As you enter the courtyard of the Hiranya Varna Mahavihar-Patan's Golden Temple-on the left you find the realm of the Amitabha Buddha, Sukhavati Bhuvan. These days, there's an unusual sight there: five twenty-something Newari artists are silently creating a poubha, the ancient devotional art of the Kathmandu Valley, on its walls. (See NT # 5 for more on poubha.) Minutes, hours, days pass as they face the walls, adding patterns, colours and nuanced shades that will eventually create a splendid fresco.
"Painting the wall is entirely different from painting on canvas. We don't mind crawling on the floor to get the strokes and the colour just right. Being able to do this is beautiful. We're really lucky," smile the young artists who are almost halfway through their task. The eventual aim is to have poubha murals representing hundreds of deities of the Varjayana Buddhist pantheon. "This will probably be the only poubha fresco in the Valley," says senior poubha artist Lok Chitrakar, who is overseeing the artistic side of the project.
The artists use the same colours, derived from stones from Tibet and South India, that they use to paint poubha on canvas. Poubha artists normally have an assistant to make the colour pastes for them, but here even senior participants in the project, like the aaju-the caretaker of the Golden Temple-join in the collective effort. "We want to make it real," says Drabya Ratna Shakya, the present aaju, one of a committee of 20 caretakers. Two aajus, Drabya Ratna Shakya and Juju Ratna Shakya are constantly supervising the poubha project, and Asatana Shakya, the secretary of the Hiranya Varna Mahavihar management committee, is also closely involved with the undertaking.
There are poubha murals at the Bhaktapur Darbar, and at the Kumari Chowk in Kathmandu's Darbar Square. "But this will be the most elaborate and complex fresco," says Chitrakar, who spearheaded the idea of creating a poubha inside the temple complex. Painting poubha requires vast reserves of patience, but the idea was hit upon spontaneously. "We had the right budget, the right people and above all, those of us who are involved here, are passionate about preserving our immensely rich culture," says Juju Ratna Shakya.
Two years ago, Juju Ratna was worried. Idols and other valuable temple possessions in the Sukhavati Bhuvan were disappearing. "Other idols, like the Dipankara Buddha statues, and those of Tara and Indra were lying open to theft," says the aaju. One evening he had a quiet talk with Nem Ratna Shakya, a devotee and major patron of the bihara, about getting funds to ensure the artefacts had secure displays. "He asked me to wait a few days," remembers the aaju. "Then one day he said he'd fund a new floor and make glass frames for the idols." And as the two aajus, Juju Ratna and Drabya Ratna spread the word, the small preservation project turned into something much larger. "Suddenly we found our initiative had attracted the interest and commitment of people like Min Bahadur Shakya and Lok Chitrakar, both of whom, have immense knowledge of poubha," they say.
Initially, a number of artists volunteered their time, working six evenings a week to fill the barren walls. "But we all also have to make a living. Fewer artists started showing up. So in early December we decided the artists should receive a nominal monthly remuneration," says Juju Ratna. The Hiranya Varna Mahavihar management committee is responsible for supporting the staff and financing the rest of the project.
As the bell tolls in the courtyard, it will also be for those who are contributing their time, effort and creativity to enabling the Golden Temple's Sukhavati Bhuvan move seamlessly-and intact-into a new millennium.