Niels Gutschow leaves home
"Welcome to my playground,” calls Niels Gutschow from the brick-laid front yard of his home in Bhaktapur. At the centre stands the single-storey house, with a narrow door in the middle of the vast brick façade, bracketed by two lattice windows. The house originally had three floors, but the 2015 earthquake brought much of the structure down.
Cool breeze rushes in from all sides, filling the air with a polyphonic rustle of leaves. Here is a world unto itself, far from the hustle and bustle of this historic city. The sky is blue, the landscape is crisp, absent of dust, and butterflies flutter about. The nearest road is a 7-minute walk away, whatever trace of the mechanical city life beyond filtered by the willow trees that line the narrow trail leading up to the house.
Gutschow’s wife Wau sits on the plinth next to the door, knitting. “A sweater for Niels,” she says, holding it up. “I knitted a red one before, did I not?”
Gutschow nods. It is a white sweater this time.
Every year for the last 30 years (although, Nepal has been his home for nearly 50 years now), Niels and Wau would leave Nepal for Germany in November where they live near Heidelberg amidst landscape much like their Tahaja Hill home in Bhaktapur, secluded and peaceful.
But this November, the Gutschows are making the trip back for the last time, leaving behind an extensive bibliography on the architectural anthropology of Nepal as well as an invaluable contribution to the conservation of the country’s tangible and intangible heritage.
A striking example of this can be found in the chaitya-studded lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Bouddha which Gutschow designed. These are the exact replica of shrines built between the 7th and 19th centuries around Kathmandu Valley.
Even as the Valley’s cityscape turns to cement and steel, spreading like tumour devouring the countless quarters of historical and cultural significance, visiting the stone archive in Hyatt lobby presents some consolation and even a chance to return to our architectural roots.
Gutschow was born in 1941 in Hamburg. His father was an architect, to whom he credits his entry into the visual 3-D world. He studied Latin and Greek in school, and in 1958 attended Buddhist Sunday classes. Educated not just in the Western classical canon but also Buddhist philosophy, he first came to Nepal in 1962 en route to Burma.
In May of the same year, he witnessed the Machindranath Jatra in Lalitpur which had a profound impact on him, and made him decide this was something he would like to study. An architectural anthropologist by profession, he returned to Nepal in 1970, sponsored by the German Research Council to study the villages of Marpha and Tukche in lower Mustang.
It was around this time that he met a German diplomat who wanted Gutschow involved in a project to restore the historic Pujari Math priestly residence in Bhaktapur. He prepared a plan for its restoration after surveying the badly ruined building complex with the help of Krishna Shrestha, the director of the National Art Gallery.
The project was a precursor to what was to follow: an ambitious bilateral initiative between Nepal and Germany for the conservation of the architectural heritage of Bhaktapur. He returned to Nepal on 22 August 1971 to organise the site visit, and took up residence at Bhaktapur in the ‘Rana House’ – now a homeopathic clinic – near Nag Pokhari.
Walking around Bhaktapur even today is like stepping back in time. Its unique charm is preserved intact in the folds of its buildings and heritage – still largely untouched by the haphazard westernisation that has destroyed other towns in the Valley.
Back in the 1970s, Bhaktapur was dilapidated, but had its historic urbanscape even more pristine. The Arniko Highway was just being built, and there were only a couple of buses a day to and from Kathmandu. Gutschow fully immerse himself in the life and happenings of this little city. He witnessed Indra Jatra and Dasain, and experienced communities get together during the Bisket Jatra and during the procession of the Navadurga.
“It was fascinating to see Newars use their space as a stage,” he recalls.
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Gutschow returned in 1974 with a scholarship to study Bhaktapur, which was also the year the German-supported Bhaktapur Development Project (BDP) got a start. Although many consider that Gutschow himself was part of the project, he says it is a misunderstanding.
“I only wrote the first paper to initiate the project,” he adds. “The project went through a tender and we were young people then, we did not compete.”
That paper is only a small part of Gutschow’s vast scholarship on Nepal. One of the many people who have introduced Nepal to Nepalis, he conducted architectural surveys of Gorkha and Nuwakot, Kag and Khyinga (in Mustang) from 1980 to 1988 and from 1990 to 1995. He also studied in greater detail the 19th century temples of Patan, Kathmandu and Deopatan, and Buddhist chaitya to develop a chronology based on stylistic evidence.
Further, his documentation and analysis of the urban space and rituals of Bhaktapur, his mapping of the city’s religious and social topography, and his architectural and anthropological research are unparalleled in their significance and impact.
He has written three detailed volumes on death rituals (Handling Death), initiation rituals (Growing Up) and marriage rituals (Getting Married) of Newars, with special focus on Bhaktapur. The 3-volume encyclopædic opus Architecture of the Newars, spans the early, Malla and modern times. Another book, The Sky Face studies Kirtimukha – a recurrent iconography of a fierce monster face with huge fangs and gaping mouth – and related creatures in Nepal, South- and Southeast Asian art and architecture.
