Our worldly heritage

From The Kathmandu Post (19 June, 2015)

Kathmandu Valley represents one of the most culturally accomplished urban civilisations in the planet, and we need reminding of this at a time when the bahas have crumbled around us and the temples and chaityas are cracked. Unlike so many other great places, here, we have had continuity of culture over millennia, with the points of organised veneration having their provenance in a continuous timeline back to nature-worship.

We speak of restoring our ‘monuments’, but that is a misnomer giving a sense of stand-alone buildings that have a lot of history but lack connection to contemporary living. A temple or stupa comes alive with life-giving vermilion, water, flowers, khada and achheta which energise ‘tangible’ heritage. In reverse, structures of wood, brick, mud mortar and tile provide the basis for the jatras, pujas, rituals and feasts.

This is why it is so important to restore and rebuild the destroyed and weakened structures as quickly as possible; they help renew the culture of the inner cities which are the repositories of our ancient Valley. Those who say ‘restoration can wait, lives are more important’ forget the direct connection the ‘monuments’ provide between our past, contemporary culture and the cycle of life.

Wood into lace

There is so much destruction all around that we are still discovering what all has come down and what has been lost, and yet it is already time to start the rebuilding. And in the starting, amidst the sadness and confusion, let us take heart from those who remind us of the unsurpassed Newar heritage of Kathmandu Valley.

One does not need validation, of course, but one can live with a bit of confidence building. Stephen Eckherd, long-time connoisseur and curator of the Valley urban-scape, says, “What was unique in the city states of the Valley was that everyone aspired to cultural achievement— the royalty, the priestly classes as well as the peasantry. The scale and volume may differ, but fine latticework windows would go up in the galli as much as in the darbar.”

Dipesh Risal, in his blog, reminds us specifically of the value of the Kasthamandap pavilion, whose fall has not been remarked enough: “The (pavilion) was a 900-year old time-capsule of Kathmandu, capturing within its inscriptions, statues and enormous pillars the existence of the townships of Yangla/Yambu; the rise and longevity of the Gorakshyanath cult; the gradual merging of local townships into the unified city-state of Kasthamandap-nagar (now Kathmandu); the rise of Nepal Bhasa as the state language; the long-standing Buddhist connections; the dual-kingship sometimes in effect during the Malla era; the continuation of centuries-old Licchavi system of coinage/weights; and the importance of guthi associations still so very relevant in Kathmandu.”

Perhaps the finest appreciation after the earthquake of the Valley civilisation came from the writer Marcia Lieberman, writing in the Providence Journal:

“The flowering of Newar genius compares to the European renaissance, especially to the glories of Florence. The Newars excelled at every art to which they turned their hands and minds: architecture, sculpture and metalwork. But perhaps the quintessential Newar art was woodcarving. They turned wood into lace. The Newar window became a thing of art, a vehicle for lavish display of the carver’s skill and imagination, so that instead of a rectangular hole poked into a wall, the window became a richly decorative, exuberant, even playful architectural element. Elaborately carved wooden roof struts were embellished with intricate figures of gods and creatures. Wooden lattices on the surface of brick walls created beguiling patterns of design and texture, much as Persians, Turks and others did upon flat expanses of woven carpet.”

One can also take heart from what make it into foreign collections. The Cambridge University Library says one of its greatest treasures is the manuscript Astasahasrika Pragyaparamita produced exactly 1000 years in Kathmandu by a scribe named Sujatabhadra, his signature dated  March 31, 1015.

It is an illuminated manuscript with Buddhistic references and images. From the library website: “When Sujatabhadra picked up his reed pen and put his name to the manuscript, he was part of a rich network of scholarship, culture, belief and trade. Buddhist manuscripts and texts travelled huge distances. From the fertile plains of Northern India, they crossed the Himalayan range through Nepal and Tibet, reaching the barren landscapes of Central Asia and the city-states along the Silk Route in China, finally arriving in Japan.”

Says Camillo Formigatti of the Library: “This manuscript shows us that ten centuries ago Nepal, which Westerners often perceive as ‘remote’ and ‘isolated’, had flourishing connections stretching many thousands of miles.”

Down to the present

It is not only Western scholars and writers who have presented the ‘Nepal Valley’ as remote and isolated from the historical currents of culture and commerce. The nationalist ideology of present-day Nepal itself goads us into historical snobbery, thinking of our heritage in terms of isolated accomplishment, whereas the Valley ‘got culture’ as well as ‘gave culture’ down through the ages.

The Valley is said to have invented the tiered temple (‘pagoda’) style, which was carried to Northeast Asia by (among others, surely) the artist-architect Arniko during the time of Kublai Khan. Meanwhile, the Valley incorporated the stone shikhara temple form from the southern plains. The term for a soldier in the native tongue is ‘tilanga’, indicating that the culturally advanced Valley city-states preferred to import their fighting force from Telangana.

That the Chief Abbot of Pashupatinath is assigned from among Namboothiri Brahmins of the Malabar since the 8th century indicates the Valley’s cultural linkages (and influence) reaching far down peninsular India. The once-every-twelve-year journey of Machhendranath (also Bungdeo and/or Lokeshwar) from Bungamati to Patan is currently stalled due to the earthquake followed by an inauspicious month. Macchhendranath, guru of Gorakhnath himself, is our link to the Northeast of South Asia, having arrived from Kamrup (Assam) to bring rain to the Valley.

South Asian urgency

Even amidst today’s devastation, the cityscape of Kathmandu Valley serves as introduction to Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis as to the long-lost ambience of the ancient cities of South Asia, elsewhere ravaged by floods and invasions. It is in the Valley’s darbar squares and bahas that the ‘flavour’ of medieval South Asia remains, which is why the restoration of Kathmandu is not only a Nepali project, it has a South Asian urgency. (This is one reason why the Saarc Development Fund should expend some of its unspent millions in the restoration of Kathmandu Valley’s public structures and streetscapes.)

As for the Valley inhabitants, what we can perhaps try and do as we rise from the dust is to emulate the ancients by striving to develop once again an active, accomplished urban culture that gives and takes from the rest of Asia and South Asia. Our history has provided us with a bedrock of culture and easy cosmopolitanism, our pride and the envy of others.

With full understanding of our cosmopolitan past, the future rise of Kathmandu Valley should be as the one and only meeting place for South Asians, a place of cultural vibrancy. For this, we need to keep our visa regime welcoming, the society open and democratic, civil society active, and an artistic profusion that will surprise and stun our own selves before we even begin to impress others!

Kathmandu Valley’s living culture, ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’, should not be allowed to succumb to a geological quaking of the earth. This culture must sustain the citizenry even as it serves as repository for the Subcontinent and the world. For all this to happen, we have to quickly rebuild what fell in April 2015.







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