NEPAL MANDALA (A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley) (2 Vols)

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Item Code: IDD594
Author: Mary Shepherd Slusser
Publisher: Mandala Book Point, Nepal
Language: English
Edition: 1998
Pages: 533 (b & w illus: 599)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11" x 9.2"
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Book Description

When I first went to Nepal I needed the book you are about to read. It was because I could not find such a book that, finally, I came to write this one.

Lumbering slowly up from India in one of the small planes that not long ago were the most sophisticated link between the Kingdom of Nepal and the outside world, I came to the Kathmandu Valley in late 1965. Although it was my husband's job with the United States AID mission that brought us to Nepal, as an anthropologist I had been recruited by the Smithsonian Institution to collect ethnographic materials. Because of an eleventh-hour bureaucratic switch of assignment, we were almost totally ignorant of the country to which we had come. And so, as our official car squeezed through the crowded lanes of the medieval capital city, Kathmandu, we could only medieval at the storied temples and the diverse peoples about whom we had everything to learn.

From our quarters, those first days in Kathmandu, we gazed out at a distant and mysterious shrine on a green hillock. The white and gitl-spired mass of the shrine repeated the shape of the more distant Himalayan peaks. American colleagues knew it only as the "Monkey Temple"; the Nepalese identified it as Svayambhu, a Buddhist shrine and "very old." But who built it, for what purpose, and in what age, none could say. Traditionally, Nepalese interest does not turn to history. The Nepalese answer echoed the response of a Puerto Rican elder I once asked about the age of a Catholic church, "cuando yo naci, estaba" (when I was born, it was).

Wherever I turned, I found either contradictory information about the shrines and deities, or non-at all. One person wisely asserted that a god was Siva, another said Visnu, while elsewhere the same image was at once named Devi, Indrani, and Ajima. And if another god was indeed Ganesa, as all the children certified, why was this rotund prankster being offered a bleeding chicken instead of the sweets and flowers welcomed by his Indian counterpart? And where, in the Buddhist viharas, full of domestic life, were the saffron-robed monks I had known in the monasteries of Cambodia, Laos, or Ceylon?

The temples of Kathmandu called to mind those I had encountered elsewhere in Asia-the pagodas of Vietnam, the ancient towers of Champa, the multiroofed wats of Thailand and its neighbours, the tiered temple towers of Bali. How had they come to Nepal, I wondered. Or had they, as many Nepalese asserted, originated there?

I read what I could find in Western languages. Taken together, these published sources not only failed to answer my questions, but raised more. Information on temples and shrines, sculptures and other aspects of Nepalese culture was in short supply, and what there was often confused and contradictory.

Take for example Kasthamandapa, a significant building and the namesake of the capital city. The sources asserted that it was a temple, that it was built in A. D. 1995, and that Laksmi Narasimha was the reigning king of the time. But it was immediately clear that something was wrong: Laksmi Narasimha was not reigning in 1595, even according to these same sources. Ultimately I discovered that Kasthamandapa was not a temple, but a community rest house, that it was built not later than A. D. 1143, and that Laksmi Narasimha reigned during neither of those times.

Most records of events, wars, and kings were similarly confused, often outdated altogether. For example, the sources universally referred to the conquest of Nepal in the early fourteenth century by one Harasimha of Mithila, a kingdom on its southern borders. Harasimha was held to have introduced the important goddess Taleju into Nepal. This was of profound cultural and political importance. Having discovered on a multitude of occasions how unreliable the historical sources were-no two sources seemed to agree even on the basic dates of a king's birth, death, or reign-I was suspicious. Indeed, I later found out that Harasimha died a refugee without even reaching the Kathmandu Valley, and that Taleju had been familiar in Nepal at least two centuries before Harasimha's birth.

Sylvain Levi's monumental study, Le Nepal, published at the turn of the century, might have answered my questions had it been written three-quarters of a century later. But as a pioneer investigator, Levi was neither in Nepal long enough nor permitted to move about freely enough to substantiate his work through adequate field research; moreover, much historical material has only come to light in the twentieth century. For example, Levi's reconstruction of the history of the Licchavi period, ca. A. D. 300 to 879, is based on fewer than fifty inscriptions. But the history of that period as published here is based on almost two hundred inscriptions and, in addition, supplemented by archaeology and art historical studies.

