In the early 1970s, when the renowned art historian Pratapaditya Pal came to Kathmandu to research his book, The Arts of Nepal (1974), he asked Nepali artist and art historian Lain Singh Bangdel to help him identify and date a mysterious sculpture found outside Bankali. What resulted was an academic argument and the unfolding of a most unusual story.
The Bankali temple, where Pal found the stone image is in Mrigasthali, a wooded knoll on the east bank of the Bagmati river, where Lord Shiva is believed to have been seen wandering, disguised as a mriga (deer).
Pal, now a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, thought it to be a linga, but one so strange that he wrote, “…there is nothing else in Nepal or in India with which it is comparable.”
The upper portion of the shaft, Pal observed, had a human head carved on it and looked as if it was emerging from a lotus flower. It rested on a jalahari, which, for a more conventional linga, serves as a base. It had a short chin, a tuft of pointed beard, tightly pursed lips, a flat nose and vacant eyes set off beneath arched eyebrows giving it a sinister expression — and from a distance, an effeminate look. His hair, curling on top and falling in long strands down the back and sides, showed him to be an ascetic.
It must be of some Shaivite teacher, surmised historian Pal concluding “(it) must remain one of those peculiar iconographical enigmas of Nepal and very likely perpetuates an image-type that had a local origin and significance.”
Given its crude style, Pal assumed the image to be very old. He considered its location in association with other ancient sculptures, like the nearby figure of Virupaksha. Ultimately, he called the mysterious image an “unidentified figure” and dated it “4th century or earlier(?)”
Artist Lain Bangdel, however, came to different conclusions about the image´s origin, age and style. In his Early Sculptures of Nepal (1982), Bangdel points to its “crudely delineated necklace designed as lotus petals… clearly visible below the chin (which) Pal has mistakenly assumed… to be a ´human head emerging from the lotus´.”
While he agrees with Pal that it did not have any affinities with any icons found either in India or Nepal, he says “crudeness” is not a sure sign of antiquity. “A glance will at once reveal,” he says “that this image is not an early icon, for there are no early features whatsoever to be seen in it. Infact, it is a work of the 2Oth century…”
Two eminent scholars drew different conclusions, seeing the same sculpture. When this discussion was taking place, Bangdel, then the Vice Chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy in Kathmandu, not quite sure what the mysterious image represented, nor when it was carved, sent a member of Pashupati’s elite Brahmins, to do some research. He came back with a very strange story indeed.
During mid 1800s, there lived in Bankali, a renowned yogi, who attracted attention as an auguer and magician. It was said that he could predict the future, make fresh fruit appear out of ashes, light fire simply by incantation, etc. People visited the Aghori Baba each day to hear his stories, jokes, soothsaying etc., and marvel at his undeanliness.
One of his devotees was Dambar Bahadur Adhikari, a Chettri who came frequently to Bankali to visit the Baba, to pay his respects, get his blessings, admire his jadus (magic) and listen attentively to his prognostications of future.
Oneday, the Aghori said to Adhikari, “You must want a son.” Yes, said Adhikari, he did want a son. “In due course, it shall be,” said the Aghori. And true to his predictions, a son was born to Adhikari!
When Adhikari went to visit again, the Aghori asked him if he had a son. “No” said Adhikari teasing him, “I have a three-day-old daughter.”
The Aghori looked at him sharply and declared, “You are lying, and for that your infant son will die before his naming ceremony on the sixth day!” Sure indeed, Adhikari´s first-born died the next day.
Remorseful, Adhikari returned to the Baba and beseeched him to help, promising not to tease or lie again. The Baba predicted a second son for him. “This son, he said, “will live to grow old and bear sons of his own.”
Not long after, the Aghori Baba died and he was buried near the Bankali temple. Adhikari, too, died. Adhikari´s son grew up, married and had a son of his own.
Some years later, Adhikari’s great grandson, in memory of the events, “decided to honour the Aghori Baba by erecting a memorial stele at Bankali, in the likeness of the Aghori’s head. He told the sculptor to create an image which “at a distance appears as a woman, but up dose looks like a man.” A novice stone cutter was comissioned, a crude likeness sculpted and reverently placed at the site where the Aghori Baba had lived.
The strange Bankali image that had so baffled Pal is no longer a mystery. But it retains a peculiar place in the history of Nepali art and sculpture. Unfortunately,the story does not end here. In November 1982, the Aghori Baba image was stolen, presumably for its value as a piece of great antiquity. The theft is recorded in Bangdel’s recent book, Stolen Images of Nepal.
Messerschmidt, anthropologist, was till recently Research Advisor at the Institute of Forestry, Pokhara.