Hindu and Buddhist Tantric Iconography in Stone Statues at Sundari-chok, Patan, Nepal
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IMAGE ANALYSIS

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 lion and serpent images found at the head of the stairway descending into the fountain are guardian images (dvarapala ), placed to frighten away evil and those who would bring impurity to a holy place. The lion is a common guardian image, appearing at the doorways to shrines or the foot of temple stairways throughout Nepal. Chimeras and griffons are also found in this role, snarling pairs placed at important entrances.

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
This image poses a bit of a problem. It rests on the edge of the stair, parallel with the path leading down and so separated from the rest of the statues that surround the fountain and form Tier1. Directly across from it sits Statue 24, and the two are similiar in that they are both completely unlike all of the other images. Statue 1 depicts a mounted figure in armor, holding aloft a sword in his right hand. The horse is position facing in towards the fountain, to the north, and the figure gazes that direction also. Around the riders neck is a long garland of flowers. The horse and rider are the only images on the statue. The background is plain, as is the asana, or base, which is of the padmasana (single layer of lotus leaves) type. A few days before I left Nepal, while I was copying down and inscription in the courtyard (which turned out to be in Newari and therefore Greek to me) I met a doctoral student who was studying the Patan Durbar Square. As we were talking about the images in the Sundari-chok, it came up that the two images on the edge of the stair seemed incongruous to the others. We speculated that it must be a portrait of a historical figure, perhaps Siddhniharasima, but there was little evidence within the quadrangle itself to directly support this. At any rate, the image is not that of a deity or mythological figure, for it contains none of the adherant images that are associated with residents of the complex Hindu and Buddhist mythos.

Plate 11, Statue #2
The bulls beneath the asana (throne or pedestal) suggest me that this image represents Siva However, lack of certain key symbols, chiefly the lack of a trisula (trident) casts that in doubt. The two perhaps most recognizeable and important symbols associated with Siva are the trident and the faithful vehicle ( or mount:vahana ), Nandi the bull. Nandi is so closely associated with Siva, however, that I am lead to believe that this indicator is strong enough proof to believe this to be an image of the most popular diety in Nepal. The cult of Saivaism is the most pervaisive in Nepal. Siva-ratri (Night of Shiva) a festival held every spring at Pasupatinath , the enormous temple complex in Deopatan where Siva is worshipped in his guise as Lord of the Animals (Pasupati ), attracts literally hundreds of thousands of worshippers from not only every corner of Nepal, but India as well. The most common term used by non-Buddhist inhabitants of describing their religious beliefs is Sivamargi (Follower of the Path of Shiva), although this term is somewhat deceptive in that inherently within that one most recognize the importance of other gods, such as Visnu as well.

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
It is not readily apparent who this image represents, probably Siva or Visnu although neither of their chief attributes are apparent. It is a characteristic example of the sexual imagery found in much tantric art.



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
It is fortunate that statue #7 is fairly obviously a Visnu-Lachsmi image, for it is heavily damaged. His two right arms are missing hands, and the face of Lachsmi has sustained some damage also. The face of Garuda, the indicator of the identity of the images, has also been worn or broken off. Regardless, the remaining features fit within the standard Visnu repotoire. Seated in a dhyana , or simple cross-legged, position with Lachsmi perched on his left knee, Visnu gazes out benevolently at the world. Atop the two deities heads are ornate diadems (mukuta ), around his neck an auspiciaus garland of flowers. The right rear hand probably held either a Wheel of Law (chakra) or a mace (gada ). By the position of the forward right arm, the hand was originally probably held in the abhaya-mudra ; palm out, fingers pointed up; the "fear-not" or "protection" gesture found on many benign deities. In Lachsmi's left hand, held at waist level, rests what appears to be a vase (kalasa ), which contains the primeval water carried by Brahma when he created the universe. The two deities are seated on a visvapadmasana style pedestal, which is composed of a double row of lotus petals. Unfortunatelly, the top row of petals has been rubbed off. The edges of the statue are also in poor shape, being fragmented and jagged.

