Picturesque Nepal/Chapter 3

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The Different Tribes in Nepal—The Gurkhas and the Newars—The Religions of Nepal—Religious Influence on the Art of the State—Tantrism.

In the previous chapter the history of Nepal has been briefly outlined, being mainly a record of its kings and their general character as rulers. But for a true picture of any country it is necessary to look into the lives of the people, to know their origin, religion, customs, conditions of living, and social environment. This is specially so when the æsthetic expression of any community is under consideration. Art reflects the spirit and temperament of the people. The deepest feelings of all classes are revealed in their artistic aspirations. The character of the Egyptian people of ten thousand years ago is plainly depicted on their tombs. At a later date the triumphal arches of the Romans mirror the ambitions of the classic citizen. Can we not see the rugged disposition of the inhabitants of Western Europe in the stern but picturesque buildings of the Gothic style? And so with the State of Nepal. The story of the people, and all that is profound in their nature, is illustrated in the temples and shrines of the valley. A short account of the population of Nepal, and the influences to which they have been subjected, seems necessary before their picturesque circumstances, and particularly the full meaning of the artistic conditions of their environment, can be properly realized.

The people of Nepal resolve themselves into so many different tribes that any broad classification appears at first sight a somewhat difficult matter. The most important of these are Gurkhas, Newars, Magars, Gurungs, Limbus, Kiratis, Bhotiyas, and Lepchas. As a result of this mixed population, the State vies with the Tower of Babel in its confusion of tongues, as at least six
Black and white photograph of a shrine at Bhatgaon.


distinct languages are spoken within its small area. These range from Sanskrit, "the speech of the gods," to the gibberish of the jungle dwellers. Brian Hodgson, who spent many years in Nepal, has compiled several scholarly works on the ethnology of the Nepalese, including investigations into some of the small savage tribes living in the depths of the Terai. In connection with this research it is recorded that he approached the State authorities with a view to securing one of these wild aborigines for the purposes of an interview. His request was courteously acceded to, and a short time after the individual was solemnly produced—in a cage.

For all ordinary needs it may suffice to refer to the two principal races of the State. These are the Gurkhas and the Newars, the rulers and their subjects, the victors and the vanquished. The original inhabitants of the valley are the Newars, while the present ruling race are the Gurkhas, who conquered the country in 1768. For a sound and sympathetic administration and an ideal system of military organization the methods of the latter must be studied, but for the arts and industries, the architecture of the houses and temples, for all that is picturesque and historic in the valley, the present generation is indebted to the Newars.

The origin of the Newars has been a matter of considerable speculation. Certain authorities have stated that they came into Nepal in the eleventh century a.d., from southern India, in the train of a Karnatic king. This theory has, however, been exploded by the deductions of subsequent students of Indian ethnology. It is now conclusively demonstrated that they emigrated from Tibet and its vicinity, and settled down in Nepal when the world was in its making. This is supported by their cast of features, their character, their customs, and their language, all of which point to their Mongolian extraction. Centuries of intermarriage with other tribes from an Indian stock have reduced the strong traces of their origin, but a careful sifting of facts and records has proved that the Newars are the aborigines of Nepal. They constitute the largest section of its inhabitants, and form the bulk of the
Black and white photograph of the Durbar Square at Katmandu.


population of the ancient capitals of Patan and Bhatgaon. As carpenters, masons, metalworkers, and painters, they are ingenious and skilful, and the strikingly picturesque appearance of old Nepal is largely due to the æsthetic temperament of the Newars. In two particular branches of artistic embellishment these people excel—in the decorative treatment of their houses and palaces, and the enrichment of their temples and shrines. The streets and squares of Patan and Bhatgaon bear eloquent testimony to their success with the former, while the riot of carved wood and embossed metal on the sacred buildings in all parts of the valley is one of the most instructive features of the State. It is hardly necessary to add that this great field of artistic expression is so closely associated with the religion of the country, and so imbued with its symbolism, that to understand it some reference to the cult of those responsible for its production seems essential.

The religious history of Nepal may be best observed by a comparison with the course of religion in India. It is a story mainly of contrasts. India commenced with Brahmanism and then became Buddhist. It reverted to Brahmanism, and then was forced into Mohammedanism. Nepal began in the same way, being first Brahmanistic, and was subsequently gathered, with India, into the fold of Buddhism. At this point the analogy ceases. India eventually rejected Buddhism, and would have none of it. Nepal compromised, combined the two cults, and in the broad sense Brahmo-Buddhism is the religion of the State to the present day. But the most striking difference between the two countries is, that whereas the one was overwhelmed by the great wave of Mohammedanism which swept the peninsula from end to end in the twelfth and following centuries, Nepal was never affected by this great political cataclysm. The storm, raging in the plains of India, was spent ere it reached the natural ramparts of Nepal, and only distant echoes of the Islamic turmoil reached the seclusion of the valley.

The realization of this gives the country an added interest. Nepal illustrates, as approximately as time and ordinary circumstances permit, the state of India before Islam had imprinted its indelible mark on almost every aspect of its life. The manners and customs of the people, their religion, arts and industries, the towns and the country, are practically the same as they were ten centuries ago. Unaffected by any foreign influences, undisturbed by the transitions which have taken place in the outer world, Nepal, protected by its natural position, presents an ideal picture of the Middle Ages—the Middle Ages of the East.