In sum, the best efforts of earlier scholars did not seem to provide a cogent, or even credible, history, and was often at odds with the cultural evidence that slowly began to unfold. More significant, these works did not provide a rational explanation of the origins and evolution of the remarkable culture so grandly evident in the Kathmandu Valley.

With respect to available dynastic and political history, there seemed little to be done except to make the best of what there was and to fit the cultural aspects into it as best I could. Thus I turned increasingly to my own disciplines-anthropology, archaeology, and art history-as the means of understanding the physical remains that crowd the Valley-the temples and shrines, the stone sculptures, and the old cities themselves.

Soon I was spending my days in the streets among the Nepalese, poking into courtyards, studying shrines and sculptures, and (with help) the inscriptions, which, although unnoticed by most Nepalese, often identified and dated the monuments. I attended the yearly cycles of public festivals and, as an invited guest, observed family rites in homes. As my competence in the Nepali language grew, I began to learn from priest and temple guardian, yogi and merchant, farmer and urchin, a rich folklore and tradition.

Although excavation was not possible, I soon be came aware of the potential of "surface archaeology." Through it, for instance, I was able to affirm that the old cities had been walled, and even to reconstruct accurately their bounds. The walls were recoverable not only from physical indices-half-buried gate thresholds, for example-but in people's memories and in their rites. Similarly, bits and pieces of ancient buildings, lying forgotten by the wayside or reused to other ends, began to speak eloquently of bygone architecture. As art historian, I looked with fresh eyes on the images of the gods, many unstudied and others too well known. Take, for instance, a seventh-century. With a Nepali colleague, I was able to show it to be earlier than the sculpture it was alleged to copy.

In two years of unremitting fieldwork, the first and finally a dozen. The towns and monuments were photographed and mapped; where possible they were identified and securely fixed in time. By 1967 I believed I had a book, though it was unassembled and unwritten.

At first I gathered the material for myself alone, then I thought to write a serious guide to the Kathmandu Valley cities and their compelling monuments. The Smithsonian Institution Press thought so too, and contracted for the work I planned to do. But when, in the third year of residence in Nepal, my book was almost done, I made a startling discovery, at once exciting and sobering. In the course of studying the Nepali language I stumbled on a hitherto unsuspected and untapped reservoir of historical data. Quite unknown in the West, this data had been quietly accumulating for a quarter of a century in Nepali-language journals. The contribution of the historical society known as Samsodhana-mandala (Correction Circle) was particularly important. Their work derived from justifiable dissatisfaction that mirrored my own, with historical interpretation that precedes sound evidence. It was based n incontrovertible documented evidence, and was uncompromising in accuracy. It was also voluminous.

Scattered among Nepali-language writings I found recorded more than a hundred early, otherwise unknown, inscriptions for the Licchavi Period. These more than doubled the inscriptions published in Raniero Gnoli's compendium in 1956, heretofore the primary source for the period. It was in these same sources that I found proof that Harasimha had not conquered Nepal, but had died a refugee on its borders; that Taleju was worshiped in Nepal from at least the early twelfth century; that Sthitimalla, one of Nepal's greatest and most enigmatic rulers, had not come "from Sankhu," a Kathmandu Valley village, to marry a Nepalese princess, but "from the south.

The latter, one might think, is surely a minor point. But this bit of evidence makes all the difference. No wonder, if Sthitimall came "from the south" (most probably the Indian state of Mithila), rather than a Nepalese village, that his political and cultural impact was so great: he was an outsider.

It became increasingly clear as I made my way though this wilderness of unexplored sources that here was the material from which the broad outlines of Nepalese history could be set down. This had purposely not been done by the Samsodhana-mandala, who felt that such a venture was premature. First, they said, let us gather the data. Assembly of it as history lies in the distant future. They thus provided the pieces, unevaluated and uninterpreted, but not the structure that I needed to make the cultural materials understandable.

