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The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: A Reassessment
Seeing, Rather Than Looking At, Nepalese Art: The Figural Struts
by Mary Shepherd Slusser
text and photos © asianart.com and the author except as where otherwise noted
December 18, 2009
|This article is drawn from the important discoveries revealed in the author's book The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: A Reassessment. The article does not repeat the critical apparatus which can be found in the book, so the reader is urged to seek, if needed, further references and citations from the book. To see details of the book and purchase it from Amazon click here. The Editor|
Physically, Ukubāhāḥ follows ancient Indian models that were probably introduced into the Kathmandu Valley about the early fourth century C. E. with the arrival of the Licchavi peoples from northern India. Ukubāhāḥ may antedate the Licchavis, however, since accumulating evidence now points to some prior Kuṣāṇa presence. As viewed today, Ukubāhāḥ consists of a spacious quadrangle comprised of four two-story wings around a slightly sunken paved court (figs. 3, 4). The south wing houses the principal shrines, exoteric on the ground floor (fig. 5), esoteric on the floor above, and is capped by a large cupola, its roof embellished with a row of gilt stupas. The other wings, at one time housing for the monks—and eventually invaded by families—now serve a variety of institutional purposes for the monastery’s community, the saṃgha.
In keeping with traditional Nepalese architecture, the structures at Ukubāhāḥ are built of brick and wood in the post and lintel mode. They are roofed above a grid of rafters with a thick layer of clay sandwiched between two layers of tile. In lieu of tiling, the south-wing roof and cupola are sheathed in gilt copper in honor of the deities they shelter. Such roofs are very heavy, and their wide overhanging eaves demand extra support. This is achieved by means of struts, or brackets, sloping timbers set between roof and wall at approximately a 45 degree angle. The struts do not penetrate the building but are simply braced against it and depend in part on the weight of the roof to keep them in place. At Ukubāhāḥ, in keeping with other sacred structures, the struts have been carved in the form of the gods, a practice that further sanctifies the monastery and adds to its splendor.
Although there is a complete company of small figural struts upholding the roof of the large cupola at Ukubāhāḥ (fig. 6), the quadrangle wings below lack the full encircling suite proper to the Nepalese monastic courtyard. Indeed, at Ukubāhāḥ there are only seventeen struts at this level: eleven on the south (and shrine) wing (see fig. 4), and six facing them across the courtyard on the north wing (fig. 7). The south-wing struts are polychrome painted, but the north-wing struts are plain. Among the south- wing group, the central six are multi-headed, multi-armed Tantric images that typify Nepalese figural struts from about the fifteenth century on (fig. 8). Like the small cupola struts, they bear inscribed dates equivalent to 1653. The remaining south-wing struts, three at the left of the central group and two on the right, are also of approximately the same date. Some have been erroneously ascribed to the thirteenth century because in part they are modeled after far older figural struts such as the splendid company across the court. These, the six struts of the north wing, have long been ascribed to the thirteenth century as well, which we shall see is erroneous.
At one time, the north-wing sextet was installed at the rear of the south wing (fig. 9), but in 1982, when the monastery was renovated, they were moved to the interior of the quadrangle for security and placed in their present position on the north wing, three at each side of the entryway (see fig.7). By that time no figural strut was safe from predation.
In 2004 I learned of a Nepalese wooden sculpture that had been radiocarbon dated between 531 and 672. This was surprising. Until then the only Nepalese wood carvings of such antiquity were believed to be the ca. seventh-century reliefs in the Jokhang, the principal temple in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Allegedly, no other Nepalese wood carving predated the thirteenth century, or the twelfth at the very earliest. Yet suddenly, here was a Nepalese carving as old as the Jokhang reliefs. It could not be unique, I reasoned; there must be other equally early carvings. To find out, I decided to test two objects still in situ in the Kathmandu Valley that, like the Ukubāhāḥ struts, were also thought to have been made around the thirteenth century. Through the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), an international organization devoted to historic preservation in Nepal, which was then working at the very sites, I obtained the needed samples. Something little larger than a toothpick will do. The results of the two tests were astounding. One of the tested objects was made sometime between 900 and 1030 and the other, a figural strut, even more surprising, between 770 and 970.  The latter could have been made by a great-grandson of one of the Nepalese wood carvers invited to embellish the Jokhang. Given the common mind-set (albeit unfounded) that everything in the Kathmandu Valley had been torched in the week-long Muslim raid of 1349, I was certain the revolutionary findings revealed by the tests would be met with disbelief. So I undertook other tests that might buttress the initial ones. Together they clearly demonstrated the existence of a continuous tradition of wood carving throughout the long centuries supposedly barren of them. Moreover, the photographic documentation that accompanied the study showed wood carving to be far more than an architectural adjunct but a fine art, comparable in quality to the finest Nepalese bronzes and paintings. Speaking most eloquently to this proposition are the figural struts on the north wing of Ukubāhāḥ.
