20 February, 2008

How to Build a Nepali Temple in Thirty Days

A R T M A T T E R S
By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, February 2008

Did the title get your attention? Did you think, as I did, that it would be fun to have a how-to book on building a Nepali temple—after all, our ancestors seem to have indulged in this pastime in generous measure, and there is no reason for us to give up on it just because bungee-jumping and barhopping are now the more popular pastimes. How come we don’t know how to do it? Perhaps it’s the missing how-to book?

Enter Elements of Nepali Temple Architecture by Puruswottam Dongol. This large format book is generously illustrated with photographs of Kathmandu valley temples. While not a Western-style how-to book, it has elements that an ingenious architect may use to think about ways to create a new temple. Starting with a history of temple construction, briefly discussing the non-denomination aspects of Nepali temples, which incorporates both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the book moves to a discussion of traditional construction techniques. There are separate chapters on pinnacle, roof, strut, cornice, windows, torana, door, column and plinth. The simple diagrams help to identify key structures and concepts.

All of us have gazed at Nepali temples, have been mesmerized by the red runners that wave in the wind, have watched pigeons flutter up towards the gabled roofs, and then have let our eyes travel upwards towards the symmetry of struts, carvings and slanted roofs. Without having the words to describe it, we’ve been awed by the geometrical precision, the richness of stone and wood carving, the mythological bases, the intertwined meaning that seems to permeate every inch of space in and around a temple.

And if you’re like me, you’ve also been a little frustrated at the lack of knowledge about what that awesome figure actually symbolizes, what that mermaid is doing up on that golden arch over a low wooden door, what kind of ghosts those guardian figures are keeping at bay. If you’re like me, you may even have become impatient and walked off without taking the time to learn about the minute intricacies of each art that makes up a Nepali temple, from stone to wood, carving to sculpture, from Buddhist and Hindu iconography and philosophy to the long copper banner that floats down from the sloping roofs.

While the book does not explain everything, it gives a simple overview of the most basic temple structure, from the minute visualization of the tantric base (one temple, for instance, is visualized as tantric triangles laid on top of each other), to the use of color, to the logic behind ornamental features. The architects of these exquisite structures had to figure out a way to stop the rain from seeping in and eating into the wooden timbers, and they solved it by an ingenious method—notched tiles that interlock and seal the rain out. A brick that sticks out may act to prevent moisture from seeping into cornice designs. A wooden arm, mimicking an human arm, may hint at the arc hitectural backbone of wood that holds the bricks up. Seismologists have long known that the delicate balance of the wooden frame allows the temple to sway during an earthquake, and may also allow it to absorb seismic shock with more resilience. The grinning skulls keep bad spirits away—and maybe even a thief or two.

The low quality photos might bring on an initial yawn, but be assured that once you read the text, the photographs will come alive. Newari classification of each architectural feature (Newars being the original architects of pagodas) is broken down and explained in simple language.

The torana, for instance, which is the wooden or metal board above temple doors, is not a mass of strange mythological figures: it usually features Chhepu, a fierce beast that holds a snake in his mouth as it attempts to escape; Ganga and Jamuna, the two river goddesses (or two mermaids known simply as ‘Nag Kanya’); apsara angels; and at the bottom two makara ( a seahorse looking creature.)

There seemed to be no hard and fast rule about which carvings should accompany which strut. Indeed, the variations of a temple’s design seem to be up to the individual team of artists and architects who make it. This fact came alive to me as I watched two temple constructions take place before my eyes. One was the temple at Bishalnagar Chowk on the east side of Kathmandu, which went from a pipal tree with vendors and a trash-heap to a beautifully constructed sacred art complex. I ask the shopkeepers who built this new temple. “The community,” they answer. One active member of the neighborhood
decided to raise funds, and through that they rebuilt a small, exquisite wooden pati (resting place), along with a series of statues that rest directly underneath a giant pipal tree. The only hint that we are in modern times is the iron bars that now keep out thieves who do not respect the sanctity of public deities.
While the shrine may have displaced the vegetable sellers, they have not gone very far. A concrete shelter on the other side of the street provides them with the same modest roof that the tree once did. As I walk by, I see three men discussing some issue of importance on the pati. This public space, it appears, is fulfilling its age old function.

