“Namaste” is a friendly greeting and salutation in Nepal and India. My friend and travel companion N. and I went last minute for a two-week holiday in Nepal. One of my highlights of the trip was the Patan museum – in addition to the temples, stupas and sacred sites of Katmandu and its valley, the Holi colourful festivities, the villagers met during our trek, seeing the Mount Everest, the daal bhat (traditional Nepali staple food) and Chitwan’s mosquitoes!
I highly recommend the Patan museum if you ever go to Nepal. The museum shows traditional sacred Nepalese artefacts along with insightful commentary on Hinduism and Buddhism, the two main religions in Nepal, which coexist peacefully and are closely intertwined. Nepal is a key place for Buddhism as prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became the historical Buddha (buddha = “enlightened one”) by finding salvation through intense meditation, was born in Lumbini, southern Nepal.
As a visitor, you will come across many Hindu, and Buddhist deities to a lesser extent, visiting Katmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur in Nepal, as well as the Angkor temples in Cambodia. In Christian art such as Italian Renaissance, Saint Catherine is depicted with a martyr palm and a wheel, St Jerome with a cardinal hat, stone and lion, St Sebastian with arrows. Similarly, there are attributes, hands and legs positions that characterise Hindu and Buddhist gods, as explained by the Patan museum. Shiva, Ganesh and Vishnu are the most important gods in the complex Hindu pantheon of deities.
Shiva, the lord of human souls (Pashupatinatha = “lord of cattle”), creates, destroys and preserves, and transforms sexual energy into spiritual energy. He is often represented by a linga, a phallic shape symbolising his power of creation. When not represented as a linga, he is depicted with his key attributes: trident, seed rosary, crescent moon, drum and water pot. His wife is Devi, the Hindu Great Goddess, who personifies the energy of the gods. One of his children is Ganesh and Shiva’s mount is the bull Nandi.
Vishnu maintains cosmic order and preserves the universe and is shown with his four symbolic attributes: mace, discus, conch shell and lotus. He is often represented with his mount Garuda, a man-bird, and sometimes with one or both wives, mainly Lakshmi. Vishnu has ten incarnations comprising animals, man-lion, dwarf, Buddha and gods.
Ganesh is the elephant-headed son of Shiva. According to legends, Shiva beheaded Ganesh and agreed to his wife’s request to replace the severed head with that of the next being to appear, an elephant. Ganesh is my favourite god as he is the easiest one to identify (!) and he removes obstacles. He is therefore worshipped for success, such as before a business venture, a trip or a wedding.
The Patan museum is a must on the Nepal’s to-do list and is probably the most interesting museum of the country – we also visited museums in Bhaktapur. The museum is housed in the former palace of the Malla kings of Patan, behind a beautiful golden facade. The buddhist section of the museum is smaller but nevertheless extensive. There are several statues of Shakyamuni Buddha, representing Buddha when he reaches enlightenment under a tree in Northern India, including an exceptional 12th century copper gilted sculpture, a superb example of Nepalese metal craft. Patan is well-known for its metallurgical art skills, in particular for the repoussé technique, as shown in an interesting technique section at the end of the museum.
We also saw a sample of contemporary Nepalese art at the Patan festival and in an art gallery showing works of eight women Nepali artists (www.newachheartgallery.blogspot.com). I felt little influence from Western art; instead Nepali contemporary artists draw expressively on religion, Nepalese famous characters and landscapes.