Many of the better hotels in Kathmandu, Nepal, are likely to have a couple of antique shops in their establishments. These antique shops are a magnate for tourists looking for good souvenirs to take back home, and happy hunting grounds for antique and curio enthusiasts. Nepal’s civilization goes back thousands of years incorporating great periods of art, architecture, and culture, so there are bound to be great works of antiquity around. For those really bent on looking at ancient artifacts, visiting only antique shops in and around the hotels in Kathmandu might not be enough, although for souvenir hunters, they are pretty rewarding.
For the former, a day or two at the National Museum in Chauni of Kathmandu is called for. It is a treasure trove of priceless artifacts that take you through hundreds of centuries of Nepal’s history. Here, on entering the doors of the stone images section on the ground floor, you will learn that “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.” That’s quite a bit of knowhow that should make you a wiser person, and it really helps you to understand more as you walk around studying the ancient stone images. Mark the word ‘ancient’, that’s the world you’re entering now.
The first row of stone images makes up the narrative panel depicting Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati’s epic romance: all established as 6th/7th century works. This section of the museum includes various other deity images from ages ago, ranging from 1st century to 17th century. One statue that’s sure to catch your attention is the striking life-size figure of the Lichchavi king, Jayavarma, which was discovered in Maligaon of Kathmandu in May 1992. It is from the first Lichchavi samvat (Saka samvat: 2nd century A.D.). Another striking artifact is the headless figure of Yaksha dated 1st century A.D. It is the earliest stone image found in the country. Another ancient piece is the figure of Kumbha (goddess of prosperity) dated 2nd century A.D. Numerous other figures are also on display, many of them from the 12th century onwards, and some are really well sculpted.
Actually, the above details are just to give you a taste of what to expect when visiting Nepal’s National Museum, and just a small part of the whole. The museum has an entire building devoted to Buddhist artifacts. You’ll agree that you won’t be able to see such antique objects at the antique shops in and around hotels in Kathmandu! However, you should also keep in mind that many travelers have described the entire Kathmandu valley as a ‘living museum’, wit ancient monuments to be found at every nook and corner. The three durbar squares of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur contain rich heritage in the form of shrines, palaces, and relics like wood, metal, and stone sculpture.
Similarly, aside from the above-mentioned antique shops in the better hotels in Kathmandu, one is likely to discover plenty of curios and antiques in the many curio shops around the valley, particularly in tourist hotspots like Thamel, Swayanmbhu, Boudhanath, etc. Many of the antique objects are still very much in use in households around the valley. Be warned, however, that not all antiques are genuine. In fact, you got have some knowledge about the more reputed shops around town to buy antiques and curios. Such items may come in the form of colorful masks, intricately detailed copper incense stands, paubhas, or thankgkas, (religious paintings), and deity images in bronze (some gilted, some not). You will also find indigenous musical instruments, wooden boxes, copper vessels, primitive figures, bells, manuscripts, clothes, bhote talchas (antique locks), mana pathis’ (set of 8 measuring vessels of Licchhavi period), and dhungros (milking pails). The list is endless. Here’s more: shaman sets (belt with lots of curious hardware worn by Tamang shamans), lisnus (narrow wooden ladders of Trishuli), et al. Well, you’re sure to have a wide choice of souvenirs to take back home to decorate your mantelpiece with.
Talking about musical instruments specifically, here’s a list of indigenous ones: narsimha, dama, dholke, jhyali, shehnai, tempu, kernel, dhyangro, bansuri, tungna, sarangi, and so on. So, you see what options you have? You’ll also find many Tibetan curios, including red wooden chests, leather boxes, thangkas, and even old chairs and carpets. Besides these, some antique and curio shops also have ancient carved doors, different kinds of weapons, antique jewelry, etc. Yes, indeed, the world of antiques and curios is a varied one, and often, some expertise comes in handy to differentiate between the really antique and the not-so-antique stuff. According to one Nepali expert who’s been dealing in such things for decades, it’s hard to know the difference, and while previously he used to judge according to the object’s patina (sheen due to years of use), now he believes that that too is manipulated. At the same time, he isn’t much concerned, as he has discovered that most tourists don’t really care about antiquity as such.
There’s another thing about dealing in antiques that dealers, including the one in the shops nearby your hotel in Kathmandu, have to be wary of. That’s dealing in metal statues. Apparently, there’s a lot of hassle involved, since one could be breaking the law regarding antiquities unknowingly. Stolen idols of Nepal have often been in the spotlight. Before 1950, many antiques were taken abroad due no definite legislation. The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act was passed only in 1956, which put a hold on exporting any artifact more than a century old, and idols worshipped even if for a day were not to be taken out of Nepal, because they were part and parcel of the living culture. Nevertheless, between 1960 and 1980, Nepal’s tourism spiked like never before, with the unwanted side effect of widespread antique smuggling. Ancient metal idols ensconced for ages in their shrines were prized items.
Anyway, despite all those precious antiques taken abroad to foreign lands, Nepal, and especially Kathmandu Valley, is still chock-a-block with antiques, and all one needs is a keen eye and a lively interest to discover them while going round on a tour. Needless to say, the antique and curio shops in and around the hotels in Kathmandu could also quench, to some extent, your thirst for discovery. Happy hunting!