Nearly 40 years ago, the venerable Lama Ugen Sherab (Bhikchu Krishnaman) personally presented a full set of the nine instruments of Nepali naumati baja folk orchestra to the Museum’s permanent collection.
The exhibit of crowns which date from the 12th to the 18th century was curated by John Guy, who heads the South and Southeast Asia section at The Met, and also the museum official who came to Kathmandu in early April to return two statues that were found to be stolen (a standing Buddha and Uma Maheswar).
The Vajracharya are the masters of the thunderbolt sceptre (vajra) and the crowns the priests wear during rituals Guy describes as ‘one of the most spectacular symbols of Buddhist ritual in Nepal’. Donning these crowns is central to Vajrayana rituals, transforming the wearer into ‘a perfected being, a bodhisattva’.
The Met exhibition described the devotional use of the crowns, their iconography and stylistic evolution. The pieces preserve memory of the earliest Buddhist traditions going back to the 5th century, as far back as the mural portraits of Ajanta and Ellora where we find figures wearing comparable headdresses.
It is entirely possible that the crowns of Kathmandu are descended from a line of tradition that goes back to those worn by the nobility depicted in those murals. The ancient Hindu and Buddhist statuary of gods and goddesses from the Valley and other parts of South Asia also show them wearing similar headdresses.
The Vajrayan tradition itself started in the 8th century in the region encompassing today’s Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Nepal, and gained momentum for about four or five centuries. Vajrayan weakened in the Ganga plains and Odisha around the 12th century, and the Valley became the natural refuge for the tradition.