As time goes by

Dubby Bhagat


To begin at a not very distant beginning. A few years ago the courtyard or bahal was the loveliest in Kathmandu, its four sides of mellow, unpainted brick decorate with brilliantly carved wooden windows and arched verandahs, a masterpiece of Newari architecture in desperate need of preservation. For, already there were signs of decay, the most serious being the disintegration of the family. I never discovered how many sons, or may be brothers, had inherited the building, but the division began to show immediately. A section of one side of the courtyard was being permitted to crack and crumble. Expressing concern that I realised was none of my business; I was told that the damage would soon be repaired. Had I not noticed a metal plaque embossed with the figure of a flute playing Krishna in the wall where the most ominous crack had developed? It indicated a temple to Krishna, which would never be permitted to fall, even if the rest did.

The rest has fallen and is now a mound of mud and bricks and shattered wood. The Krishna temple just stands, but apparently its deities have been removed to some safer shrine.

Where, I asked some children, who gathered about me, had the lovely windows of the collapsed building gone? I remembered they comprised birds and mythical beasts with jaalis inspired by dancing peacocks. “They took them,” an elder girl said, conjuring up visions of shadowy people scattering in a night what it had taken superb artists years to create. “We took the birds to play with.”

Ironically, none or all of this is anybody’s fault. Since I first came to Kathmandu and saw the old city rushing to give way to a new, modern capital, I happened upon the perfectly sound argument put forward by those who live in exquisite old houses, that they have both the right and desire to change. It goes like this. We know you outsiders feel strongly about it but would you like to live with little or no light and air coming through your carved windows, with ceilings so low you can hardly stand upright, with stairs so steep and dark they are a perpetual menance and with little or no sanitation whatsoever? We desire modern homes with modern amenities. We do, after all, live in the 20th century, not during the Newari renaissance of the 15th and 17th centuries. Over to the government and to all those foreign agencies bent upon preservation and restoration. There is just so much they can do. With every corner of the Kathmandu valley a veritable museum, there is a limit to what can and cannot be protected. Like the beautiful courtyard of the medicine men in Kathmandu where kings

may have come to consult or royal potions were brewed; where travellers from distant India and Tibet came for panaceas for their many ills and where secrets, many centuries old, were distilled and recorded in guarded minds. Or, like the fabulous wooden window in Bhaktapur that had incorporated in its carved design the proof of distant travel along the Silk Road — the ungainly camel. It was promised restoration by a foreign agency. The Krishna plaque remains. “If anyone touches that,” said one of the children crowded about me, “they will die of bleeding from the nose and mouth. It will be very terrible. They will turn thin like skeletons and become evil ghosts.” Who had put such a curse on the plaque, I asked, but she wasn’t sure. Someone long long ago, much older than her grandfather who had already celebrated his 77th birthday. What a sadness that a similar curse had not been put on the entire building so that its wooden traceries, its carved gods and goddesses, its strutting birds and prancing animals could have survived the years and man’s indifference. It should have been declared a museum.