Studies in the psycho-pathology of culture
By Ted Riccardi
8 April 2018
A fictional meditation on Nepal’s stolen objects, theory of art, and geopolitics.
The Kathmandu Valley, it was said back in the 1950s when Nepal opened its portals to the modern era, had more statues of gods and goddesses than people. This is no longer so, in particular because over the decades the deities have been stolen by the thousands from public and private places, to such an extent that there are very few left to steal. The thieves have moved on, mostly. Idol theft in Kathmandu is of a dimension different from the Pharoanic loot along the Nile or the desecration of Gandharan sites in Punjab and North West Frontier Province. The Hindu-Buddhist-Varjrayan statuary of ‘Nepal Valley’ represent a living, contemporary faith. The statues were dragged from pedestals and yanked from alcoves by a brazen contraband industry that included the common thief, the Nepali middleman, the foreign scholar, the diplomat and the art collector – leading all the way to museum curators and art historians who produce heavy volumes on Himalayan art. Unkempt deities – who, till the moment of theft, were receiving offerings of flowers, rice achheta, vermillion and water – are now lonely, polished objects spotlighted in museum showcases and on private mantles.
Ted Riccardi, a Himalayan scholar, saw it all happen during his work in the Kathmandu Valley from the 1960s through the 1990s. He knew some of the crooks, saw how they worked, and had the perspective and empathy to know that the common Kathmandu criminal was no more to blame than the soft-spoken curators and historians in New York, Hong Kong or San Francisco. This article represents a cry of anger and frustration at the desecration of Kathmandu Valley, and the denigration of the simple faith of the people by forces beyond their comprehension – a cry that speaks of the hundreds of thousands of devotees who suddenly found that their gods had gone missing. The thieves named here also represent entire categories of those who evaluate, assign value, auction, buy and exhibit the valuable, stolen iconography of Kathmandu. You know who you are.
There is one more thing to add to Riccardi’s presentation. It is an incontrovertible fact that every ancient stone and bronze statue from the Kathmandu Valley – to the very last one – that now finds itself on an overseas pedestal, is a stolen item (see Himal October 1999, “Gods in exile”). Not one of them was gifted or handed over with the agreement of the faithful. Every museum and collector who owns a Kathmandu Valley statue of antiquity must regard it as being ‘on loan’, to be returned when Nepali society finally wakes up from its headlong entry into the modern era – and, amidst political stability and modern-day self-awareness, asks for the statues’ return. At that point they should be handed back to the faithful, and placed in their original positions.
– Kanak Mani Dixit
Let us take an object – a statue, a piece of stone – standing alone somewhere in a field. The only people who know of its existence are the farmers who till the soil around it. For them, it may have some importance, or it may not. It may function as the equivalent of a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe or any other good-luck charm. Or, it may be the object of the deepest veneration. No matter. There is not that much difference. The people who live near it may not know its correct name. They may not even know its sex, if it has any. It is there; that is all. One morning, it is no longer there. It has been taken in the night.
Let us look at this object again in its new location. It now graces the galleries of a great museum. Instead of a horseshoe, we now have a work of art – an object no longer of religious or superstitious awe, but one of aesthetic appreciation. It is an object quantified, put on view for the public as an example of the universal genius of the human race, photographed and presented to an ever-wider audience in the publication series of the museum. The object is insured, traveled, displayed in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland by proud curators and directors who are doing precisely what they are hired to do.
The photographs: Ah, the photographs. Surreal they are, pushed against pure white, antiseptic backgrounds; one can see the pores of the gods. Vasudhara, my dear, you look prettier than ever.
My friends: Some of my best friends are scholars, diplomats, collectors, dealers. I forgive them all. They are the necessary links in the system – the transformers, the creators, life-givers, the makers of art, the true artists. Without them, there would be no art.
The lady from Colorado: Boulder-San Francisco-Honolulu-Hong Kong-Bangkok-Kathmandu-Colombo (avoid India at all costs)-Seychelles-Nairobi-Rome-Paris-London-New York-Boulder. Whew! We made it, our little old retired schoolteacher. In Kathmandu, she bought an old book in front of the Annapurna Hotel. She paid a few rupees.
The generosity of the donor: We thank all of you generous donors who turned small purchases into large tax breaks.
The Western middleman: He is at the low point in the chain, for, like all microbes, he must feed on one kind of object in order to transform it into another. He certifies its death, wraps it in burlap, crates it and sends it on to its new life.
