The Nepalese Caitya
by Niels Gutschow
Lumbini International Research Institute, 1997 (Unpriced)
The Nepalese Caitya is an im pressive volume in the high tradition of Bechert and Gomprichs The World of Buddhism (1984). Only that, here, the focus is much narrower, aiming – as the subtitle specifies – at the study of “1500 years of Buddhist votive architecture in the Kathmandu Valley”.
When presenting books of this nature, one of the first tasks of the reviewer is to ascertain whether the publication is aimed at the scholarly community or at the public at large. In this case, the target seems to be mainly the former, but could also include that segment of the latter that goes by the name of “learned readership”. Scholars with a particular interest in Newar Buddhism and a still more specific interest in the iconography of the Buddhist temples in the Kathmandu Valley, will surely refer to this study for years to come.
The writer is an architect with impressive credentials, and one who knows his Asia quite well. He started off as a Buddhist monk in Burma in 1962, studied architecture in Germany, wrote a thesis on Japanese castle towns, and has worked in Nepal and India as a conservation architect. His endeavour is well complemented by hundreds of exquisite drawings by Bijay Basukala, not to mention the numerous photographs (whose source is unfortunately not mentioned).
The two dedicated and gifted scholars -the writer and the artist – have combined their talents to produce a masterly presentation of caityas (also chaityas), from the smallest niche to the widest mandala of the Kathmandu Valley. The author himself renders an extraordinarily meticulous treatment to each element of his study.
Obviously, Gutschow does not aim merely at an authentic but dry classification of monuments; the “cultural context” of the caityas is also deemed important for the comprehension of iconographic and related issues. In this instance, one would do well to pay attention to the short but substantial foreword by another Newar Buddhism specialist, David Gellner, as well as to the chapters on caityas, rituals and the need for funerary monuments.
This reviewer would especially underline and endorse Gellners remark that much of this book “… has been inspired by [Sylvain] Levis notion that in the Kathmandu Valley the coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism among the Newars allows us to understand something of the way these two religions coexisted in the late first millennium in North India.” The motif of coexistence and tolerance is one of the most striking facets of many periods of Asian religious history.
Although the area of survey is the Kathmandu Valley, it is inevitable that the Tibetan caitya types have also got to be included, even peripherally, in such a monograph. Thus the author briefly attends to them in the final pages, which is appropriate as it establishes the unity of the Himalayan world.
Occasionally, one detects some confusion on the part of Gutschow as to whether he is addressing the “scholarly” or simply the “learned” readership. The “Kot Massacre”, for example, may be known to the scholar and many Nepalis as a moment of great bloodletting in the early Rana period, but not to others. Conversely, the basic explanation of what a Bodhisatva is would appear superfluous to the scholar, and perhaps even to the learned reader.
Moreover, although there is a comprehensive index, the main text is inevitably full of terms, some of which may elude even scholars. As no author has an easy solution to offer in similar cases, the reader should be conscious at the outset that his/her reading will require an additional effort and that it will not be light.
This reviewer happened to be associated with Nepal for many years and has visited several of the sites described in this book. He had also been fortunate in meeting some of the Newar specialists included in the bibliography. Retaining a vivid memory of the unique atmosphere of Pashupatinath, by the Bagmati, where Life and Death mix so quietly, almost harmoniously, and having gone through the descriptions, drawings and photos in Gutschows volume, the reviewer is overtaken by a sincere desire to return to the beautiful Kathmandu Valley, carrying along this book as a precious guide to a unique iconographic pilgrimage.