Objects of Antiquity: The World of Antiques

Features Issue 35 Aug, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: DBM

Mr. Shyam Sunder Rajbanshi of  the Epigraphy division (Department of Archaeology) read the inscription at the base of the life-sized statue with a good deal of excitement. 'Samvat 107 sri paramadeva pka maharajesu jayavarmma'. After painstaking effort and much debate between experts, the literal translation was finally deciphered as, 'The year 107. Among the Kings, the Fourth, Late Sri Jayavarmma.'

Thus a chapter in the ancient history of Nepal was unveiled. The material used in the making of this antique statue- sankhu type sandstone (sandstone without polish), as well as the use of an early script proved that it was from the first Lichchavi samvat (Saka Samvat), which meant that it was made in the 2nd century A.D. This statue, discovered in Maligaon in 1994, was the earliest of any found with Lichchavi inscriptions on it.

Today, this life sized statue of the famous king stands tall and proud in the room displaying stone sculptures at the National Museum in Chhauni. The Museum is a treasure trove of numerous other antiques that collectors would give their eyeteeth for. Connoisseurs of such ancient objects d'art should also know that the Kathmandu Valley itself is a museum of sorts, and that antiques can be seen in many old houses, courtyards, temples and monasteries.

Of course, if the connoisseur wishes to possess a few of such exquisite curios then there are quite a few reputable antique shops strewn about Kathmandu, mainly in Thamel, Basantpur and Durbar Marg, besides of course numerous shops in Bhaktapur and Patan.

According to Binod Khanal of 'Antique Gallery' in Durbar Marg, 'Although there are many curio shops with a wide range of interesting items, I think there are probably ten to fifteen genuine antique shops in town.'

His father, Bhola Khanal has been in the business for the last thirty years and they have participated in handicraft exhibitions in Germany (2002) as well as in Italy (2003). Binod has dispatched 65 masks of the Tharu region to Paris for an exhibition, 'Le comours des manque' (the commerce of masks), that opened on 23rd September 2004.

"The exhibition will be in front of Versailles Museum," he reveals, "My partner, Monsieur Christophu Magal, a French antique dealer, is organizing the event. Masks from Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Mexico will also be featured."

Any particular reason for sending Tharu masks?

"Well, yes," Binod replies, "Christophu and I visited Chitwan and Dang some months back and produced a documentary on Tharus. In the process we also collected Tharu masks and thought it would be appropriate for this exhibition since we can also show the film. Most of the masks are pretty ancient and all are colorful."

Binod also informed that the prices for the masks ranged from NRs.5000 to NRs. 35,000 but would be available at lower prices at the exhibition.

Most curio shops in the city are full of interesting antiques but Hari Bista's 'Shiv and Parvati Handicrafts' in Thamel is specially filled to the brim with intriguing objects. In fact, according to Binod Khanal of Antique Gallery and Surya Khadga who have a curio shop in Thamel, Hari Bista is quite an expert on antiques.

"I have shifted shop five times already and am thinking of shifting again," Bista says, "My first shop was in Basantpur. Those days business was good but supplies were scanty. In the last 8-9 years however, there have been plenty of people from all over Nepal who have been selling ancient heirlooms. Obviously it must be because of poor economic conditions. But business is so bad now that some days it is an achievement just to make one sale."

Another old timer, Om Narayan Shrestha of 'New Curio Shop' in Thamel says he has seen much better days and today his business is a dead loss. He has been in the business for almost three decades and also had his shop in Basantpur in the beginning.

Most shops have curios in wood, metal and fabric. Curios, whether antique or not, encompass a wide variety of objects ranging from musical instruments, masks and boxes to vessels, primitive figures, bells, manuscripts and clothes. Antique locks ('bhote talchas'), 'Mana Pathis' (set of 8 measuring vessels of Lichavi period), 'Dhungro' (milking pails), 'Shaman sets' (belt with lots of curious hardware worn by Tamang shamans), 'Lisnus' (narrow wooden ladders of Trishuli), and many other intriguing items can be found in such shops.

