Thursday, July 17, 2008

Art and Seeing at Changu Narayan

Changu Narayan you have seen from afar but never—until today—visited, set on the final turret of a ridge jutting west from Nagarkot, looking north to Sakhu, south to Bhaktapur, and west to Kathmandu.

It is—you've heard and will discover—the site of the Kathmandu Valley's most beautiful temple, dedicated to Narayan, an incarnation of Vishnu.

The town of Changu Narayan has grown up around the temple, built on the site of an especially important Vishnu shrine and then rebuilt in the early 1700s by the Malla king of Bhaktapur. Indeed, when you go to the Changu Narayan Museum—situated in an old Newari house with mean, cramped stairs and intricate wood screens in front of and around the windows—you see a panel-by-panel description of the town's origins: a boy or spirit keeps stealing a local man's milk, then disappearing; the man tracks the boy to a specific tree and cuts it down; Vishnu's face appears on the tree, and the man is scared he has angered the god; but Vishnu tells him that he will forgive the man if the man builds a shrine on that spot; and this is because Vishnu killed the man's father. The drawings, drawn with perspective but little other composition, and brightly colored and cross-hatched, look like they were done by a local schoolchild. The effect, you think, is endearing.

Indeed, much of the whole of a visit to Changu Narayan is endearing. On a bicycle, you go east out of Kathmandu on the choking road to Bhaktapur, but then turn off towards the town of Pepsicola and then right to Thimi and past it—the roads up to now smooth and mostly empty of traffic, restrained on both sides by the decrepit and failing fences and gates of private high schools, of orphanages, of the government's testing center for vocational skills certification, the ramshackle gray-blue concrete building where young and old take exams to become licensed mechanics of cars and motorcycles. Past Thimi the road becomes more typical, rutted and cratered, covered often by a sloppy, messy mud thick as cake icing, and at Bhaktapur finally, the traffic comes again, with burning unburnt exhaust and a general miasma.

But on the road north to Changu Narayan—there is only one road north to Changu Narayan—you travel almost immediately from the constraining atmosphere of industrial trucks on medieval roads to the sleepy feel of great open spaces interspersed with red-saried women crouching among rice plants and boys fishing in the flooded fields and stone-walled houses mortared and stuccoed with mud. The colors are no longer wan and pale and dusty, but bright: lime greens, rich yellows, cheerful reds. Everything—everything—looks crisper.

It is like this as you go uphill, climbing both switchbacks and, at times, directly up the sliding hill, slopes of 20% or 25% the few public buses balk at traveling either up or down. Stopping for a moment in the shade—the sun is intense, the type of sun, even through the humidity, that you imagine cracking and splitting dry earth—you look out at a hillside of green terraces and a valley bottom of rice and corn, with miniature people moving along. It is altogether a landscape a master would have painted in the heyday of landscape paintings, with verticality, the repeating irregular lines of fields, with scale.

At the top, the town of Changu Narayan, dozing off as it waits for midday heat and the few callers it gets this time of year. Today you are here, and a Spanish couple will arrive on the bus, and then an Indian family—pilgrims—in a taxi, but that is all. Little boys will scatter across town—two parallel streets atop a ridge, and some houses and terraces along the sides—when the Indians come, looking for the priest who is working his fields, but the Indians come late, almost at noon, and by then everything will be washed out, burned out, in the sunshine, and you will already have spent a couple of hours, solid hours, in the temple courtyard.

Why so long? Indeed, you have not spent so much time at the Buddhist stupas of Swayambo or Boudha, nor indeed at the Durbar—royal—Squares in Patan or Kathmandu. Those places you have seen what interested your eye and gone. You took what you wanted to take, what you could take, which was little.

The temple at Changu Narayan is different, though; it is colorful, for one, like the encyclopedic Mahadev Temple at Gokarna but better. Here the wood friezes along the temple are painted red and white, the gods on the struts are given the illusion of shadow and depth, the door is gated with gold. The gray stone griffins and lions and elephants that protect the temple have eyes, stylized but expressive, giving more than blank stares. A shy but interested boy named Razan, dressed in brown pants and a shirt striped white and sky-blue, follows you around the complex, from shrine to shrine in a circuit around the main temple, pointing out gods when you don't know their name. At a carving of Gautam he points out that Gautam is also on the 10-rupee note; you pull one out of your pocket, dirty-looking as all 10-rupee notes are, and so he is.

You spend the most time, though, just looking at the temple, almost as if in communication with it. Looking from the playfully fierce mouth of a lion to the unsure eyes of a saffron-painted griffin, you begin to see more and more: an emotion in structure, a feeling in restriction. For a long time you stare, but the best views require you to stand in the sun, and this tires you.

So you retreat to the shade, where the priest motions that he doesn't want his picture taken; you do it anyway, clicking the button three times at slightly different angles but looking at other things with your head and shoulders and eyes, hoping that he won't notice. Why you have done this, you can't say, but you have, and do not regret it. The priest will look at you crossly later, when you are sitting under a cheap cloth umbrella in town drinking a vaguely cool Sprite—soft drinks are safe to drink, and it is too hot for tea—but he looked at you crossly when you first came through the doorway from town, past the sign reading “Save Our Self Esteem, Don't Encourage Begging” and in a purely selfish manner you will rationalize that he is simply a cross man. In town he will have changed clothes and carry a pick, but you will recognize him for his head, shaved save one braid the size of your littlest finger on the back.

You begin to feel an unease though, a clenching in your stomach, as you dialog, in your own way, with the temple, with the art on it. You ignore it as best you can, but though you are disturbing no one, hurting nothing, it grows and grows until a vague sensation is a vague discomfort, and you decide, rightly, that it is time to move on. You go back towards town, take a phone call rescheduling that afternoon's meeting, and decide to visit the museum. Your favorite exhibit is the 225-year-old rice, kept for no reason except that it is old.

Sitting under that umbrella afterward, you begin to think, begin to wonder whether your dialog with the temple was, in fact, a monologue. Were my eyes,you think, talking to themselves? Certain of Tibetan Thanka paintings, you know, were and to some extent are anti-art; their intent is solely to aid in meditation, in Nirvana, an extent that precludes—or tries to preclude—deep visual reading, that denies any value except of efficacy. Who am I, you think, to look at this temple areligiously? Who am I to assume that there is ever an emotive, affective message beside the religious one, the spiritual one?

These are questions you can get the answers to: whether a Newari Hindu in the 17th Century understood religious art as valuable for those lacking in faith, for those who would forever lack in faith; whether the visual language that you understand, the visual cues that move you, can coexist separately, as in the mind of a polyglot; whether there is for the eyes a base universal grammar, Chomskyan, that cleaves cultures together rather than apart.

For now, though, you sit and try to cool yourself in the slightest of slight breezes that tickles the hair on your arms and head. And you think, and you wonder.

You think, even when I get the answers, if I like them, there is still the problem of communication; what the temple is saying, or intending to say, is not what I see. But this is a problem too in your native language, in English, even when talking among friends.

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