Because these struts, like the first two tested objects, were considered to be rare thirteenth-century survivals, they were obvious candidates for radiocarbon testing. To obtain the needed test sample, I again turned to the KVPT, and following delicate negotiations with the saṃgha elders, Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar himself, engineer, architect, and Nepal Program director, climbed the ladder to secure it (fig. 10). From that sample we now know that five of these “thirteenth-century” struts were actually carved between 690 and 890, by a carpenter who was most likely a near descendant of those who carved the splendid reliefs at Lhasa. Although, given the expense, only one Ukubāhāḥ strut was tested, four of its companions are so like it stylistically—indeed, were probably made by the same person—that I feel secure in dating them the same. The sixth strut, the second as viewed from left to right within the courtyard, is stylistically and chronologically anomalous. It is an interloper among the suite and, as established in the forthcoming study, could not have been made before the late tenth to early eleventh century at the earliest, and is probably much later.
Given the overlapping dates of the other five struts (690–890) with the reign of Śivadeva II (694–705), it seems likely that the suite for the monastery quadrangle was a royal commission of which only these five remain. If so, the king certainly engaged one of the most skilled of his subjects in the shaping of wood.
The monastery quadrangle where these struts have come to rest is not of their time. It is almost certainly only one of many successive elevations that over the years have risen above Licchavi foundations. But at each renovation or rebuilding, bits and pieces of the old structure along with some of its precious contents—manuscripts, bronzes, wood carvings, and other valued goods (fig. 11)—were saved and passed from generation to generation. Indeed, that seems to be the case for all the surviving Nepalese wood carvings created between the sixth and thirteenth centuries. However, as identified through my study, not only are there these isolated survivals but at least two ca. 1200 still-standing temples.
Although I took countless photographs of the handsome Ukubāhāḥ struts between 1966 and 2000, I felt that for publication they would be better served by professional photographs. To that end, in October 2006 I enlisted Neil Greentree, friend and member of the Freer and Sackler Galleries photography laboratory. To our horror, when we stepped into the courtyard we found that—the painted struts excepted—all the wood had been newly stained black (fig. 12). The struts that for so long had been a weathered pearl gray were now ebony (fig. 13). It was to beautify them for a ceremony to be held in the courtyard. There was no remedy; we enjoyed the ceremony and Neil did what he could (figs. 14, 15).
In September 2009, in the hope that time had softened the blackening, Neil returned to Ukubāhāḥ with determination and a state-of-the-art camera to better the somber photographs from 2006. Regrettably, the struts were still as black. Before submitting the new photographs for publication we decided that if the details in these carvings were to be seen we should artificially return them to a more natural appearance by computer enhancement of the digital files—in other words, lighten them. But, in reality, the struts are still black. Although the doctored photographs revealed details of unimaginable clarity, by then, with the book in layout, we could not introduce new images showing them, only substitute the existing images with better ones.
The new Ukubāhāḥ photographs, however, testify that although we have looked at these remarkable struts for decades, probably no one has seen them since the master carpenter brushed the last wood chips away and fitted them high above in the gloom of the eaves. The accompanying photographs, then, are offered to the readers of Asianart.com as a supplement to those in the forthcoming book so that after almost a millennium and a half of obscurity they will once again be seen.
