Tag Archives: Thangka

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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Did Marco Polo have this much fun unpacking the Wonders of the Orient

The “new” blog has been up for ten days but I have not felt the compulsion to write in it each day. Honolulu is relatively boring compared to Kathmandu. And I am in a lull, just getting ready for fall semester to start.

Online Radio Interview mp3 link:

check out this link:


Time to prepare for school

My University always starts *before* Labor Day, unlike Universities on the mainland. Our first day of classes is August 22nd, and in fact, I begin taking students to clinical on Thursday of that week – the 25th. So we jump right in, with not much preliminaries. Actually, I like it that way. And I look forward to the return of the students – the  kids here are really bright and hardworking and motivated.

School always starts with a week of faculty meetings; in fact the new faculty have already had a week of orientation which just finished. There’s always a welcome back feeling of anticipation, and we’ll get to hear about every one’s summer.

My story will be “it was nice. Everyone should do this.”

Define “ready” – does teaching count as “work?”

The nursing building is very quiet these days. Faculty members don’t have to appear there, and many work from home. For a person who is used to punching a time clock, the transition to a faculty role presents a challenge. You have to accept a different definition of “work” when you become a teacher. I always think back to my first teaching job, when I set up my desk at home so as to look out the window at the (usually snow covered) former farm fields of my property in rural Maine. I would generally spend a day each week working at that desk, correcting papers and writing lesson plans. My first wife would request that I also do laundry, clean the place, fix stuff, etc. After not too long, it dawned on me that when she saw me spend a day sitting at a desk going through papers, sipping on coffee and listening to WERU-FM on the radio, it did not look like “work” and therefore did not count as “work.”

Oh yes it does.

That’s the peril of being on salary. To what degree does “work” become abstract? How do you explain what you do? justify your existence? Are you only working when you have an actual student in your presence? No. Faculty have homework just as students do.

Fast forward to the present. Everyone has a system for puttering around the office to get ready. I suppose you could quantify the ratio of procrastination to actual output; or maybe the number of hours spent to prepare for each course. In fact, My school had a committee to study the ways to assign workload in which the intangible factors ( new course; larger class size; writing-intensive etc) were included.

For that matter, every faculty develops their own system to keep track of stuff. I know one faculty who uses the floor space as part of the filing system. There are neat stacks of oak tag folders in rows like cubes of bricks in a brick yard.

Other faculty seem to do it with no clutter whatsoever. At the end of the day, their office counter space is squeaky clean.

Anyway, even during my procrastination times, part of my brain is churning away, digesting the upcoming classes and work, a subliminal processing of the task ahead. I like to think of this an an element of creativity, part of the process of turning the course concpets this way and that until they make sense. When I snap back to attention, the background processing makes it easier for me to get the work onto paper and into a plan.

Home decor

The Wonders of the Orient have been unpacked. This time I brought more trinkets from Nepal than usual. The new bedspread is on the bed – looking handsome, red with concentric circles of little elephants marching along. The large singing bowl is on display, even though unfortunatley it cracked in transit; I did not pad it well enough. The posters of Hindu Gods and Goddesses are back up on the wall, reminders of the 2009 trip. The coffee table book is – on the coffee table. The prayer flags are still up, in the living room.

I guess you could say that a South Asian motif has emerged. I like certain things they do. Most homes I visited did not have “clutter” and there was an airiness and simiplicity which characterized the place. Not many piles of paper or foofaraw laying around. I suppose this was because originally, the people did not own much ( and still don’t). Nowadays, it’s an indication that consumer culture has not caught on. I hope it never does.


The thangka I bought is now also framed and dominates one wall, as it should. I saw this in Thamel, and wanted it from first sight. I did not buy it until three weeks after the first viewing, a strategy which helped me get a good price (don’t ask).

A Thangka is a style of Tibetan painting that includes a lot of detail and helps to focus meditation the way a mantra or mandala would. In fact, a mandala is the most common form of thangka. For example, it might depict the life of Buddha, with a wheel showing the Six Categories of Reincarnation, etc. Oone popular theme is the more abstract one based on a sand mandala once constructed by the Dalai Lama. The one I bought, I was told, had been in a hotel lobby somewhere, but even so, it’s not all that old. Thangkas are never signed by the person who painted them; most are copies of an original and some of the designs are traditional designs. The copyist learns to be precise in the same manner of those medieval monks who took pains to transcribe each new Bible accurately onto parchment. Some thangkas have that quality of an illuminated manuscript.

Is bigger the same as better?

The one in my living room is large – fifty-one inches by thirty-one inches. Despite that, it’s not the kind of thangka that makes sense from thirty feet away. You need to be fairly close to it to enjoy the painting. For this reason, I was reluctant to photograph it; and I will not divulge the topic of it, over the internets. You will need to come here, sign the guestbook, and stand in front of it with me, perhaps with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (Merlot is passe) as we discuss the layout and concepts. It hangs at eye level.


Some of Wonders of the Orient have yet to be mailed to their ultimate recipient. Soon. Be patient!



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