The day before yesterday, I had to get my thesis signed by the
Bhupatindra Malla, the most
famous king of Bhaktapur
external examiner. I also had a lecture to give and my college and his home happened to be close by. So with an umbrella, a sling bag and a walking stick as a gift to the old scholar I headed towards Gairidhārā, a modernised section of ancient Kathmandu. I had planned to meet him around two, after my two hour class. On a rainy Saturday with only about half the usual number of students I had to take a "mini-crash-course" on the indigenous technology of fibre extraction and dyeing plants. Had I been informed at the begin of the semester I would have made a better treatment of the subject. But anyway, for the nature of the course and given their capacity it was enough for my dear students.
After my duties as a teacher were over I exited the campus as a student. Within a walking distance of about five minutes I reached the home of the renowned Professor of culture. In a quiet residential part of the town his newly-painted house with arches of bougainvillea and flower pots showed his high lineage. I gently opened the front metal door with iron letters saying "Trailokya Niwās" in Nepālī script. I skipped over the tiny puddles and observing quietly the flower pots opened the second gate. The guard dog got into action and I buzzed the electric bell.
Unlike my previous three visits I received an unexpectedly warm reception from the Missus. On those occasions I had to wait for the Professor outside or simply pass the papers in through the ground floor window grill. This time around she shooed the barking dog to another room and kindly welcomed me. In these visits I have always thought that her face matches quite well with the Professor himself. Half a century of cohabitation does change people, I guess! Anyway the purpose for meeting him was two fold. The first, as I mentioned, was to get the approval signatures on two copies of my thesis. The second was to learn from him. The purpose of the handcrafted wooden walking stick gift was to aid this. So as soon as I sat down beside him I began questioning him on a few topics. He began by recounting his experience teaching in the above college as well.
The Professor recounted the days when he used to take exchange students from renowned liberal arts colleges on city tours. But by the mid-1990s due the insurgency the college administration swapped hands and applied sciences and management was instead taught here.
I then moved into a more serious informal kind of interview. As a curiosity I asked him about why the Navagrantha Sūtra (the Nine Sanskrit philosophical stories) were so much prevalent here and why these texts were placed in a maṇḍala (circular) diagramme, in each of the eight cardinal directions and one in the centre. My intention was to know the deeper significance of the philosophical texts in relation to Buddhist art. However, he wasn't much clear about it. He pointed towards the ritual significance and the transformation of the aniconic to iconic. He then recommended me the collected articles of the great Japanese scholar, Musashi Tachikawa.
He kept sharing his experience regarding his visit to Bhaktapur in his early days. One fascinating account had the people of Bhaktapur producing hundreds of liters of milk at places where there were no buffaloes reared. They had solidified milk with them in stock, which they mixed with warm water and then churned them to have the demanded milk ready overnight, literally.
After a light-hearted conversation, I moved to to a more political issue related to Bhaktapur. I asked him about the presence of many more Buddhist stone sculptures prior to the advent of the city development project. He concurred. So a massive theft must have occurred in between. He additionally brought to notice the large inscription (dated N.S. 588 or ca 1467 CE) close to our home in which it's mentioned that a life sized gilt sculpture of Rāya Malla (the son of Yakṣa Malla) was installed upon his death. The copy of the same inscription is also displayed in the National Art Gallery of Bhaktapur. He exclaimed that the sculpture is now gone, even though he had seen a photograph of it.
Dhanavajra Vajrācārya and Tulsi Rām Vaidya (two great Nepalese scholars) had published a paper on the list of items that were left in the Bhaktapur palace after Prithvi Narayan Shah exiled the last king, Raṇajita Malla and his wife to Kāśi. When audited, many items were found to be missing. His point was that many precious artefacts were now missing, in spite of many of their written accounts. He also highlighted the presence of two or three nunneries as per the inscription of Cyāmhāsiṅgha area and the reading by Dhanavajra Vajrācārya.
Another interesting point he noted was the difference in the time interval of sati (self immolation upon husband's death) of one of the wives of Yakṣa Malla compared to the others. There was about 7 days difference in the śrāddha (post-funeral rituals) rituals after their death. He concluded that that the later śrāddha and ultimately the later sati was because of the wife undergoing menstruation, a supposedly "impure" happening preventing the "auspicious" suicide!
He then emphasized the presence of Buddhist struts in Cāṅgu Nȧrȧyaṇa area. When I showed my surprise, he quickly resorted to saying that in fact Cāṅgu was a totally Buddhist site. There are still many pieces related to Buddhism and that the Buddhist tradition is still strong there. People still conduct the Aṣṭamī Vrata ("aphsaṁ") with great pomp in the premises of Cāṅgu Nārāyaṇa...and on and on he was filling me with so many new topics to explore...
There were many things of paramount cultural significance that he showed in our nearly hour long conversation. I truly admired his deep knowledge and wisdom.
I felt like he took me through a magnificent tour of the ancient city, my home city. He made me see Bhaktapur through a King's perspective. I hope to be in conference with him again and again. A true living testament to Nepalese history and culture.