Mary Slusser (1918 – 2017): A Personal Tribute

 

We lost a prominent Kathmandu icon during the earthquake of 2015: Kasthamandap, the storied building which was then thought to be about a thousand years old, but is now believed to have existed many centuries earlier in some form. Now we have lost another Kathmandu icon, Dr. Mary Slusser, who has done so much in her long career as an art historian, anthropologist and archaeologist to introduce Kathmandu’s Newa art and culture to the world.

It was during the initial burst of activity to salvage the ruins of Kasthamandap after the earthquake that I tried to get in touch with Mary Slusser, who had written extensively about Kasthamandap.

 

This inquiry was quickly followed by Mary’s response, which set the tone of our friendship and introduced me to the personal, human side of a scholar responsible for such monumental works of Nepali cultural studies as Nepal Mandala and The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving.

What became clear in the subsequent interactions and collaborations between us was the deep passion she maintained for Nepal, even decades after having left Kathmandu. Specifically for the website where you are reading this, she reinforced, again and again, the importance of Kasthamandap as the very epicenter of Kathmandu culture. Kasthamandap was Kathmandu, and vice versa. For an article published in ECS Nepal, she had this to say about Kasthamandap:

Kasthamandap is Nepal’s heritage defined, a witness to its history and evolution as a nation for almost a thousand years— and likely more. No other traditional building in Nepal could compete in size, antiquity or cultural impact. It must not be allowed to perish.

But Mary Slusser had always loved Kathmandu. That much is clear from the level of dedication she put into her research, starting way back when, as the spouse of a US diplomat in Nepal, and armed with a Ph. D. in South American archaeology from Columbia University, she wrote a series of articles for the AWON Bulletin from around 1965 to 1971. This was later “published” as Kathmandu, a typed/ lithographed compendium.

The writing style here is one of an amateur enthusiast, rather than of the powerhouse of cultural knowledge she was soon going to be: no doubt this is in part due to the nature of her audience, since these articles were intended primarily for the expat community living in Kathmandu. But her enthusiasm for the subject matter comes across loud and clear.  

The fish of Asan Tol is a small stone relief carved in a shallow, rectangular stone basin now embedded in the macadam street where the unheeding traffic of the busy square rolls over it. Although none [i.e., no scholar] can say who actually placed the curious image here, for what reason or when, the people of the quarter tell a tale of it and include it in their daily round of worship. Like the washya dya, or toothache god, of Bangemudha Tol, it is one of the many divine specialists consulted for aid in curing specific diseases and ailments of the body, with vertigo as its special field of concern. 

The fish of Asan Tol, so goes its origin tale, commemorates a strange happening in which a son was teacher to his father. For, once upon a time there lived in Kathmandu a renowned astrologer named Barami……

What followed in subsequent years was a series of rigorously researched publications, first in academic journals (compiled later into a book titled Art and Culture of Nepal: Selected Papers), then in two books which have together become indispensable to studying the rich Newa culture of Kathmandu. First, in the two-volume 1982 magum opus Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Nepal Valley, she masterfully weaves the story of the valley using the twin threads of “Hindu” and Buddhist heritage, while pulling in the ancient colorful strands of the ajimas, matrikas, pitha devatas, serpents, and daemons constituting the original often aniconic, occasionally chthonic deities of Kathmandu valley, while underlying the entire woven quilt with the deeply embedded South Asian notion of Royalty which has permeated Kathmandu culture from the Licchavis through to the Mallas and the Shahs.

This excerpt from Nepal Mandala about the Kumari cult showcases her writing style:

To my knowledge, the Licchavi records are silent about Kumari worship. However, the late chronicles assert that Sivadeva I (A.D. 590-604) placed Four Kumaris at the crossroads of “Naubali” or “Navatol” (Deopatan) when he established the city, and that Vasudeva, an undocumented successor, placed “Kumari Gana and Naudurga” near Jayavagisvari…

That much has been recorded in Kathmandu’s Vamshavalis since medieval times, and known to the world since the 1960s with the publication of English translations. Where Mary can go further, as she does, is in tying this together with her personal knowledge to strengthen the hypothesis that, perhaps, the Kumari cult originated in the fifth-sixth century, rather than in the twelfth century during the reign of Laxmikamadeva as is more widely believed. 

…Considering that there is, in fact, a very ancient Matrika shrine attached to Jayavagisvari temple, itself unquestionably a Licchavi foundation, the chronicles may be correct, and reveal a previously unimagined antiquity for the Kumari institution in Nepal Mandala.