Slowly forming in my own mid was a narrative account of the Kathmandu Valley, at variance with the Western-language sources not only in detail, but in broad concepts. Accepted history averred, for example, that there were four distinct periods, the Licchavi, Thakuri, Malla, and Shah, with a political rupture bringing each dynasty to power. From the Nepali sources I could now see that from A. D. 300 to 1769 there was an unbroken political continuum that harmonized with what was clearly an unbroken cultural continuum.

I felt I had no choice but to abandon my first book, together with the comforting contract to publish it. I began anew. Thanks to a generous grant from the IDR 3rd Fund, I spent the next two years in Nepal dividing my time between fieldwork and Nepali-language research. My grant allowed me to bring in others to help with this task-notably, a young draftsman to translate my sketches into finished architectural renderings and readable city plans and maps, and two young Nepali historians to assist me in reading and comprehending the sources. My photo archive expanded to more than ten thousand prints and slides recording the physical aspects of Kathmandu Valley civilization. To these were added two thousand more slides taken in frequent treks into the mountains and visits to the plains. I also made several trips to India to compare Indian with Nepalese art and architecture.

It took me a decade to answer the questions that had sprung to mind when I first encountered the enchanted and mysterious Valley. Could I have seen the work entailed, who knows?-I might not have asked the questions. But, as it turns out, I asked them just in time. For although the culture of the Kathmandu Valley has continued for two thousand years, it is becoming progressively more difficult each year to salvage the past. In the fifteen years prior to 1965, when I began my study, the closed kingdom opened to the outside world and forces of acculturation and change began their work. Between 1965 and 1971, when I left Nepal, these forces had rapidly accelerated and were taking their toll. The fine old brick buildings, mantled with exquisite wood carving, daily ceded to concrete. People began to slough off their traditional ways, loosing the ancient bonds that had linked them to family and gods. Transistor radios and Datsuns came to be valued more than ancestral paintings and images. The latter were increasingly sold to tourists, whose numbers have grown from none in 1950 to over 100, 000 a year as I write in 1976. That a large, high-quality exhibition of Nepalese art could be assembled recently in New York from American collections (mostly private), speaks eloquently in this regard.

It is the nature of our world that civilizations founder and pass. But in this case I have tried to read the past from the rapidly changing present before it is too late. This I have done in as much detail and with as careful explanation of the evidence as possible. I have sought to rectify widely accepted inaccuracies of fact and, without polemics, have contradicted many established notions. I have tried not to romanticize, but also not to deny the wondrous romance of Nepal Mandala. That romance now rests on as secure a historical foundation as I have been able to perceive. My primary aim has been to render in broad outline as cogent and comprehensive a history of Nepalese culture as is now possible within the limitations of one book. I do not presume that this will be the final word. The story is only begun. But I have taken pains to provide future scholars with a solid accounting.

There are many persons who by their counsel, encouragement, or assistance have helped with this book. Most are here nameless, but my gratitude to them is no less sincere. Some must be named, for without them the book could not have achieved its present from. Foremost are two Nepali colleagues, Mahesh Raj Pant and Gautamvajra Vajracharya, Sanskritists and impeccable historians of Samsodhana-mandala. For more than a year we worked as a team. I asked questions; their knowledge of Sanskrit, Newari, and Nepalese culture unlocked doors for me. To Mr. Pant I owe a special debt for his unwavering friendship and support D. C., and in Tunisia. Despite his own scholarly commitments, he has never been too busy to tell me of new Nepali research, to seek some needed reference, to check something in the field, or to read critically some troubling manuscript pages. Words cannot express what his friendship has meant to me.

Though I did not work personally with other members of Samsodhana-mandala, I would like to record my appreciation of their contributions, which are in my bibliography. The work of Naya Raja Pant both as uncompromising teacher and author is particularly important, which the studies of Dhanavajra Vajracharya have provided the backbone of almost everything we know today about the Licchavis. Upon their works I have therefore drawn unabashedly and with gratitude.

Dr. Pratapaditya Pal's generous acceptance of me as a colleague, his willingness to review critically drafts of the formidable manuscript, not once but twice, the insights reached during numerous animated discussions, the hospitality of his home, his own publications, and especially his unflagging enthusiasm and support, are gifts beyond measure. Without Dr. Pal there would be no Nepal Mandala..

