The city has become a sponge that soaks in cultures, individuals, parties and spiritual questions

Oct 15, 2017-I was asked to comment on a book entitled The Prisoner of Kathmandu: Brian Hudgson in Nepal 1820-43 (2015) by Mandala Book Point at the international book fair in Kathmandu. The book is written by Charles Allen, who has had quite a lengthy association with Nepal. A Japanese professor advised me to read the similarly titled Prisoners of Shangri-La (1998) written about Tibetan Buddhism by Donald S Lopez, Jr when I was finalising the manuscript of a book that I had written about the Japanese Zen monk Ekai Kawaguchi who had visited Nepal and Tibet at the turn of the twentieth century. The subject of Lopez’s book is the “Western fantasy”. His conclusion is, whatever our fantasies of the great liberating spaces, “We are captives of confines of our own making, we are all prisoners of Shangri-La”. In fact, Lopez writes about the prisoners of utopia in this work. The books drew my interest, not least because of their styles and the very purpose of describing the predicaments, joys and pain of the people who live in a particular space confined either out of compulsion or their own choice. In the case of ‘the prisoner of Kathmandu’, the story was different. Allen writes about the years that Brian Hodgson, a British representative at the Kathmandu British residency, a Buddhist scholar and collector, lived with a Nepali wife and children, surrounded by Nepali artists, scribes and collectors. But Allen prefers to call Hodgson a ‘prisoner of Kathmandu’ because he was restricted despite his massive success in Buddhist, ecological and architectural studies. That is a big subject. 

But its pluralisation as ‘prisoners of Kathmandu’ brings a new resonance in my mind at this stage. I would like to focus on the characters and actions of those who became prisoners of Kathmandu, which became a sponge that attracted and melted cultures, individuals, parties and spiritual questions. The story is very long; it cuts back through centuries. But the current meaning has struck me as very eloquent. 

The Capital’s allure

Kathmandu attracts people either through power or through the allure of its cultural and civilisational structure. But power is the most enigmatic element of all these attributes. We are familiar with some strong political slogans that say the future movements will be Capital-based or rajdhani-kendrit. The rural based parties of farmers, common people, revolutionaries, guerrillas and peacetime marchers all make the above announcements and come to Kathmandu. It has some structuralism. First the big party leaders get settled here. They make buildings, vehicular and other life clock mechanisms in this space. Second, they set up bases for meetings and interconnectivities, as well as visible and invisible points of connection. Kathmandu has, more or less, always remained a centre of power meetings. From the seventies well up to the end of the Cold War in 1990, Kathmandu evoked mysterious speculation about people and power. They made myths out of the Cold War situation. They posed questions, “Do you know why embassies of some powerful countries make such high walls here?” And also ventured to answer, “Because they have set up different worlds inside”. Such myths had no foundations. But the following phenomenon about myths of buildings and mystery should be remembered at this point.

There are clearly two distinct characters of architecture in Kathmandu. One is visible, warm, approachable and loving like the old Newar durbars and powerful deities’ abodes. But for some small restrictions and closures, they were open to all. The farmer-architects made the architectural sites of Basantapur, Patan and Bhaktapur durbars and some temples according to their tastes, as it were. That is why they created courtyards and spaces for their festivals and annual feasts in the courtyards of the palaces. Secondly, there came a time, as the Rana rule started in 1846 in Nepal, when the rulers wanted to create spaces that were completely cut off from the common people. Everybody knows what happened then. Huge buildings and palaces, some following purely Western architecture, and others in the style of the Asian, or better, South Asian, Baroque style that combined elements of Mughal architecture, were constructed in Kathmandu. The common people accepted this reality. To them, very rightly, what happened behind those huge buildings was a mystery, but also a source of trouble. All the uncalled for decisions came from behind those buildings. So, the people’s belief that behind the big embassy buildings too something mysterious may be going on stems from the fear of the palatial gothics. In the case of the Nepali Baroque, they feared that some trouble might come out from behind the facade.