Description of an art object I own…. the “Bird’s Eye” Thangka of Nepal

Most of this blog is devoted to nursing issues, but I have also travelled to Nepal, the setting for my narrative nonfiction book. Want to subscribe to this blog? just go to the little box on the right that says sign me up.

About the Nepal “Bird’s Eye” Thangka

Okay, so the thangka I bought this past summer is 32 inches by 52 inches, and it’s too big to photograph. So – I decided to photograph parts of it. You can use your imagination as to what the entire grand piece looks like…… the nature of this particular thangka is to draw you in, and make you stand closer – there is simply too much detail when viewed from a distance, anyway.

It was purchased at the Thamel neighborhood of Kathmandu in July 2011. To paint a thangka is an ancient tradition. This one shows river rafting, bungee jumping, and the cable gondolas at Manakamana (center-left) so it is not older than 1998.  I had seen it on the wall of a shop, then came back after thinking about it for two weeks. I  was told that this Thangka became available due to the renovation of a hotel lobby in Kathmandu where it was displayed.

Most Thangkas depict a “mandala” – an abstract wheel.  Many Buddhists believe that the Kathmandu Valley itself is a giant mandala, and that the layout of temples and sacred places within the Valley will help the untrained mind to reflect on Buddhist teachings.

In this Thangka, you can see more than just Kathmandu, however, and in fact that’s what appealed to me  – landmarks in the left of the painting show Tansen, a Newari hill-town in the Palpa District; The Bus Park; “Elephant Gate;” and Tundhikel (parade ground). Tansen is the setting for My book, “The Hospital at the End of the World,” (available on Amazon dot com.) and the inclusion of these proved to be irresistible.

Guide to other famous localities depicted in this Thangka.

Bottom edge. Lower Left – Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.  Center of bottom edge – Chitwan, nature preserve where rhinoceros, tigers and elephants roamJanakpur, legendary birthplace of the Goddess, Sita. Jhapa, the easternmost district of the Terai, the plain at the border with India.

Left border: Tansen (see above); Jumla.The tower in the upper left corner is thought to be Mongolia, but may also represent the top-secret America C.I.A. monitoring post maintained during the cold war. The forest is Siberia.

Upper leftPhewa Tal Lake, near Pokhara, with the island temple. Devi Falls. Fort with gray steps is Gorkha. River rafting is depicted on the Trisuli River, as is the tourist gondola to the top of Manakamana.

The Himalaya (“snow-covered”) forms the spine of Nepal and is a focal point here, rightfully so!  Peaks depicted include Annapurna, Rum Doodle, Machhapuchre, Langtang, Everest, Makalu, and others.  Note the Yeti and salt traders with a caravan of yaks. A team of alpinists seeks their destiny on the slopes of one peak. Perhaps the ill-fated Mallory expedition of 1924.

Along the upper border: The Great Wall of China; the temple at Muktinath on the Annapurna Circuit; Mt Kailash “The Crystal Mountain;” and the Tibetan Plateau. Monasteries in Tibet include the Potala Palace in Lhasa; Tyenboche, and other pilgrimage sites.

Upper right: Bhutan (denoted by a different style of architecture); Namche Bajaar, in the Solu Khumbu region at the foot of Sagarmatha (Everest); and Taplejung.

Center right edge Ilam, the region of tea plantations. Throughout the painting, there are small scenes of village life, including herding of animals, weaving, and farming.  Women carry the ubiquitous dokha, or woven pack-basket. Terraced rice-paddies punctuate the steep landscape.

In the center is the Kathmandu Valley, capital of the country and main tourist gateway. Curiously, the modern airport is missing, along with the Prithvi Highway.  The location of Shangri-La seems to have been obscured intentionally, though I do have fond memories of my pilgrimage to that mystical place.  My time there will serve as the setting for my second book about Nepal.

Center: In the north Valley is Buddhanilkantha, where the “Sleeping Buddha” rests under a serene pool of water, and Shivapuri.

On the left of the valley cluster is Swayambunath, the “Monkey temple.”  In the city center is Kathmandu Durbar Square.  Narayanhiti Palace faces the “Rani Pokhari” pool. The two towers are the mosques – Sundhara and the “Clock Tower.” On the right of this cluster is a major temple complex which serves as the sacred and auspicious location for Hindu funerary rituals, Pashupattinath. The river here is a tributary of the Ganges, though it is not shown here.

Below that is Mangal Durbar in Patan, across the Bagmati River. A team of men uses ropes to pull the Mechhandranath juggernaut, in a ritual seven hundred years old. To the right of Pashupattinath is the Great Stupa at Boudhanath, largest such temple in the world, centerpiece of the Tibetan expatriate community. The ancient Malla kingdom of Bhaktapuris depicted to the south of Boudhanath, a collection of brick temples with multi-story pagoda-like roofs.

They say you can tell something about the traveller by examining the things he or she brings home. In fact as tourism is promoted, great study is made of the type of traveller likely to visit a place and what they are interested to buy. A certain type of person will bring a t-shirt with the name of the place; still another will bring trinkets. (And of course, a vagabond traveller will bring home some sort of intestinal infestation) The usual traveller to Nepal buys a khukri, or a singing bowl, or a pashmina shawl, or a Tibetan item. And yes, thangkas are on the list but usually these are more abstract. For me, I make a careful assessment of items likely to remind me of daily life – sometimes this is quirky, such as taking home  one of tiny  hand-fired clay pots used to send stool samples to the lab!  One of my best souvenirs is a shawl that was given as a gift from my hosts at the medical center in Bharatpur – it”s the type of men’s shawl worn by the close-to-the-land farmers of the Terai, hand-embroidered with the Kulsani plant ( hot peppers). I tend not to buy the “usual” touristy art objects, but this time I could not resist.


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