The musical instruments available are indigenous ones like 'narsimha', 'dama', 'dholke', 'jhyali', 'sehnai', 'tempu' and 'kernel' as well as 'dhyangro', 'bansuri', 'tungna', 'sarangi' etc… There are also lots of curios from Tibet, mostly red wooden chests (presumably brought from monasteries), leather boxes, thankas (paintings), and even old chairs and carpets. One can also find ancient carved doors, various kinds of weapons, old jewelry, and such things in the shops.

In fact, 'such things' can be so many varied kinds of objects that one would really have to spend a few hours inside Hari Bista's shop to comprehend the variety.

How does one judge the antiquity of an object?
"It's almost impossible for us to know the age of an object," Hari Bista says, "Previously we used to go by its patina (the sheen on the object or its handle due to years of use), but that too is not a reliable criteria today as it can be manipulated. Anyway, most tourists don't care much about whether something they like is genuinely antique or not."

Prices of curios vary widely. Musical instruments can cost anywhere from a few hundred to ten thousand rupees. A 'kangring' (small trumpet made from femur bone of humans), costs NRs. 6000 at the Antique Gallery. A set of eight 'Mana Pathi' measuring vessels can cost from NRs.6000 to NRs. 10,000.

According to Mr. Bista, "People come with goods to sell and if I like something I name a price depending upon current trends. I can't sell with unreasonable margins as there are too many shops around nowadays and competition is stiff. Right now I am purchasing any 'dhungros' (milking pails) that is on offer. 'Dhungros' from eastern Nepal (especially Dhankuta) are quite old while those from Kavre are newer."

Binod Khanal of Antique Gallery has his own views, "It depends on the type of customer. Sometimes I get very good prices." He has an antique gramophone, the use of which he demonstrated by cranking it up and playing an old Tara Devi LP. He has priced it at NRs.60,000.

Pointing to a two foot tall bronze Buddha statue he revealed that it had been sold via the Net for NRs.1,20,000, "I haven't even seen the buyer. Business on the internet could be a good way to increase sales."

In earlier years, news about precious idols stolen from temples and elsewhere, used to be a regular feature in the papers. Even caretakers, including priests, were said to be involved. It was a fact that such misdeeds occurred under the protection of many high placed officials in government and law enforcement agencies. Hence dealing in such antiques is less favored these days by dealers.

The recent theft of a 5th century, 1.2 meters tall Gilded Head of 'Dipankar Buddha' on February 16th 2002, from its caretaker's house in Nag Bahal of Patan caused an international furore. It was later revealed that a German art collector had tried to sell it to the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna for US$200,000. Due to its timely identification by scholars of the University of Vienna with help from the Buddhist community of Patan, the 'Dipankar Buddha' was returned in May 2002.

No wonder then, that a 122cm x 49cm bronze 'Dipankar Buddha'(1824 A.D.), of Nardevi, has been sent to the National Museum as a precautionary measure and is taken out only once a year, for a week, during the Gaijatra festival.

It would be worth mentioning here, that, before 1950, many antiques must have traveled abroad due to lack of definite legislation. In fact it was only in 1952 that the Department of Archaeology was established and it was not until 1956 that the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act was passed. The law made it mandatory to acquire permission from the Department of Archaeology before any statue and other artifacts could be taken out of the country and it made it illegal to export artifacts more than a century old.

Besides, idols that had been objects of worship, even for a day, could no longer be taken out of Nepal since they were now a part of our living culture.

However, between the years 1960 to 1980, tourism boom in the country resulted in widespread smuggling of antiques. In the 1980's, due to more awareness, as well as efforts by international organizations like UNESCO, this was controlled to a large extent. In fact during this period some priceless antiques were even returned to Nepal.

Noteworthy among these was a statue of 'Sarsawati' of Pharping and a statue of 'Uma Mahesvara' that were returned from London and the United States respectively.

