Preserving a piece of Nepal from behind Aspen Mountain
September 7, 2005
Wayne Poulsen has a passion for studying cultures around the world, and if his strategy goes as planned, the Aspenite just might play an important role in helping preserve an integral part of the culture of Nepal.As improbable as it may seem, this white guy living in a cabin on the back of Aspen Mountain could hold a key to rekindling interest among young Nepalese people in carving mani stones, also known as prayer stones.Poulsen, an architect, became interested in the significance of mani stones during a 1998 trip to Nepal. He was on an expedition with the American Himalayan Foundation that was granted rare access to a special permit area within a broader special permit area. In other words, he traveled to a remote spot that few Westerners had visited.While helping assess the quality of artifacts, Poulsen was struck by the intricacy of hundreds of thousands of mani stones inlaid in a wall leading to a shrine. He began studying more about the special stones, which are typically placed individually or piled along trails and in high mountain passes in Nepal.”Typically they were made to guarantee good luck, good fortune,” he said. Poulsen is fascinated by everything from Anasazi rock art in the American Southwest to paintings by nomadic shepherds of Mongolia, so he naturally became fascinated with mani stones. They have been handcrafted for about 2,000 years by the Tibetan community of Nepal and inscribed with a Buddhist prayer mantra, “Om Mani padme hum.”There is no direct translation into English, but the prayer mantra holds all the teachings of Buddha. Poulsen found that mani stones were more intricate and genuine in more secluded places. Along popular trails, more spiffed up versions of mani stones made for tourists can be found, but they lack the spiritualism for Poulsen.
His studies led him to research who was still making the mani stones in the region of Nepal he visits. He learned there was apparently just one man, who was blind and missing one leg.”What became clear is the skill of making these stones was falling away,” he said.Young Nepalese people have fallen prey to world globalization and Western influence, Poulsen said. From what they learn of the outside world they perceive that living in cities and becoming consumers of more goods is better than their rural lifestyle.”It’s easy to see the problem,” Poulsen lamented. “Their spiritual relationship is depleted.” And so is their connection to their own culture. Many of the youths move to Katmandu or cities in India only to become laborers in sweat shop factories.Poulsen’s fascination with mani stones stuck with him back in the Roaring Fork Valley. As an architect and as a carver he frequently works with stone. He began carving mani stones using granite found near his stunningly beautiful cabin site off Little Annie Road.One day last week when the deep blue sky was free of clouds and the surrounding aspen forest hinted a change in color, Poulsen held a chisel in his left hand while giving it gentle taps with the hammer in his right. The same six characters of the prayer mantra are carved on all mani rocks.One of his first pieces of work was displayed in the Roaring Fork Art Show at the Aspen Art Museum a few years ago and some people immediately connected. He’s carved 12 to 15 stones and sold them to people who made that connection.
Doug and Peggy Graybeal created a special nook for one of Poulsen’s mani stones in a cast earth wall of their new, high-efficiency, environmentally friendly home in Missouri Heights. It provides an eye-catching greeting to people who enter through the front door.”The mani stone was of interest because of its unique qualities and its warm, welcoming message,” Graybeal wrote in an e-mail interview. “It’s from a culture and part of a culture that has great respect for the natural world.”Proceeds from Poulsen’s sales of the stones go to his Mani Foundation. He’s sent $1,000 to Nepal to restore special artwork in a shrine.He plans to use the rest of the money for a project inspired by Tom Sawyer. Poulsen said he will return someday to Nepal with a sack full of chisels. He will sit beside a trail used heavily by locals and start working on a prayer stone. Just as Tom Sawyer baited bystanders to help paint a fence by starting the work himself, Poulsen hopes to get Nepalese youth interested in carving mani stones with his work.”I would expect them to be curious, then I would expect them to tell me what I’m doing wrong,” Poulsen said. “And I expect it in that order.”In that way, he hopes to inspire some of the youth to reconnect with this important part of their culture and past.Meanwhile, Poulsen continues to hand carve the mani stones at the front of his cabin, in the glow of Hayden Peak across the valley. Each stone takes a minimum of 25 hours of labor. He doesn’t consider it work. It helps cement his connection to the land.
“The artistry in mani stones is in the inspiration with which the carving is done,” he said.From the look of the finished stones, his inspiration appears genuine. Graybeal agreed. He said it was important to him to help Poulsen’s mission of keeping stone carving alive in Nepal.Poulsen won’t talk about what he charges for the mani stones and he doesn’t want his telephone number given out for prospective clients. It’s not a commercial venture. The work is for a higher cause.”If people want to contact me, I think they’ll know how to do it,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org