Impressions of the Valley
Aug 3, 2012-It is a cool, cloudy morning in Kupondole. From my concrete balcony, I can see people puttering about on their porches. The crows are cawing up a storm. Prayer flags flap on a rooftop. Neighbourhood dogs are demarcating their turfs with snarls and wails—an all day/all night cacophony. Hawkers chant their services and wares—their singsong tunes are pleasant in sound but incomprehensible to me in meaning. Good morning from the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
I feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of first impressions. How to create a manageable plan of action? How to familiarise myself with the iconography, let alone study and launch new concepts of art? Five months seem too short. And so long, at the same time. I miss home already. I feel nervous and want to relax. But I fear that if I relax, I won’t accomplish anything.
I need to get out of my head.
Nepal’s time is 12 hours and 15 minutes ahead of New Mexico. Could I possibly be farther away from home?
I arrived at Swayambhunath this morning shortly after 6 am. The stupa crowns a high hill, and the road that rings its base is lined with prayer wheels. The traditional route to the stupa platform is a steep, stone staircase comprising 365 steps. Hundreds of
devotees were pilgrimaging to the platform today, and not a single bideshi to be seen among them, aside from myself. Mashed together, we ascended the stairs. Upon reaching the top, we circumambulated the stupa as a coagulated mass of human
bodies. People spun prayer wheels, threw rice, lit butter lamps, thumped drums, blew horns, chanted and prostrated.
I want to create a sculptural installation that bridges the stabile qualities of shrines, stupas, buddhas and the like with the ephemeral nature of worship. What might this look like?
It was hot and humid all afternoon. Returning to my flat after an action-packed day, I feel exhausted and overheated. Thankfully, it is now starting to rain and hopefully that means the temperature will drop and bring a refreshing chill into the air.
Today was the Gai Jatra festival at the Patan Durbar Square. To my surprise, no colourful-costumed, lampooning groups of people and bovines were to be found here to gawk at. So I wove through the streets and revisited some of the temples and shrines I’d seen the previous week. My eyes feel like they are opening, gradually, and I am less overwhelmed, better able to see my surroundings.
I took a break to sip a lassi and milk tea on the rooftop terrace of Cafe du Temple, enjoying the view of the durbar square, accompanied by a small stack of books. Having already resigned myself to an uneventful day, I paid my bill and left in search of an Ayurvedic clinic that had been recommended to me. A few steps from the restaurant, however, I was distracted by the sight of some rather impressive copper deities at a shop. I asked the storeowner who the artist was, and he gestured vaguely up a street. Although this was in the complete opposite direction from where I was first headed, I changed course without hesitation and set out to find the workshop.
Many blocks later, having passed dozens of similar shops, I stopped at one to admire the window display. A young man stepped out, and invited me inside to look at more samples. After discussing icono-graphy for a while, I explained to him that I too make statues back home in the US, and wanted to see how it was done in Nepal. He was kind enough to offer to take me to his uncle’s workshop on his motorcycle.
Although my mother’s persistent advice against accepting rides from strangers—and the instruction to always wear a helmet—was running through my mind, I took up the offer. It is as if I’ve recognised intuitively that taking risks is going to be a necessary aspect of my experience in Nepal. Before we left, the young man introduced his girlfriend, a pretty lady who had seated herself behind the counter, as Puma, and himself as Santosh. His name is a close variation of that of my recently minted sculpture major from New Mexico State University; I noted the coincidence with an inward smile.
As Santosh skillfully negotiated Patan’s bumpy, pockmarked alleys and clogged streets, I hung on to the seat bar for dear life. When we passed an impressive-sized grass mound, topped with a copper finial, he ritually touched head, heart, and mouth. This, I am told, is one of Patan’s four Ashoka stupas, demarcating the southern boundary of the city.
The bike stopped at a courtyard workshop a few minutes later, and instantly, I experienced an aesthetic catharsis of sorts. A lone worker was engaged in two works in progress—cast copper figures of Buddha. Headless for the moment, and sitting in the lotus position, the statues were almost as tall as me and boasted exquisite workmanship.
After examining them, we stepped into the small building where cast copper body parts were housed. Set against one wall was an incredible, larger-than-life, multi-armed Bodhisattva of Lokeshor, bearing an enigmatic smile. I was hit by an emotion that felt very much like love at first sight.
Returning to Santosh’s shop, he showed me a book on Buddhist iconography, explaining the many manifestations of Buddha and the bodhisattvas. Could this man be the teacher I’d been looking for? I spent a long while with him and Puma, discussing imagery, before feeling too hot and tired to continue. It is evening now, and I’ve just enjoyed a cup of tea with my landlord, Diamond Shumshere Rana, and his grandson Rakesh. I’ve recently come to learn that Diamond had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, thanks in large part to his historic novel, Wake of the White Tiger. In addition to being among Nepal’s most famous novelists, Diamond has tirelessly advocated for democracy in Nepal. He has paid a price for being outspoken, spending 30 of his 90 years in prison. I am awed by his courage. It puts my own privileges into perspective.
Today I visited Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred sites in the Hindu faith. The Bagmati flows through the temple complex and ghats line the river’s sides. Upon entering the complex, my eyes fell immediately upon a corpse that had just been set afire. A Brahmin carefully arranged the bundles of organic matter on the pyre that served as fuel. I wept as I watched, until I became aware of a young man hovering close by, a prospective guide, turns out.
Soon, another deceased person was laid on a platform that was angled sharply towards the river. The ever-present Brahmin tended to the body, layering it with brightly coloured fabrics and other materials, while just beyond, a group of boys shrieked as they played in the river. My guide injected at this point that for the Hindus, death is something to be accepted. His voice constituted a distant recording in my ears, crushed as I felt then by sadness.
The telephone lines in Kupondole were recently vandalised, so my landline has been down for days. No phone. No Internet. Thank goodness for cyber cafés. My flat is starting to resemble a research station. Materials and models for a potential
installation cover the kitchen table. The living room couch and coffee table are draped in fabrics. I’ve been writing and drawing in my sketchbook a lot more of late, trying to create some kind of momentum.
In a few days, I will be going around the perimetre of the Kathmandu Valley to visit several sacred sites.
I want to be born anew.
Stevens is Professor of Sculpture at the New Mexico State University and was Fulbright scholar to Nepal in 2006-7. Nepal Diary contains excerpts from her stay during this period
Published: 04-08-2012 09:25