My beloved countries: America and Nepal, the two poles of absurdity. To live in these two, of all possible places, is to have one’s soul torn, one’s mind permanently disoriented. Stay home, buddy. America: leader of the free world, the best hope of humanity. Nepal: leader of the bottom, a bathtub without a drain, a forgotten cesspool amid the green hills. Why do I choose the cesspool?
The Indologist: Another absurdity. The master and custodian of dead Indians. He can yet save himself by forgetting the dead and studying the dying. Indology as cultural pathology.
What is wrong with Playboy? With Penthouse? With P Pal’s The Art of Nepal? Nothing, nothing at all. All art is pornography.
Vishnu sleeps. When he awakens, nothing will happen.
Collectors are not as bad as dealers. They too are victims rather than actors, addicts rather than peddlers.
All right, children. How many of you know where Sankhu was, where Changu was, where Dhumbarahi was? Raise your hands, children.
In the room, people come and go, talking of Michelangelo. “I wonder if you could take a couple of pieces out for me…?” “Of course, I’ll put them in my household effects.”
Guess where I spent the Vietnam War? In Kathmandu. It was nice. Every two weeks, it was said that our Chief of Station flew to Saigon with fresh asparagus for our ambassador. Urschleim: the great thief. He is alive and well, pullulating in Kathmandu.
Question: What is the colour of green Tara’s pubic hair? Only the director knows, or maybe even he does not know.
Artibus Asiae: Like most Latinisms, it too hides its obscenities.
Metamorphosis: When Herr Urschleim awoke that morning he found that he had turned into a Buddha, his soul oppressed within the heavy grey stone. He could not move, but he could see. He remembers little of what transpired later, except that he was carefully packed – certified, that is. The appropriate bribes were given, and he was shipped to California, where he now sits in Los Angeles, gasping, thirsting, pleading for help, for liberation, from the visiting schoolchildren.
As in all ‘primitive’ countries, in Nepal there is no information, only rumour. This is healthy and natural, for one knows immediately the possible human motives behind what one hears. No one believes anything for very long. Indeed, belief and knowledge are impossible. In America, we have tried to banish rumour. Instead we have information: rumour for which one pays or to which one subscribes, in which the human motives are no longer discernible. Hence, the creation of objectivity: of belief and knowledge.
In Nepal, there are no art objects, no art; only good and evil.
The restoration of Swayambhunath: A large international effort has restored the great stupa of Swayambhunath to its pristine condition, according to a report from UNESCO. You may now see it at its new location in New York, at Rockefeller Plaza.
Article I: Corruption obeys the law of conservation of matter.
Article II: Nothing can be created out of nothing. One has only the transformation of one form into another. Because nothing can be created out of nothing, the transformation of a cult object into an art object must be accomplished by death and rebirth: hence the intervention of various kinds of bacteria.
A middle-aged lady, intrepid, intelligent, enthusiastic, stumbles over some ancient terra cottas. Such beautiful things for me. And LA. Typhoid Mary. The carrier. The moral dolt.
High above a Newar town, there is the Buddha that Laid an Egg. The egg remains, unnoticed. The Buddha is gone. Art as titillation. Preserve of the Hugh Hefner of Oriental art. His books appear monthly. Orwell. Nepalese Days. Economic development as a racket.
The third world and how to lick it
Pashupatinath Mandir: Few people know about the statue of Bhairava there. Even fewer have seen it. It is a secret place. Only women may see it. It has a large phallus, erect, 25 inches long. Women come here, those who are desirous of children. They revere it, their barrenness goes, their fertility is restored. Children come.
There are other places like this, most of them unknown. In Pharping there is a great big rock in town that women worship in the deep night. It works. Children come. In other places, lingam stones appear naturally out of the earth and women worship them. In Nepal, the soil and the people are fertile.
In Kathmandu live Ram and Sita, the ideal Nepali couple. They have been married for a little over a year and have one child. Being a modern couple, they practice birth control. Ram uses condoms when he makes love to his wife. They are available free at various clinics, and come in many colours: pink, green, blue, yellow, white. The Contraceptive Retail Sales (CRS) outfit has its storage rooms labelled pink, green, blue, yellow, white – for good organisation and easy access for happy, modern couples.
Sita does not like condoms. Neither does Ram, but they are a modern couple. Every night, after they make love, Sita sneaks out of the house in the darkness and walks hurriedly to the temple. There she stands in line until her turn comes and she can worship Bhairava in private. Then she goes home and lies next to her sleeping husband. In Pharping, the men sleep in the night. The darkness is thick, languorous. The women come and go, worshiping stones.