Mary’s concern for the heritage of Kathmandu also shines through in the way she documented the (then) contemporary state of the cultural icons in Nepal Mandala. For example, the caption accompanying these pictures, from Vol 2 of Nepal Mandal (Images and Plates) reads (and one can imagine her frustration at encountering the stele lying below the truck wheel- a frustration all Nepalis should share):

(top) A 7th c. proclamation of Dhruvadeva and Jisnugupta addressed to the citizen of Daksinakoligrama (southern Kathmandu) is ignored by their descendants.

(bottom) The Dhruvadeva/Jisnugupta inscription, removed for road repairs, is used as a jack.

 

 

In her second book The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving (2010), Mary published stunning revelations about the tunaa’s (struts) of Medieval Kathmandu buildings. Specifically (among similar findings), Mary was able to confirm via radio-carbon dating that he following ethereal Salabhanjika (One who breaks the branch of a Sal tree) gracing one of the figural strut of Uku Baha (Rudravarna Mahavihar) was created between 690-890 AD: i.e., possibly more than 1300 years ago. That the Salabhanjika still shows off the individual strands and curls of her hair, the patterns of her thinly veiling sari, the jewelry on her head, and the details of the foliage above her, are testament to the master craftsman who created her, as was commented on by Mary herself in the book.

 

 

Mary’s contributions are not limited to her own published research. She played an important role in ensuring that the works of Nepali academics were disseminated and recognized worldwide. She did benefit immensely in her early days from the research output of the (now much-maligned, but important) Itihas Samshodhan Mandal associated with Naya Raj Pant and (in the early days) Dhanavajra Vajracharya: that much is clear from the many references to the work of this traditional school in Mary’s publications. However, she more than repaid her debt. If not for her, the rigorously researched body of work from the Samshodhan Mandal might have largely gone unnoticed except among Nepali academics and the few International experts fluent in Nepali and/or Sanskrit. Mary also collaborated and published jointly with Dr. Gautamvajra Vajracharya, Dhanavajra’s nephew and scholar extraordinaire who still writes prolifically about Nepali culture. It was in fact, Mary who put Dr. Vajracharya in touch with Pratapaditya Pal, which resulted in the young Dr. Vajracharya obtaining a position at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

When Nepal Mandala was first published, some scholars criticized her for making sweeping generalizations, for loosely shifting between anthropology and art history, and for not communicating anything new in terms of the interplay between Hindu and Buddhist traditions in the Newa civilization of Kathmandu. But when it came out, Nepal Mandala was such a monumental work, so ambitious in its goal, so sweeping in its scope, so vast in having woven together art, culture, history and religion and so inclusive of the ancient motifs of Kathmandu culture (such as Ajimas, Dakinis, daemons, ghosts, etc.), that to find fault with it is to nit-pick. Certainly successive generations of scholars, literally following in her footsteps, have unearthed and modified various cultural and historic aspects of what Mary first presented, but this is a natural process in any field of study. Mary was the pioneer who told the complex, layered story of Kathmandu culture first. To this day, Nepal Mandala stands as a stupendously rich and deep assessment of Kathmandu valley culture: I can think of no later tome that can match its scope and detail.  

When I met her in the winter of 2015, she had lost a lot of hearing and could only read large text. But her mind was as sharp as ever and she remembered details about specific aspects of Kathmandu culture as if she had just done the field work yesterday. And she still walked the 40 minutes back and forth between her modest home and the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC (where she was Research Associate to the end).   

In many ways, this entire website has been made possible due to the work of Mary. Her initial scholarly study of Kasthamandap (published in collaboration with Gautamavajra Vajracharya in 1974), the detailed elevation and plans funded by Mary’s research and drawn by Wolfgang Korn, and the layers upon layers of history, religion and culture which surround Kasthamandap as explored in luxurious detail in Nepal Mandala, were the inspiration for this website.

So thank you, Mary, for inspiring me to delve deep into the culture and history of Nepal. Thank you for making me fall in love with Kathmandu all over again. And finally, thank you for being my unofficial Guru Aama for the all-too-brief period of two years (and for kindly calling me a “friend and colleague”). Nepal will forever remember you for the light you shone on its rich culture and heritage.

 

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Here is the complete bibliography of Mary Slusser, compiled by Mary herself in 2015. It serves as a final testament to her longstanding and steadfast love of Nepal and Newa culture.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Mary Shepherd Slusser

 

  1. The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: A Reassessment. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

 

  1.  “Seeing, Rather than Looking at. Nepalese Art,” Asian Art http://www.asianart.com/articles, December 18, 2009.

