Co-curated by Dr. Jinah Kim, Professor of History of Art & Architecture at Harvard University, and Dr. Todd Lewis, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, the Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal exhibit at the College of the Holy Cross’s Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery highlights Nepal’s artistic heritage as a rich and enduring continuation of Indic Buddhist traditions.

From December 5–7, 2019, the Nepal Mandala Symposium will bring together scholars of religion, anthropology, and art history whose work examines critically various aspects of Nepal’s culture and history, culminating in a visit to the exhibition. We sat down with Dr. Jinah Kim to learn more about Nepal’s artistic heritage, the role of ritual in Buddhism, and what to expect from the upcoming Symposium and exhibition.

How would you characterize Nepal’s place in the interconnected history of Asia? Why has Nepal rarely been a focus in this conversation in the past?

The Kathmandu valley, which was designated as “nepāla maṇḍala” in historical records and constituted “Nepal” until 1769, has been a highly creative center in the imagined periphery that was part of the Indic cultural region since 400 CE. Early medieval rulers in the Indian sub-continent routinely claimed their sovereignty over this region to boast their cosmopolitan outlook despite having no direct political authority or control over it. On the other hand, the Kathmandu valley rulers embraced Sanskrit and fashioned themselves after the powerful rulers of Northern India. This relatively small area of “Nepal mandala” was a great center of cultural production, especially of Sanskrit manuscripts since the ninth century, and preserved a great legacy of earlier Indic religious traditions in texts, art, and rituals over the last eight centuries.

Nepal was also an important powerhouse of artists and religious masters that were sought by Tibetan monasteries and Chinese imperial courts. Colonial era scholarly enthusiasm over discovering the legacy of Indic religious and cultural practices coupled with the British colonial power’s failure to absorb the Valley under its crown propelled the formation of an orientalist view about Nepal as a place frozen in time. Despite a developed discourse in post-colonial studies challenging deep-seated orientalist perspectives in the academic study of South Asia, the orientalist view of Nepal’s insularity still remains dominant in scholarship on Nepal’s history, partly due to this colonial legacy and intra-regional politics.

Can you describe the significance of ritual in Buddhism and its connection to art in Nepal?

Contrary to the common perception about Buddhism as a rational belief system with monastics focusing on meditation with the goal of nirvāṇa realization, ritual is central in Buddhism. Even in the earliest canon, we find the Buddha preaching that Buddhist monastics and householders must perform rituals. For householders, performing rituals is a prerequisite to earning merit (puṇya) and securing worldly blessing. 

As the exhibition “Dharma and Puṇya” that I co-curated with Professor Todd Lewis (College of the Holy Cross) demonstrates, Buddhism in Nepal is a religion centered on ritual. With all of its laborious procedures, accoutrements, and masterful performances, any ritual, and in particular a Newar Buddhist ritual, is an artform in and of itself: Choreographed with aesthetic mastery by generations of priests with the goal of applying Buddhist doctrines to achieve the well-being of the gathered individuals and families. Many Nepalese objects that are collected in the West as art objects — be they manuscripts, paubhas (painted scroll on cloth), repoussée icons, or wooden sculptures — were, in fact, created to serve such rituals.

What types of objects from the Malla and Shah periods of Nepal will be shown at the Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal exhibit at the Cantor Art Gallery?

Along with some of the celebrated masterpieces of Nepalese art, the exhibition brings together many lesser-known objects of the late Malla period (three Kingdoms period, late fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries) that have rarely been placed in the scholarly limelight: Many are devotional objects prepared for daily use and thus have been considered unrefined and uninspired repetitions of an age-old artistic tradition that only served religious purpose in a traditional society. They include a number of painted manuscripts, scroll paintings, metal stupas, and wooden sculptures. You can always check out a handy timeline of objects on our fabulous exhibition website.

You will notice the majority of loaned objects are of the late Malla and Shah periods. In fact, we have a colossal bilampau (narrative painting on cloth) depicting the mythological origin story of the Kathmandu Valley (the Svayambhū purāṇa) from the early nineteenth century that has never been exhibited in the West before. Installing this was an engineering feat on the part of the gallery’s director and installation crew. As a collaborative project between an art historian and a Buddhist studies scholar, the exhibition put particular emphasis on ritual and lived experience.

Most religious objects in a museum are displayed as art, and invariably come with a “do not touch” notice. While we cannot let visitors touch a seventeenth century manuscript, they can flip through the pages on a touch screen installed next to it. There is also a “touch-and feel” station with contemporary ritual objects where visitors can have hands-on experience. Newar Buddhist communities of New England have been actively participating in the rituals that were performed at the gallery as part of the exhibition — in a way, symbolically enlivening and reanimating centuries old objects. 

Which disciplines will the speakers at the upcoming Nepal Mandala Symposium represent? What are the topics and themes that they will be focusing on?

The symposium brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars working on Nepal’s culture and history from around the world. Scholars of religion, anthropology, and art history will address different aspects of Nepal’s cultural history, especially drawing attention to the late Malla and Shah periods. Some papers will explore the unique cultural matrix of the Kathmandu Valley, while others will address cultural changes happening in Nepal in the context of globalization of the past few decades.

Topics also include gender issue and language politics. I am particularly excited about the papers that will locate Nepal’s art and ritual practice in the inter-connected history of Asia and beyond. The symposium will be an opportunity to start a discussion about how to challenge the yoke of insularity and examine the later history of Nepal in terms of its modernity and globality. ☆

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To learn more about the Nepal Mandala Symposium from December 5–7, 2019, click here.

☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.