I flew over the Kathmandu valley with the rising sun, the mountainous Himalayas glowing soft pink as the morning light touched their towering peaks, Mount Everest the highest of all. As we descended into the valley I could see the city below, a congested sprawl spreading out and up into green and fertile hills. I didn’t know what to expect. But I was aware of an inner excitement, a sense of new adventure.
How to describe the scenes as our taxi bumped along the dry potholed streets of Kathmandu; a riot of strange and unfamiliar sights, the air polluted, scenes of poverty and crowds of people, stray dogs covered in layers of dust, cows lying in the middle of the roads, buses and trucks and taxis and cars and a million motorbikes all jostling and honking and kicking up dirt and dust as we raced along.
The sky was a cloudless brilliant blue against the many-hued buildings, which seemed to climb ever higher into the air. I felt I was looking out onto a vast movie set. I could feel a creeping dread, but there was no going back. We were on our way to the centre of Kathmandu where I would take up a Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (CKAC) residency in the old palace grounds of Patan—the city of beauty, art and architecture. I would be there for three months, drawn by the art and a culture different to my own.
But first I would spend time getting to know Kathmandu, taxi-ing across the city to see Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas and ancient old palaces, braving the chaotic traffic, aimlessly wandering for hours the many back streets and alleys, taking in the sights, observing the everyday lives of the people and getting a feel for the culture. I would spend most of my time in Patan, working in the studio all day and meeting up with friends after dark, going to art openings, studio visits, and hanging with the locals.
My studio was based in the old royal palace, now the Patan Museum, which holds the most sacred arts of Nepal. It is a dominant feature of the palace grounds, one of the oldest museums in South Asia and a UNESCO heritage site. Some time in its distant past three princes competed against each other to create the most beautiful palace, and even though Patan is small by comparison, in my mind it is the best of the three. I particularly loved its temples sitting side by side in the Durbar Square, ancient and beautiful, the gods and goddesses exquisitely carved in stone and wood.
Hindu religion plays a major role in Nepalese life; everything revolves around it but it is accepting of Buddhism, the religions existing together in harmony. Places of worship are at every turn, from the hard ground in front of domestic dwellings where small offerings of saffron and rice are made to a god or goddess in the crevice of a wall touched by many loving hands, to the major temples that are a thriving hub of activity and worship at all times of the day and night. Every morning I was woken early by the temple bells ringing in the square and the sounds of a hawker selling his wares in the lane outside my window, his calls taking me back to a bygone age. Temple drumming and singing could go on for hours into the night, often the last thing I heard before drifting into sleep. The sounds of the people following the age-old rhythms of their secular lives are some of my most treasured memories.
And where there is religion there is art, and in Kathmandu the two are inseparable. There are makers of religious metal sculptures of all the gods and goddesses, artisans of great skill and ability working in copper and bronze. I often saw the craftsmen at work, sitting together on the floor in small dark shops, covered in grime and dust from blow-torches and grinders or else hand-working the forms like the artisans of old. I was particularly interested in the Buddhist Thangka painters, seated on the floor of their studios lining the streets to my house. I would often sit and chat with them, drink tea, listen to their stories about the making of a painting, the meaning of a hand gesture, the gods and goddesses, watching as they worked. The paintings made for meditation and religious study, easily rolled and carried by monks, but are now more often sold for the tourist market. In Nepal there is a caste of artists, and family names are associated with them, which many of these artists belonged to.
The Newari, the Indigenous people of Kathmandu have their own style of Thangka called Paubha, similar to Buddhist Thangka but more gestural, colourful, lively and engaging. The paintings were originally made to earn religious merit both for the artist and his patron. I was lucky to meet a master Paubha painter who invited me to his studio where I saw the most beautiful paintings, stretched onto frames and painted in the traditional style, these large paintings that took up to 15 years to complete. His process involving mortar and pestle to make his colours, grinding down minerals and plants, the colours rich and vibrant, the paintings the purest and most exquisite works of art I have ever seen.
There were festivals of every kind almost every day and I arrived during the wedding season. I was always happy to hear an approaching wedding procession, with crowds of people and flower-bedecked cars following the bride and groom, weaving through the narrow streets, the women kohl-eyed and beautiful in silver-and gold-threaded red saris, the men tipsy and dancing to a loud drumming and trumpeting band at the rear.
