Saturday Features

Venus of Dhobikhola

A discarded sculpture resting by the banks of the Dhobikhola might just be one of the most important archaeological finds of recent years

- RAHUl DHAKAl

While walking along the shores of the Dhobikhola, a rather noisome place that is basically an open sewer, I stopped by a secluded bridge for a smoke. From across the shore, I saw her, so beautiful, the undulating figure of a woman, resting against an electrical pole by the banks of the river. I would have waved and she might have even smiled but she had no arms or head to speak of—she was a sculpture after all, the kind that might have made Pygmalion blush. Even from afar, I could tell the workmanship was exquisite and my first thought was that the statue was probably an unfinished reproduction of a historical work made at a nearby workshop.

I raced across the bridge to find out. I wanted to meet whoever had made her and then maybe learn from this prodigious maker to do the same. But when I got close, I learned that what I had hoped for was impossible. I was aghast at what I saw—the statue was real, not a reproduction and not of this time—even I could tell. There were no workshops around to speak of and no one seemed to know where the statue had come from. Some locals hadn’t even noticed it till I pointed it out. Later, I learned that people had first noticed the statue not far from the banks of the river when the waters had subsided. The police, with the help of several locals, had dragged it out of the cascading gutter about 10 days ago.

Behind the premises of the Om Hospital, in an area the locals still refer to as Purano Malpot after the land revenue office that once stood there, lay a priceless Licchavi figurine, leaning against an electrical pole. Suppressing my desire to abscond with the statue, I went to inquire at the local police station. I must have pestered them quite a bit, as they decided to move the statue from the side of the road to the station. I attempted to take pictures but a policeman snatched at my camera, telling me that I was “getting in the way of their conservation work”.

None of the authorities were willing to speak to me so I turned to the locals to fill me in on the details.  The statue had been found not far from the banks of the river and it took more than 10 men to drag it out.  Since then, no one had bothered with it and no one knew what to do with it, including the police. It should be noted that the locals were only willing to speak to me after I flung away my phone (rather dramatically) as they suspected that I might be a ‘jali patrakar’ whose incendiary reporting would only invite needless trouble into their lives. Once abiding by their condition of anonymity, they spoke to me freely. The locals reported that the police coerced and bullied them so they in turn resented and distrusted the police, while at the same time also never quite trusting journalists, whom the police also hated. A fateful triangle of distrust and suspicion marred this whole undertaking and I would be remiss if I did not speak to this.

Upon seeing that the police were ineffectual, I immediately notified the Department of Archeology (DoA) and that very night, it was trundled off to their offices at Maitighar. The statue, almost 5 ft in length and 1 ½ ft in width has since been verified as a sculpture dating back to the Licchavi era, made probably between the 6th and 7th century—the apogee of Licchavi rule. The headless, armless figure has been dubbed simply as a ‘nari murti’ or female figure. Bereft of arms and a face, the statue lacks definable features so we cannot really say to what purpose it was made or what deity it might have represented. Because stone sculptures cannot be carbon dated, only typological studies can be made, which are always subject to approximation. Lacking any inscription, the only way to discern its time period is by analysing technique, tools and styles in the work.

According to Bhesh Narayan Dahal, director general at the DoA, the statue is an amalgamation of styles, namely the neo-Hellenistic style of the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms of Afghanistan and the Mathura style, which originated in the Vaishali region of the Gupta Empire. Both of these kingdoms were regional superpowers during medieval times, trade between whom was in part facilitated by the Licchavi kings of Kathmandu, out of which, they grew exorbitantly wealthy. It is from this interchange and diffusion of ideas, customs and wealth that the entire region flourished. This particular statue, characteristic of its time, elicits the idealistic realism and sensuous description of Hellenistic art as well as the subtle expressiveness and the unreal but harmonious proportioning of the figure borrowed from the southern Mathura style. It is thus an example of the cultural syncretism between the eastern and western traditions that marked that time.

This statue is a token of a time, perhaps unprecedented in our history, says Dahal. For the moment, we cannot say for sure why this statue was by the banks of the Dhobikhola, archeologists suspect that the river bank was never the original location of the statue and that it had been tossed into the river precisely to be forgotten. Though, there is no conclusive evidence yet, some at the DoA suggest that the maimed statue might have been tossed into the river during Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah’s sacking of Kathmandu, as the time periods certainly coincide. Either way, with its provenance unknown, all that can be said for sure (for now) is that “it is an exquisite work and one of the oldest and most important finds of recent years,” says the DoA’s Dahal.

Published: 2018-08-25 08:16:41