Saturday 16 December 2017

Spirit of the Himalayas

Romio, his wife Sophie and their four daughters in their living room. On the couch, from left, are Amber and Topaz, while Metta and Jaya are seated on the floor. After years as an artist, Romio now hopes to spread his message of peace through seminars, meditation and
healing sessions
Romio, his wife Sophie and their four daughters in their living room. On the couch, from left, are Amber and Topaz, while Metta and Jaya are seated on the floor. After years as an artist, Romio now hopes to spread his message of peace through seminars, meditation and healing sessions

The rugged Irish coastline has always attracted writers, musicians, film makers and artists -- colourful types who, nonetheless, usually blend quickly into the local community -- and so it is with Romio Shrestha.

Driving the narrow road that snakes around Caragh Lake in south-west Kerry, I began to be unsure of my directions. I stopped the car and asked a passing local if a house I could see in the distance was that of Romio. The man hesitated, and it was only when I mentioned Romio's wife, Sophie, that the local man confirmed that, yes, I had the right house. As if there could be more than one Romio Shrestha in the area, more than one modern master of the Buddhist tradition of t'angka painting, more than one Nepalese painter whose work is in the world's top museums. Though breathtakingly beautiful, Glencar is a sparsely populated, mountainous area, yet the colourful Romio has well and truly blended in. But then he has been here almost 10 years and, as he says himself, it's home now.

Home was originally Kathmandu, until the young Irish art-school graduate, Sophie Shaw-Smith, walked into his life and the pair fell in love. The year was 1990, and Sophie, then 21, was travelling with a friend. It was long before the concept of the gap-year trip took off here, and exotic adventures were uncommon. Sophie was anxious at the beginning, but the beauty of Kathmandu and the Himalayas soon dispelled any homesickness. She was, she says, open to all possibilities. Enter Romio. Her first encounter with him was brief -- she and her friend had gone into a house thinking it was a bar, but ran when they realised their mistake; as they left, they heard a man calling "don't go" -- it later transpired that it had been the voice of Romio.

"Everyone knows everyone else there and Romio had found out we were Irish girls. One night, by chance, I walked into his cousin's bar and someone handed me a note which said 'I'm totally in love with you, I don't know how to tell you,' signed, 'Romio'. I told my friend Vanessa, 'I'm not going to encourage him,'" Sophie recalls with a laugh, but soon Romio started talking to her and, when he told her she was a mermaid in a past life, that was it. "I didn't take it seriously, but I'm a total romantic. I thought it was the funniest thing and we started chatting," Sophie says.

The upshot was they fell in love, and even though Sophie had to go on to Australia, she cut short her trip to return to Kathmandu. She spent eight months in total with Romio, but her visa ran out and she had to come home. On her return, she immediately told her parents -- documentary maker David Shaw-Smith and his wife Sally -- about her love for the 28-year-old Nepalese man. "To their credit, they were amazing," she notes. "They just said, 'Yes, darling, that's lovely.'" They even supported her when she mooted that he come to Ireland.

For his part, Romio had to leave his country under false pretences -- his parents were planning an arranged marriage for him, and he told them he wanted to go abroad to get some suits for the wedding. "First of all, I've got to live up to my name, Romio," he says with a laugh. "Love is a very powerful energy. And I was totally in love; that's one thing a human being does to protect love: they are ready to lie," he says in attractively accented, fluent English -- he was educated by Irish Jesuits in Nepal.

"I really met my soulmate in a very interesting way," says Sophie, while Romio adds, "It's something very spiritual; it's not about looks, it's about energy. There is an unseen communication."

Sophie's parents loved Romio and continued to be extremely supportive -- even when the couple secretly married in the General Register Office on Dublin's Molesworth Street. However, they did insist on putting an announcement in the papers, arranging a blessing in a little church near them in Mayo and a party afterwards. "We did everything backwards," Sophie notes with a laugh. The couple had a third ceremony in Nepal and then went to live with Romio's family; four generations under the one roof.

