In the Realm of the Gods

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Early one morning, I go out into the low-lying mist, following the muffled gong of the bells. They are rung at shrines all over Bhaktapur to announce the arrival of the devotee for puja. A woman in a vermillian sari and scarlet haku gacha brings her offering of rice, tika power, and sweet burning incense to a shrine dedicated to Sarasvati, the goddess of learning. She takes some holy water from a little copper pot and flicks it lightly over the idol, circumambulating the shrine clockwise to complete her rite. We acknowledge each other as I pass with a small bow, hands together:

Namaste. I salute the god within you.

Later, in Taumadhi Square, I sit with a sketchpad on my knee, not really drawing, but trying to absorb the essence of this place with its dusty brick streets, medieval courtyards, communal wells and beautiful Newari architecture. Behind me towers the resplendent five-tiered Nyatapola Temple, sacred to the goddess Siddha Laxmi. Surrounding the city, at eight points of the compass, are shrines to the protective Asta Matrika goddesses, each one presiding over her own area of the city. They are said to demarcate the boundaries between order and chaos, internal and external realms, seen and unseen forces. At the centre of the mandala, a ninth goddess, Tripurasundari has a temple. Her inner shrine that lies within the palace, is out of bounds for all but the officiating priests.

Two girls come over, and I offer them my book and paints. One draws a flower, and colours it bright red, the other, a house. They write their names in Nepalese beneath. I have a blurry picture of them in their aunt’s craft shop, smiling, the famous medieval peacock window, Mhaykhā Jhyā (म्हयखाझ्याः) in the background. They give me a tour of their section of the city, introducing me to relatives and friends at work in their printing, clothing and craft businesses.

 

We exchange gifts before we part. I give them a silver compact mirror engraved with Celtic knotwork.  They give me a small wooden carving of the head of Ganesha.

I hope that the Asta Matrika protected those girls and their families during the chaos that was to come three months later when the earthquake struck. I will never know, only that some of the temples and shrines that I photographed and admired are no longer there. I am certain that amongst all the devastation and loss in Bhaktapur, two things will endure: the deep spirituality of its people, and their close-knit community, both of which I was so privileged to witness.

 

Ashta-Matrika

Painted Manuscript of the Matrikas from a Devi Mahatmya text

 

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Natural Abstracts

Some stunning paintings in response to two stories from Africa today: ‘Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky’ – a Nigerian folktale, and ‘The Lion’s Whisker’ – an Ethiopian Folktale.

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Elements by Jim age 9

 

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African landscape by Paddy, age 9

 

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Camouflaged Lion by Iolo, age 6

 

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Sun by Paddy, age 9

 

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Witch Doctor by George, age 7

 

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Witch Doctor Dance by Jim, age 9

 

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Elements II by Jim age 9

 

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African Landscape By George, age 7

Preliminary Drawings:

Lion, by George; Winged Lion with Horn by Paddy, Mask by Paddy, Compound of Sun and Moon for the Water by George, Sun and Water by Iolo.

This Is What I Would Turn Into At Night

Here are some of my favourite art works by children I have been working with over the past months. They have been responding to old folk stories from many cultures.

The Lady of the Lake (Wales)

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Maui’s Magic Fishing Hook (Maori)

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The Fox Maiden (Korea)

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Guardian Totems (Korea)

Medusa (Greece)

 

Gelert (Wales)

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Baba Yaga (Russia)

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Blodeuwedd and Twm Carnabwth (Wales)

Aztec Gods (Mexico)

The Bird with Two Heads, and Ganesha (India)

Huitzilopochtli (Mexico)

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Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

For the last week of this five week cycle of storytelling and art from around the world, we travelled to Russia to hear about the enigmatic Baba Yaga.  She is a many-faceted figure, variously seen as a Moon, Death, Winter, Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, or archetypal image.[4]

After discussing some of Baba Yaga’s traits: iron teeth, lives in a house that walks around on chicken legs, sails through the sky in a mortar yielding a pestle,  the children listened to one of the many tales involving Baba Yaga: Vasilisa the Brave. It exhibits Baba Yaga’s ambiguous nature – scary, yet wise, and the choices of a girl who triumphs through courage and perseverance.

Below is a selection of the wonderful illustrations of Baba Yaga by children on the course. I’m always amazed at the detail, personality and energy of these drawings that the children do without hesitating as they listen to the stories.

 

Vasilisa’s magic doll by Lily.

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