“To probe the background of Nepalese temple architecture is to attempt to penetrate the greatest complexity of Nepalese life, to separate the inseparable religious and sub cults which have welded themselves together into a finished product” quotes Bernier in his book Temples of Nepal.
Since ancient times, the resplendent topography and pleasant climatic conditions of Nepal has attracted large groups of people, from travelers, traders, and pilgrims to refugees and migrants. Both the bordering nations of Nepal, India to the south, and China to the north, have gone through tumultuous political and religious histories in the past, causing waves of migration as political and religious refugees into Nepal. However, these upheavals did not have a devastating effect in Nepal, and the country always enjoyed harmony amongst its dwellers. Nepalis, since ancient times, are known to be very hospitable, adjusting to outsiders and assimilating them easily into their own culture.
Melting point of cultures
The migrants brought with them their tradition, religion, clothing, food habits, art, architecture, and language, encouraging a cross contact of culture. Therefore, Nepal became a melting point of influences from Tibet and India. Thus, there is no ‘purity’ of religious division to be found here, no jealous guarding of one’s own faith against the influences of a neighbor’s creed, and little sense of separateness against devotees (Bernier, 1978:8).However, the Nepali artists assimilated the incoming style and features,evolving a unique style, which Nepal can boast as its own creation. This unique style utilized local resources, thus, brick and wood became the prime material for architecture.
Quest for spiritual merit
Delving into the religious history of Nepal, the construction of temples and installation of deities has usually been from the part of royalties, aristocrats,traders, and common donors. The priests never became all powerful figures in Nepali society, like that of India and Tibet. Their role was to perform the daily rituals, festivals, and traditions of the temple, besides guarding against impurity within the sanctum.
Hinduism supports the identification or location of a sacred spot for the construction of a temple. These sacred spots are called tirthas, or in a wider realm, a kshetra. They can be near rivers, lakes,mountains, rocks, and crevices, where the transcendental or the divine reveals itself. According to American art historian Kramrish, “Tirthas are places where this world meets the other world and the aim of the pilgrim is to participate in that special quality to gain merit and finally be liberated.”
Many of the architectural features in Kathmandu Valley—their construction and preservation— are the result of the Hindu-Buddhist quest for religious merit. The building of temples,and also roads, public shelters, and water sources, were undertaken by kings and commoners not only because they were needed, but for the religious returns they ensured. The gods are thus pleased, and the donor accumulates merits for himself and his family, involving the past, present, and future generations.
Dwellings for the gods
The dwellings of gods and goddesses in Nepal are quite unlike those of other countries, which house both the deities as well as the religious congregation assembled to worship. Nepalese worship is fundamentally an individual concept. Despite its grandeur, massiveness,and decoration, the main sanctum of the temples are very small, seldom accommodating more than five-six people, and very simple in the interior. However, they are centrally located in spacious courtyards, enclosed with sattals and patis (colonnaded resting places). The courtyard houses smaller shrines of deities associated to the main shrine, and is used for various rituals, as well as social activities.
From a distance, the unique design of the Nepali temple, with the golden glow of the gilded roofs reflecting onto the red bricks and the wooden structures, looks like an ethereal chariot, balancing itself in the skyline. With abundance of land to dedicate to temple complexes, the early artist centralized the main sanctum in large courtyards below overhanging roofs in multitiers, diminishing in size to look like the lofty mountains.
Giving vent to creativity
The artists of this period gave full vent to their creativity and artistic expression, as these grand structures focus much on aesthetics. In terms of utility, besides the sanctum of the ground floor, the above stories serve only to add to the aesthetics, and have no utilitarian value. The simple structural composition is cloaked by a grand artistic display of carvings and décor, in wood and terracotta, with motifs that add mystery and symbolic grandeur, says Professor Sudershan Raj Tiwari, an expert on traditional architecture.
The veil of ornaments termed as alamkara in Sanskrit, as seen in the multi-tiered temples, are much more than mere external display. The multiple plinths that give the temple the grandeur, doors with extended lintels and thresholds, the struts or tudals, the tympanium or torana, the large number of embellishments and deities placed on the outer walls of the sanctum, the overhanging large multi-tiered roofs, the multiple gajurs, and the finial or pinnacle, all add to the aesthetic of the temple for the layman, but have symbolic and functional meanings for the scholars.
A thousand-year-old history
The Nepali temple represents such a tradition with a continuous development spanning 1500 years. The grand and picturesque architecture of the multi-tiered temples we see today,often referred to as the masterful creations of the medieval or Malla period, own much of its grandeur to a thousand-year-long history of high culture, including art and architecture. As stated by Professor Tiwari, the Lichhavi period,often referred to as the golden period of Nepali art, was also an active time in the development of religious art and architecture.
The temples of the Malla period, particularly the degah and the deochhe, are in away, a summary of this active history and tradition of development. The Shah kings, who overtook the Mallas, gave continuity to the existent style. The installation of the victory pillar by King Manadeva in A.D. 464 on the hill of Changu represents the earliest landmark of architecture to be found in Nepal. In later times, the grouping of deities in four became popular,whose temples were installed in different directions. These temples housed deities in both their iconographic as well as non-iconographic forms.
In reference to Nepali architecture, the first archaeological evidence of architecture is the Garud Dhwoj pillar inscription, installed by King Manadev, thefirst historical king of Nepal, in A.D. 464, on the premises of the Changunarayan Temple. The pillar, often referred to as the ‘victory pillar’, was installed in memory of his victory in subduing the samantas (feudal lords)of the east, and extending his empire to the west. This inscription is considered very valuable, as it gives an account of the social, religious, political, and economic condition of the Lichhavi period.
In terms of temple architecture, the first reference can be seen from the inscription that was retrieved from a wayside near Sundhara at Patan, near a deochhen temple of Goddess Mahalakshmi. Although this inscription does not give any description of the design of the temple, it records the restoration of the temple of Matin devakula by Mahasamanta Amshuvarma in A.D. 610. It mentions the repair of all wooden components, doors, windows, panels, and frames that were destroyed by mice and mongoose that attacked the temple through the crevices in the layers of fallen bricks. It is also noted that the existant deochen is a rectangular two-storied brick and timber temple and related well with the inscriptional description of the ‘brick and wood’ Matin devakula. Professor Tiwari also mentions a continuous tradition of a group of people of the Kirat descent performing annual religious activities, thus putting into question the antiquity of the temple.
The numerous temples we see today have their roots in the Malla period. The kings of the Shah dynasty gave continuation of this majestic style without any compromise on the form, material, and adornments. The palaces at Gorkha and Nuwakot, Taleju Temple in Kathmandu, Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur, Indreswara Temple in Panauti, and Tripureswar Mahadev Temple(Kathmandu) are some of the best examples of temple architecture of this style. The magnificent structures of these multi-tiered temples that has caught the fancy of the entire world have great universal significance and value as world heritage sites today.