I admit to being terrified by Sundari Chowk in the old Malla palace of Patan. Not physically. but as an artist. The wealth of design, the amazing detail, the intricate perspectives have foiled many an attempt to sketch or paint the royal bath that lies at the centre of the courtyard. Besides, the continuous stream of tourists is intimidating.
There is just so much one can take of having one\'s work critically scrutinised in several languages. So when I had to I went late, at a time when the great tourist coaches are pointed back towards Kathmandu. And I went with determined friends who found me a chair and Kept tourists at bay by suggesting I accepted traveller\'s cheques, cash, and Diners Cards in any strong currency for my sketches. It worked. I was viewed from a distance, even photographed, but otherwise ignored. Only the challenging bath remained. If I balked at even an impressionistic study, what headaches or what blazing inspiration its l7th century creator must have endured, I would guess he spent a lifetime at it.
The bath, set at the centre of a small, extravagantly decorated courtyard, is shaped like a yoni with steps leading down from the narrow end. Profusely decorated with three tiers of brilliant stone carving-gods and goddesses mostly and a wealth of floral design-the gilded fountain is an even greater masterpiece.
Vishnu and Lakshmi ride a garuda which in turn rests on fishes and crocodiles, turtles and sea monsters. Below the fountain, stone elephants battle. About it four elegantly carved niches stand empty, their images removed by vandals. "I remember when they were all complete," volunteered a young shopkeeper who watched me sketch a while. "The others were here too," he said, indicating more empty niches and stands, particularly one which must have contained an exquisite gilded image. Only fragments remain.
No water pours from the fountain now, but when it did it was hot and perfumed, suitable for a monarch\'s pleasure. But I wonder, and no one I have met or nothing I have read stands to correct me, whether the actual procedure of royal bathing in Sundari Chowk was functional or purely ceremonial. 1 cannot conceive of a king bathing in the open air in Kathmandu\'s greatly variable climate unless he was obeying the dictates of some ritual even if the water was hot and his attendants immediately attentive with towels and wraps. Apparently, the whole court looked on while the queen and her ladies watched from behind carved wooden screens. If hearsay is to be believed, the king ascended from his bath to lie on a stone bed where he rested and was massaged with oils. A sign today warns visitors against touching the sacred bed.
Immediately above the gilded fountain is a small stone replica of the famed Krishna temple of Patan. When I wondered aloud why it was there, the obliging shopkeeper said it was because the king who bad built the bath was a devotee of Krishna. Indeed he was the very same king who had the Krishna temple built following a dream in which he saw Krishna and Radha making love. Encircling the bath, their heads raised and plumed, are two serpents. Above the steps and looking respectfully into the bath is a vermilioned stone image of Hanuman who was propitiated before every royal dip. And apart from the numerous Hindu and Buddhist deities lining the bath itself there is a vast concourse of carved and painted gods on the buildings all about who observed the royal ablutions.
Until recent times most of Kathmandu valley took its baths at public springs. Though the underground water level has dropped and most springs have consequently run dry, there is a batten- of ever-flowing springs in Kathmandu and Patan still immensely popular in all weathers So perhaps the comparatively private and beautiful Sundari Chowk was the only alternative royalty had to public baths. And Vishnu reincarnate being ritually bathed was surely an occasion of great interest to the court.
Police now guard the courtyard from further desecration. The tourists fill it in relays, endlessly capturing its charms on film I like to think that some of them will someday look unbelieving at their photographs of a handsome man bathing under a gilded fountain. Lunatic fantasy perhaps but dreaming comes easily in Sundari Chowk. Every carved and painted piece of wood, every flagstone and every one of its numerous images breathe history. Like the two modern women who strayed unbelievingly into Louis the XV s court at Versailles, someone will someday stumble into a royal Malla occasion. Where better than at the royal bath in Sundari Chowk?
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999