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Shopping: Nepal

Bronze and Beautiful : In a heartland of Himalayan culture and art, seeking hand-carved statues

September 21, 1997|CARL DUNCAN | Duncan is a freelance writer who lives in British Columbia

PATAN, Nepal — Mention that your travel itinerary includes the Katmandu Valley, and someone likely will put in a shopping order. This time I successfully evaded all but a single request. "Bring back one of those beautiful copper Buddhas," my friend said, handing me a hundred-dollar bill. "Try to get an original."

Now I am easing my rented motorbike, with my Nepalese friend Sanu Shah on the back, out of Katmandu and through the alleys of nearby Patan, toward the Mahabouddha Temple neighborhood where 99% of the copper images are made. Inside the tiny cave-like workshops that line the twisted streets, we can see craftsmen tapping their chisels, carving details on copper Buddhas, elephant-headed Ganeshes and dancing Sivas--creating stock for a growing, though centuries-old, market.

The lively and intricately detailed images are based on popular Hindu and Buddhist motifs, whose forms are fixed by rules. They represent 1,500 years of artistic tradition.

Shopping for these lost wax "bronzes"--a generic term that includes nearly pure copper and even silver images--is a tourist tradition here. And few people who visit the cities of Katmandu, Bhaktapur or Patan (each within a 20-minute taxi ride of the others) leave without at least a small icon in their bag.

The craftsmen who make these statues are Newars, the ethnic people of the Katmandu Valley, who have made Patan the artistic and cultural center of the Himalayan region for the past 1,000 years. Back in the 13th century, the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan was so impressed by the famous Newar artist Arniko that he made him head of the metal workers' community in Beijing. For centuries, Tibetans have commissioned bronzes from the Newars of Patan.

Bronze images have always been used for worship, both in temples and at home. The Nepalese people show their devotion by placing rice, fruit and flower offerings next to their favorite images. Tuesdays in Katmandu are sacred to Ganesh, the Hindu god that is among the most popular in the Nepalese pantheon. And on this day, long lines of Nepalese people with colorful offerings wait their turn to distribute them at the Ganesh shrine on Durbar (palace) Square.

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All Newar bronzes are made by the lost wax process. An image is first fashioned in beeswax, then dipped into a slurry of clay. When the clay has hardened, the wax is melted out and recovered for reuse. (About 25% is "lost" to the porous clay, giving the process its name.) Molten metal is poured into the mold cavity and, when cooled, the one-time-only clay mold is broken to release the image: a faithful, if slightly rough, rendition of the wax model. The metal statue is then carefully carved into the finished product.

The art of such statue making, as well as precise diagrams and strict rules governing the shapes of the Hindu and Buddhist icons, have been handed down through the centuries.

Only those with sufficient skill and artistic imagination, however, can successfully create in three dimensions from two-dimensional diagrams. These gifted few are considered original artists. Only a handful are now left in Patan.

"The vast majority of craftsmen make copies," says Tara Shakya of the Monumental Craft Gallery in Thamel. Though they also hand carve every wax form and copper image, he explains that "they must work from other statues, copying what they see."

Often that other statue is itself a copy, and each step away from the original vision blurs the image. But many copies are finely done. "It takes experience to recognize an original," Shakya says.

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Strolling down Katmandu's New Road, from the parade grounds toward the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, we pass dozens of shops displaying stunning statues. Some are monumental crowd-stoppers; most are less than a foot high.

Just south of the palace, half a dozen bronze shops stand side by side. In one called Handicraft Enterprises, proprietor Purna Dhakwa has a wide selection of statues. Prices start at only $15 for the popular three-inch Buddhas and bodhisattvas (distinguished by their ornate crowns). A fine 4-inch Ganesh is about $50. His crown is gilded, and his face is delicately painted--two characteristics of Newar bronzes.

Beautiful as some of these smaller images are, they are all copies. Dhakwa took down two eight-inch copper statues, each depicting the same traditional Buddhist image called Vajrasatwa (white thunderbolt, in Sanskrit). One is a "middle quality statue," (about $85), the other an original (about $220).

"You can tell an original," Dhakwa explains, "in the natural facial expressions and the graceful forms, and in the details: the little folds in the gowns and the symbolic objects the images hold in their hands." Comparing the two, side by side, the copy appears slightly out of focus, while the original is crisp and sharply detailed, both front and back.

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