Friday, August 15, 2008

Vanity Fair - The Once and Future Kathmandu

Vanity Fair offers up a great article on the history and politics of Kathmandu, the secluded Himalayan kingdom that has long been an important buffer between China and India.

This is a fantastic look at the culture and attempts to preserve the culture -- and the photos make me wish I were there.

Bansagopal Temple, from the 17th century, in Kathmandu

Bansagopal Temple, from the 17th century, in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. Photographs by Robert Polidori.

The Once and Future Kathmandu

After a glorious efflorescence as the link between Hindu India and Buddhist China, Nepal was isolated from the world until 1950. The result: Kathmandu Valley, where a medieval past is vibrantly present, architectural marvels are part of everyday life, and the sacred is pervasive. Amid thousands of temples, pagodas, monasteries, and other hallowed structures, the author salutes preservation efforts to bring Nepal’s magic into a third millennium.

by Lucinda Lambton WEB EXCLUSIVE August 12, 2008

Where does the magic of the Kathmandu Valley come from? The answer, I think, is that there can be few other places in the world today that still march to the rhythm of medieval life; where literally thousands of sacred structures, including pagodas, temples, stupas, shrines, monasteries, votive pillars, fountains, and wells, as well as houses and palaces, all of them serving both God and man, are still vibrantly alive with their original cultural and spiritual significance.

Geography must take some of the credit. Nepal, lying between China and India—the “yam between two rocks,” as it has been called—was for centuries an important trading route between the two countries. With snow blocking the mountain passes to the north (negotiable only in summer on swaying rope bridges that made one Tibetan lama “tremble more than quicksilver”) and the threat of malaria in the jungles to the south in summer, all the traders, travelers, ambassadors, artisans, pilgrims, scholars, and students had to spend months in the three towns of the Kathmandu Valley—Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur—thereby creating the cauldron of culture, sophistication, and wealth which produced these architectural marvels.

Four ruling dynasties—the Licchavis, Mallas, Shahs, and Ranas—blazed the building trail from the fourth century onward, and today it is not uncommon to come upon a small Licchavi holy stone—a lingam dating from the 300s—covered with votive offerings and still playing a vital role in everyday life. There it is, deep in a rough hole in the road, showing how much the street level has risen since the fourth century.

Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted here since earliest times in an atmosphere coursed through with a myriad of spirits, all subsumed into daily life. There is no division between the sacred and the profane; it is said that there are as many gods as there are people in the valley, and as many temples as there are dwellings; nearly every house has a shrine to the family god.

With a multitude of holy structures at every turn, amid a dense and ancient network of interlocking courtyards and narrow lanes filled with shops and workshops the size of broom cupboards, the sense of the medieval is palpable.

A detail of the Patan Royal Palace.

How could it be otherwise? It is an extraordinary story. Nepal was cut off from the rest of the world until 1950, when the first airplane arrived. With no influences from the outside world, the country’s traditions had remained the same for hundreds of years, progressing with a continuum of culture and craftsmanship that flourishes to this day.

In the 1970s architects, academics, town planners, preservationists, anthropologists, and historians from all over the world poured into this tiny valley. As their contemporaries worldwide banged the drum for soul-less modernism, Nepal represented a dream of safeguarding humanity from change. Earthquakes and neglect had taken their toll, but with craftsmen descended from generations of craftsmen before them, Nepalese restoration meant seamlessly perpetuating the traditional styles.

The movement to preserve the valley’s architectural wonders has gathered momentum ever since. In an act of astonishing bravura, in 1969, to celebrate the wedding of King Birendra, the German government backed the restoration of the Pujari Math, a Hindu priest’s house, and later undertook the restoration of more than 200 buildings in the town of Bhaktapur. In 1972, unesco began restoring the vast Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace, in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. There have subsequently been heroes aplenty, but here I must reserve my plaudits for the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, founded in 1991 by Harvard professor emeritus of architecture Eduard Sekler and American architect Erich Theophile, on whose heads I place glistening laurels; for, to date, the trust has saved, or helped to save, some 50 buildings. The most prominent supporter of the cause is Prince Charles, who helped launch K.V.P.T.’s plans for Patan’s Royal Palace complex by hosting a fund-raiser at Clarence House and making a donation from his personal trust. Restoration of the complex began in May of this year.

Krishna Mandir, a 17th-century temple in Patan’s Durbar Square, is the most revered stone monument in Nepal.

Go read the whole, very interesting article. In the meantime, here are the rest of the pictures from the article, which I think are just amazing.

Sundari Cok, a 17th-century courtyard of the Patan Royal Palace.

The Mahadev Temple, in Indra Cok, Kathmandu, rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1934.

A back lane outside of the Patan Durbar Square World Heritage site, where urban farmers still live in dilapidated buildings.

Lucinda Lambton is a writer, photographer, and broadcaster.

Along with Bhutan, Nepal is definitely one of the places I want to see before I die.

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