The book starts in October 1987 with Jeff and his girlfriend caught out by a violent snowstorm in the mountains at Gosainkund in the Langtang national park about 30 miles north of Kathmandu. They eventually make their way down through the deep snow that obscured all the paths along with a German couple and their guides and Jeff decides that to mark the escape he wants a Buddha statue, but not just any Buddha statue it must be the best he can get for a budget of up to $300. Kathmandu and the neighbouring city of Patan are covered in small shops selling Buddhas along with a vast range of Hindu and Buddhist gods of which there are thousands to choose from but the quality varies dramatically and the very best pieces are rarely on the shelves but secreted away for collectors in back rooms.
Ostensibly the book is about Jeff’s search for the perfect Buddha and his frustration with minor, and sometimes major, errors in the proportions or features. To positively identify a figure as Buddha it needs to pass the thirty two significant traits along with eighty less significant ones and he lists seventeen of these to give some idea as to the level of detail he was looking for, such as the wheels marked on the feet and the lotus blossom and conch shell trumpet on the palms. There should be a mole like mark between his eyes known as the urna and the eyes themselves should be centred and slightly downcast. The list goes on and made finding his perfect Buddha extremely difficult. I say ostensibly though because the book is a lot more than an extended shopping expedition over a period of about seven months, we also learn something about the lives of the Nepalese and the corruption, narcotic abuse and police brutality that they are subjected to.
A lot of the narcotic smuggling into the country and artwork and antique smuggling out is blamed on members of the royal family by Greenwald who at the time were untouchable as rulers of the only Hindu kingdom which they ran like medieval monarchs not subject to any aspect of the laws of the country. He speaks to many people to confirm this and is duly warned off by others including a smuggling boss. He also refers to an Amnesty International report of human rights abuses in the country where anyone can be locked up for months at a time without recourse to any legal process and when they are released can be arrested again the next day to be subject to more beatings and torture at the hands of the police and prison authorities. To the outsider Nepal is a paradise, to the locals it could often be a prison and a particularly awful prison at that.
The final chapter in the Lonely Planet edition was written six years after the book had first been published in America in 1990 and deals with the change of the political situation after the king was forced to move towards a more constitutional rather than absolute monarchy in 1990 but even then the power of the monarchy was still overbearing. This would be illustrated by the royal massacre of 2001 when Prince Dipendra used an automatic rifle to murder the King, Queen and seven other members of the royal family at a party before apparently shooting himself. During the three days he survived he was declared King and therefore immune from prosecution before dying and the monarchy passing to his brother Gyanendra. Dipendra and Gyanendra are named in Greenwald’s book as the heads of the smuggling operations in the country. In 2008 the monarchy was deposed and the worlds only Hindu kingdom became a federal republic.
Ten years after Greenwald’s marathon shopping trip, which did result in him buying a Buddha although for considerably more that his original $300 I was also in Kathmandu and whilst I didn’t have the budget that Jeff Greenwald had, after all I was there to go trekking in the Everest region and that cost enough, I was also captivated by the metal casting craftsmanship displayed all over the city. Although like Jeff I also found that there was a lot of dross to pick through before finding the perfect figures made of brass and bronze which are now on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.