An urgent meeting
Place: The Embassy, Kathmandu.
Time: Indeterminate, anytime from the early 1970s on.
A Top-Secret Meeting.
Subject: The Population Council. In its latest report, the Council expresses dismay that the population growth rate in Nepal continues to rise, despite the best efforts of HMG, AID, UNICEF.
Present: The Ambassador; DCM Bustard; Political Officer Rufus; Admin Officer Arder; AID Director Valentine; Chief of Station Rimsley; and Resident Anthropologist and Cultural Expert Mary Loganberry. In short, the Country Team. They are seated in a secret room within the embassy around a large table. The ambassador, visibly annoyed at being called to a meeting in the early morning, speaks first.
Amb: Bustard, why are we here?
DCM Bustard: Better ask the AID director, sir.
Amb: Valentine, why are we here?
Dir Valentine: We have a bit of a problem, sir.
Amb: How long is this going to take, Valentine?
Valentine: I hope not long, sir. It has to do, sir, um, with the Nepalis.
Amb: Who? Valentine: The Nepalis … the Nepalese, sir.
Amb: Well, what have they done, now?
Valentine: They’re, ah, reproducing, sir. Amb: So what? I rather like them. Happy people, I tell you! Always smiling, charming lot, always laughing, they know what life is about, Valentine. You know, Bustard, I bet they didn’t know they were poor until we told them they were! (laughter) And the kids! Have you ever seen such beautiful kids? Why, they’re always playing, having a good time even in those shitty streets.
Valentine: That’s the problem, sir.
Amb: Valentine, what can we do about the shit in the streets?
Valentine: I mean the kids, sir. They’re the problem.
Amb: Bustard, what time is it? I have to work out with the Marines this morning.
Bustard: It’s exactly 11:05, sir.
Amb: Valentine, get to the point. You have five minutes.
Valentine: All right, sir. In brief, we have dumped 25 million dollars in contraceptives into this country – mainly for condoms – and they haven’t worked. The birth rate is rising drastically. We have another 25 million dollars budgeted, and we have to find out what is wrong.
Amb: Maybe it was a lousy bunch of rubbers. Maybe they had holes in them. Maybe the Nepalese don’t use them. Maybe…
Valentine: They use them sir, and they don’t have holes in them.
Amb: How do we know?
Chief of Station: May I answer that, sir?
Amb: You may fire when ready, Rimsley.
Rimsley: German intelligence, sir.
Amb: German intelligence? What the fuck has German intelligence got to do with this?
Rimsley: We get daily reports from the Germans, sir. Rubber usage is up…
Amb: Fuck it, Rimsley. How many Germans are there in Nepal? How can we trust these reports? Do we have a German in each bedroom?
Bustard: I’ll explain, sir. German participation is indirect, not direct. They run the waste disposal unit here, sir, and their intelligence people provide all kinds of information to us – on the Russians, the Chinese, etcetera. The Germans have a fairly sophisticated set up, sir. I can tell you what, for instance, your former-Soviet counterpart has had for dinner for the last five nights, and how he is feeling. (laughter) Coprology is a rather recent entry into the intelligence field, but a valuable one. Condomology is the most recent.
Valentine: Well, sir, their condomologist knows exactly the number of rubbers used on any night. Favourite colours, everything. We have the figures right here. The Nepalese are using condoms. And they are having babies.
Valentine: Mary Loganberry has the answer.
Amb: Who the hell is Mary Loganberry?
Bustard: Mary Loganberry is our cultural anthropologist, sir. She’s kind of the academic check on what we do – the one who has the real insights into the culture, knows the language, the people thoroughly, mixes with them, eats their food, drinks their water, listens to their gripes…
Amb: Who’s paying her?
Valentine: We are, sir. She’s been here for a long time, and we put her on contract to find out what we’re doing wrong. Loganberry, why don’t you tell us what you think?
Loganberry: Thanks, Val. First, Mr Ambassador, this is my first meeting with the country team, and I want to say how important I think it is to have a cultural input into the whole developmental process…
Amb: Loganberry, you have two minutes. Then I am going to get up. And the meeting will be over.
Loganberry: Sir, it’s simple. Rubbers work in other countries, but because of the beliefs of the people, they don’t work here. The people want and need children. They use condoms to prove how modern they are, but then they go back to old potent ways to have children. The most important remedy here is coitus lapidarius, or, in English, sir, lapidary intercourse.
Amb: Lapidary intercourse? What is that?
Bustard: Sexual intercourse with a sacred stone object, sir, symbolic of course.