The story of Nepal is therefore the story of the Newars, and these people have written it profusely on every building of any importance in the valley. Apart from the ancient Sanskrit inscriptions with which the country abounds, it is, in its pictorial form, cut in stone or carved in wood, embossed in brass or cast in bronze, painted on plaster or moulded in terra-cotta, on a thousand and one shrines within the borders of the State. But even with this wealth of material the story is not easy to read, and needs some explanation.

The national religion of the Newars is Buddhism, and has been so since the cult was first introduced into Nepal, two thousand years ago. But the Newar, like his cousin in the plains of India, found this simple faith unsatisfactory, and yearned for the elaborate ritual and picturesque practices which delight the heart and stimulate the mind of the Hindu worshipper of Vishnu or Shiva. And so, as time went on, the preachings of the Great Teacher gradually drifted into oblivion, and the Newars began to adopt one by one the rites and ceremonies, and even the social distinctions, of the Brahmans. The high standard of doctrine and discipline which marked the character of the Primitive Buddhist Church in the early history of the State has become modified, and Buddhism as maintained in Nepal has now accepted many of the popular features of Hinduism. The Buddhism of Nepal follows what is known as the Theistic system, which teaches that one universal, all-powerful, and immaterial Spirit has existed from before the commencement of time, and that it will pervade the universe throughout all eternity. This Spirit is God. He is possessed of supreme power, and is endowed with supreme intelligence. He remains, has remained, and ever will remain, in a state of perfect repose. On the other hand, the basis of Hinduism is the same idea of one impersonal and spiritual Being, but this Being has come to be represented by several personal manifestations. Some of these incarnations have been accepted by the Buddhist Newars and incorporated into their own creed. Much of the complicated mythology, and many of the fantastic deities, of the Hindus have been absorbed into the Newars' "New Theology," and thus their Buddhism has lost much of the chaste and simple character for which it was originally noted. In this way it has come about that in Nepal Hindu shrines have been erected within the precincts of Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist temples are decorated with figures of Hindu gods, Hindu saints, and Hindu symbols. A religious building in Nepal will therefore often display a figure of the Buddha, calm, dignified, and reposeful, with all the attributes of his simple teaching around, while in close proximity is placed a many-armed and many-headed apparition, symbolizing all that is restless and terrible in a faith which rules by fear.

All this may be read in the religious art of the Newars—and their buildings palpitate with emblems of the two creeds—the Restful and the Restless. But interwoven with these is a third form of worship—a mysterious and obscure belief, signs of which are discernible throughout the art of the land, but the actual ritual is fortunately veiled from the eyes of all but the initiated. Peering from under the broad eaves of the temples in the form of wood-carving, leering in lurid colours from the red walls of the shrines, fitted in skilfully so as not to really obtrude, but cunningly represented in many of the architectural efforts of the Newars, the Tantric element of Nepal Buddhism holds its unhallowed sway. Who and what are the devotees to the Tantric system, which has been described as a "diseased excrescence borrowed from the Hindus and based upon the worst part of Sivaism," is never divulged, but that it has a firm hold on a large community is proved by the frequency with which its various aspects are pictorially expressed. "Love profane and love divine" seems to be the main underlying principle of Tantrism, but its esoteric nature has fortunately prevented its gross tenets from becoming generally known. The outward forms of it, however, occupy an important position in the illustrated story of the Newars, and reflect a peculiarly coloured sidelight on the character of these interesting people.

As the Newars constitute the artistic element of the State, so the Gurkhas comprise the dominant and warlike section of this combined community. The Rajput origin of the rulers has already been alluded to, and it follows from this that they favour Hindu observances. In appearance they retain traces of their noble descent in face and figure, although they have lost this largely by intermarriage with other races. They are devoted to a military life, and the bulk of the Gurkhas are by instinct soldiers. In this capacity they hold a high place, and are regarded by many leading authorities as the best fighting material in India. The State itself has a standing army of at least 20,000 men, which is well equipped and regularly drilled.

There is one conflicting trait in the character of the Gurkhas which it is a little difficult to understand. It is usual to find, combined with the keen fighting disposition, a natural desire for athletics or any out-of-door sports requiring vigour and strength. In no sense is this observable in the Gurkha, except that he is passionately devoted to "Shikar," and the chase. But European games which have "caught on," so to speak, with such amazing rapidity in even the most distant parts of India, seem to have little attraction for the Nepalese. Katmandu boasts a magnificent maidan, which in almost any other part of the world would, on every occasion, be freely utilized for either indigenous or exotic athletics, but it is usually deserted, except during the times of parades. Probably the explanation may be found in this last fact, that the Gurkha is essentially a specialist. For these military manœuvres are frequent and serious, and indicate that in one grim sport at least the Gurkha excels—

"War, that mad game the world so loves to play."

Black and white photograph of the Durbar Square at Bhatgaon.


The figure of Raja Bhupatindra Mall faces the golden gateway of the Durbar Hall.