Monsoon Everywhere

Features Issue 142 Sep, 2013
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

Gautama Vajracharya says the art of India and Nepal is a representation of the monsoon.

All I knew about the man I had come to interview was that he was a scholar. This lack of information was making me uneasy. A relative of his met me at Ombahal, at the crossroads of Jhhonchen, (formerly Freak Street) and brought me to a small courtyard. He knocked on a door and, as though to apply a dramatic effect, a key came dangling down on a string. Somewhere above, the scholar was waiting. Within minutes of meeting him the uneasiness about not knowing more about him had dissipated. It was, however, replaced by the uneasiness of not having longer hair.

The scholar was Gautama Vajracharya. He was born into a Newar family in Kathmandu in 1940. That is perhaps the last commonplace thing about him. In the 1950s, the Western schooling system was slowly gaining popularity in Kathmandu. Vajracharya’s father was wary of the English language and believed that the system of holding regular written examinations would have an adverse effect on his children. So he decided to send Vajracharya to a traditional school. In fact, Vajracharya’s father founded one. It was called Samshodhana Mandala. It was located in the attic of Vajracharya’s house.

Samshodhana Mandala was run by Nayaraj Pant, a fastidious Sanskritist. By his fifth year at school Vajracharya could recite several Sanskrit texts from memory. But that didn’t impress his teacher. “He wasn’t satisfied even when we knew a couple of books by heart. He would always urge us to memorize more books,” Vajracharya remembers of his teacher.

Although a staunch believer in the ancient way of teaching, Nayaraj Pant was astute enough to see that the ability to speak and write Sanskrit alone was not useful. So he taught Vajracharya and the handful other children under his tutelage to read and analyze ancient inscriptions and iconography. At the end of his eighth and final year at Samshodhana Mandala, Vajracharya could read inscriptions on the walls of temples and identify the gods and goddesses depicted there.

But these weren’t qualifications that helped get jobs. For more than a year after graduating from Samshodhana Mandala, Vajracharya was unemployed. Then an offer came from the Tribhuvan University to write a book on the Hanuman Dhoka. Vajracharya wrote the book, and it brought him some fame, although not in Nepal. Recognition came more from the West, where his work won admirers in scholarly circles with an interest in Nepalese culture.

But scholars in the West, especially the U.S., knew Vajracharya even before he wrote that book. That was all down to one person, Mary Slusser, the eminent scholar of Nepalese art. The two had first met while Vajracharya was still a student at Samshodhana Mandala. Back then Samshodhana Mandala used to publish a periodical called Poornima. Vajracharya used to deliver them to the subscribers, one of whom was Slusser. “Mary Slusser knew how to get information,” Gautama remembers. “She always asked me to stay for tea and grilled me.” Vajracharya must have impressed in the grilling sessions, for when Slusser returned to the U.S., she recommended him to scholars of Nepalese history and culture.

One such person was Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, Senior Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Pal came to Nepal in 1974 to research for a book on Nepalese culture. Slusser had told him that the man to meet in Kathmandu was Gautama Vajracharya. The two met and worked together. A few days before returning to the States, Pal asked Gautama, out of the blue, if he wanted to come to the U.S. “When?” Vajracharya asked, believing Pal was joking. Six months later a letter arrived for Vajracharya. It was a letter of appointment to The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His monthly salary, it said, would be $1,500. “I was hardly earning $50 in Nepal then,” Vajracharya recalled.

After working in the museum for a while, Vajracharya decided to pursue a Masters degree. Even though he had had no formal schooling, the Claremont Graduate School, Los Angeles, decided that Vajracharya’s command of Sanskrit was as good as any Bachelors degree, and granted him admission into their Masters program. The museum financed his Masters degree in Art History. Vajracharya then completed his Ph.D. in South Asian Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

After his Ph.D., Vajracharya became a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught for thirty years before retiring as a professor emeritus. As he mentioned this, I thought the rest of his life history would be the same as that of any professor. But what followed wasn’t a tale of a lecturer’s life in an American university. “After studying and then teaching in the U.S. for 30 years I learned that there are two types of culture,” explained Vajracharya. “One is hibernation, the other is aestivation. Ours is the aestivation culture. Everything begins with the arrival of rain.” The sudden shift in topic from teaching in America to climate was perplexing. He continued, “Monsoon is in our psyche. In our part of the world, who is God? God is someone who can bring rain. If he can’t, he is not God.”

