and the sanctuaries and pond around it are pure Nepali. In Tantric practice, a goddess is never named or directly imaged, and is worshipped only through symbols. The records tell of how Taleju instructed that the temple be built in the form of a yantra, a difficult task which the architect performed with the help of an ascetic and the goddess herself who visited it in the form of a bee.

From the pomp and finery of royal ritual we turn to a charming chronicle of the lives of ordinary people in a scroll painting (435 cm long) of the same period. Probably a copy of an earlier one, it depicts a pilgrimage to the sacred lake of Gosainkund. The Rajasthani influence is evident in the liveliness and attention to detail, with which more than 100 tiny figures are portrayed in a narrative sequence, unified by the long road winding towards the lake, relating the pilgrims to each other in a common purpose. The topography of the actual route with its monuments and trails, its rivers and bridges, its steep hills and precipitous valleys, is meticulously represented. The eight-day journey is difficult, often dangerous, and takes in monks meditating in caves, ascetics travelling in groups trading in gemstones from India, and people from every level of society. .


Raga Mallara

Ragini Kochakari


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