Tudals: More than Struts

Features Issue 99 Jul, 2010
Text by Ashesh Maharjan / Photo: ECS Media

The fierce looking Leographs carved on the side struts of the temples of the Kathmandu Valley give you quite a fright at times. Other times, you are amazed by the watchful and ferocious attitude of these creatures with large eyes, sharp claws and mysteriously flaming wings shooting up from their legs, mouths and tails. These beasts really seem to guard the temple and scare any evil offenders away from the premises. The middle struts with three dimensional carvings of the deities with multiple arms extended outward are no less spectacular. They were surely carved by the hands of masters.

Take a walk through the labyrinthine lanes of any of the three sister cities of the valley - Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan) and Bhaktapur - and you’ll see that there are temples every few blocks and sometimes every few steps. Most of them are pagodas and may look alike, but you don’t need to be an archeologist to see that they are not identical. These pagodas have roofs, heavily overhanging from the wall of the temple core. Even more interesting are the tudals (struts) that project 45 degrees or more up and out of the cornice ledge to meet the dangling roof, displacing the weight of the overhanging roofs to the load-bearing walls. You need no more than a few seconds’ glance to figure out that these linear pieces of wood do more than just prop up the overextended roofs. They act as reminders of the masterful and overtly expressive sculptural art of Kathmandu during the rule of the Malla kings (from 12th to 18th century AD).

A single strut can be divided into three sections: top, bottom and mid portions on the basis of the carving. The top and bottom sections are separated from the mid section as they are much plainer (meaning they look more like two dimensional figures). The top segment, consisting mostly of figures of tree branches with heavy foliage hanging down, serves as a background to the main figure in the mid-section.

The carvings on the bottom portion of the struts are a much discussed topic. Some consist of rocks, foliage or separate scenes as compared to the main image. But mostly, they consist of erotic carvings. These erotic images are mostly associated with Shiva temples and were created during the late 17th century. There have been many speculations made as to why these struts were carved with humans and animals engaged in sexual acts. Among them, the most logical explanation was given by Phasis the Noiyel, a French researcher on Indian and Nepalese culture. According to him, in ancient Nepal, talking about sexual issues was considered immoral. This resulted in a lack of awareness about sex and, more importantly, reproduction among the younger generation. So the dharma guru kalakars (master artists) of that time made these erotic carvings in order to make people aware and teach them the importance of the union of the male and female. Another popular belief is that these keep temples from being struck by lightning.

The middle portion of the strut, which forms 50 percent or more of its total length, nearly always holds a three-dimensional image of a god mounted on a base supported by attendants or bahans (vehicles), humans or animals. Ganesha on a rat is a common deity and bahan found in the middle portion of tudals. In most Buddhist shrines, the carved images of the deities are identical in all respects except color. Their hue is of directional significance within the cosmic map, that is, the pantheon of deities. Unlike the deities in the other parts of the temple, say, in the cornice itself where the color is of no significance and is merely decorative, the colors of figures in tudals are employed for iconographic identity.

The postures of the deities standing on the struts usually have the legs crossed so that the front foot rests on its toes while the leg behind it is straight with the foot resting atop the base or bahan. The positioning of the legs of the deity has different symbolizations. Two common standing postures are alidh asana (with the right leg positioned upward, signifying the beginning of work) and pratya alidh asana (with the left leg positioned upward, signifying the completion of work).

The deity facing front almost always has a multiple number of arms extending out from the body with the hands holding various and unique symbols. A representation of Shiva, for example, always has a trishul (trident) in one hand and some other objects in the other hands, while Vishnu is represented grasping a sankha (conch shell) in his hand. These struts are of great artistic value and are sophisticated both in the aesthetic and architectural sense.

The images of Asta Matrikas (Eight Mother Goddesses) are the other most common carvings in the tudals of Hindu temples. The Hindus consider the eight mother goddesses to be their protector. These carvings are found in the temples of Taleju, Naxal Bhagwati, Indrayani and Ekhalaku Ganesh. They are characterized by multicolored costumes and ornaments, have several arms and have symbolic vehicles - Brahmayani on a goose, Rudrayani on a bull, Vaishnavi on a garud, Kumari on a peacock, Indrayani on an elephant, Chamunda or Kali on a demon, Varahi on a buffalo and Mahalaxmi on a lion.

Some of the most notable temples for exquisitely carved struts are Changunarayan and Nyatapola of Bhaktapur and Jaganath of Kathmandu. Among these, Changunarayan, which happens to be the most popular, has 24 tudals in the lower roof and 16 in the upper. For reasons unknown to us, the struts here do not have erotic carvings in their bottom section. Instead, they have some benign images of a rishi beneath the feet of each of the torana deities. These rishis are believed to be iconographic remnants of the original temple struts, which were replaced following natural damage and disasters.

Though these tudals are replaced and changed with the passage of time, their arrangement is not changed in any respect. The arrangement adheres strictly to the systematic rules of tantric iconography. And though they wear out with time, they do not seem to stop amazing locals and tourists alike with their intricate beauty and authenticity.