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