A Temple for potters?

Dubby Bhagat


The temple itself is distinctly ordinary. But for its tiled Nepali porch supported on carved wooden pillars, it might be a mausoleum, squat, white plastered and topped by a squashed dome, beloved of pigeons. But the tall ascending plinths point to better things and grander times when in all probability the temple was a proud Newari structure of bricks and carved wood with gilded roofs. It was built by the powerful prime minister of a famous king, Pratap Malla, when the trade route between Tibet and India passed within yards of it. Toppled by an earthquake that spared only its plinths and stone images a Shivalingam and a complete set of panchayana deities -- the original temple was replaced by the present uninspired structure in testimony of the decline of Newari sculpture and a passing interest in Moghul styles.

What makes the temple immediately fascinating is the pottery piled about it; a small mountain of urns, bowls, flowerpots, and terracotta animals of every size that hide the plinths and make the temple at the top the largest confection of them all.

This marvelously attractive exhibition of Nepali pottery exists, in one place, in the centre of old Kathmandu. Some of the shapes never change. The large, proud water and rice jars were probably shaped centuries ago and were decorated with the same bold patterns of deep red clay that adorn them still. Unless distilling methods have radically changed over the years, the fact, round pots with perforations at their base were used when King Pratap Malla ruled in the 17th century. Certainly the cleanly proportioned bowls in which clothes are washed or out of which cattle drink, must have been fashioned by the earliest potters. But when did the elephants creep in, their backs and heads hollowed to receive plants or bulbs?

They are the first of the animal pots, jumbos with trunks curled between their front legs or raised in salute that look stunningly attractive when they carry vast loads of cacti, bulbs, flowering plants and ferns. So irresistible is their appeal that they can be seen being hefted abroad departing aeroplanes with the kind of affection bestowed on favourite ailing aunts.

Now there are horses, lions, griffins, rhino, duck and peacock vying with the elephants, even gnomes, yes even gnomes which one can only suspect are an offshoot of foreign aid. Creativity has gone further by translating famous landmarks to pottery, so that there are Bhim Sen minarets among the flowerpots, and temples of five stages.

The high plinths of the Naudega temple also support families of Indian haircutters who ply their trade from under ancient umbrellas. They take over immediately where the pottery ends so that some of their customers are afforded the comfort of a pottery backrest. And where the haircutters end, are the thwang-thwang men, those gentlemen carrying strange harp-like instruments who invariably have white cotton fluff adhering to their hair, lungis and vests. They congregate around nearby shops selling cotton of various grades and will beat and tease as much of the stuff you buy, while Muslim tailors run up mattresses, razais and pillows from cloth bought from the Dumbarkumari shops next door.

Dumbarkumari is Indian muslin hand printed in bold red, black and orange designs by Muslim printers near the great Hindu shrine of Pashupatinath. Its name apparently immortalises the daughter of the first Rana Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur, who was greatly enamoured by the cloth. Though Indian in origin, Dumbarkumari is as Nepali as it can get and is worn, slept under and over and wrapped about by just about everyone.

There are the occasional auctioneers who use the plinths of the temple as their stage. Anyone interested in an old piano without its innards? The discarded sets for a religious drama? A suite of old furniture minus springs but home to a family of rats? Tins, bottles, packing cases, machinery that might once have been a car?

If the powerful prime minister was to see the temple now, he might be dismayed by the lackluster building that replaced his original creation. But surely he would be interested and not a little amused by the goings on about it.