Nepali Times
Three golden kings


Among the many Nepali kings of old, three are remembered not so much because of how they reigned or what they achieved, so much as by the very personal monuments they left behind-three golden likenesses of themselves. They kneel in the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, atop high stone pedestals with lotus capitals for their thrones. All are attired in the finery of court dress obviously inspired by Mughal fashion: turbaned, plumed, bejewelled, belted and armed with swords, daggers and shields. All are in attitudes of devotion. Two are shaded by the hoods of rearing serpents; one by a royal parasol.

If the same master created all three, as it would seem, then he lived and worked as long as Michelangelo. Certainly he could have seen all the three kings, and beginning work on the first statue as a very young man have completed his ultimate masterpiece in his late sixties or early seventies. It was unusual for a master craftsmen to be employed in all the three cities. And so when Pratap Malla of Kathmandu, who reigned from 1641 to 1674 decided to be immortalised in gilded metal, it is possible the sculptor went on to portray King Yoganandra Malla of Patan who occupied the throne of Patan from 1865 to 1705. Finally, he would have been summoned by the flamboyant King Bhupatindra Malla of Bhaktpur who ruled from 1697 to 1729. By then, he was a master of mature excellence who created in his likeness of the king his greatest masterpiece.

This, of course, is conjecture. Even though there were artistic exchanges between the three cities so often at loggerheads if not embroiled in open warfare, it is unlikely that a single sculptor would in fact have created the three statues, since patrons jealously guarded their master craftsmen and kings were no exception. There are the inevitable tales that have kings so delighted by the work they commissioned they had the artist either killed or maimed to avoid their masterpiece being surpassed. As inevitable are the stories that have artists knowing they would lose their eyes or hands stalling for time usually by saying their work wasn't complete until they had made sure of their escape.

So I blatantly romanticise. A young Newari Benvenuto Cellini comes to the notice of the king of Kathmandu, known as a great poet and lover of art. He commissions a metal likenes of himself and his sons, and as it is done the king whispers orders for the artist's despatch, and the young man escapes across the river to Patan. There he does a similar life size portrait of the king by royal command and when the time comes for his life or limbs to be endangered, he flees to the distant city of Bhaktapur. There, as an old man with all the skills of his years, he sculpts a serene likeness of the king. And there, perhaps his glorious creativity ended. But tradition has it he played on and on for time assuring a fastidious king that his work was not quite complete until he was too old to beat and gild metal any longer. Alas, that his name does not survive with his masterpieces.

Even to this day, several lanes of Patan echo to the tap-tap-tap of metal workers creating anything from pots and pans to images of gods and goddesses. So it must have been in the past, and many could have been the masters who took their wares and their skills to the other capital cities of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, just as the famous woodcarvers of Bhaktapur laboured in Patan and Kathmandu.
Of the three golden kings, there is no doubt that Bhaktapur's Bhupatindra Malla is the most classic. If I were permitted to choose a single masterpiece from all of Kathmandu valley's amazing treasure, without hesitation I would ask for the statue of the Bhaktapur king. He sits so lifelike, his hands gently touching in the attitude of namaskar, his shirt sleeves minutely creased, his forehead marked with vermilion, and turquoise rings still upon his fingers that it should surprise no modern beholder if he rose slowly and mounted a waiting elephant. The golden likeness matches the man, for his life was as rich as the metal he was immortalised in.

It is said that when he was a young boy he was sent by his scheming stepmother to the forests about Bhaktapur with paid assassins. So earnestly did the handsome prince plead for his life that the assassins left him with a family of Tibetan craftsmen and, dispatching a goat to bloody their knives, returned to the palace. The young prince grew strong and well versed in the arts of his foster people. And he gained sufficient popularity to lead an army on the palace, kill his usurping stepmother and her lover, and ascend the throne in triumph.

Once crowned king, he lost no time in lavishing his love of the arts upon his city. Several of Bhaktapur's most memorable monuments arose at his command. It is said he often took an active part in their building.

Strangely, none of the succeeding Malla kings were moved to perpetuate themselves in lifelike gold. Perhaps there was already a heavy strain on their gilded purses. Or had the ultimate master cast the ultimate golden king?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)