The other temple that caught my eye is close to Sanepa Chowk, south of Kathmandu city in Lalitpur on the west side of Patan. The bamboo girders hint of new construction, and so do the new bricks. As I climbed the flimsy bamboo stairs, I was aware of being in a new construction site. This is a grander project than a statue underneath a tree. The temple is larger, more traditional. The decorations over the door, and on the courtyard, indicated that the process is being followed according to tantric rules and norms.

The woman sitting inside and presiding over the temple is large, and dressed in a white sari. A middle-aged man sitting with her addresses her with great respect as ‘Ajima’(Ajima, in Newari, means ‘respected grandmother’ or ‘Mother Goddess’.) He tells me that Ajima was the one who commanded to have this temple built: I am uncertain whether he’s referring to the woman before him (who I later realize is his mother), or to some metaphysical Mother Goddess to whom the temple is dedicated.

As the conversation proceeds, Ajima tells me that she has spent six years trying to build this temple (Yes, 30 days was an optimistic estimate). The land is her own. The money for construction comes from donations and loans. She is in debt, but she has to finish the temple, she says. There is still so much to be done, but they’re not hurrying. Everything has to be done as it should be done. The mortar is still inches thick, with lentils, molasses and all the other ingredients people used hundreds of years ago to strengthen their temples.

On the way out, her son told me that each time they have been in need, the universe has provided, and people have come forth to help. Ajima, he says, is always there, and has always helped. For a moment, the two of us stood underneath the door, looked at the half-finished beauty and precision of the temple, and felt the truth of his words.

For information or support to the Sanepa temple phone: 554.4400. About temple construction and restoration projects, contact the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (Patan Darbar Square, Mangal Bazar, Lalitpur). Phone: 554.6055 or 554.7142. Email: info@kvptnepal.org. Website: www.kvptnepal.org.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at: sushma@alumni.brown.edu

A Gift of Heart

M E E T T H E A R T I S T

By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, February 2008

Why Nepal? I ask.
Pourquoi Nepal? Chloe translates.
Christian ponders, then shrugs that slight French shrug. He taps the left side of his chest, where his heart is, with his right hand. “It is a small question with a big answer,” he says.

Why would an art dealer from Paris up and leave his successful business of dealing in 19th century European paintings and antiques, sell his apartment, and move to Nepal? Looking at Christian Salzgeber and Chloe, his wife, I see that shrug mirrored between the two of them again. “It has always been a big dream of mine to move to Nepal,” Christian says, finally.

I dig a little further. In classic French fashion, the big answer is to be condensed in one stylish answer: heart. Or to use Christian’s accent—it appears to be a matter of the ’eart. “Nepali people,” Christian says, “have given us a lot of love. A lot of friendships. There are other places with mountains and landscapes. But Nepali people have ’eart.”

This, then, is why Christian and Chloe now live in a sunny bungalow in a housing complex in Sitapaila, near a dusty bus-stop in the Ring Road. The house is furnished with Newari antiques; pottery made by Kalapremi, a friend who they’ve known for almost a decade; and a rock garden underneath the stairway. The sofa is designed by Christian, and so is the table made of two upturned garden pots resting on each other and painting in bright reds.

Christian says he’s a self-trained artist. Upstairs, two rooms are filled with large, colorful paintings he’s made. These paintings, which will be exhibited in Indigo Art Gallery in February, are the way he’s going to make his living from now on. The couple own no television, and buy nothing but local magazines. Any essential information about day to day life in Nepal, they get from neighbors. After fifty years of a highpaced life as an art dealer, information is no longer their priority. “There is so much information, it becomes disinformation,” Chrsitian says. Now, their priority is learning about Nepal and it’s culture, and to make art that is a gift back to the people who’ve given them so much.