Loganberry: Thank you, Mr Bustard. Lapidary, or ‘lithic’ intercourse as it is sometimes called, occurs in many places, but it is particularly powerful here in Nepal. I have watched thousands of women at night on their way to the temple where they have intercourse with the great stone penis of Bhairab – symbolic, of course, but nevertheless effective.
Amb: Loganberry, you are out of your mind.
Loganberry: Unfortunately, I am not sir. I have done some scouting around at night, and I am sure that I’m right. In Pharping last night, for instance, hundreds of women had sex with a big stone in the central square – symbolic, of course.
Amb: Loganberry, even if you are right, how do we stop it? It’s their country; they can fuck whatever they want.
Loganberry: We can’t stop the fucking, sir, but…
Valentine: We can stop the rise in the birth rate!
Loganberry: By covering every stone in this valley with rubber. It’s the only way.
Amb: You’re crazy, Loganberry. I’ve had enough of this academic crap.
Valentine: The ambassador is quite right, Loganberry. To make rubber condoms for every stone lingam in the valley would be prohibitive. We ran a few preliminary cost estimates – you know, for different sizes, training of personnel to put them in place, how long they last and how often they have to be replaced. It’s too damn expensive.
Rimsley: Sir, I think we can help, me and the boys.
Amb: How, Grimsley?
Rimsley: It seems to me, sir, that what we have to engage in is a massive disinformation programme. We have to destroy the belief of the people in the efficacy of the old ways.
Amb: What do you want us to do, Crimsley? Put ads in the Gorkhapatra saying that Pashupati is a fake?
Rimsley: No, sir. I am thinking of nothing public. A covert operation, rather.
Rimsley: Very simple. We have the Bhairab statue stolen and shipped out of the country. The birth rate should go way down.
Amb: Brilliant, Rimsley. It’s good. And cheap. Approved! And Rimsley?
Rimsley: Yes, sir?
Amb: I want the dick for a paperweight.
Rimsley: Yes, sir!
(Laughter. Exeunt omnes)
Herr Urschleim is having a nightmare. He dreams of being on a beach in Italy at the end of the war, as his brother and sister begin to cover him with sand. Suddenly, he cannot move. The sand is heavy… He awakens. His soul-head hits the top of the grey stone statue in which he is encased. He peers out. Some workmen appear carrying a crate. The curator directs them to unload the statue carefully and place it opposite Herr Urschleim. The museum now has two great pieces: the Buddha that Laid an Egg, and the great Bhairab – minus its penis.
Let’s get serious, you say. Enough of your asshole remarks. Let’s get down to the books. Let’s have a solid review of them.
All right: They are printed on glossy paper. They weigh almost two kilos each. There have hundreds of pages and illustrations – many in colour, the rest in black-and-white. Sumptuous, limited productions. All joint publications of museums and universities.
What did the authors do?
Now you are really being nasty. Books are all alike. You know what a good editor can do for a book.
Precisely. Books are not written, but managed, conducted.
Let’s talk about these books please.
All right, let’s talk about them. What about them?
Are the authors accurate?
It depends. There are mistakes.
Well, some of the pictures are upside-down.
Why do you say that?
Because, for instance, every object I have seen of this kind has been a lid, not a bowl. Fruit bowls are common, say, in LA, but not in Kathmandu, not even in the 7th century.
OK, smartass. What else?
Some of the authors seem to have trouble adding. At one point, 880 and 301 are added together for a grand total of 1090.
Big deal. Can’t you say anything good about the books?
The pictures are pretty.
You’ve reviewed the books. Now let’s look at the culture.
I can’t. It hurts too much.
The National Museum, Chauni, Kathmandu: A true wonder, this museum, a veritable flea market, filled with Ranesqueries. Walk slowly through it, look in the nooks and crannies, and you will find jewels. Do not hurry. The jewel in the lotus is the most incredible piece of Americana – a Red Ryder Daisy BB gun.
The Kathmandu Zoo: A chicken in a small cage looks out stupidly at the children that gawk at it. Label: Rhode Island Red. It too is gone. A fundamental condition of economic development is the systematic degradation of a people’s culture.
The dealer: as vile as a Patan alley. Small, obscure eyes that move lasciviously over the stolen object the way a tongue moves around a clitoris. Art as salt-meat and peach.
How do art historians know how old an object is? This is one of the better-kept mysteries.
~ Ted Riccardi is professor emeritus at Columbia University, and author of a Sherlock Holmes novel. This writing was first published in March 2007.