Obviously, nowadays most antiques can be found only in the museums. But it must be mentioned that such priceless artifacts are worth seeing because they date back thousands of years and speak of the rich cultural history of Nepal. The National Museum is a treasure trove of antiques having on display, in addition to other treasure, almost a hundred stone and terracota statues dating from the 1st to the 19th century.

The huge, rugged and headless 'Yaksha' of Handigaun is the earliest stone sculpture discovered in Nepal and dates back to the 1st century A.D. Some other early stone sculptures are 'Sri Laxmi'and 'Vishnu' (both 2nd century A.D.), also unearthed in Handigaun.

'Gajalakshmi' (2nd century A.D.) of Chyesol Tole, Patan, 'Matrika' (2nd century A.D.) of Haaugal Bahal, Patan, 'Shiv' (3-4 century A.D.) of Handigaun, and of course, 'King Jayavarmma' (2nd century A.D.) are equally valuable relics in stone. The history of Nepalese sculpture obviously goes back two thousand years. There has also been a discovery of an early terracota figure of 'Sri Laxmi' (or Padma Shri), from Tilaurakot in the Terai, dating back to 1st century B.C.

As far as metalwork is concerned, Nepal has numerous artifacts in bronze and copper dating back to the10th century A.D. Most of the statues were made by using the Cira Perdua (Lost Wax) method. The selected object was first modeled in wax, then coated with clay leaving only a small opening. After the clay mold had dried, the wax was melted and poured out. Then the wax was replaced by molten metal. After sufficient cooling, the clay mold was broken to reveal the cast image.

Nepal also boasts of a woodcarving culture dating back to 15th century A.D. 'Naitya Devi' (15th century A.D.) is one of the earliest discovered. As for antique paintings, 'Krishna Lila', 'Dasamvidya', 'Shiv Pariwar' are from the 18th century A.D. while a painting of ' Mahisasura Mardini' has been dated to 16th century A.D.

While most of the early antiques were depictions of Hindu Deities, Buddhist sculpture only started to appear in the valley from 5th century A.D. Among the earliest are the 'Buddha head' (7th century A.D.), measuring 16cmx11cmx10cm and a 74cmx32cmx8cm 'Buddha', (9th century A.D.). Among early Buddhist literature, the 'Arya Asthasahasrika prajnaparamite', a manuscript written in Nilpatre with golden letters in Tibetan Uchhen script, dates back to the 13th century A.D.

Among antique coins in Nepal, the 'punch marked coins' (5-6 B.C.), the 'Kushan coins' (1st century A.D.) and the 'Lichchavi coins' (5th century AD) are among the most ancient. The first stamps were introduced in Nepal in 1881 AD and 'One Anna', 'Two Anna' and 'Four Anna' stamps are the earliest.

There is no doubt that Nepal is a country with a history rich in art and culture and the presence of so many antiques proves the point. Many people have devoted themselves to the preservation of such priceless antiquities. One example that comes to mind is the late Dwarika Das Shrestha who actively searched for, collected, and saved ancient carved windows which he later incorporated into the world renowned Dwarika's Hotel.

Another person who deserves mention is late Lain Singh Bangdel, noted painter and art historian, whose single-minded devotion resulted in the return of many antiques that had been smuggled to foreign lands.

Besides the museums, it would be worthwhile to see for oneself, the plethora of intriguing and varied curios in the many shops in the valley. And the variety is diverse all right, as befitting a country with such diversity in culture, language, religion and ethnicity, besides of course, antiquity of civilization. Curios can arouse interest in the curious. Who knows, interest could lead to a fascinating hobby, that of curio collection.

It must be said that this can not only be an interesting pastime but a beneficial one too. Such a hobby could reap rich rewards, if not immediately, then years later. A particular object d'art could well turn out to be a treasure international collectors would, as said before, give their eyeteeth for! Right now, for obvious reasons, prices are low, and exquisite curios can be had for a few hundred rupees. So, for the curious, now is the perfect time to start this intriguing hobby.