Earth Door Sky Door
paintings of Mustang by
ISBN 0 906026 53 9
Robert Powell is an Australian architect who came to Kathmandu in 1980 and has lived here since, painting extremely realistic art based on Himalayan architecture. Recently, as part of the Nepal-German Project on High Mountain Archaeology, he was given the task of making technical drawings of buildings, cultural monuments and excavated sites of the Mustang region. The Mustang architecture and landscapes pictured here are a result of this work, as printed in the book Earth-Door-Sky-Door (1999). (Of the 43 colour plates in this 110-page book, 19 were being exhibited at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, till September). The region of Mustang was kept off the map for international visitors, and with limited touristic interest among the Nepalis themselves, had been allowed to survive in isolation, behind the Annapurna massif at the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki River. While politically within Nepal, Mustang has an essentially Tibetan culture, whose guardian is the present Raja Jigme Parbal Bista, whose dynastic origins obviously trace back to the nomads who roamed the Chang Thang steppe. Powell deliberately does not provide context to his works. For example, he does not include the sky nor people in his compositions. As a reviewer in The Washington Post wrote about Powell’s work, this lack of setting and context “has an almost hallucinatory impact”. As another reviewer wrote, the buildings and walls are drawn “in such an animistic way that their walls heave with breath and flush with feeling, despite the superficial formality of Powell’s inanimate subject matter”.
Indeed, if anything, Powell is precise about detail. He firmly picks up red-ochre, white, grey and yellow paints and drips them on the paper just as the natives would while painting their houses and public shrines.
In terms of technique, it is important to note that Powell does not work in situ. Rather, he brings the sketches and notes back to his quiet studio in Kathmandu, where he uses supplementary support such as technical drawings, photographs and samples of earth colours and pebbles collected at site.
The caves at Yara (right, above): Of the many ancient cave sites in Thak and Mustang, this section of caves is to be seen on the right side of the trail leading to Yara and Ghara villages and further up to the famous Luri cave and the sacred lake of Damodarkunda. These caves have been occupied by people of debatable origin since the Neolithic and Charcolithic periods (about 10,000 years ago), and in fact some are still inhabited in the Chosar Valley further north. Deiter Schuh, team leader of the High Mountain Archaeology Project, has postulated that the early occupants of these caves may have been none other than the Kiratas mentioned in Vedic literature.
House at Tsele (right): This little windblown village lies on a ridge that separates the vast expanse of the Kali Gandaki to the south from the rest of the Mustang to the north. Powell paints the north facade of the house of the late Hisi Gyaltson, who was a builder, wood-carver, furniture-designer, toy-maker and artist. Hisi Gyaltson had not only built his elegant house with its lamaist chapel room, but also adorned it with carved windows, doors and frescoes, which survive to this day. Presently owned by a gentleman named Duli, this house at Tsele is in need of urgent repair. On the roof are seen neat piles of fuelwood and thorny shrub, signifying the all-important role of firewood in this cold, arid land. It is little wonder, then, that large piles of firewood on the roof is linked to prestige.
Houses in Ruins, Tangye (right): Ruins of castle-forts of long ago form the skyline of many a Mustang landscape. These ruins may have been the result of fierce regional feuds, loss of water sources, or monastery bastions mercilessly erased as patronage of the faith shifted from one warlord to another. The area east of the old salt route, which includes Tangye, is relatively impoverished, given the reliance on meagre one-crop farming. Whereas the nobles and wealthy lived on lucrative taxes levied on salt, wool and gold flowing through the Kali Gandaki Valley, the villagers of Tangye as well as Di, Surkhan, Yara, Ghara and Te lived a more impoverished lifestyle.
Walls of the Protectors, Lo Manthang (right): This particular facade with a dog- and ram-skull talisman each lies west of the royal palace inside the walled capital city of Lo Manthang. These talismanic motifs have clearly captivated the artist, enough for him to name his book after sago namgo (Earth Door, Sky Door). The skulls of the ram (on the right, with horn) and dog are fastened at either side of the main door of a family which has recently lost a member to early death. The “Earth Door” is symbolised by the ram’s skull, which faces ‘earthward’ and the “Sky Door” by that of the dog which is turned upward. These motifs also serve as highly decorative symbols with coloured ribbon and thread traps, offerings of grains, arrow-like sticks and wood-block prints representing the deceased child. Each motif is fastened to the centre of a thick ring made of stalks of threshed wheat or barley. As a whole, this paraphernalia represents a ritual ‘trap’ for unseen but harmful forces or demons, both ‘earthly’ and ‘aerial’, should they ever pass by the house . These traps are called segu-nagu in the local dialect and probably owe their origins to remote native cults.