Plate 17, Statue # 9
A plump and jolly pair, with mischievious smiles on their faces, recline in comfort atop a lalitasana style pedestal. A central male figure holds a torch in his upper right hand, and a female image sits on his knee. The varada-mudra of the two figures, as well as their rich attire, and relaxed position, suggests that this image depicts the Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and his consort tara. The Bodhisattva's are essentially the saints of Mahayana Buddhism, being mortals who have reached a point in spiritual development where the could achieve nirvana, but choose not to do so in order to help others reach enlightenment also. Avalokitesvara is humankind and is perceived as a saviour and protector from danger, invoked by the mantra (invocation) "Om mani Padme Hum " -- "Blessed be the jewel in the lotus (Aran, page 102). His consort, the White Tara (Svetatara) is said to have been born from a tear in his side, and is also known as a saviour and protectress.

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
In the Patan Durbar square sits a gourgeous example of the Sikhara- style Mandir, a form strikingly different from the common multi-roofed structures seen across the Kathmandu Valley. Built entirely of stone, the temple consists of a series of terraces leading up to the main temple structure, which is a double layer of columned floors capped by towering turrets, a large central tower surrounded a shorter turret at each corner. The temple is devoted to Krsna, and carvings of scenes from the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. In the Sundari-chok, just above the fountain spout, sits a miniaturized version of a sikhara  temple. Although it does not include the corner turrets of the temple in the square outside, its other similarities make it reasonable to think that this might be a replica.


Plate 21, Statue #15
One of the most popular Visnu incarnations, or avatars, in Nepal is that of the half-man, half-lion Narasimha. The demon Hiranyakasipu was preventing the worship of Visnu, immune to punishment as Shiva had made him invulnerable to man or beast. He had not been made safe from that which was neither, a man-beast, however, and as the lion headed Narsimha, Visnu destroys the evil demon. in this image, Narsimha sits triumphantly over the body of his fallen opponent. As usual, he rides atop winged Garuda, this one replete with human head. He rests comfortably with Lakshmi beside him, although what incarnation she may be present in is unclear. His sixteen rear arms hold various weapons and attributes of his power. The upper right holds a sword, khadga, a symbol of enlightenment and instrument against ignorance. Directly below the khadga he holds a arrow, bana, which symbolizes awareness. Successivelly below these two attributes are what appears to be a flame (agni ) a weapon of war, an unidentifieable item, a thunderbolt (vajra ), and a battle-axe (parasu ), which symbolizes severances of attachment to this world. The lowest hand is held in a varada-mudra, or gesture of munifence. On his left side, the items Narsihma holds are difficult to make out, but two important elements can be seen above Lakshmi's head. The topmost hand holds a chakra, or Wheel of Law, and just below, barely visible, is a gada, or mace, another weapon of war. Both of these are specially connected with Visnu. The other images are obscured. It does however, appear that Lakshmi is holding in her left hand a vase, kalasa, containing the creation water of Brahma. Another important element is the lotus bud that sprouts from Narsihma's belly button, conclusivelly establishing this image as Visnu. The sprouting lotus padma represents the Earth (Mani ), water and creation, and Visnu's importance in association with all three.


Plate 24, Statue #16
Tantric images come in malevolent as well as benevolent forms> Perhaps the most familiar of these in the Kathmandu Valley is Bhairab, ( or Bhairava, the Terrible), or Mahakala (the Great Black One). Here Bhairab brandishs his Khatvanga (staff), a bone topped with skulls, and instead of the garland of flowers worn my benign deities, he wears a belt made of the heads of his victims. He tramples a figure beneath his feet. His left hand is raised in Tarjani-mudra , the gesture of warning characteristic of wrathful deities. Although obscured, it appears he holds a sword in his upper right hand; the blade may have been broken off, the forward right arm holds a ritual skull cup.

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.


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