Nepalis have done their PhDs in a lot of things, from nuclear physics to rare species of indigenous frogs. But no one had done a doctorate in Nepali jewellery until Sushila Manandhar.
Growing up in Patan, Sushila was sure of one thing: she would study. By 1983 she had an MA from Tribhuban University, specialising in Nepali history. At 25, she was already lecturing on the constitutional history of England, the political history of Nepal and researching everything from women's participation in income generation to Nepal's bilateral relations with Bhutan or France.
But what she was really interested in was French chronicles and cultural anthropology. She researched the worship of Goddess Taleju, the Bajrabarahi Jatra and the traditional Newari headdress. That brought Sushila to her interest in Nepali jewellery, which she began researching under a grant from the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) at TU in 1992. She got an opportunity to take her study further at the University of Paris.
"Traditional Newari jewellery had adapted Indian and western influences to its own cultural values, not just as ornaments but also as a cultural tool and a medium for human relations," explains Sushila. When babies are born they are given a gold and silver ring by the mother's brother and his wife. It is for protection and a way for the uncle and aunt to affirm the family relation.
Then there is the jangu rite performed when women are 77 years old. By that time most are widows, at which point they shed their ornaments. But for the jangu, the elder is given earrings. "It's really a way to give them a higher social status, which they have lost after the death of their spouse," Sushila explains.
Sushila hopes to put interesting tidbits like these into a book so that there is a historical record of the subject before it is erased by modern mores. When we first requested Sushila for an interview, she was taken aback. "I thought you only wrote about well known people in society," she said. Just goes to prove one needn't necessarily be well known to contribute to knowledge and cultural preservation.