Nepali Times
The past with a future


what's a lovingly restored 18th-century palace doing with a spectacular collection of rare artefacts from Tibet, India and the western Himalaya? Welcome to the Patan Museum.

Your trip into history begins at the entrance. The palace museum is part of a larger living museum: Patan's cobble-stone Durbar Square, with some of Nepal's most impressive temples and monuments. Two ferocious lions guard the famous gilded door, and above, overlooking the Square, is a gilded window with an image of Shristi Kanta Lokeshwor. Inside, it's a different world.

You enter into a courtyard that immediately and gently morphs your world into one that is outside modernity, noise and dust. Keshab Narayan Chowk, the quadrangle around the main courtyard, was once the residence of the Malla Kings of Patan. Seated inside the courtyard is Keshav Narayan, the guardian deity of the palace. Invariably, the visitor spends some time here, admiring the structure that encloses such tranquillity.

The galleries begin on the first floor of the completely reconstructed eastern wing. The staircase leading up to it is itself an example of how architectural restoration adapts buildings to new uses. They do not follow the traditional Malla design in that they are wider than most staircases of the time, and have unusual banisters. The staircase was broadened to make two-way passage possible and also to draw attention to the beautifully carved wooden struts, salvaged from temples destroyed in the earthquakes, hung on the walls on the side. The banister is neither Malla nor Regulation Modern but instead, Tibetan. It begins at the foot of the staircase and not at waist height and therefore does not run parallel to the stairs.

"The reason I chose this railing is that I found it comfortable, and also in good combination with the range of Tibetan sculptures upstairs," explains G?tz Hagm?ller, chief architect of the Patan Museum project (see box). The atypical stairs lead to a typical Newari door. Raise your feet and lower your head to avoid tripping over and bumping your head. After you negotiate that, you're safely in Gallery A.

Gallery A is like a preface to the other eight divisions. As at any world-class museum, here the visitor learns more about the treats to come, through detailed explanations and descriptions of some Hindu and Buddhist deities, their postures and moods. This is one of the best things about Patan Museum: every exhibit has an explanatory text and viewers don't have to rely on-or claim to have-prior knowledge. You certainly don't have to be intimidated about visiting, even if you know nothing about art history.

The 200 sculptures currently exibited are representative of all major religions practised in medieval Nepal-Hinduism, Buddhism and Tantricism. The diversity of the collection is both exciting and sad. The good side is that it preserves some of the best of Nepal's medieval history in the sculptures. It's sad, though, because this museum's gain is an inventory of the losses of many temples, shrines and monasteries from where the images were stolen. There's no doubt that this is preferable to having the artefacts on the mantelpiece of a wealthy private collector. At least here they still tell the stories and context of a unique culture, heritage and religion-lost and rediscovered.

One of the highlights of the museum is a beautiful golden throne of the kings of Patan, which has an interesting relationship with its makers. An inscription just beneath the seat says "anyone can have this throne on payment of Rs 2 to the families of coppersmiths and the carpenters". Oral history suggests the throne was presented to the then Hindu king Srinivasa Malla by a Buddhist resident of a nearby monastery. Another highlight is a recent arrival: a 12th-century idol of Uma Maheshwor, that toured Western Europe after being lifted from Dhulikhel in 1982 and returned to Nepal three months ago by the Museum fur Indische Kunst (Museum of Indian Art) in Berlin, after it was found to be of dubious provenance. Patan Museum was considered a safer home for the statue in comparison with its original home, the Dhulikhel shrine. Another recent addition is the original silver sheathing of Bagalamukhi shrine, donated to the Museum, and again for reasons of security and protection. The museum created a replica and presented it to Bagalamukhi, so the shrine loses little of its flavour.

Like the explanatory placards, the presentation is also professional and in keeping with international museum standards. Objects are either encased in illuminated cases or on pedestals with mirrors. The attention to modes of display ensures that every detail can be appreciated. "We have tried to give some dignity to these objects as they should be getting in their original temple or shrine", says Hagm?ller, who has lived in Nepal long enough to see iron bars being installed at many temples to protect idols from theft.

