Discover Kathmandu’s Rich Artistic Heritage
There’s much about Nepal that makes it one of the world’s top tourist destinations; and there’s much about its capital that makes it an art lover’s delight.
Okay, so Kathmandu is not the Shangri-La it once was. Modern development (lots of concrete structures and noisy traffic, mostly) have been the bane of this once pristine city that was known for its lovely scenic beauty and round-the-year cool climate. Nevertheless, even if these are things of the past, the city still has many charms, some of them being traditional art, craft, and architecture. The untiring and enthusiastic efforts of Nepali artists and artisans has resulted in the ‘living museum’ cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, where you’ll discover high-caliber examples of their skills in many alleys and squares.
It must be pointed out here that the whole of Kathmandu Valley was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of seven outstanding cultural monuments—the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, the temples of Pashupatinath and Changunarayan, and the stupas of Swoyambhunath and Boudhanath—all displaying the tremendous artistic heritage of Nepal. Besides these fantastic monuments, where you will find excellent examples of Nepali art, craft, and architecture, here are some other places you must visit to have a more expansive view.
National Museum, Chauni, Kathmandu
Established in 1938, and located on the way to Swoyambhunath Stupa, the National Museum is housed in an ancient durbar of bygone days. It is a treasure trove of traditional Nepali art and craft that define the country’s ancient history. The starting point is the stone, terracotta, and metal craft section that has numerous historical artifacts. One such is the five-foot-tall limestone statue of Ansu Verma, the first king of the Lichhavi Period (fourth to twelfth century). This, and a headless image of a Matrika (mother goddess), discovered in the ancient settlement of Handigaun in Kathmandu, are said to be the most ancient stone sculptures found in the country. The terracotta and metal statues on display validate the skill and creativity of the valley’s artists and sculptors, who are as adept in the above as they are in stone and wood craft.
The Buddhist art and artifacts section has answers to some of the more complex aspects of Buddhist symbolism. You’ll find plenty of pau:bha paintings (traditional religion-based paintings) that are as intricately detailed as they are deeply meaningful, providing insights into things like the wheel of life and Buddha’s teachings. Similarly, you’ll know more about the meaning and symbolic purpose of mandalas. The third section of the museum has on display, besides other artifacts, intriguing botanical and zoological specimens, rare coins and stamps, and trophies and weaponry of the legendary Gurkha soldiers. Walking down the interconnecting corridors, you’ll see photographs of kings, prime ministers, and other historical personalities. Granted, the National Museum may not hold much of a candle to the more renowned museums around the world, but it is interesting in its own way, and worth your time.
Baber Mahal Revisited, Thapathali, Kathmandu
During the 104-year-old Rana era (1846-1951), many magnificent durbars in the neo-classical style were built in the valley. In 1966, all of them were nationalized by then King Mahendra. One such durbar was Baber Mahal in Thapathali of Kathmandu. Its lavishness and its size (250 rooms!) truly reflected Rana glory in all its grand splendor. The cowsheds and the guard quarters of this great durbar, however, were permitted to remain in the family’s ownership.
One of the descendants decided to make something out of these humble quarters, and with help from Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, succeeded in achieving an amazing transformation into an architecturally arresting shopping mall that they named Baber Mahal Revisited. Designed around five courtyards, there are about twenty-two shops and four restaurants on its premises, including an art gallery, Siddhartha Art Gallery, that hosts regular exhibitions by both new and established names of the country’s art world—the place to view mostly contemporary paintings. The owners of the mall have recently built a hotel in the adjoining space behind, and it’s pretty unique, too, with three wings designed on the lines of Mustang, Kathmandu, and Rana period architecture.
Patan Museum, Patan Durbar Square, Patan
Want to know more about the numerous Buddhist deities of Nepal? Want to be capable of identifying the different gods and goddesses just by looking at their postures, the gestures of their hands, and/or the accompanying symbols? A couple of hours inside Patan Museum in Patan Durbar Square, I believe, will increase your knowledge manifold, and you’ll surely come out with new-found confidence that will make your future tours around Kathmandu Valley a more interesting one. With nine galleries containing around 200 artifacts, the museum’s location itself is an interesting one, it being located on the first and second floors of the royal palace of the erstwhile Malla kings of Patan. It is the result of an Austrian-Nepali joint effort, a part of the bigger plan to preserve Patan Durbar Square that was initiated in 1982. The museum was inaugurated in 1997.
Simrik Atelier, Patan Dhoka, Patan
If you want to explore the finer points of the extremely detailed art of pau:bha painting, then there are quite a few studios around the valley that conduct regular classes. One of the oldest is Simrik Atelier in Patan, and its founder, Lok Raj Chitrakar, is one of the leading exponents of pau:bha painting in the country. Some of his most renowned pau:bhas are on permanent display in Tokyo, at the Furukowa Museum of Asian Art. The Atelier is what you are looking for if you are trying to understand everything about this ancient art, from how the canvas is strung to how the colors are made to how the concept is visualized to how the sketching is done, and so on. You’ll also get to see the master, and some of his more gifted students, at work.
Park Art Gallery, Pulchowk, Patan
Established in 1970 by pioneering water colorist Rama Nanda Joshi (1933-1988), Park Art Gallery was the first independent art institution to provide art education in Nepal. Originally located in Ratna Park in central Kathmandu, where it became a landmark, the gallery was later shifted near to his home in Pulchowk. His family decided to renovate and re-launch the gallery in his memory in 2006. The gallery has two sections; one has the late Joshi’s water colors on permanent display, while the other section has works by leading contemporary artists of the country. Exhibitions and workshops are a regular feature of the gallery that also specializes in making artistic frames. This is a gallery that will keep you up to date with the current art scenario of Nepal.