But it was the Shivaratri festival that stays in my mind, an annual event to worship Shiva at Pashupatinath, one of the biggest temple grounds in Kathmandu, where the dead are cremated on the banks of the Baghmati River.
On the day over one million people, many from India, lined the streets as far as the eye could see. And I was one of them, walking with the crowds along the congested dusty roads, seeing many weird and startling sights. People suffering from leprosy, wrapped in rags and lying prostrate on the roads. Thousands of sadhus and other religious men lining the temples, naked and covered in ash or attired in brightly coloured robes smoking ganja or performing puja, blessing the people with a touch of ash to the forehead. And high up on the hill overlooking the temple grounds, were ancient old trees with ribbons and string tied by women to ensure the capture of a man, monkeys swinging from their tree tops, their chattering calls just above one’s head. The sounds of music boomed across the valley, and the air was filled with the smoke from the many funeral pyres from the cremation grounds just across the river. Thinking back on the experience is like recalling a strange dream.
Back in the studio at the Patan Museum, I worked to schedule, drawing and painting every day, arriving early and leaving just before dark. It was winter; cold mornings and nights but warm and sunny days. And like the Nepalese I would bask in the midday heat, sitting on the steps of my studio, watching an archaeological dig in the grounds, eating momos and drinking masala tea with Rosie Lascelles, my fellow resident and friend, the cloudless sky filled with the sounds of circling eagles, their great wings beating out a timeless sound as they perched in the trees high above.
In coming to Nepal I was uncertain how it would impact my work, if at all. Much of my work prior to the residency have been narrative works that include a group of characters on table tops, trapped together in an inescapable world, who along the way have developed very complex relationships. The world of the Nepali people is inescapable in many ways, their relationships are complex, but they are more accepting of their lives, which they celebrate in all kinds of different, daily ways. I was constantly confronted with many odd, strange and wonderful images—a small baby with kohl-dark eyes and bright lipsticked red lips, a helicopter hovering above a temple on Valentine’s Day to drop petals onto Vishnu’s temple, a long line of giant masked Buddha figures marching in the rain to a festival, two old people on the seventh day of the seventh month of their 77th year being carried in little gold thrones to the temple to be reborn and made into living gods, a monkey at your studio window, a rock concert in the ancient temple grounds, a dog climbing a ladder up a five-floor building.
These images crept into my work, but so did the dogs, the large population of dogs who hang around the streets of Kathmandu, who don’t really belong; homeless, unloved and unwanted, misfits and outcasts, much like the characters of my work.
I found myself painting them with a series of small process watercolours and drawings. I had a special relationship with one of these dogs, ‘yellow dog’, who lived at the front of my studio, an arthritic old dog who I protected from the other dogs, and fed, and drew and painted. One morning I came to my studio with food for him, and was told the guards had buried him, as he had died outside my studio in the rain overnight. I dedicated my exhibition to him at the Patan Museum, where I showed over 150 small paintings. A large crowd attended and we partied into the night.
On the last week of the residency I felt the old dread come back, but this time it was the dread of leaving, for I had fallen in love with Nepal, the landscape, its architecture, and most importantly the people. How does one sum up such an incredible place, which in many ways is an out-of-left-field experience, so different to everything I have ever known? The people of course in the end were the most moving part of this experience, the Nepalese beautiful, handsome, kind, gentle, friendly, and filled with good will and generosity.
On my last day, I walked for the last time in the pre-dawn hours along my little alley, my suitcase dragging behind me, an old didi bent double sweeping the path, softly calling “Namaste,” the homeless dogs fast asleep, a mother squatting, washing clothes in a bowl outside her door, the streets coming awake to another day as the taxi bounced along the roads. Soon I was above the clouds once again looking out over the snow-covered Himalayas and thinking about a sign in the airport as I passed through its doors for the journey home. “Once you have been to Nepal, you will always return.”
This article was written before the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Himalayan nation on 25 April, which killed thousands and left millions homeless.
Lorene Taurerewa has been in contact with friends in Kathmandu, one of whom said “all our ancestors have gone.” This is not only a story that details Taurerewa’s experience of Kathmandu, particularly Patan, but one that vividly details what has been lost.
More from Issue 168, Winter 2015
Over the past year, Cat Auburn has been creating a large tapestry comprised of 500 Victorian hair-rosettes, made out of horsehair. She talks to Margo White about the ideas behind this project, and the response from the equine community.