Although the sculptures at the base of the struts on many tantrik temples appear erotic on the surface, their significance is more cryptic: they serve as ciphers that hide many layers of meanings for the lay person and for the initiated.
When a woman, clinging to a man as a creeper twines round a tree, bends him head down to hers with the desire of kissing him and slightly makes the sound of sut sut, embraces him, and looks lovingly towards him, it is called an embrace like the 'twining of a creeper'
In the village where I now teach, as overrun it is now by Brahmins and Chhetris, the landscape of the sacred remains resolutely Magar in character. There are ancestor goddesses scattered through the valley, nearly always a blood-smeared rock under a tree or in a field. There is one Shiva temple with the god’s phallus, but the temple is visited very infrequently by the villagers. The holy basil in its mud mound sits outside some houses, but that is about all there is in the name of outward signs of religiosity. True, Hindus worship at every ancestor goddess temple, offering blood sacrifices, and tying red or bloodied white strips of dhwoja cloth around the goddess or her tree. But there is a visible absence of created idols.
I entered the old city of Patan recently. I was going to the heart of Patan, towards Chyasal, meeting old friends from high school, catching up over aaila and chhoila at Byanjankar, etc. In the gridlock immediately after Saatdobato, and before Lagankhel, there is a line of houses that must date to the immediate years after the 1934 earthquake. When I looked up at a house, I saw a pair of breasts, round, white, and with arms stretched wide, offered to the world. They belonged to an angel of sorts, leaning from what would be the capital of a column, if the column weren’t just a plaster relief. To add to the fertility of her full breasts, there were grapes bunched by her waist, each sweet nub an echo of the quirk of the nipples above.
Of course, to anybody who lives in this city, it is obvious that the phallus and the vagina and the womb are everywhere, and nowhere more copious than in temples. The Khyaa dancing outside a temple may have a thick, red-tipped penis pointing to the ground. Or, alternately, the pair of massive stone lions guarding the entrance to a monastery may have nothing else painted but their mouths, eyes, and genitals: she with a pink line for the vulva, he with just the red lipstick-tip of his penis peeping out, both recalling the wet and eager rush of the erotic. Or, out of nowhere, couples may be seen copulating on temple walls with their over-sized genitals—like on a small temple overlooking the hiti in Chyasal, for instance. For someone from a simple Magar village in the west, where nudity is seen only when someone goes mad and no longer abides by societal laws, the sight of so many phalluses and vulva can be discomforting, and a little threatening.
Why are there so many figures on temples in Kathmandu Valley shown in the most lascivious and licentious attitudes? After a few cups of thon, I returned to Patan Durbar Square for a closer look. To begin at the beginning, I thought, and started right at the entrance to the Square, examining the sculptures on the struts of the high but small temple to the north of the lesser of the shikhara-style
Krishna temples. After a careful study, I realized that there was nothing sexual or erotic about the sculptures on this particular temple: all the figures showed women being tortured in hell, not being serviced erotically.
Newar temples have gained a notoriety of sorts, because people think every temple strut has erotic figures on it. The vast majority of temples actually simply have yakshas or nymphs, guards and servants to the gods, and above them, functioning as the strut itself, will be the many-handed figures of deities carved according to the strict instructions corresponding to each deity, as recorded in the book of instructions, or, the thyaa-safu. But the desire to titillate is ever present, and so people make up stories about these figures, attempting to explain what function they serve. If figures engaged in bizarre sexual or erotic gymnastics are found everywhere around the Valley, it is also true that they are found mostly on temples of goddesses. In Pashupatinath, there is a statue of Kali dancing on Shiva, which is to say, of Shiva placating the creation-destroying wrath of Kali by playing the corpse on whom she can dance, but his phallus is oddly erect! Other than that, there are no obvious erotic sculptures on temple struts. Why is this so? What exactly do these sculptures show? Why do we find them odd now?
It is easiest to answer the last question: we don’t actually find them odd, but we have learned from others the attitude which renders our everyday icons exotic and odd. We are reminded by outsiders that ours is a culture that revolves entirely around the production and celebration of idols. Sometime last year, on my way back to the village, I saw three Australians with megaphones standing at a busy crossroads in Thamel, telling people of Kathmandu to repent and destroy the vulgar idols to whom they worship, because otherwise their god would send an earthquake as punishment.
There is another way of thinking about the products of Newar art and culture. Imagine having to build a house. You’d go to the hardware store and haggle for the cheapest way of building a window, while still trying to retain some dignity through exercising your aesthetics. Imagine the same for all the temples and homes in Kathmandu Valley, before the descent of the Gorkhali horde, and the epic vulgarity of the Rana-era imitations. Imagine going past simple function and spending many, many, labor-hours on adding the details that we now look at. And, imagine the hundreds of years of disciplined scholarship required to create and maintain a language of mudras and aayudhs and abhushans for each possible figure. That would have required a great deal of wealth and political stability. Unless there is the meditative practice of a craft—the bliss of sadhana—a work of inanimate art doesn’t gain the quick and live touch that invites awe. Imagine generation after generation of artists practicing the same craft, perfecting the repeated patterns of lotus and makaras, or inventing the graceful lines of a body at once in motion and in rest. (Go to Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, near Nagbahal, and look at the statue of a Buddha standing by the entrance to the prayer hall. A finer example of stillness and grace of movement in a single figure is hard to find.)
