Hindu and Buddhist Tantric Iconography in Stone Statues at Sundari-chok, Patan, Nepal
Gunthar Hartwig, 1992
In partial completion of requirements for Pitzer College Experience in Nepal
Impulse, Background, Methodology - Setting - The Fountain - Analysis - Conclusion - Bibliography
My impulse to pursue this particular endeavor for an independent study project arouse from two primary sources. First: I have always had an intense interest in archaeology; in studying the material remains that historys many cultures have left behind, and the relationship between these older elements and the present state of things. Second: my opportunities to engage in the "real" activities of that discipline have been limited, due to geographic placement and the fact that Pomona Colleges Anthropology program emphasizes the cultural end of the field. In Kathmandu, I was surrounded by thousands of what might most expressively be called "archaeological treasures" that were also important elements of the present culture. It seemed a perfect opportunity to pursue this aim.
From this my project took on another two-fold direction. As I wondered the streets of the city, be it on fieldtrips or on my own, I would stop to look at one of the thousands of icons that dot the streets, temples, and courtyards. After a while I was able to make some superficial analysis of them, i.e. "this is Garuda, Parvati, etc..." but the images always contained scores, if not hundreds, of other details, that I just knew meant something, but wasnt quite sure what. Why the arm in that particular position? Why that many arms? Why does this Buddhist image look just like that Hindu one but go under a different name? Whats with all the surrounding images? Does this tell a story or is it just a representation of an individual (diety or other?). When were these made? By whom? For whom? Etc...
A lot of questions, most of which remain unanswered. One of the problems with delving into complex societies to which one is an absolute newcomer is that there is always something more that one seems to need to know. I discovered this while researching a five page paper of Mayan calendrics last year. Calander systems lead to astronomy, glyphs, math, mythology, religious practices, language until I had enough data to easily write a thirty-pager, or get caught in an intellectual pursuit that could potentially take a lifetime. The same happened while researching in Patan. Soon I discovered that I needed to read the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Bagadva-gita, along with any scholarly tomes I could lay my hands on, as well as learn Hindi, Newari, Indian/Nepali history, sculpting and a score of others. Not only do broad and general questions come up, but so do small and specific ones, so that for every query involving The Nature Of Hinduism, there was also a question of why here in this spot, at this time, with this stone?
Do to time constraints I have not done all these things, and thus many of my questions have remained unanswered. This in itself constituted a large part of the learning experience of the project, that is: its one thing to say to oneself "there are a lot of things to learn," and another to find oneself in the mire of it, realizing the impossibility of the total task and attempting to follow the path of greatest overall profit. So even though I wont be able to answer half of the questions that I have proposed, I have been quite pleased with the number that I have.
Another aspect of the project, aside from coming up with empirical data and "factual" findings, was an attempt to teach myself a little archaeological method. My on-site experience up to that point had been nil, and aside from reading on my own, my education on the subject has been extremely limited. So with a firm belief in the scientific method in one hand, and trusty insta-matic camera, notebook, and ruler in the other, I attempted to put together as repectable a survey as possible. It was certainly not as easy as one would like it to be. In going over my notes, gross gaps are apparent, and quite a few of the datam are iffy in their exactitude.
Basically, what I attempted to do was this: locate a location in which I could study a great number and variety of icons extensively. Photograph and measure the statues and the space that surrounded them. Research as much as possible on site and attempt to utilize what I had learned from one site on another, as a form of verification. Fill in the areas that I knew I would not be able to adequatelly research while in Nepal upon my arrival back at home.
I was fairly successful on most counts. I found a spot in Patan, in one of the palace courtyards, that contained a great number of statues of the type I wished to study. The city itself is littered with similiar images that I could compare them to. Even though the courtyard was in Patans main tourist area, it was often deserted, so I could work in relative peace (and also not thrust my inquisitive nose too far into active worship sites). I was fortunate enough to get ahold of a few books that were able to help me along the way, while there, but extensive research was impossible as to work through any real written Nepali time-effectivelly was beyond my capabilities even when my language was at its best, and English volumes were limited. Upon arriving back at Pomona, I discovered that the literature available here is not extensive, but fortunately it is adequate to fulfill the needs of my much reduced (since its initial inception) plans.
The Sundari-Chok was built in 1647 by the Malla king Siddhinarasimha as a residential addition to the existing palace. It was constructed at the south side of the already existing structure, occupying the space that had held a Buddhist monastary which was relocated to another location near the Durbar Square. Schlusser (p. 200) writes that the area the Sundari-Chok occupies has also been referred to as hatapatra or hatapatala, or marketplace ruin, and that there are references to an important stone that once occupied the site. The name Sundari-chok is really more of a descriptive term than a name proper; chok being the term for the central sunken courtyard of the Newari quadrangle and sundari- (from sundhara , "golden fountain") referring to the bronze fountain spout found in the courtyard (Schlusser page 156).
