20 February, 2008

How to Build a Nepali Temple in Thirty Days

By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, February 2008

Did the title get your attention? Did you think, as I did, that it would be fun to have a how-to book on building a Nepali temple—after all, our ancestors seem to have indulged in this pastime in generous measure, and there is no reason for us to give up on it just because bungee-jumping and barhopping are now the more popular pastimes. How come we don’t know how to do it? Perhaps it’s the missing how-to book?

Enter Elements of Nepali Temple Architecture by Puruswottam Dongol. This large format book is generously illustrated with photographs of Kathmandu valley temples. While not a Western-style how-to book, it has elements that an ingenious architect may use to think about ways to create a new temple. Starting with a history of temple construction, briefly discussing the non-denomination aspects of Nepali temples, which incorporates both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the book moves to a discussion of traditional construction techniques. There are separate chapters on pinnacle, roof, strut, cornice, windows, torana, door, column and plinth. The simple diagrams help to identify key structures and concepts.

All of us have gazed at Nepali temples, have been mesmerized by the red runners that wave in the wind, have watched pigeons flutter up towards the gabled roofs, and then have let our eyes travel upwards towards the symmetry of struts, carvings and slanted roofs. Without having the words to describe it, we’ve been awed by the geometrical precision, the richness of stone and wood carving, the mythological bases, the intertwined meaning that seems to permeate every inch of space in and around a temple.

And if you’re like me, you’ve also been a little frustrated at the lack of knowledge about what that awesome figure actually symbolizes, what that mermaid is doing up on that golden arch over a low wooden door, what kind of ghosts those guardian figures are keeping at bay. If you’re like me, you may even have become impatient and walked off without taking the time to learn about the minute intricacies of each art that makes up a Nepali temple, from stone to wood, carving to sculpture, from Buddhist and Hindu iconography and philosophy to the long copper banner that floats down from the sloping roofs.

While the book does not explain everything, it gives a simple overview of the most basic temple structure, from the minute visualization of the tantric base (one temple, for instance, is visualized as tantric triangles laid on top of each other), to the use of color, to the logic behind ornamental features. The architects of these exquisite structures had to figure out a way to stop the rain from seeping in and eating into the wooden timbers, and they solved it by an ingenious method—notched tiles that interlock and seal the rain out. A brick that sticks out may act to prevent moisture from seeping into cornice designs. A wooden arm, mimicking an human arm, may hint at the arc hitectural backbone of wood that holds the bricks up. Seismologists have long known that the delicate balance of the wooden frame allows the temple to sway during an earthquake, and may also allow it to absorb seismic shock with more resilience. The grinning skulls keep bad spirits away—and maybe even a thief or two.

The low quality photos might bring on an initial yawn, but be assured that once you read the text, the photographs will come alive. Newari classification of each architectural feature (Newars being the original architects of pagodas) is broken down and explained in simple language.

The torana, for instance, which is the wooden or metal board above temple doors, is not a mass of strange mythological figures: it usually features Chhepu, a fierce beast that holds a snake in his mouth as it attempts to escape; Ganga and Jamuna, the two river goddesses (or two mermaids known simply as ‘Nag Kanya’); apsara angels; and at the bottom two makara ( a seahorse looking creature.)

There seemed to be no hard and fast rule about which carvings should accompany which strut. Indeed, the variations of a temple’s design seem to be up to the individual team of artists and architects who make it. This fact came alive to me as I watched two temple constructions take place before my eyes. One was the temple at Bishalnagar Chowk on the east side of Kathmandu, which went from a pipal tree with vendors and a trash-heap to a beautifully constructed sacred art complex. I ask the shopkeepers who built this new temple. “The community,” they answer. One active member of the neighborhood
decided to raise funds, and through that they rebuilt a small, exquisite wooden pati (resting place), along with a series of statues that rest directly underneath a giant pipal tree. The only hint that we are in modern times is the iron bars that now keep out thieves who do not respect the sanctity of public deities.
While the shrine may have displaced the vegetable sellers, they have not gone very far. A concrete shelter on the other side of the street provides them with the same modest roof that the tree once did. As I walk by, I see three men discussing some issue of importance on the pati. This public space, it appears, is fulfilling its age old function.

The other temple that caught my eye is close to Sanepa Chowk, south of Kathmandu city in Lalitpur on the west side of Patan. The bamboo girders hint of new construction, and so do the new bricks. As I climbed the flimsy bamboo stairs, I was aware of being in a new construction site. This is a grander project than a statue underneath a tree. The temple is larger, more traditional. The decorations over the door, and on the courtyard, indicated that the process is being followed according to tantric rules and norms.

The woman sitting inside and presiding over the temple is large, and dressed in a white sari. A middle-aged man sitting with her addresses her with great respect as ‘Ajima’(Ajima, in Newari, means ‘respected grandmother’ or ‘Mother Goddess’.) He tells me that Ajima was the one who commanded to have this temple built: I am uncertain whether he’s referring to the woman before him (who I later realize is his mother), or to some metaphysical Mother Goddess to whom the temple is dedicated.

As the conversation proceeds, Ajima tells me that she has spent six years trying to build this temple (Yes, 30 days was an optimistic estimate). The land is her own. The money for construction comes from donations and loans. She is in debt, but she has to finish the temple, she says. There is still so much to be done, but they’re not hurrying. Everything has to be done as it should be done. The mortar is still inches thick, with lentils, molasses and all the other ingredients people used hundreds of years ago to strengthen their temples.

On the way out, her son told me that each time they have been in need, the universe has provided, and people have come forth to help. Ajima, he says, is always there, and has always helped. For a moment, the two of us stood underneath the door, looked at the half-finished beauty and precision of the temple, and felt the truth of his words.

For information or support to the Sanepa temple phone: 554.4400. About temple construction and restoration projects, contact the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (Patan Darbar Square, Mangal Bazar, Lalitpur). Phone: 554.6055 or 554.7142. Email: info@kvptnepal.org. Website: www.kvptnepal.org.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at: sushma@alumni.brown.edu

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