Wednesday, July 24, 2013


One relatively recent addition to our Kailash party, A, is an engineer and "social entrepreneur" famous for his in-depth tours of his native city of Patan. I joined one he gave for another New School faculty member on her first Nepal visit, and, as my first time in 2010, learned so much I started to be uneasy: could any place make such seamless sense in two hours, even as described by the most skilful raconteur? A's theme was "heritage" and we learned of a tradition of local care and repair by long-established families and neighborhoods going back continuously, it seemed, into the far distant past. (The stonework on some neighborhood shrines is 11 centuries old!) Recently UNESCO World Heritage status and World Bank support have helped Patan plug back into these traditions, which had suffered neglect from a misplaced sense of inferiority to western modernity. In fact, A explained to us, the founders of the Kathmandu Valley civilization had marshalled profound proto-scientific understanding of things from the time they drained the valley - an event preserved in myth in the story that it was the sword of the bodhisattva Manjushree. Their ingenious, elaborate, and ancient urban water system still works - so long as people value and maintain it. A's is such a pretty, timeless picture - a closed system - that it made me nervous. Aren't conflict and compromise - if not also structures of exclusion - necessary parts of the picture of any traditional society's survival? In recent months I've noticed that I'm rather less keen on places which haven't changed for centuries than I used to be... But that's a topic for another post another time, perhaps post-Paris.

In any case, A is an amazing source of local lore - like what's going on in this wall painting of the birth of the Buddha. Officially it's from his mother's side, but the local euphemism for where babies come from (like our "a stork brought it") is out of the mother's armpit. That feels like living religion to me!

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