The Sundari-chok itself is a three story quadrangle of typical Newari style. It is entered from the west through an elaboratally carved entry way between large stone statues of Hanuman and Ganesha. After stepping up and over the threshold through the heavy, bronze covered doors, one enters a small alcove about twenty-seven feet wide and nine deep. A row of four columns of eight inch beams, all carved, creates three entryways into the courtyard of the quadrangle. The courtyard itself is paved with large flat stones, and lies several feet below the circumambulating walk, of the same material, that files past the other doorways and alcoves that line the walls. The quadrangle walls are basically symmetrical. The north, west, and east walls possess a columned recessed alcove, and a single door on either side. The south wall has three doors, the alcove being replaced by a heavy door similiar to that through which one enters. Between the doors and alcoves there are recessed images; wooden carvings of Vedic and Buddhist deities.
The western alcove is the only which contains a door or passageway. The other lower level doors lead to other portions of the building, but were not accessible. The only other door that apparently leads directly to another section of the palace is the northernmost one on the eastern wall. It passed through and out into the royal gardens which are located to the rear of the palace.
The three levels of the quadrangle exhibit the overhanging windows on the upper story and the carved buttresses characteristic of Newari architecture. In the case of the Sundari-chok, however, every available space that could be carved, has been. Some of the most beautiful carved windows, struts, pillars, and doorways in Nepal are to be found here. They depict elements of Tantric philosophy, deities, animals, dragons, nobles hunting and other secular scenes. Many are painted, or once were; although the building itself is in excellent repair, many of the wood carvings are a bit weather-worn.
In the sunken area of the courtyard lie the items of principle interest. Just to the south of center sits a great slab of flat stone, about four feet wide and ten feet long, behind which is a verticle stone with an inscription in Newari. This platform, which was called the "meditation stone" by the tourist guides, both official and self-appointed, who accompanied tourists into the Sundari-chok, looks past a tika powder stained image of Hanuman the monkey god at a large space, recessed deeper still below the level of the courtyard.
Roughly circular, and about twelve to thirteen feet in diameter, the fountain is aligned on a north-south axis. It is an example of the gaihridhara, or "deep fountain" variety (Schlusser, page 155) of which one sees a great deal in the Kathmandu area. Usually terraced, leading down to one and in many cases more spouts fed by gravity through clay pipes. The fountains vary greatly in size, shape, and number of terreaces. Usually rectangular, circular or cruciform, the shape of the fountain is not only aesthetic but also "concieved as cosmic diagrams, the ubiquitous mandala, and even the underground clay pipes may be arranged accordingly" (Schlusser, page 155). At the south end of the Sundari-chok fountain two large columns and a pair of lions stand on either side of a stairway leading down into the fountain. On the outside of the lions a snake coils itself around the sunken space; one head on either side, joining at the north end behind a miniature version of an sikhara style temple (plate 7). The fountain contains three layers of carved stone images. The topmost section sits level with the rest of the courtyard, the other two lie below. Below the miniature temple at the north end is a large bronze water-spigot head. For the purpose of this report, I will discuss selected images from Tier 1, as the image quality of the photographs for these images is clearer than that of the levels below it, and the other major features of the fountain.
There are a total of sixty-eight statues on the three levels within the fountain. Tier 1, which sits on the same plain as the surrounding courtyard, contains a total of twenty-four free standing icons. The images in Tier 2 and Tier 3 are recessed into the wall of the fountain, surrounded by carved border decorations. They contain twenty-four and twenty images respectively, arranged together in groups (panels) of three to five.
The first tier consists entirely of singular images. By this I mean that whereas the second and third tier hold statues that have been clustered together, and the images within a panel may contain a common theme. On the first level, although there may be more than one figure portrayed, the statue stands distinct from those next to it. This is not to suggest that these images do not relate to all of the others, they do, but they are different from second and third tier images structurally in that respect.
These freestanding images fall into two categories. The more common of the two is best described as resembling a bookend. The three dimensional image at the forefront is attached to a flat backround. This backing runs up straight from the base, then curves in to form a gothic arch. Usually the edge is decorated in a pattern of some kind. The other form is slightly more complex. The rear and edge of the image are formed from the coils of a great nag (snake), and a canopy of myriad snake heads curves inward over the image. I was unable to find a reference naming either of these two basic forms, but noting the formalness of most Nepali art, I am sure one exists somewhere.
