Tolange returned to Nepal for three months in 2016 for a field visit as part of his MA. He had been thinking about the altar, wondering if there was a bigger story behind it.
He went to Patan to meet Bhim Ratna Shakya, senior sculpture artist, who recalled that his father had made six altars like the one in Berlin. That was a significant clue, and Tolange spoke with historians Satya Mohan Joshi, Sukra Sagar Shrestha, Mukunda Raj Aryal, KVPT’s Rohit Ranjitkar, and went to Boudha to meet the Buddhist monk S Dharmacharya.
The conversations shed more light on stolen artefacts, even though he did not get a substantial lead on the shrine in the Berlin museum. “I found out that these shrines, or altars, were often for private use,” Tolange says. “And that people in Mangal Bazar continue to make them.”
But the artisans still do not sign their names on the pieces, and that makes it difficult to track them down. “On top of this, when the dealers sell the altars, they sell it at the value of an art object — while the artisans are paid only the rate of the labourer,” he adds. “Artists does not always get the recognition they deserve, and this practice is ongoing.”
Upon graduation, Tolange proposed to the museum that he would add the Nepali side of the story and make another film with the new findings, this time a little longer and more detailed. Titled Buddhist Altar, the 16-minute film was completed in 2022 after much research.
After Covid restrictions were lifted, Tolange visited Khenpo Gyaltsen from Rangjung Yeshe Institute and Loponma Ani Phuntsok Wongmo from Hasantar Nunnery. He also went to Buddhist temples and observed traditional rituals at the Golden Temple in Patan, Swayambhu, Boudha and other monasteries in Kathmandu.
“I discovered that in many Buddhist shrines, the idol of the Buddha is at the centre, representing his body, with chaitya to his right representing his mind and a book to his left representing dharma or his speech, teachings,” Tolange says.
Other deities in the shrine depend on the people and the families. In fact, as Bhim Ratna Shakya remarked in the film, any god can go in the chambers.
Historians are convinced that the person who crafted the Buddhist shrine in the Berlin museum was a Newa, possibly from Patan, although there is still some doubt regarding where it was actually made, since there are Tibetan influences on it as well. Historically, these shrines were commissioned by families for their use, and the one in Berlin was commissioned too, most likely by Meinhard himself.
In the film, which is first and foremost about a quest, Tolange has tried to trace the craft behind the shrine, digging into its past and current practices. Intercut with images of the mountains, the hills and the temples, he also focuses on the religious syncretism in Kathmandu Valley to contextualize the artefact as still being a part of a living culture.
The film has been selected to the permanent collection at the Humboldt Forum, where it will be screened next to the shrine itself to mark the inauguration of the Asian section of the Berlin-based centre on 16 September.
Tolange also plans to show the film to Nepali audience.
Says Tolange: “Working on the film helped me rediscover my country and its cultures. If I hadn’t done it, I’d have known nothing about the object and its importance.”
Read also: How Nepali antiquities got to Chicago museum, Alisha Sijapati