 

  1. “Goddess or God? A Case of Stolen Identity,” Orientations 37:4 (May 2006), pp. 55-59.

 

  1. “The Lhasa gTsug lag khang (“Jokhang”), Further Observations on the Ancient Wood Carvings,” Asian Art http://www.asianart.com/articles/jokhang

 

  1. “More on Turning a Blind Eye,” Orientations 36:4 (May 2005), pp. 73-74.

 

  1. Art and Culture of Nepal: Selected Papers. Kathmandu: Mandala Publications.

 

  1. “Steaming down the Mekong,” Asian Art (http://www.asianart.com/articles/mekong/index.html).

 

  1. “Richesse et diversité de la sculpture Népalaise,” in Dossiers d ’Archéologie, no. 293, May 2004, pp. 46-57.

 

  1. “Conservation Notes on Some Nepalese Paintings,” Asian Art (http://www.asianart.com/articles/paubhas/index.html).

 

  1. “Treasures Beyond the Golden Door,” in Goetz Hagmiiller, Patan Museum, The Transformation of a Royal Palace in Nepal (London: Serindia Publications, 2003), pp. 103-05.

 

  1. “Traditional Metal Crafts of Nepal,” in Goetz Hagmiiller, Patan Museum, The Transformation of a Royal Palace in Nepal (London: Serindia Publications, 2003), pp. 118-21.

 

  1. “The Exhibition Galleries,” Patan Museum Guide, (Lalitpur, Nepal: Patan Museum, 2002).

 

  1. “Nepalese Unfired Clay Sculpture: A Case Study,” Orientations 32:7 (September 2001), pp. 71-80.

 

  1. Co-author James A. Giambrone. “Kuber Singh Shakya: A Master Craftsman of Nepal,” Asian Art http://www.asianart.com/articles/kubersing/index.html, April 19, 2001.

 

  1. Co-author Lila Bishop, “Another Luri, A Newly Discovered Cave Chorten in Mustang,” Orientations 30:2 (February 1999), pp. 18-27.

 

  1. Co-authors Nutan Sharma and James A. Giambrone, “Metamorphosis: Sheet Metal to Sacred Image in Nepal,” Artibus Asiae vol. 58, nos. 3/4, pp. 21-51.

 

  1. Contributor to Vidya Dehejia, Devi, The Great Goddess (Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery}, pp. 224-29, 232-34, 253-55, 214-15.

 

  1. Review of Niels Gutschow, The Nepalese Caitya: 1500 Years of Buddhist Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley, with drawings by Bijay Basukala and an essay by David Gellner  (Lumbini International Research Institute Monograph Series 1). Stuttgart/London, Edition Axel Menges, 1997. 328 pp.: 593 illustrations.  In Artibus Asiae 58:1/2, pp 154-58.

 

  1. Review of Masahide Mori and Yoshiko Mori, trans. Rolf W. Giebel, The Devimahatmya Paintings Preserved at the National Archives, Kathmandu, (Bibliotheca Codicum Asiaticorum 9), Tokyo, The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, The Toyo Bunko, 1995, in Artibus Asiae 57:3/4 (1997), pp. 363~64.

 

  1. “The Museum Behind the Golden Door,” Orientations 28:10 (November 1997), pp. 53-56.

 

  1. “Dry-Lacquer or Clay? Preliminary Notes on a Neglected Nepalese Sculptural Medium,” Contributions to Nepalese Studies, vol. 23, no. 1 (January 1966), pp. 11-33.

 

  1. “Vishnu and the Kings of Nepal,” Asian Art and Culture, vol. 9, no. 3 (Fall 1996) pp. 8-29.

 

  1. “The Purandi Hoard: Eleventh-century Metalwork from Nepal,” Artibus Asiae, vol. LVI, no. 1/2 (1996), pp. 95-143.

 

  1. Review of Raimund O.A. Becker-Ritterspach, Water Conduits in the Kathmandu Valley, New Delhi, 1995 in Artibus Asiae, vol. LVI, 1/2, pp. 177-81.

 

  1. “The Art of East Asian Lacquer Sculpture,” Orientations, vol. 27, no. 1 (January 1996), 16-30.

 

  1. “Paubha: Nepalese Painting on Cloth 1200-1600,” The Dictionary of Art (London, Macmillan).

 

  1. “Nepalese Architecture A.D. 300-1200,” in The Dictionary of Art (London, Macmillan).