To my knowledge, the first to publish an Ukubāhāḥ strut—or for that matter any Nepalese wooden sculpture—was Pratapaditya Pal in his 1974 Art of Nepal (fig. 16). It is an excellent frontal shot that captures the full length of the strut. The carving depicts the classic Nepalese version of a śālabhañjikā, a Sanskrit literary term meaning “the one who breaks the branch of the śāla tree.” The branch breaker is a comely maiden reaching for fruit or flowers in the branches above while supported by a dwarf seated among geometric forms at the base. The śālabhañjikā is also a yakṣī (tree spirit), and it is de rigueur that in this composition her legs be crossed. Her dwarf support is a yakṣa (occasionally a yakṣī), her male counterpart. His cubistic seat symbolizes rocks that denote a natural setting or mountainous terrain. Corner struts excepted, until about the end of the fourteenth century this version of the śālabhañjikā—maiden, tree, dwarf, and rocks—was the only composition used in Nepal when carving a figural strut.
The strut Pal chose for his illustration is Ukubāhāḥ strut 6. By coincidence, I chose the same strut to illustrate an article published the same year (Slusser 1974, fig. 2). In contrast to the frontality of Pal’s view, mine was slightly three-quarter and showed carving extending around the side of the strut. But my view cropped away most of the rock motif—and all of it when used elsewhere (Slusser 1982, pl. 162)—and, unpardonably, did away with the tree altogether. In our early acquaintance with these, and other, old śālabhañjikā struts, we were so enamored of the lovely attenuated form of the maiden, carved almost full round, that we little remarked her clothing and ornaments and ignored all else—tree, dwarf, and rocks. Pal, for example, beyond mentioning that strut 6 depicted the tree-dryad motif, wrote almost exclusively in these terms when describing it. The yakṣīs are “slender and elegant,” their modeling “soft but sensuous” (Pal 1974, 133). “Desirability,” he continues, “is the most obvious quality” as they “reveal their physical charms with uninhibited candor.” But remember, these struts are on a slant and high above in the shadow of the eaves. They can be looked at only from afar. We did not, almost could not, examine them. We simply did not even know that we should, so satisfied were we in contemplating the beguiling bodies over which, again quoting Pal, “the suggestion of movement flows across the surface of torso and thighs.” For me the first hint of missed detail came in 2005 when in computer-enlarged old photographs I saw for the first time textile patterns engraved on the maidens’ saris.
So, through Neil’s new photographs let’s look—no, see—something of what we’ve missed. And we’ll start with Ukubāhāḥ strut 6 (fig. 17), the one Pal introduced in 1974 (see fig. 16). In that old photograph, if we get beyond admiring the śālabhañjikā’s seductive form, we can see that she’s wearing a diadem, a few ornaments, a scarf, and a skirt secured by a wide, intricately carved belt. But there is so much more. Zooming in on the śālabhañjikā’s head we now see above her handsome face, with its arched brows over elongated eyes, aquiline (now damaged) nose, and full lips, an elaborate coiffure, pulled to the side in a large chignon threaded with pearls and finished with a jeweled rosette (fig. 18). It is complemented by a jeweled diadem under whose edges steal a row of curls. Her sister śālabhaṇjikās are no less elaborately coiffed but may favor slightly different styles. One, for example, eschews the jeweled rosette in favor of three dangling tresses loosed from the formal chignon (fig. 19). Another maiden, in this master carver’s hands, dispenses with the jeweled diadem, and some even with the formal chignon, the better to see every wavy tress and the very strands that compose it (figs. 20, 21). From these photographs we can fully appreciate that despite the “desirability” of the maidens’ bodies, their gentle, pensive faces display no hint of it.