The images found within the Sundari-chok can all be classified as falling within the general category of "tantric." Tantrism was a ritualistic movement within Hinduism that began to make itself felt in India around 600 A.D. Rather than achieve enlightenment through a series of thousands of reincarnations, the tantra texts sketch a path that makes it achievable in one life time. Tantra calls for the use of all means to achieve a state of release form suffering, following a "combination of ritual worship (puja ), psychic control of the body's physical processes (yoga ), intense concentration (samadhi ) with the help of psycho-cosmic diagrams (yantra ) and magic formula (mantra ), visualizations of symbols represented in magic circles (mandala ) and, in some Tantric schools, enjoyment of sensuous pleasures (bhoga ), notably sexual intercourse, regulated by ritual and harnessed to spiritual end (Anan, page 54)." Good and evil became less distinguishable, as both were to be manipulated in the effort to eliminate the self, or as Anan nicely it "...gradual liberation of mind from the bonds pimosed onit by the illusionary external world." (page 54).
Tantricism was not a separate religious doctrine, for within it there were no new real philosophical principles. The premise lay in that if these ritualistic acts were performed correctly the gods would be forced to yield their boon upon the practitioner, as oppossed to granting them willingly as would be the case in standard practice.
A core element of Tantric practice is the importance of the female principle, a revitalization of older Mother Goddess beliefs. In Hindhu doctrines, the female principle is perceived as the manifestation of sakti , or shakti , the cosmic energy. The male is a passive agent that must be activated by the female, otherwise, he is merely a corpse (Schlusser, page 215). The Buddhist school reverses this scenario, labelling the male element Upaya, Means or Method, and the female Prajna, compassion and wisdom. From this arises the wide vatiety of sexual images that are, in many Western minds, associated with Tantrism.
In Buddhism, Tantric influence takes the form of Vajrayana, or Way of the Thunderbolt. The vajra symbolizes indestructibility, purity, and Shunyata, the Void or nothingness (Anan, page 58), and takes on the form of a thunderbolt, suggesting the flash of intuition, and a diamond, which represents the indestructibility of the doctrine. The thunderbolt image is commonly seen in the hands of Vajrayana deities.
Tantric images are characterized by their vibrant forms and multiplicity of limbs and heads, symbolizing their many attributes and omnipresence. It is important to remember, also, that theoretically, Tantric gods are not in fact deities, but representations of metaphysical concepts and elements within the human mind. The images are aids for use in an individuals dealing with himself, as oppossed to physical forces in the outside world. Whether or not most lay-practioners adhere to this principle, is open to speculation, for as often happens, complex metaphysical theory is often overcome by simple faith.
Plate 7, Lion and Snake Head
The serpent or naga is one of the most ubiquitous symbols and images in the Kasthmandu Valley. Long reverred by Nepalis, the Tibetans referred to Nepal as "Land of Serpents" (Schlusser, page 353), the serpent has a host of important attributes and symbols. Perhaps most familiarly, the are known as the custodians of water, an important consideration for a subsistence agriculture economy lacking massive irrigation systems.
Here, the nagas fulfill the role of guardians. Traditionally associated with the world's treasures; water, gems, and precious minerals (Schlusser, page 357); the encircling snake coils are powerful protection . In the case of the Sundari-chok, two serpents, both at least twenty feet in length, loop their bodies around the images of their fellow divinities. Entrance is permitted in the only gap, between their watchful heads. The crowns on their heads may suggest that these are not common serpents either, but perhaps represent two of the nine chief nagas that are said to inhabit various parts of the valley ; everpresent with their retinues in their underworld dwellings.
Plate 10, Statue #1
Plate 11, Statue #2
In this image a multi-armed, multi-headed image sits upon the bodies of victims below, and his many hands hold weapons of war. In tantric images, it is interesting to note that in malevolent incarnations, deities often hold their weapons of force and destruction in the right hands, and the symbols of more esoteric metaphysical properties in the other. In this case, Siva holds in his two main arms an arrow (bana ) and a staff (khatvanga ). Although the arrow symbolizes awareness, its aggressive implications are apparent. The rear arms hold a sword, an axe, a hammer, and various other implements. In the front upper left arm, Siva holds a conch, (sanka ) and behind he holds a Wheel of Law (Chakra ) and peaceful attributes. In tantric practice, the breakdown of orthodox ritual practice also included the changing of attitudes attributed to the purity of hand usage: tantricism has been described as a "left-handed practice."
