Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love and Loveliness in Lalitpur

Guru Rinpoche

I very recently had the pleasure of visiting what has to be one of the most aesthetically awe-inspiring museums in all of South Asia. I should have gotten a copy of the museum catalog, but it was rather pricey and I didn’t have enough NRS in my wallet at the time. Of course you have to pay for entrance to the museum itself, as well as purchase a tourism admission ticket to the Patan Durbar where the museum is located, and then you really must sit in their very nice garden restaurant (I recommend the saag) and rest up after a few hours of going flat-footed and bleary-eyed in the museum...

Another good thing about this museum is that they allow photographs for noncommercial purposes like, for instance, this blog, where there are no commercial interests at all.

I don’t really have details to tell you about most of the artworks you will see here. Like I said, I didn’t purchase the museum catalog. The frontispiece shows what has to be one of the most pacific forms of Guru Rinpoche ever. Some know him as Padmasambhava. He looks positively serene and friendly for a change. Here’s a slightly different angle.

Another angle

The entrance to the museum

Erotic woodcarving (maithuna, "couple")

Another loving couple in wood

Notice that the man is getting a nice garland,* which means he’ll be getting something else that ought to be nice from this comely woman before too much time has elapsed. I’ll leave it to your imagination.  Did you notice where his right hand is located? 
*To employ the language of Leiden Prof. Jonathan Silk, he is getting ‘garlanded.’
Well, these erotic woodcarvings are next-to-nothing compared to the jaw-dropping scenes you can see among the temple struts of other temples in the Patan Durbar. They show every conceivable pose with every imaginable partner. So much so that it buggers the imagination. You heard me right. Tibetologist Tucci long ago made a picture book on the subject that libraries fortunate enough to have it keep under look and key for the eyes of librarians only.  Since I like to think of Tibeto-logic as a family-friendly blog, I’ll just give you one example that is preserved inside the museum itself, which is this one. Kids, if you need to know (which I sincerely doubt), this is how families are usually made, including most likely your own:

I'm not sure a caption is needed

A bizarre looking couple with only two knees
between the two of them
They look even odder sideways, don’t they?

The royal throne of the kings of Patan

As you probably know, kings no longer rule or even have a ceremonial role in Nepal (since 2008, around the time of the infamous shoe attack), and recently there have been moves to remove from circulation all the coins and currency notes that bear their images. (The royal images are mostly being replaced by images of high mountains, or maps of Nepal...) But here, inscribed on this golden royal throne, is one of the wildest things you can probably ever recall reading on a chair:
“May it be good. On Thursday, the eighth of the waxing moon of the lunar month Shravana, Nepal Era 787 (about August 8, 1666) His Majesty King Shrinivasa Malla was offered an alms bowl and a golden throne attached with Kadamba trees.  Anybody can hire this throne on payment of two rupees to the families of coppersmith and carpenter. Let it be auspicious.”
Well, I thought it was funny. It costs about 200 rupees - or was it more? - to get inside the museum, and it is strictly forbidden to sit on this particular chair. No, I didn’t try to test the patience of the museum guards. It was getting late. I needed to get back to the hard mattress in my unlit (not much electricity in Nepal these days) and cheap Thamel guesthouse before dark, and I still wanted to make a stop at the nearby so-called Golden Temple of Patan. On my way out, in the bookstore where I should have purchased the catalog, I happened to meet a famous Tibetological blogger. It’s not like you see them everywhere, really.  Well, definitely not all the time.

In the Patan Durbar


Here you can get some nice views of the exterior and the interior of the Patan Museum. Go here to see some eye-popping items from the museum's collection, and don't forget to try out the links at the bottom of the page.

Jonathan Silk, Garlanding as Sexual Invitation: Indian Buddhist Evidence, Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 50 (2007), pp. 5-10. Perhaps you can get a PDF of it for free download if you belong to a subscribing institution... Here is the opening line for a teaser: “In Ancient India, the act of garlanding may indicate a sexual invitation, especially if the offering is from a woman to a man...”

Here’s the Rati-lila book by Tucci, as listed in WorldCat, if you want to check and make sure if your library will let you check it out or not. You can read it in German, French and Italian (not to mention Croatian). I doubt you’ll be looking at the words all that much, I really do.

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Note on the names of the cities: Tibetans call Lalitpur (or Patan) by the name Ye-rang, which must connect somehow to the Newar name for the place, which is Yala. Kathmandu Tibetans know as Yam-bu, while Newars call it Yen. Some say Kho-bom is a name for Kathmandu, but I think there has been some confusion with Kho-bom/Kho-khom, which is definitely a Tibetan name for Bhaktapur (or Bhatgaon, the third historically royal city of the Nepal Valley). Newars know Bhaktapur as Khwopa.  Tibetans have Bal-yul as their name for Nepal. I'm not sure what the explanation for this ought to be, but I imagine that the Tibetan Bal was drawn from the pal in Nepal (?).


  1. Hi Dan,

    The Museaum is indeed impressive, but there are equally striking works just sitting out on the streets. Getting lost is Patan was one of my favorite things to do when I lived in Nepal. If you're still there, go up to Swayambu and look for a large (maybe seven foot) standing Manjusri image tucked away against a wall west of the main Stupa. It is one of the nicest images I've ever seen, and is just hanging out in the back of the courtyard. Of course, given the rash of art thefts in Nepal over the last decades, the locals have had to concrete this statue to the surrounding structures..... Quite a shame, but that's what we get when we foreigners show up with our desire for art.

  2. Dear Lost,

    Hi, good to hear from you. And good to see that your blog has lost its privacy setting that was keeping me away for many months. Have you ever been to Patan for the Samek Dan? I think that's the best of all times to be there. I'm not still there, but I know the Mañjushri you mean. I'll confess to a desire to see art, but not especially to possess it (Do art books count here?).

    Keep on blogging.


  3. Quotable quote spotted today at Open Democracy in a comment by zen9 —

    "As if there's no risk sitting on a thin skin over a ball of liquid rock zooming around a collapsing gas ball."


  4. Found this similar but longer quote in a discussion group devoted to naval weaponry (quoted as is):

    "Reality? You are sitting on a thin crust around a ball of liquid rock, orbiting a collapsing gas ball thats producing thermonuclear reactions, where balls of rock and ice whizz past you occaisionaly slamming into you. This all orbits a huge black hole along with a very large number of other nuclear gas balls, and this conglomerate along with a number of others, is itself moving towards what is suspected as a even larger black hole, called the Great Attractor. Meanwhile spacetime is expanding and eventialy the distance between subatomic particals will be too large for subatomic forces to operate over, resulting in all matter dissolving into its constituent subatomic particals, the expansion rate is increasing. This is reality as best we know it, beyond which we get into the speculative."

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