In the 50 years that he has spent in Nepal, Gutschow has also witnessed the steady change and decline of the Valley’s pristine landscape into an ugly concrete jungle, which he also documented in his 2012 book, The Kathmandu Valley.
A meticulous chronicler of change, Gutschow held a deliberately dispassionate tone in the book – subdued and impartial, despite the sadness, telling Nepali Times: “The curiosity I feel about this ongoing development has nothing denunciatory about it. The documentation of the construction sites does reveal a certain crudity, not to say brutality. Its aim is to achieve a largely unemotional presentation of one aspect of reality.”
Gutschow’s passion and dedication to documentation can also be seen in his house in Bhaktapur – an integral part of his œuvre, a historical record of three decades in bricks and beams, where his research, scholarship and life spent among the people, the rituals, and the festivals of the Newa communities of Bhaktapur culminate, and which he is leaving behind when he returns to Germany.
The house stands atop Tajaha Hill (literally ‘a net of snakes’) where snakes are indeed a common feature to this day. Gutschow remembers several large snakes basking in the sun, and some smaller ones in the lotus pond, especially in the monsoon or winter afternoons.
Unlike most mythologies in the West, snakes represent strength and rebirth in Buddhism and Hinduism. This feels like an apt analogy, adding to the serene, mythical quality of the house, which itself was rebuilt and reconfigured in 1989 and lived in for 30 years.
Narrow bricked steps lead the visitor away from the trail and towards the house, flanked on both sides by a small forest of monkey grass, isicha, willow trees, mugwort and persimmon among others. A small round lotus pool on the right and a kuwa, or a wellspring, on the left are near the entrance.
A stone pikhalakhu sits on the ground before the steps leading to the courtyard where a long arcade has been reconfigured after the earthquake. The columns and capital-brackets on top Gutschow bought for the price of firewood. “No one wanted these,” Gutschow says, shaking his head. The carvings depict buffalo eyes, lotus leaves, snake virgins under snake hoods, and the mythical makara aquatic beings.
Behind the house stands the Kadam Chörten, a chaitya completed in 2002 to commemorate the passing of the Buddha, and further up is the tall guest house, its roof peeking from behind the fan palm and lapsi. Two giant vermillion circles look ahead from under the roof like eyes keeping watch over the hill, the neighbouring houses and fields.
“The earthquake affected this building too, the base twisted,” Gutschow says, demonstrating the jerk and twist with his own body. The door had to be removed and replaced with a wall upon which another giant red circle was plastered with a smaller yellow circle painted inside. When asked about its meaning, Gutschow smiles slyly: “I cannot tell you that, you should come up with your own interpretation.”
From the guest house, one can see another tower up ahead which looks as though it is simply a decorative piece. The bricks are of singular styles not seen elsewhere in the house, which were designed by students from Frankfurt.
“It was an experiment,” Gutschow says, moving his hand across the jagged motif. The traditional Newa bricks are arranged at the bottom, with a layer of modern rough bricks above, followed by a single line of traditional bricks, above which the Frankfurt-designed bricks sit, and the pattern continues.
Three columns stand in the tower – two on one side and one inside a narrow opening opposite. These are unique columns, which came from Pondicherry in India, wide at the base, and tapered rather sharply at the top. The lonely column on the other side is painted red, as is the top of the wall inside. This colour is a recurring motif with Gutschow. “Red is an important colour, almost like my trademark. It is the colour of blood, and especially associated with life and death,” he adds.
Red also has ritualistic significance in Hinduism and Buddhism, and is the colour of the sun in mornings and evenings. Gutschow would not reveal the mystery of the coloured circles in the guest house, but perhaps they too represent the same sense of duality: of life and death, of dawn and dusk, of Nepal and Germany.
However, Gutschow is cautious with hasty interpretations, since in art they can often allude to a notion of functionality, and an object is reduced simply to its utility. “But form does not need to follow function,” he says as we walk away from the tower towards the house.
“The lonely pillar stands in the space as an aesthetic choice, an object to be appreciated as itself,” he says.
It is the same with the anthropomorphic façade of his study tower, where two window panels that function as eyes are separated in the middle by a wooden arch which is the nose. Above the eyes, the cornice serves as eyebrows and there in the central axis sits a small block carved into a third eye. This is a prime example of the “impulse to adorn” which features heavily in the architectural practice of Bhaktapur, where decorations serve a pure aesthetic purpose.
After the tour, sitting inside the arcade, Gutschow recounts the Navadurga ritual, which he has been attending for the past 50 years not as a tourist but as an inhabitant of Bhaktapur, belonging to the community. Even then, despite his work, projects and involvement all these years, Gutschow has been coming to Nepal on a tourist visa which covers about five months at a time, and he still has to buy a $15 entry ticket every time he visits Bhaktapur Durbar Square.
But, he shrugs: “Now it does not matter anymore.”
Gutschow laughs when asked about how he balanced being in Nepal and Germany. “I enjoyed being in two worlds, and being able to work and write in Germany as well as in Nepal meant that when I returned to one of the places, I always returned with new questions.”