Where did a climatic phenomenon like monsoon fit in to a scholar’s world? Vajracharya explained where the two met. “The art of India and Nepal is closely related to monsoon. Without rain there is drought and famine, followed by loss of reproductive ability, disease, and death.” But such specters are non-existent in the ancient art of India and Nepal, although Vajracharya believes they must have occurred here in the past. “Famine is a nightmare. Monsoon is a beautiful dream.

Our art is a representation of that dream.” No one wanted to record the horrors of drought and famine. So art in the region has always shown rotund men and voluptuous women—a reflection of agrarian prosperity bestowed by the monsoon rains.

Art in India and Nepal, Vajracharya says, has always aspired toward idealism; reality was often left out if it clashed with this aspiration. Vajracharya pointed out how an exception wasn’t made for even someone as revered as the Buddha. “Even though it is said that the Buddha ate only a grain of rice every day for months when he was meditating, he has always been shown as a healthy man.” The first time the Buddha was depicted with an emaciated body was in Gandhara, a region that lies today in the north-west of Pakistan. Vajracharya says this was an aberration and not a turning point in the art of the sub-continent. “The art in Gandhara was the work of Greco-Roman artists, who were strangers to the monsoon phenomena of the sub-continent. Indian or Nepalese artists would never have shown a skinny man in their work.” Even centuries after the depictions at Gandhara, a thin Buddha did not appear in mainstream art of the sub-continent.

It was an interesting theory to explain the absence of the Buddha or any skinny figure from ancient art. But Vajracharya pointed out that there were other explanations. Some scholars would argue, for example, that the Buddha was not depicted in any form in ancient art in the first place and that in any case the absence of his image on temples and stupas had more to do with his achievements than his appearance. The Buddha had, after all, attained nirvana. And nirvana is believed to be a state of formlessness. If the Buddha was formless, how could he be depicted in body?
Vajracharya had the habit of presenting all the sides of an argument before driving home his point. “The Buddha had attained a state of formlessness. Okay. But his disciples hadn’t. Why weren’t any of his disciples shown in the stories about his sermons?” he asked. It should be noted that at various points in history the Buddha had been depicted in art through symbols such as an empty throne or a peepal tree. In places where this had been done, it would have been natural to show a few monks.

Vajracharya answered the question he had himself posed. “It is now widely accepted that the Buddha had thick hair that he used to tie into a chignon. But there are books dating from the Buddha’s time that clearly state he shaved his head. In fact, he advised his disciples to do the same. My research tells me that the Buddha was not shown in ancient art in the sub-continent because he used to shave his head.”

The statement painted the sub-continent as a land prejudiced against men with shaved heads. Vajracharya explained it was nothing personal. “In Indian and Nepalese philosophy, a man without hair is inauspicious. There is an old story about a hunter who calls off his day’s hunt as soon as seeing a Buddhist monk in the morning. He believed that it was no use going to the forest after seeing a man without hair.” I had shaved my head only a few days ago and had only the green of stubble on it. I had noticed Vajracharya glance at it from under his spectacles as he described the inauspiciousness associated with shaved heads. For a moment I felt I wasn’t sporting an auspicious hairstyle for a meeting with Vajracharya.

But why exactly was baldness in auspicious? Vajracharya went back to his forte—ancient Sanskrit texts. “There are texts that tell us that in ancient times people believed that vegetation and hair were similar: just like Mother Earth had vegetation growing on her, humans had hair on their heads.” Both were indicators of fertility.  The importance of having hair is evident in the Vedic story of a girl called Apala, who, although in her late teens, did not have hair on her body. Fearing that she was infertile, she prayed to Indra for help. Impressed, the god appeared and asked her what she wanted. Apala asked Indra to make hair grow on her body, on her father’s head (he was bald), and to turn her father’s land green with vegetation. Vajracharya mentioned that one of the most common images discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization is that of an ascetic with leaves of the peepal tree sprouting from his head—hair as vegetation. Vajracharya believes that the idea of hair as an indicator of fertility was so deeply rooted that it could have been the reason for not showing Buddha in places like Bodh Gaya and Sanchi.