 

  1. “The Art of Nepalese Woodcarving,” The Dictionary of Art (London, Macmillan).

 

  1. “Preliminary Notes on an India-import Scroll from Nepal,” 431-44, in Siegfried Lienhard ed., Change and Continuity; Studies in the Nepalese Culture of the Kathmandu Valley (Alessandria: Edizioni Dell’Orso, 1996).

 

  1. “Mustang: An Exhibition of Paintings and Photographs in Nepal,” Asian Art (http://webart.com/asianart/mustang).

 

  1. “The ‘Spice Goddesses:’ Notes on a Tibetan Painting,” Archives of Asian Art. vol. XLVI, pp. 53-62.

 

  1. “A Document on Himalayan Painting,” Artibus Asiae vol. 52, nos. 1/2 (1992), pp. 119-30.

 

  1. “An India-import Devi Mahisasura-Mardini Scroll from Nepal,” South Asian Studies 6, pp. 43-69.

 

1988a. “Religious Syncretism in Nepal: Art and Belief,” in The Countries of South Asia: Boundaries, Extensions and Interrelations, Proceedings of the South Asia Seminar, University of Pennsylvania 1982-1983 111, pp. 63-67.

 

1988b. “Bodhgaya and Nepal,” in Bodhgaya, Site of Enlightenment, ed. J. Leoshko, Bombay/ Marg Publications, pp. 126-42.

 

1987 “The Cultural Aspects of Newar Painting,” Heritage of the Kathmandu Valley, Proceedings of an International Conference in Liibeck, June 1985, eds. N. Gutschow and A. Michaels, Nepalica vol. 4, pp. 1-15.

 

1985a. “On a Sixteenth-century Pictorial Pilgrim’s Guide from Nepal,” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 38, pp. 6-36.

 

1985b. “The Nepalese Collections [of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art],” Arts of Asia (Nov-Dec), pp. 90-101.

 

1982a. Nepal Mandala; A Cultural History of the Kathmandu Valley, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2 vols.

 

1982b. “More on the Nepali Cultural Heritage,” The Rising Nepal, Kathmandu, June 4.

 

  1. “Nepalese Caityas as Mirrors of Medieval Architecture,” in The Stupa its Religious, Historical and Architectural Significance, eds. A. Dallapiccola and S. Zengel-Avé Lallemant, Wiesbaden.

 

1979a. “Indresvara Mahadeva: A Thirteenth-century Nepalese Shrine,” Artibus Asiae vol. 41, nos. 2/3, pp. 185-225.

 

1979b. “Serpents, Sages, and Sorcerers in Cleveland,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. LXVI, no. 2 (February), pp. 67-82.

 

1975-6. “On the Antiquity of Nepalese Metalcraft,” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 29 (1975-1976), pp. 80-95.

 

  1. “The Saugal-tol Temple: Further Notes on the Shrine and its Sculptures,” Contributions to Nepalese Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (February), pp. 39-45.

 

  1. “Jogini of the Sword, A Visit to Her Shrine,” Vasudha, vol. 15, no. 2 (April-May), pp. 20-27.

 

  1. “The Wooden Sculptures of Nepal,” Arts of Asia, vol. 4, no. 5 (September-October), pp. 51-57.

 

  1. “Nepali Sculptures – New Discoveries,” in Aspects of Indian Art, ed. P. Pal, Leiden, pp. 93-104.

 

  1. 1972. Kathmandu: A Collection of Articles (Reprinted from AWON Bulletin), Kirtipur, Tribhuvan University Press, Nepal.

 

  1. “An Introduction to the Languages and Scripts of the Kathmandu Valley,” Nepal Review, vol. 2, no. 10, pp. 459-62.

 

  1. “Itum-bahal: A Famous Vihara of Kathmandu,” Swatantra-visva, vol. 7, no. 7, pp. 38-42.

 

Jointly with Gautama Vajracharya

 

1974a. “A Newly Discovered Garuda Image, Kathmandu, Nepal,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 292-294.

 

1974b. “Two Medieval Nepalese Buildings: An Architectural and Cultural Study,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 169-218.

 

1973a. “Some Nepalese Stone Sculptures: A Reappraisal Within Their Cultural and Historical Context,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 35, nos. 1/2, pp. 79-138.

 

1973b. “Some Nepalese Stone Sculptures: Further Notes,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 269-270.

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All images (except for the cover of Kathmandu: A Collection of Articles by Mary Slusser”) from The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving:  A Reassessment by Mary Shepherd Slusser, Fig 40 (p. 47). Available here.

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