What is it that we see, then, when we try not to act self-conscious as we stare at the struts? To me, the most memorable figures are those of a woman being penetrated by a skeleton; a woman baring her back and bending as a stallion across a stall rears up with an erect, projected phallus; a pretty graphic depiction of a double penetration; the lady of the house being serviced by two kneeling maids, one gingerly touching her mistress, while the other prepares to push a mortar into her mistress. There was no dearth of imagination, even if there may have been somewhat of an absence of modesty, it seems. But, what is this modesty as we speak of it now?
I have a feeling that the modesty we speak of now isn’t indigenous to Kathmandu Valley. Even as far back as the sixth century, there were temples that were shared by many different sects of Buddhism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and animism. Evidence of this comes from stone inscriptions found on the base of statues of gods and goddesses, detailing the achievements of a particular king or Mahasamanta. But, perhaps after the advent of the Bhakti tradition, or perhaps even as late as a hundred years ago, something seems to have changed to make Newars uneasy with their own rich and tolerant history, and turned them away from their own stories, their own spiritual lay of the land. As the simplest example of this, take the new fashion of adding the lion strut to concrete structure, to give it the sheen of home-grown architectural aesthetic. The problem there is the total absence of the phallus. Examples of all earlier struts show a leaping lion, ferociously baring its fangs and its fore-claws out for an attack, and a decently sized phallus stuck to the underbelly. Lately, the lion has been rendered without genitals: no phallus or vulva. This disjoint is proof that Newars and other inhabitants of the Valley don’t see them as animated beings, but use them only as decorations. Without the life-generating detail in them, the figures mean nothing; they are merely a misshapen heap of nonsense.
There are a number of stories explaining why the erotic sculptures are on the struts. Some are mundane, some are mysterious. Perhaps the most mundane is also the one with some historical impression about it, and therefore likely to be offered in guide-books. In the age of the great struggle between Vedic Hinduism and the Hinayana of Buddhism, a Brahmin named Shankaracharya raised an army to force people back into the shackles of the Varnashram system. Whereas Siddartha Gautama had led a revolution to devolve the power of the Brahmins by eliminating the caste system and the tradition of ritual sacrifice—two things that most perpetuated the cycle of violence that increased suffering for the majority of people around Siddartha Gautama—
Shankaracharya sought to bring those practices back in order to strengthen and increase the dominion of Brahmins and Chhetris over other Varnas that actually engaged in economic production. When Shankaracharya reached Nepal in his quest, he forced the people of the Valley to increase their copulation, so that they could shake off their monastic lethargy and apathy towards worldly rituals. In order to inspire people to think of the phallus and the vagina, the linga and yoni so ubiquitous in Hinduism, he instituted the tradition of making erotic sculptures in temples.
Let us consider another explanation more commensurate to the phenomenon of the cornucopia of copulating genitalia. Indra, king among gods, has no other identity, and therefore is constantly under pressure to preserve his dominion. Rishis of the golden age had only one aim: to increase tapas, inner heat of the being, and ascend to the heavens. Sometimes, Indra had to play tricks on the rishis to lead them out of virtue and into sin, so that they had to start all over again, and leave his throne without threat for another eon. Kings and gods have always been rapists; they often occupy the wombs of virgins and wives of other men without seeking consent. And when Indra did the same to a rishi’s wife, the affronted sage not only tore out Indra’s testicles, but also cursed him to live with a thousand vaginas all over his body. (In later representations the vaginas become eyes, thus hiding one layer of information from the uninitiated, while revealing one layer of information to the initiated.) Now, when Indra looks down with his Vajra bolt of lightning, if he sees a house or a temple or a sattal with figures of people in coitus, or even the brightly painted vulva of a lioness, he remembers the orifices that once covered him from head to toe, a thousand fragrant and moist vaginas, and it drives him to despair and shame. And, therefore, he spares that house or temple from the heat of his bolt, spares it his wrath from the heavens.
Sure, the erotic sculptures could have been Shankaracharya’s doing, like some badly produced propaganda piece in the Soviet era. But why would the idea survive for so long if it was merely a political tool? Indra’s story is also cute, but it doesn’t explain the prevalence of the culture, the presence of erotic struts in such multitude. If such a myth were attached to just one building or temple, it would be more believable.