I am grateful to Mr. Porter A. McCray, former director of the Asian Cultural Program of the JDR3rd Fund (now the Asian Cultural Council) and to his successor, Richard Lanier, and to its Trustees, who provided the means to expand and conclude the research I had begun alone.

To my sister Dorothy Shepherd Payer I also record my profound gratitude for help with the manuscript, and especially for her inexhaustible moral support, which was indispensable to its be coming a book. I can never properly thank my husband and mentor, Robert, for his continued faith and forbearance through the highs and lows and the forced separations that have accompanied it.

To Yeorgos Lampathakis I owe the supervision and coordination of all the graphics in manuscript, the imaginative creation of the maps and their skillfully planned colors and distinctive symbols, the inventive frontispiece, and many of the text figures. Aside from his exceptional artistic skills, Mr. Lampathakis' unstinting gift to me of endless time, wise counsel, enthusiasm, and confidence can never be adequately recognized or compensated.

Catherine Dick, A. Peter Burleigh, and Liane Norman have all rendered services far in excess of the decent demands of friendship. It is a pleasure to acknowledge my thanks to Dr. Margaret H. Case, who as editor for Princeton University Press, provided sound criticism cushioned with chivalrous devotion.

I owe much to my predecessors who also quested for understanding of, or made valuable observations on, the Nepalese past-two seventh-century Chinese, the envoy Wang Hsuan-t'se' and the pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, the Capuchin missionaries, Colonel Kirkpatrick, Brian Hodgson, Dr. Oldfield, Daniel Wright, Bhagwanlal Indraji, Cecil Bendall, Sylvain Levi, and many others, without whose work my own would not have been possible.

I owe a still greater debt of gratitude to the Nepalese kings and nobles, priests, pandits, and monks who for almost two millennia, year after year, set down their records on stone and copperplates, in chronicles, journals, and manuscripts; to the artists and artisans who left their records in brick and mortar, stone, copper, paint, and gilt; and the living Nepalese who shared with me, a stranger, their festivals and their gods, their memories and themselves.

About the Book:

In these volumes Mary Slusser has documented and illustrated the origins and evolution of the remarkable Nepalese civilization that evolved in the Kathmandu Valley - known for much of its long history as "Nepal Mandala."

The author's narrative, 600 plates, 29 figures, and 9 detailed color maps grew out of more than a decade of research.

She studied and photographed the sculptures and shrines, mapped the old cities and traced their long-fallen walls, attended festivals, and collected legends and folklore, Because of religious conservatism she could not excavate, but thanks to centuries of isolation that ended only in 1951. "surface archaeology" proved a very rewarding substitute.

Equally rewarding were Nepali language sources, impeccable studies heretofore neglected by Western scholars. Using them, it was possible to bring to light a political history that agreed with what art and anthropology revealed, a cultural continuum at variance with the political history familiar in Western languages. Dr. Slusser's meticulously researched work represents the first comprehensive interpretation of the cultural history of the Kathmandu Valley since Sylvain Levi's seminal study almost a century ago.

Mary Shepherd Slusser holds a doctorate in anthropology and archaeology from Columbia University.


Orthography and Transliteration


  1. Perspective: Place and People
  2. The Licchavis: Consolidation of the State, A.D. 300-879
  3. The Transition: Licchavi Decline, A.D. 879-1200
  4. The Mallas and Shahs: From Multistates to Hindu Kingdom, A.D. 1200 to the present
  1. Cities and Capitals: Genesis and Growth
  2. Architecture: Design for God and Man
  3. Architecture: A Backward Glance
  4. Of Princes and Palaces: The Courts of the Three Kingdoms
  1. The Brahmanical Gods: Source and Transformation
  2. Buddhism: Evolution and Dissolution
  3. Mothers and Grandmothers: The Encompassing Host
  4. Gods and Demigods: Serpents, Sages, and Sorcerers
Appendix I. Calendars and Eras
Appendix II. Language and Writing
Appendix III. Chronology of the Rulers of Nepal Mandala
Appendix IV. Inventory of Licchavi Inscriptions
Appendix V. sthirobhava-vakya (Prayers Read at the Consecration of a House)


List of Maps

List of Figures

List of Plates





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