They were blissfully happy. They painted in the mountains there, and when some of Sophie's work was shown in an exhibition in her old school, St Columba's, gallery owner Suzanne Macdougald offered her a show in the Solomon Gallery.

Romio got a show as well -- in the Wyvern Gallery -- but it wasn't enough. "I told my friend, 'I want my paintings in museums'. My friend said, 'You're mad, museums don't buy paintings just like that.'" But Romio was determined; he found out the name of the curator of the British Museum and hounded him for an appointment. He was politely blown off until one day he turned up in his Nepalese robes with some of his work and, through sheer persistence, he managed to get the curator to at least look at his work.

As they were walking to the curator's office, they passed a showcase containing 17th-century robes, which were similar to the ones Romio himself was wearing. Romio remarked, "Maybe I should do my shopping here in future". The curator looked at the glass case, and then at Romio and asked, "Where did you get those clothes?" Romio explained he had inherited them. He also showed his paintings and explained the reasons why he thought the museum might like to buy some. The curator was impressed with his explanation.

"You see, when I was a very young kid, five or six, I was found as the 17th reincarnate of a monk artist from Tibet," Romio says. "My father didn't want me to go to the monastery, so he quickly put me in a Catholic boarding school." The curator then bought four of Romio's works and, with that stamp of approval, his career as an artist began.

Since then his extraordinarily intricate works about life's big questions have been bought by museums all over the world, including the Chester Beatty in Dublin and the Natural History Museum in New York, which is mounting a huge show of his work starting on January 25, 2011. His work also forms part of many private collections, including those of celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Uma Thurman, Donna Karan, Donovan Leitch and his wife Linda.

Romio has produced several books of his paintings; one of which is called the Goddesses of the Celestial Gallery. "It is the goddesses who are going to save the planet," Romio says passionately. The book features a foreword by world-renowned guru Deepak Chopra, a close friend whom Romio calls his karmic father. Sophie and Romio also collaborated on a wonderfully illustrated children's book called In Search of the Thunder Dragon, based on a trip they did to Bhutan with their daughter, Amber.

In a recent development, four of Romio's works were chosen to be reproduced in silk-scarf form as part of the merchandising attached to the movie Eat Pray Love.

Romio's works, which are painted with ground-up minerals -- malachite for green, lapis lazuli for blue, real gold for the colour gold -- are so large and detailed they take years to execute, even though Romio is helped by his apprentices in the school he runs in Kathmandu.

The couple lived in Nepal during the early years of their marriage while they only had one child -- their eldest daughter, Amber, 15 -- but when Sophie became pregnant with their second child, Topaz, who is now 12, they decided to relocate to Ireland.

Sophie had loved Nepal, but found it hard to adapt to some of the cultural differences. "It was very easy before I had children. I could blend in. Once I became a parent I started to see the cultural differences, the traditions and the superstitions. For example, you can't wash clothes on a Tuesday. As a Westerner, it's very hard to say I won't when I know it's superstition." she explains. "It's a very different context," Romio adds. "It's a very ancient culture, but you must remember there was no TV 'til 10, 20, 25 years ago; it's very different because of the poverty."

Nonetheless, Sophie has very fond memories of Nepal: "The family energy was amazing, the love his family gave me -- very loving and caring. I could live in Nepal for the people."

Ultimately, she felt a strong pull to home. "Something in Ireland just called me. I'm very connected to Ireland -- I think it's the rain," Sophie muses, while Romio adds, "It's not the rain, it's the spirituality, this country is very, very spiritual."

As it happened, they got out at the right time. Nepal became quite unstable politically shortly after they left, and the king and his whole family were assassinated. Sophie and the children haven't been back since 2001, while Romio's mother, Laxmi, came for the summer of 2007. Romio goes back for several months each year, yet even while he's here he dresses in traditional Nepalese clothes and wears multiple strings of mala. "There are 108 beads in a mala, he uses them like you would rosary beads," says Sophie.

The couple opted to put down roots in Kerry where Sophie spent time when she was a teenager with her friend, Poppy Melia, and her family. "Poppy is like a sister to me and Poppy and her mother Pauline [Bewick] made us feel like extended family here," Sophie notes.

