‘Samvat 107 sri paramadeva pka maharajesu jayavarmma’—this inscription on the base of a life-sized statue unearthed in Maligaon of Kathmandu in May 1992 created quite a stir. Experts finally deciphered the statement as: ‘The year 107. Among the Kings, the Fourth, Late Sri Jayavarmma.’ They also dated the statue as from the 2nd century A.D., which made it the earliest statue with Licchavi period inscriptions found in the country. Quite a find, no doubt—today, it stands tall in the Hall of Sculpture of the National Museum in Chauni, Kathmandu.
The National Museum was established in A.D. 1928 but opened to the public only in 1938. It is a treasure trove of priceless antiques that provide a window into the fascinating history of Nepal. The Hall of Sculpture is but one part of the whole, but it is such as to keep a visitor spellbound for hours on end, so varied are the collections, and so ancient the sculptures. For those with interest in pursuing knowledge, this Hall is a source that will be highly appreciated. For example, this is what you’ll learn immediately on entering its doors: “The earliest stone images are recognized with their distinct stylized features. These features are displayed in the form of the plain halo, very fleshy body, cupped varadamudra (hand posture), zigzag and finely plated decorative folds of the garments, lack of sacred thread, minimal use of garments and ornamentation, and heavy earrings and anklets.”
Among the many stone and terracotta statues in the Hall of Sculpture, there are quite a few that stand out for sheer antiquity, while other stand out for the high quality of their craftsmanship. A major antique is the headless figure of Yaksha, which was found in Handigaon and has been dated 1st century A.D. According to some experts it is a figure of Bodhisattva, while others say it may be an incomplete figure of King Jayavarma. Whatever the case may be, it is the earliest stone image found in the country. Other really ancient pieces are the figures of Matrika (a.k.a. Harati) from the 1st century A.D., Kumbha (goddess of prosperity) dated 2nd century A.D., and Yaksha Yakshini, dated 1st/2nd century A.D. Keep an eye out for the figures of Simhevahini Durga (13th century), Sri Krishna (13th/15th century), Surya (13th century), Garuda (16th century), and Uma Maheswara (20th century), which are beautifully sculpted.
In an adjoining room, you’ll come across various terracotta figures: make a note of the various mother goddesses of Kathmandu Valley: Brahmayogini, Shailaputri, Chandraghanta, Vaishanvi, Kusmanda, Bhavani, Maha Gauri, Chamunda, Kali, and Varahi. These are indeed masterpieces. Next, you carry on to the metalwork section which consists of mostly bronze figures. The first objects you’ll come across are sleek figures of Kumari, Tara, Aparamita, Shaileswari, and Lokeswara, all dated 19th-20th century. Then there are the 20th century statues of Jogini, Uma Maheswara, and Mahisasur Mardini; the last one, especially, a work of high caliber.
In the middle of the room are bronze figures that could well excite excitable minds; these are the statues of different Samvaras, each with a shiny erect phallus that thrusts out provocatively. Mahesh Samvara, Nara Simha Samvara, and Vrish Samvara are from the 17th-18th centuries, while Simhamukha Kamabhairava is from the 14th century. Another 14th century figure, that of Sukhavara Samvara, is pretty graphic, portraying a lovely beauty with her legs clasped around the waist of the beastly Samvara. Here, it would be pertinent to point out that Samvara is a fierce protective Buddhist deity whose consort is Vajravarahi.
You’ll probably spend some time gazing at these fantastic figures, but after a while you got to move on, since other visitors might start looking at you somewhat quizzically. Anyway, the next thing your eyes will alight upon is a large and beautiful 18th century figure of Bhairava with a torana above him. (Toranas are semi circular, carved wooden (sometimes metal-plated) structures found over temple doorways.) The next figure you’ll encounter is that of Nagakanya (20th century) seated on makara (alligator) under a nine-headed serpent canopy. Besides this are two 17th century figures of a Malla king and queen. It must be said here that the Malla dynasty (12th century-18th century) was a golden period for art, craft, and culture in the valley.
A small but beautiful figure of Surya and a 17th century Nagapasa (11 coiled serpents), along with another 17th century figure of Nagapheni (seven-headed serpent) are also captivating, as is the statue of Vishnu with a lotus arising from his abdomen (16th century). Further along the room are displayed a Buddha head and a replica of the famous Krishna Mandir of Patan, and a finely detailed 20th century figure of Viswarupa, which can be said to be one of the most outstanding bronze works in the gallery. Now, your eyes will probably be assailed by a huge 19th century Hayagrib Lokeshwara Swagata Mandala that’s enmeshed with many semi-precious stones. Next, you come across a large and lovely figure of Mahisasur Mardini (12th century) and alongside, a beautifully sleek figure of Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari (early 20th century), a powerful historical figure who was the acting regent of Nepal from 1806 to 1832. Similarly, there’s another regal statue, that of King Bhuatindra Malla (1696 to 1722) that’s also pretty good.
All in all, a tour through the Hall of Sculpture is a delight to the senses, and a testimony of the skills of the valley’s artisans. So, make it a point to pay a visit to the National Museum during your tour to Nepal.