Plate 12, Statue #3
Plates 13-15, Statues #4-6
The nine naga lords of the Kathmandu are sometimes seen in anthropomorphic form, and these three images could represent some, due to the enormous canopies of snake heads that cover them, and the snake imagery elsewhere in the sculptures. Protective snake canopies also shade the heads of famous kings, but in this case it seems more likely that the images portrayed represent Dhyana-buddhas or Bodhisattvas . This is suggested by the mudras displayed and the lotus (padma ) over the right shoulder. In Mahayana Buddhism, the lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Signs (Ashtamangala ). The lotus is a symbol of purity, beauty arising from the muddy waters, and found thoughout both Brahmanic and Buddhist imagery. It is found along, with other indicators such as the chakra, which represents the eight-fold path, the kalasa, the vase of plenty (spiritual wealth), the Shrivatsa the endless universal knot, on images of recipients of gifts given by Sakyamuni-buddha, whom we would sometimes term "the historic Buddha." The fact that many of these images have similiar connotaions in Hindhu tradition demonstrates the great intertwining and conjountness of the two faiths.
Plate 16, Statue #7
Plate 17, Statue # 9
It is also possible that this image represents a hybrid form of Avalokitesvara and Shiva known as Lokesvara, who might be appearing in this case in the form of Matchendranath. Matchendranath is credited with ending a great drought that afflicted the Kathmandu Valley when he persuaded the snakes to allow the waters to return. This deity is said to make his home in Patan and a small Newari village to the south-west of the city, and there is a great festival held in his honor every year, so it is completely appropriate that he might be found in the Sundari-chok.
Plate 18, Statue #10
Krsna, playing his flute and surrounded by his milkmaid playmates. Perhaps the most popular of Visnu's human incarnations, in Nepal and the world, here Krsna stands in a Nrittamurti -sthanaka (a dancing posture). Over his head archs a protecting canopy of snakes. Krsna is perhaps best known as the narrator of the longest single poem known to world literature, the Bhahavad-gita . The story of Krsna is an epic tail of prophecy and destiny. Krsna is born on earth to destroy an evil tyrant. He rises to maturity after attempts to kill him at birth are unsuccessful, playing his flute to the delight of his consort Radha and their milkmaid companions and overcoming numerous demons in the process, before eventually fulfililling his destiny of destroying the evil Kamsa. Krsna is often given status as a god on his own, but he is still stongly associated with Visnu.
Plate 21, Statue #13
Plate 21, Statue #15
Plate 24, Statue #16
Bhairab , although to be feared and placated with offerings of blood and alcohol, still holds a strong place in the hearts of Nepalis. His actions are directed towards evil-doers, and his ferocious demeanor is seen as a great bonus when found in an ally. Bhairab takes on a multitude of forms in the Valley; classically there are sixty-four but with the Nepali love of multiplicity many more have come into existence. In the form of Kala Bhairab he is given the task of presiding over oath taking. It is said that any who lie before him will immediatelly die vomiting blood. Unmatesvar Bhairab is believed to cure a variety of ills, including sexual frigidity and menstural problems.
Plates 37 and 38, Fountain Spout
Occupying the space below the miniature temple is the sundara, or golden fountain, from which the quadrangle gets its name. A multi-piece bronze casting, with Visnu-Laksmi astride a resplendont Garuda. A huge peacock fan rises behind the deity, and although the mouth of the fountain is altered or damaged, perhaps it was once a peacock head.
From what analysis I have been able to do, an overall physical and meta-physical structure to the images at the Sundari-chok has not made itself aparrent. Stronger identification of the elements would be necessary for that level of analysis. Historically, it is also difficult to place the images found in the fountain. Many seem to date from the same period, but some vary strikingly in style (for example, Plates 10, 17, 22, and 30). It is possible that many donors made contributions to this site, although all of the images seem to have appeared at the same time, when the fountain was built.
The Licchavi period (mid first millenium Christian era) is said to be the point when Nepali stone carving reached its zenith with carvings still visible at Changu-narayani the temple devoted to Visnu in the east of the Kathmandu Valley. The Sundari-chok was built during the rule of the Malla kings, and the statues can not be much older. Many of them, I think, are nearly as spectacular as the more recognized masterpieces of sculpture. Perhaps the concentration of sixty-eight highly detailed pieces within the twelve foot radius alone is a bit of a sensory overload.
The imagery found within Hinduism and Buddhism as practiced in Nepal is so rich, dense, and interlinked that it is difficult ever to feel that one has seen all there is to see. Just simple elements alone, the various mudras of the icons, or the items they hold for example, can occopy volumes of notes and text. Placing a singularity on any image is well nigh impossible. Incorporating elements of physical context and historical chronology add a further element to the puzzle. The quest is richly rewarding, however, for quite often the path of best result is not necessarily even close to the path of intent.
Aran, Lydia: The Art of Nepal, 1978
Ariel, Makunda: Lectures, February 15, 20, 28, March 16, 1992
Schlusser, Mary: Nepal Mandala, 1983
Impulse, Background, Methodology - Setting - The Fountain - Analysis - Conclusion - Bibliography