AFTER READING Mary Shepherd Slusser's Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley, it is almost impossible to believe that a work of comparable accomplishment could ever again emerge about this diminutive oval of Asian land nestling in the remote grandeur of the Himalayas. This masterful book is published in two volumes. The first volume consists of over 400 pages, each page with two columns of closely printed text. The second volume contains photographic plates, figures and maps. It is a detailed, dense, scholarly, above all definitive work. It is in fact, as the author candidly tells us at the beginning, the very book she herself "desperately needed" on her arrival in Nepal in the 1960s, when due to an 11th-hour change of government assignment she had found herself in a mystifying land of which, although a trained anthropologist, she was almost totally ignorant. She had come to Kathmandu accompanying her husband, who was with the U.S. Agency for International Development Mission, and she had been given at the last moment an assignment from the Smithsonian Institution to collect ethnographic material.
She had not the slightest clue as to where to begin. She ended by giving more than a decade of her life to what became an enormous project: mapping the walls of lost and forgotten cities, studying countless ancient, long-neglected shrines, sculptures and other forms of art, attending innumerable public festivals as well as rites in private homes and, as her competence in speaking and reading Nepali grew, recording every myth, legend and intriguing contradiction that she encountered in her increasingly intensive researches.
Although she was not permitted to excavate because of Nepalese religious strictures, she soon found that centuries of this country's isolation from the West--which had ended only in 1931--made it still possible for her to practice a kind of "surface archaeology" with notable success. There seemed to be literally no end to the original and varied material in this tiny kingdom with its rich and complex past. The real problem was how to make form and order out of the many seemingly conflicting elements.
She soon discoverd that the Nepalese were traditionally not much interested in "history" in the Western sense of an exact use of names and dates. The phrase "very old" was the common answer to her most direct and pressing questions. Important cultural and sociological events of the past were seldom clearly differentiated one from another. Even Buddhism and Brahmanism, the two greatest of the several religions practiced in Nepal, were frequently and bewilderingly merged in types of worship and iconography. In effect, they were not two distinct religious systems at all. Indeed, one of the special characteristics of the region is the rich intermingling of these two great faiths creating a wide variety of harmonious and, it must be admitted, sometimes inharmonious forms.
The Buddha was born in a small community which now lies in Nepalese territory. (This fact is of great significance to the residents of the Kathmandu Valley.) At the time of his birth, the valley was ruled by the exceptional Newars who enjoyed metaphysics and art far more than waging war. They are in large measure responsible for transforming the little valley into a treasure house of art and architecture. The sophistication of the local architecture was particularly fascinating to Slusser. The pagoda forms, the tiered towers, the multiroofed buildings brought to mind other parts of Asia with which she was much more familiar: Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, above all, China, whose omnipresent pagoda she learned had first taken form in this remote valley and spread from there in its many guises throughout Asia. This fact alone, so contrary to the accepted view of the pagoda's origin, is but one demonstration of the seminal creative power inherent in this minuscule bit of geography.
In her third year in Nepal when she thought her assignment for the Smithsonian was nearing completion, she stumbled on a disconcerting discovery that changed the entire course of her work: there existed a reservoir of historical data accumulating in the Nepali language for more than a quarter of a century, virtually unused by Western researchers. The hidden source of this untapped material was a local historical society, Samsodhana-mandala--"the Correction Circle." The name had special significance. This group was made up of Nepalese scholars who, like Slusser herself, had become dissatisfied with the interpretation of certain historical evidence generally accepted as accurate. When the author discovered the existence of the Samsodhana-mandala, she stopped short in her own work and, with rare fortitude, began her researches from a fresh viewpoint. She realized that there was "in Nepalese history, an unbroken political continuum that harmonized with what was clearly an unbroken cultural continuum."
The one scholarly work comparable in ambition and range to Slusser's is Sylvain Levi's monumental study, Le Nepal, which was published at the turn of the century. Although Levi was a great pioneer in the Nepalese field, he was not in the country long enough, nor given the necessary freedom of movement to substantiate many of his perceptive findings. Most importantly, in Slusser's view, he was "three quarters of a century too early." She cites, for example, the history of the Licchavi Period, ranging from A.D. 300 to 879. Levi's reconstruction was founded on fewer than 50 inscriptions, whereas 75 years later she was able to base her account of the same important period on almost 200 inscriptions, supplemented by the countless archeological and historical discoveries she had been able to make during her researches.
As it turned out, Slusser completed her voluminous research just in time. In her preface she says:
"For although the culture of the Kathmandu Valley has continued for two thousand years, it is becoming progressively more difficult each year to salvage the past. In the fifteen years prior to 1965, when I began my study, the closed kingdom opened to the outside world and forces of acculturation and change began their work. Between 1965 and 1971, when I left Nepal, these forces had rapidly accelerated and were taking their toll. The fine old brick buildings, mantled with exquisite wood carving, daily ceded to concrete. People began to slough off their traditional ways, loosing the ancient bond that had lind them to family and gods. Transistor radios and Datsuns came to be valued more than ancestral paintings and images. The latter were increasingly sold to tourists, whose numbers have grown from none in 1950 to over 100,000 a year as I write in 1976. That a large, high-quality exhibition of Nepalese art could be assembled recently in New York from American collections (mostly private), speaks eloquently in this regard."
Slusser's brilliant, virtually encyclopedic record of the cultural history of the Kathmandu Valley is in some ways a dense, difficult work, but its publication has made it possible for any interested reader to enjoy an exceptionally rich historical feat if he is willing to take the time. Here are remarkable dynasties like the Newars, the Mallas, the Shahs, the Ranas, along with the extraordinary personalities in each era who helped build Nepal's fabulous gardens, palaces, temples, public squares and private libraries--some of which still exist, even for the pleasure of tourists. Nepal is a land where the web of legend is inextricably interwoven with the web of fact, confounding the past and present. A single sacred site or image may serve as the focus for several different forms of worship. The Brahmanic gods--teSiva, Vishnu, the Mother Goddess, many lesser known deities --are all a part of the author's dramatis personae with their often contradictory appurtenances, symbols and attributes. Also included are aspects of the local eclectic Buddhist practices which have come out of Tibet as well as India. Especially strong is Tantrism which places unusual emphasis on female divinity due to Tantrism's acceptance of the powerful function of the feminine principle in the universe.
Many observant travelers, less keen and dedicated than Mary Slusser, have noted that, for the Nepalese, daily life seems imbued with a sense of religious totality. Here one finds a rare syncretism of doctrines and practices. But Slusser has conclusively shown us how, for the residents of the "Kathmandu Mandala," a cosmology of dissimilar deities, from Nagas to Buddhas, comprises a single, glorious, all-embracing pantheon of divine beings.