The explanation I prefer has the elements both of the profane and the profound, the mundane
and the mysterious, and in my opinion, best explains the presence of all the kinky, giggle-inducing figures on temple struts. Kathmandu Valley had all the attributes of a place capable of creating a great civilization: plenty of water, very fertile land, mild, pleasant climate, and an enviable seat between the great riches of China and India. Commerce in spices and silk, gold and coral, passed through this valley. Here, tantrik Hinduism prospered alongside the tantrik version of Buddhism (Vajrayana). And, over time, the gods and goddesses of one melded with the gods and goddesses of another; caste became fluid, while craft gained primacy; layers upon layers of meanings emerged. The mundane became the cover over the mysterious; the profane hid layers of the profound. Take the aghoris, for example: they give the highest possible offense to the mores and values of society, because there is no other way of transcending beyond the same mores and values in order to come closer to the hidden truths about humanity.
Imagine now that you are staring up at the struts, admiring the weird in them. Imagine now that you know what they mean. Each mudra gesture of each hand of each person in a figure represents a syllable. Where is the man’s right hand? Where is his left hand? Is the woman kneeling or standing? Each posture and each gesture has a syllable associated with it. The knowledgeable initiate knows how to arrange the syllable, the sounds, to arrive at a mantra. Now, there is a yet another syllable associated with the entire mantra that you just arrived at. Tuck that away in a corner of your mind, because you will need it later. Move to the next syllable to your left, this means you will be circumambulating with the temple to your right, i.e. in a clockwise direction. With each strut, reveal the single syllable that the cumulative of all sounds add up to. After a complete circumambulation, when you arrive at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, you have found the mantra for the goddess inside, and already invoked her once.
It isn’t true that the erotic sculptures on the temple struts of Kathmandu Valley are random depictions of sexual activities. I doubt if there ever was a woman who fancied a skeleton, because what would she gain out of it, anyway? But I can imagine tantriks dedicated to a goddess who would hide, under layers and more layers, the sublime truths towards which the initiate travels. I can imagine a secret network of priests and their families choosing to patronize one temple over another, thus accumulating the inner heat of sacrifice and worship over many generations. In a valley where kings consorted with goddesses, and where goddesses regularly demanded blood sacrifices, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to accept that there exists a world just beyond the familiar, just past the edge of our possible imaginations. And, therefore, even when a temple has carvings showing women being tortured in hell, with dandaka torturers pulling out her entrails or boiling her in oil, there is a mantra hidden under it all. Its function is to stump the casual viewer with details so otherworldly and alien that they can only be attributed to an aberration in reality.
I made my way to Mangalbazar on April 25—after the big quake – and while a dozen other tremors above magnitude 5 hit Kathmandu. The air carried the taste of soil. Most of the people gathered in the streets were paralyzed with fear. The rest were going mad because they didn’t know where to put their energy. Surely they must do something. But, what?
And in Durbar Square, so many broken tundals. Timber had been reduced to splinters; what had been sacred and awe inspiring was now nothing more than debris, the cause, the urgent haste to save human lives. Struts were used as levers to move heavy roofs, made heavier by the layer of soil under the tiles. Struts were thrown whole on the cobblestones of the Square, where they broke and splintered. Gods and goddesses lost their hands composed in various mudras. And, with the loss of the gestures, they lost their identities; a broken god is not a god anymore.
These temples had crumbled to dust before, in even cycles of a hundred years or so, and after each calamity they had been rebuilt. The temples will rise again, there is little doubt about that. But, in the age of extreme commercialization, at a time when visitors to the grim deathtrap that was once Dharahara were furtively taking home bricks from the fallen tower as souvenirs; what happens to the exquisitely carved and painted statues that have fallen from the struts?
Or perhaps there is another way to look at this crisis, and make better of the opportunity. What has fallen and broken cannot be reconstituted as the original, but they can become a new thing entirely. A garden full of sculptures gathered from around various squares in the historic area; to bring the fallen gods closer to the people they protect, and to bring a new generation of art lovers closer to the artifacts they have only seen from a distance, only seen in reverence. Veneration doesn’t come even close to affection, let a child stand next to a statue of Kumar and his familiar peacock, and let the child dream of someday creating something just as beautiful, with just as clean lines and expressions.
It is true that once the gods fall from the struts, they are nothing more than timber. Yet, my heart panicked to see how ruthlessly some people were throwing down the struts. A man visibly hesitated to pick up a sculpture depicting bestiality: the lady of the house being sodomized by a white stallion. Now, most of the temples where erotic carvings once existed remain as empty, raised pedestals. But the memories remain: of a lover blushing when made to look up, of the wonderment that never went away. Why are these here? Why do they exist at all? Why does the city now feel incomplete, out of character, in the absence of those figures on the struts? How long before they will return to their threesomes and contorted congress and necromancy and bestiality and good old fashioned coupling? Who will be, in our generation, the master craftsperson who gets to add from their superlative imagination to the age-old variety in the images of coitus?