Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kathmandu, days 2 & 3; shopping for Buddhas

January 20th & 21st, 2008

I spent the evening and night going back and forth, up and down all the streets of Thamel looking for Buddhas. One antique shop had a beautiful bronze Buddha with elaborate silver robes but it was almost too much, not very Buddha-like, more distracting. I'd already bought a gorgeous wood carve White Tara from him when I first arrived, just before heading to the Monkey Temple, and he had all sorts of other interesting things, as well, including a bowl carved from the skull of a monk. Most of the places that had very nice statues were fancy boutiques and though some were very nice, with gold faces and delicately painted features, a nice little Buddha seemed somehow elusive.

Eventually, I settled on a shop that was just across the street from my friend's delivery office, who had some nice Buddhas and other things, including an amazing collection of thangkas. He didn't have exactly what I was hoping for, but he did have a very interesting 10" seated Amitābha casting that had once been in a temple, so was covered in layer upon layer of ghee and tikka from temple puja offerings. In Shopping for Buddhas, the author goes into quite a bit of details about the dark side of the statue trade in Nepal, and there is a huge problem with ancient statues being stolen from temples and sold on the black market. He assured me this one was acquired legally, and since it wasn't hidden in a back room, or anything, I believed him.

We talked a lot and he was very helpful. I mentioned that I would be leaving in the morning for Lumbini but I was really hoping to find a nice little Buddha before I go, a really special one. So that he knew I was serious, I told him I would buy the temple Amitābha, another for my friend Joe, and a set of small White and Green Taras. He asked me why I didn't just take a night bus tomorrow, instead of living in the morning and spending the whole day on the bus. I repeated what my friend in Pokhara said about bandits hijacking buses at night, and he said, "There's no reason to worry about that, the daytime buses are just as likely to get hijacked, you know." I'm sure it sounded more reassuring in his head, or maybe in Nepali, but he had a point, anyway...

A Korean Bhikkhuni I met not long before leaving for India had taught me the Green Tara mantra but I couldn't manage to remember it for more than ten minutes. He gave me a small Tara amulet to keep in my pocket and he told me that if I get nervous on the bus, just hold it in my hand repeat her mantra, which he reminded me of, and this time it stuck.

Anyway, if I left at night, it would give him a chance to look around and see what else he could find. I said goodnight and that I would come back tomorrow. Before going back to the guesthouse, I made one more round through the shops to see if a new Buddha had arisen since I'd last checked. It turns out perfect Buddhas don't come around very often!

I the morning, I stopped by a shop selling singing bowls, handheld Tibetan prayer wheels, bells, malas and any other Buddhist paraphernalia you wanted. Looking at the singing bowls, I was shocked to see that a singing bowl the same size as one I'd payed $80 for as a gift to my friend, in Korea, was only about $3 here. A bigger one with an inlay of Buddha or a Bodhisattva on the inside was only $5. I tested them out, listening to their shrill hum, not thinking far enough ahead to realize I was summoning the clerk to come talk to me. In the end, though, I'm glad he did. We talked for a bit about singing bowls, then he said, "I think you're not like most tourists. You really meditate, don't you? Come with me." He brought me in the back, where he had an amazing collection of antique masks, drums, and other things, including a shelf of huge, brass singing bowls. "Listen to this," he told me, as he began turning the wood dowel, wrapped in leather, around the rim of the bowl. A deep, chest penetrating "Om" began emanating from the bowl, and I was sold, or, rather, the bowl was sold!

Then, I headed back around the corner to the shop from the night before and he said he hadn't had a chance to go out yet, but to come back in a couple of hours. In the meantime, I brought the sculptures I'd bought the night before to my friend's office to add to the other things I was shipping to Korea. They said the one temple Buddha would have to be brought to the Department of Archaeology to be allowed to leave to country. I hope on the back of his scooter, and we drove down the few blocks to the office to show it to the authorities. Unwrapping the Buddha, my friend spoke to them for a bit then said to me, "You'll have to pay a little more money for this one." Then they tied a string around its neck, and stamped their seal on a small piece of newsprint.

After a late lunch, I returned to see if there was any luck on the Buddha-front. He hadn't returned yet, but I didn't wait one before he pulled up on a scooter, and excitedly came in. "Come see what I have to show you," he said, as he placed three Buddha's on the glass display case. One immediately caught my eye, but he quickly pushed it aside, saying, "Wait, I want to show you then in order." The first was okay, but had awkward, chunky fingers, and poorly executed facial features. The second one was very good, a Medicine Buddha which I found no fault with it at all, except that its ears were a bit rectangular and I'd already had a glimpse of the third one which he was still hiding. He pushed the other two aside, then carefully positioned the third one in the centre, then revealed it with a grand gesture of opening the palms of his hands. It was more beautiful that I even imagined, absolutely perfect in every detail. Elegant hands, one holding a bowl, the other pinching a bouquet between his index and thumb, a beautiful Nepali Buddha face, perfect smile, eyes like those on the Boudnath stupa, perfectly centred third eye, and a beautiful robe with a scrolled hem and textured with thousands of chase marks. It was the smallest of all but when it comes to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, size doesn't matter. It was also another Medicine Buddha, not what I was hoping for, but I guess its what the Dharma realm chose for me, and I didn't really mind. 18,000 Nepali rupees was nearly the average annual income per capita in Nepal, one of the lowest in the world, but it was still a fair price. He told me that he could sell it for twice that much if he were to bring it to Germany, which is probably why it was so hard to find such a beautiful one, they're stashed away for trips to Europe. In Shopping for Buddhas, the one he finally finds was being held for a rich Japanese collector who ended up not picking it up, and still he paid $650 dollars for it. There was a small picture in the book of his prize Buddha, which was much bigger, and had silver robes, but, to me, this one was much more beautiful. I bargained the price down to 16,000 rupees, $212, and also bought the other Medicine Buddha for my mom. He was able to give me a much better price for that one, and all in all, I'm sure I made a decent contribution to the Kathmandu Valley bronze casting community... seven statues in all. Six of them I left to be shipped, but my Medicine Buddha, I wrapped in bubble wrap and kept it in a lens compartment in my camera bag.

The dealer then invited me to his house not too far away. He lived on the third floor of a typical Kathmandu town house in a cozy flat decorated exactly how you'd imagine a Hindu house to look, with beautiful, intricately patterned rugs, lamps, and furniture, a shrine on the wall with a framed picture their family's prescribed deity, glass covered in red tikka over the God's forehead. His mom welcomed me (I'm sure he told her how well he'd done off of me!) and served us both large plates of dal-baht while we sat on the wicker furniture in the living room. He told me about his family and that he would have an arranged marriage soon. We talked about life in Kathmandu and how tourism has been down lately, making things more difficult lately.

It was just about time for me to leave, though, so he brought me back and I said good bye to the people as the delivery company. He said that they would be sending my things with the next shipment to his brother, so it would be much cheaper and I could just pay him in Korea when it arrives. We had a last milk chai together, then I caught a taxi to the bus terminal.

I got there just as the sun was going down but didn't have to wait long for the bus to pull in. It's very fun to be sitting in any busy transit area, but especially in a poor country where all eyes seem to land on you and your giant backpack. As usually, my biggest danger was my own mind. I boarded the bus and once we squeezed out of the lot, I bit fair well to Kathmandu and all its magic as the window faded to darkness.

There were much better ways to have spent the last day than running around collecting metal Buddhas, but I did have a good adventure, anyway. I accomplished what I'd set out to do in the city.

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