Mary Slusser, born in November 1919, holds a doctorate in anthropology and archaeology from Columbia University. She first came to Nepal in 1965 and was the first western scholar with an interest in architectural typology and architectural details. Her articles, published in Artibus Asiae 1972-79 were milestones in the discovery of Newar art and architecture. Nepal Mandala – A cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley (two vols., 1982) finally made the stunning cultural richness of the Valley accessible to the western reader. Slusser left Nepal in 1972 but has repeatedly returned there, the last time in 2008, as a research associate of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithonian Institute in Washington. In 2010 she published The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving.
A Reassessment.

Dear Niels,
I thought the paragraph I sent earlier would satisfy your request for something for the Taragaon archive, but, wow! now I see that you essentially will only be content with my life history, Mary Slusser’s unpublished autobiography, so to speak. So here goes. I begin with the paragraph I had sent previously so that you have a single document.
“I came to Nepal by chance. As an employee of the US aid mission (USAID, then called USOM), my husband, an economist, was involved in the economic development of Third World countries. In 1965 he was assigned to Morocco. Two weeks before our scheduled departure he was suddenly reassigned to Nepal. We unpacked the snorkeling gear and replaced it with boots, boarded a propeller plane in Delhi, and after a bumpy four hours landed at Gauchar, still the cow pasture airport, in early November. The USOM offices were in Kalimati and in pre-Ring Road days to get there we were driven through the heart of Kathmandu. Because of the sudden Morocco-Nepal switch we were clueless about the country into which we had come. I was not prepared for the Durbar Square temples and the immense impression they made upon me. A window of our USOM quarters looked out over Swayambhu, which in those days of clear skies and low buildings, loomed on the horizon. Those monuments, the temples and the stupa, were the initial catalyst for my subsequent involvement with the culture, history, and art of an incredible place like no other on the face of the earth. And so began a love affair that has endured for almost half a century. Now in my 91st year the wonder of Nepal stirs me still.
You ask about my background for my work in Nepal. In my luggage were three valuable tools: a doctorate, a mandate from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to collect some Nepalese ethnographic objects, and a fifteen-year acquaintanceship with foreign living. The PhD was in anthropology, archaeology, and fine arts. The Smithsonian aspect was as an unpaid volunteer to buy a thousand dollars worth of ethnographic objects. To the then American ambassador’s wife, a much-feared stickler for protocol and the wives’ servitude to the embassy, the PhD and the Smithsonian connection made me a “professional.” I was excused from cookie making. I was free to explore this cultural wonderland.
From the USOM compound I walked the cobbled paths through uninterrupted rice paddies to Kirtipur and Swayambhu and by foot crossed the Vishnumati to the Kathmandu Durbar Square. Soon I went further afield, driving our four-wheel jeep to the four corners of the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. Each day I saw a little more and learned a little more. I took photographs and began to jot down my discoveries in a notebook that soon swelled to many notebooks. As I had done in previous postings in Yugoslavia and Africa, I shared my enthusiasm by writing for the US community 2- and 3-page guides to some of the cultural monuments. Beyond the guides I had no further writing ambitions.
These ambitions changed radically when following my husband’s two-year tour of duty he was reassigned to Nepal. This gave me time for more serious academic work and to that end I applied for, and was granted, a fellowship. It provided the funding for assistance with the reading of Sanskrit inscriptions and the preparation of maps, plans, and architectural drawings that I would need for a book. Thus entered Mahesh Raj Pant, Gautam Bajracharya, and Wolfgang Korn, the young assistants you asked about. In the previous years I had gotten to know Mahesh Raj and Gautam through my subscription to Purnima, the Nepali-language journal published by Samsodhana-mandala, a group of history-oriented scholars to which they belonged. The young German architect Wolfgang Korn I met through my collaboration in the protective inventory of the Kathmandu Valley overseen by Carl Pruscha. It was Gautam and Mahesh Raj who opened the doors to the all-important Licchavi inscriptions in the Sanskrit that baffled me and acquainted me with far more Nepali-language sources than I had found by myself. I have always been grateful for their immense contributions to my work. Both young men, as you know, had never been out of the Kathmandu Valley and never heard of the Vikings, for example, but they both went on to become PhDs in foreign lands. Wolfgang prepared excellent architectural drawings.
You further asked how it was that as a non-architect I wrote “the important essay about the Dattatreya and later Indreshvara Mahadeva.” Essentially, I wrote them because, as you observe, before my arrival in Nepal in 1965 almost nothing was known about Nepalese architecture. Architecture was supposed to be the final volume of Pratapaditya Pal’s trilogy on the art of Nepal published 1974-1978 but there wasn’t enough solid information to justify it. Nor was there in the 1980s when I had to decline the request of E. J. Brill, his publisher, to complete the trilogy. So though I had no architectural pretensions there was so much to be said about Dattatreya, Indresvara Mahadeva, and Kasthamandapa that it just seemed natural to write an essay on these neglected monuments to signal their cultural importance.
With respect to the question you asked about my preservation efforts, what can I say? In my view I did the right thing in taking Nepalese paintings out of a country where they were disintegrating from lack of care to a country where at great cost they would be restored professionally and housed in the protected environment of a US museum of art. In one case I helped preserve whole a banner painting (bilampau) already out of the country and on the art market that was about to be cut into pieces for sale of its individual figures. It was professionally restored and may be seen in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to testify to the splendid art of Nepal. In the nationalistic view common to many countries, the Nepalese argue that better to let the paintings rot than to leave Nepalese soil. So the question is, which of us is right? As you well know, to protect objects abroad or leave them unprotected in their country of origin is an international issue that so far seems insoluble. It concerns me deeply and I have written about it in the article you mentioned, in “More on ‘Turning a Blind Eye,’ Orientations 36:4 (May 2005), pp. 71-74, and elsewhere.
You ask how I came to take up the problem of the age of Nepalese wood carving and your question is easily answered. Beginning with my first encounter I have been intrigued by Nepalese wood carving, viewing it as an art not just a craft. Further, the more familiar I became with the material I sensed that some of it was far older than generally thought. My eyes told me (as did your own, if you recall) that the exquisite Sasunani reliefs, for example, were carved long before the thirteenth-century guess date. As I have written in the new book, the idea to ascertain the dates of these reliefs and other wooden objects came to me in 2004 when a friend told me about a Nepalese wooden sculpture that had been dated to the sixth or seventh century. If so, I reasoned, there must be more. What better way to spend some of my savings than to find out. So began the almost two-dozen radiocarbon tests that illustrate the antiquity of wood carving in Nepal and help to establish it as an art on a par with the paintings, metallurgical, and lithic arts.”

Washington, 19 February 2010

Back To List