The next connection Vajracharya presented between the monsoon culture and art concerned perhaps the most intriguing motif in Indian and Nepalese art: erotic images on temples. If showing a bald man was inauspicious, surely, depicting a naked one was inappropriate. To the layman it might seem like pornography in stone and wood. But to understand these images as they were meant to be, Vajracharya says we need to understand the underlying beliefs. “Iconography is a reflection of philosophy,” he said. “We need to remember that in our part of the world we believe strongly in the philosophy of darshan (sight): what we see affects what will happen. So artists only showed auspicious things: virile men, voluptuous women, procreation.”

Vajracharya says the erotic carvings, paintings, engravings found on temples throughout India and Nepal are the “polar opposite of famine.” He says that one text puts down the loss of procreative ability as a harbinger of famine. “If these images were so superficial, would a conservative society like ours, where a husband is embarrassed to hold his wife’s hand in public, allow it?” he asked. (When asked by a fellow professor in the U.S. what he liked best about America, Vajracharya had told him that it was the freedom to hold his wife’s hand in public). “The seemingly lurid scenes on our temples are a message. They are there because sexuality means fertility. And fertility is synonymous with rain. Another clue to this being about monsoon is that the figures in such scenes are never bald.”

The most well-known explanation for images of sexual activity on temples is that the goddess of lightning was a virgin and would thus never go near a place depicting sex. A temple with such images was thus lightning-proof. It is a nice story, Vajracharya says, but stories do not suffice. “A scholar can’t sit on stories and accept them. If that was the reason for such images, then there would be no need for portraying gods in erotic postures. Why would an artist depict a god fondling his consort’s breast?” He cited the example of the statues of the kings of Vijaynagar, in south India, commissioned by the kings themselves. The images put up on squares and near temples show the kings fondling their queens’s breasts. “Can you ever imagine the kings or queens of England commissioning and displaying such images of themselves?”

Vajracharya says that his work “mostly dwells on the relationship between the monsoon culture and art.” He says that it is an “unusual” approach to studying art. After decades of study, I felt, it had also become his usual approach. “Look closely,” he suggested, “and you will see the connection between the monsoon culture and art everywhere.” One place he pointed to were the old stone spigots in numerous squares in the Kathmandu Valley. Many of them have the figure of an ascetic under them. That ascetic is Bhagiratha, who, according to Hindu mythology, meditated for years and brought Ganga (Ganges River) from heaven to earth. Vajracharya elucidated: “To put Bhagiratha under a conduit is to state that it is not just any conduit; it means that it is a representation of Ganga itself. The makara, the alligator-like creature of myth from whose mouth the water discharges, represents Ganga.” 

For Vajracharya, however, the iconography of the spigots is about the monsoon. “If you think carefully, Ganga here means the rain from the heavens, not the river.” The evidence, he revealed, was in most of our homes, in the Nepalese calendar. “Jestha Shukla Dashami, the tenth day of Jestha, is the day of Ganga’s descent to earth. Our ancient scriptures tell us that the day of Ganga’s descent and the day for planting rice seeds were the same. This means that Ganga’s descent was in fact the arrival of the pre-monsoon rain.”

Water conduits also carry a more direct link to the monsoon culture—the frog. “Putting a frog on a spigot is the clearest reference to the monsoon rain, because it is after the arrival of the rains that frogs appear. This cause and effect has been reversed in time. Many people believe that it is the frog’s croaking that brings rains. This is why the Jyapoos still worship the frog.” Frogs have been talked about in the same vein as far back as 1500 B.C., when the Rig Veda was written. There is a hymn in the book extolling the frog. Vajracharya has elucidated this relationship between the frog, monsoon and art in his latest book “Frog Hymn and the Rain Baby.”

Although Vajracharya has cogent logic and textual evidence to support his theories, he lives by the philosophy of his uncle, the renowned scholar Dhanavajra Vajracharya, author of Licchavikalaka Abhilekha (Licchavi Period Inscriptions). “My uncle always said that we scholars should focus on collecting and analyzing ancient texts and other materials. He believed that the time hadn’t yet come for making conclusions. Perhaps the next generation would have enough evidence to do that.” Gautama Vajracharya may not have reached conclusions, but through his work he has reached nearer to our cultural roots.