Gallery G, which focuses on traditions of metalwork deserves special mention. It displays, step-wise the technique of repouss?, the hammering of metal sheets into relief designs, and the process of casting images using a technique known as 'lost wax'. Here, a wax model is encased in clay and then melted out and replaced by molten metal. Also not to be missed is Gallery H, which houses a rare collection of photographs and paintings of Kathmandu Valley, some of which date back to1899.

A thorough tour of the museum can take a few hours and be forewarned: it can induce acute nostalgia for a past you never thought you'd know. The exhibit-after-exhibit routine, which at most museums can get a little weighty and mind-boggling, is leavened by the constant flow of soft "natural" music. Commonly mistaken for pre-recorded music, this wonderfully pleasant sound comes from wind chimes kissing the burnt tiles on the roof of the palace, given a constant, almost ecclesiastical continuity by an electric fan below. This subtle but brilliant touch is just one of the many that make Patan Museum such a joy and provide a hint of how intricately the restoration and display were planned.

It is also hard to miss the cleanliness, a rare treat when many of Nepal's holy shrines and archaeological treasures are lying in grimy neglect. The floors are waxed every month and the wooden windows oiled every six months, and even the daily cleaning routine is impressive. There are comfortable gaddis placed on the windows-it's quite common to find a weary visitor comfortably ensconced at the resting places taking in the clean tranquility of the museum.

The restoration of the palace was a timely rescue. Nepal's heavy monsoon, two major earthquakes, and the use of the palace as a school prior to being converted into a museum, had all taken their toll, and caused considerable alterations in the original design. A fourteen-year, $3 million restoration project supported by the Austrian Government has transformed the palace into Nepal's finest and only self-sustaining museum. After its extension, restoration and partial reconstruction, the palace now resembles what we believe it might have looked like back in 1734, when a Malla king first walked into his new palace. Though its original foundations are much older, the palace received its final historic shape and embellishments in the early 18th century.

The structure has been reinforced using appropriate modern technology-the walls, for example, have been damp-proofed at the bottom and reinforced at the top with concrete ring beams for earthquake safety. All roofs are new. Though traditional tiles have been used for roofing, there's a water resistant membrane hidden beneath them. The balcony overlooking the courtyard from the upper floor was reconstructed based on the design of other balconies intact elsewhere in the building. The windows and doors, meticulously carved copies of the original, were added later, and the eastern wing was completely reconstructed.

The museum attracts around 200 tourists daily, with around 50 of these coming from SAARC countries, and there are an almost equal number of Nepali visitors. Patan Museum gets the highest number of visitors of any museum in the Valley. Much credit for this success goes to its governing body-a semi-autonomous board with the authority to make decisions on its finances, among others. There's little doubt that this unprecedented governing system has worked marvellously with the museum's self-sustaining policy, and steps are now being taken to get other Valley museums to adopt similar systems.

The museum has not gone unnoticed. It has merited a stop from almost every foreign dignitary who has visited Nepal after its construction. The last high-profile visitor was Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Mori was apparently so pleased with the Museum that he left quite a generous tip. That certainly called for a celebration. "We added some money of our own to it and had a big feast," recalls Jala Krishna Shrestha, director of the Museum. The VIP Visitor's Book has been signed by quite a few of the rich and famous, and also a number of royals including the Prince of Wales and the Princess of Thailand. The rest of us are also, of course, welcome to sign the visitors' book maintained at the museum every day from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm.

There is something for everyone in Patan Museum. Art and history displayed in the best possible way, culture in the most respected state, and a scrumptious meal waiting to be ordered at the Museum Caf? run by Hotel Summit within the premises.

A word of caution though: watch your head and your step while in the Museum. Still, even the occasional bump on the head or a slip isn't the end of the world-it's a small price for getting to admire the best of Nepali history in its full glory.

For more information on Patan Museum visit:

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)