They bought an acre and a half in 1998, choosing it for its spectacular location with views of Caragh Lake, the valley, Carrantuohill and Macgillycuddy's Reeks. "There's a wonderful feeling of the cycle of nature here," Sophie says.

They built a two-bedroom house in 2001, and extended it two years ago with the help of builders Kevin and Declan O'Leary of BNL. "The foreman Chris Burke, his wife Bernie and their team were also wonderful," Sophie notes.

The house now has five bedrooms, all needed to accommodate their growing family. As well as Amber and Topaz, they have seven-year-old twins, Metta and Jaya, and their Tibetan spaniel, Tashi. The girls all go to local schools, which Sophie can't praise enough. She herself went to St Columba's, one of Ireland's most exclusive schools, which she loved, but she has several reasons for keeping her girls near her in Kerry. "I like to be in the community. I wanted them to have a really grounded childhood and I don't want to send them away from home. Also, I don't feel anyone should feel superior to anyone else," Sophie notes.

The extra space is also there to accommodate guests -- they love having friends to stay. Friends who have come to stay include Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Diane Von Furstenberg, Sinead O'Connor, Vogue model Cecilia Chancellor, and Lainey Keogh, who is like family.

The house is a real family home with lots of open-plan living space. The decor is rich and colourful with lots of paintings hanging on the walls, while the floors are strewn with rugs from the rug business Romio's family run back in Nepal. The paintings are by both Romio and Sophie.

Sophie's work is also in many collections nationally and internationally; it is more Western in style, though she also focuses on spiritual themes such as peace, hope, compassion and love. She has a particular fascination with circles.

Romio's subject matter centres on healing, enlightenment and peace. When he first started painting, he did a whole series of medical paintings, and several of these hang in the large living room. Over the mantlepiece is a painting of the goddess Ushinavijaya. "If you were to paint the love of a mother, this is what she would look like. A woman with 1,000 arms, 1,000 eyes, 1,000 heads. That's how powerful a mother's love is," says Romio.

As well as the house extension, the couple also built a massive studio -- its exterior is a fascinating combination of Kerry stone and Nepalese buddhas. Other Nepalese features include temple lions and carved doors. Designed by architect Paul Griffin, the studio has a central space for large gatherings and smaller rooms for more intimate meetings. "We wanted to create a space where we would bring people together, to meditate, do yoga; where we would have events," says Sophie.

Though he spends several months a year in Nepal, painting with his apprentices, Romio is moving on, he says, to the level of telling the message of the paintings, rather than continuing to paint. "The purpose of my work is to make everyone aware of the divinity within us all," Romio states. The messages he wants to spread include the belief that feminine energy is going to save the planet; he sees himself giving lectures both in Kerry and abroad, and says he's been involved in peace conferences in places such as the UN in Geneva. "I hope to heal people, and I hope to have a centre where people can come and find spiritual well-being. Glencar is a very magical space, because of the water that comes from the sky, lands on the mountains, then finds its way down the river to the ocean, the same way all our pain, our traumas; I hope we can wash them away. That would be my dream come true, for people to find inner peace here, like a sanctuary," Romio reflects.

"Glencar is like our temple," Sophie adds, "and the river is like a sacred river. We hope to have people coming and have events around that energy."

"The whole vision of my work," Romio continues, "is that every single human being has that seed of enlightenment. The only thing is we are lost in the karma of our physical body. Beyond our physical body is real spiritual enlightenment. Enlightenment is possible in this lifetime. We human beings need to think collectively, the vision of the rat race has to be transformed."

There is definitely going to be a sea change in the way Romio works but one thing is certain -- they're in Kerry to stay.

"Definitely there is a sentimental pull to Nepal of childhood memories and family -- my parents are still alive there -- the smells, the food," Romio says. "Nepalese people don't emigrate too easily. Now Kerry is home -- especially as it's where your love is and where your children are growing up. It's about the mountains, I think. Even in Ireland I had to find the highest mountains and live in the foothills," he says with a laugh. Sure, he's almost one of our own.


For details of Romio's scarves, see and email

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