Christian and Chloe first came to Nepal in 1981. Or maybe it’s 1982. “It was a long-long time,” one of them finally says, after a lengthy discussion about the exact date. They stayed seven weeks the first time around. One week was spent with Thakali people in Marpha. A festival featuring archery was in progress, and Christian took almost 800 photographs of that single event. They liked it so much they came back a year later, and stayed for four months. Since then, the couple have been here 13 times.

Nepal changed Christian and Chloe. For almost 20 years, Christian had worked 18 hour days, selling to people all over the world, attending hundreds of openings and events every year. “My life was only my job. I progress, I progress, I learnt a lot,” Art and antiques, and it’s dealing, was his passion. And yet, he was very, very tired. “It wasn’t good for his health,” his wife says quietly. And Nepal beckoned.

After almost 20 years, Christian gave up his fast-paced Parisien life and went to Honfleur, a seaside town in Western France, and opened up a shop featuring Himalayan art. He ran this for three years. “I had ethnographic, primitive art and antiques,” he says. He also promoted Nepali artists like Kalapremi and Manish Shrestha.

Chloe started a handicrafts shop, selling Himalayan artworks, incence and other curiosities. French customers were not familiar with the items, and Chloe found herself explaining the meanings of the items and their usage. Today, this shop is run by their son, an avid Nepalophile.

Christian laughs when I tell him Nepali people want to leave Nepal. And yet here he is, giving up a life in Paris to be in dusty Kathmandu. “The problems are the same everywhere,” he says. “The life is also the same in US and France. I always dreamt of living in the Kathmandu Valley.” Even Chloe’s
80-year old mother wants to come and visit them as they live their dream.

Christian’s goal is simple: he wants to give back some of the love he’s received in Nepal. He does this in small actions. Some of it comes in the form of counselling people who need help. A Tamang friend whose monastery collapsed found Christian willing to go and spend three weeks reconstructing his monastery. Another friend whose old Newari home needed repairs found a willing helper in the artist.

Christian also has larger plans: he wants to start an art school in Kathmandu. He has talked with the owner of an old Rana Palace in Teku—the aim is to renovate the palace, then run the facilities as an art school.

Christian tries to insulate himself from the political divisions of Nepal. The artists in Nepal, he says, tend to work alone, split by ideology. If they worked together, they would be strong. “When Nepali people are unhappy,” he says, “We are unhappy.”

Besides an outsider mediating energy, Christian brings with him his years of knowledge of art. “There can be no good art without good philosophy,” he says. He is keen to expand the notion of art history amongst the artists of Nepal. The cave paintings of France, the antiquities of Greece and Rome are important to the production of contemporary art. These classic influences, he says, are important for creating new artwork. While it’s not copying, it’s important to look at “another mind” in order to be inspired.

“Modern art,” he says, “is all ’eart.” He puts his hand on his heart. “It’s not possible to learn, unlike traditional art, which is technical and can be learnt.”

But is modern art even art? Christian is not sure. “People tell me you are a big artist in France,” he says. “But I am not sure. I think: this is your idea, not mine. I think modern art is about expression. Ideas and expression.”

This idea that the viewer interprets the work through his own lenses is very important with him. As we go through his work in the upstairs room, Christian stresses: “I want people to be able to interpret it their own way. I want them…” he hesitates for a word: “I want them to be free.”

This then, is the core of the French philosophy: la libertie. Everybody has the liberty to read the work their own way. Once a text is put out in the world, the author of that text dies, said French philosophers. Then it is up to the reader to dechiper and interpret the work through their own minds.

Which leads us to Gandhi and Marx. “Marx was a very nice man,” says Christian. “Very good philosophy. But then people take his work, and they transformed it.” This revolution, which has killed 13,000 Nepalis, distresses Christian. He wants to be able to bring Nepali artists together through peace and art, like during the Vietnam war. He is planning a surprise gift for Nepal. Are we allowed to know about this gift he has in mind? “It is a surprise,” he says, smiling.

Whatever the gift is, we can be sure it will have a lot of heart.

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at: sushma@alumni.brown.edu