It is clear that the Ukubāhāḥ master carpenter wished these bodies to be admired. That their alluring breasts and svelte limbs not be hidden, ornaments are few and clothing is the narrowest of shoulder scarves and the most gossamer of skirts. Gossamer, indeed, but worn seductively low on the hips, secured by a richly jeweled belt, and confected of the finest of fabrics patterned in the most attractive of ways. On some of the skirts only faint traces of design remain, but on others time has dealt a bit more kindly. Preserved on one, if faintly, are broad bands of intricate detail that when newly carved must have mirrored the rich fabrics worn by Nepalese princesses (fig. 22). Miraculously, on another skirt the design remains crisp and clear. It is a charming pattern consisting of broad bands contained within paired lines, the bands filled alternately with large blossoms or waterfowl (most likely ducks), some rows walking left and others right (figs. 23, 24). Carving each of these tiny creatures, surely measured in millimeters, had to be time consuming. But as we now begin to see, to the Ukubāhāḥ master it was no deterrent. For this heavenly company there would be nothing but the best. From the available photographs heretofore, or even the testimony of our own eyes, we could not imagine that we had been left such a gift. It has only taken a thousand years and more to open it.
No less than the śālabhañjikās themselves, the trees under which they stand command the Ukubāhāḥ master’s full attention. Their branches are sap-filled and burgeoning with flowers and fruit that the maidens seek, and, in keeping with the latter’s patterned garments, every fruit and every flower is worthy of care (fig. 25). Although a given fruit may number dozens upon dozens—the sides of the struts are also carved—each one becomes a miniature sculpture with a constricted end and evidence of the spent blossom from which the fruit developed. Even the tiny peacock that comes to peck the fruits must be accorded the patterning of its flamboyant plumage (fig. 26). Moreover, for this master carpenter, vegetation will not be confined to the face of the strut but will also be carved everywhere on the scarcely visible sides (figs. 27, 28).
So, too, respecting the dwarf yakṣas and yakṣīs seated on the rocky terrain below. No carbon copies here; each is an individualized sculpture in its own right. The positions of these small figures vary, their faces reveal different expressions, and while one yakṣa may wear a neatly trimmed mustache and Vandyke (fig. 29), another is clean shaven. Likewise, their hair styles are varied and only some wear ornaments or dhotis of patterned cloth (fig. 30). The single female support, like her mistress above, is carefully coiffed, ornamented, and provided a patterned skirt, to emerge under our master’s hand as an altogether charming—and heretofore neglected—sculpture in miniature (fig. 31).
Returning to strut 6, where this photographic odyssey began, we glimpse the pleasure the carving of these struts must have given the Ukubāhāḥ master. Although the śālabhañjikās are semidivine, they are not bona fide deities who must be represented in accordance with exact rules. For the Nepalese śālabhañjikas, only the composition—maiden, tree, dwarf, and rocks—was ordained. For the rest, nothing but the limits of imagination need stay this man’s cunning hand. The dwarf of strut 6, then, will not be plain. He will have a wide belt over which hangs the tail of his dhoti, and from the belt will dangle a large pouch with an ornamental clasp (fig. 32). It simply does not matter that these details will be almost invisible on the side of the strut—and before Neil’s photographs, they likely were. One senses in them an urge for perfection but also, perhaps, a reluctance to complete the commission. The detailed ornamentation of the struts must have been artistically satisfying but also the more belts, ducks, fruits, and peacock feathers, the more enduring the spell of artistic freedom the carving of them allowed.
The five struts are not the only old wood carvings within the Ukubāhāḥ courtyard. There is also a galaxy of exquisite reliefs to be found in the window framing and console cornices. Stylistically, they are a Kuṣāṇa and Gupta legacy from centuries past but carved by Nepalese hands and therefore valuable documents of the fine art of Nepalese wood carving. They are, however, little noted. The public ignores them, they have escaped scholarly attention, and their age is unknown. I did test one of them, resulting in a radiocarbon date of 1030–1240. Since these dates overlap the reign of King Rudravarma II (1167–1174), they suggest, as tradition affirms, that he indeed may have restored the monastery. Perhaps it followed an earthquake or some other calamity such as those the chronicles and diaries report for the Kathmandu Valley with such regularity. It is to be hoped that before the next one that might destroy them—perhaps a lurking earthquake as the tectonic plates grind beneath the Himalayas—someone will undertake an all-encompassing photographic and art-historical documentation of them. It would be of great value to the study of Nepalese art. May it be soon.
Neil Greentree, 1, 3–8, 10, 12, 13, 17–32
Slusser, Mary Shepherd
The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: A Reassessment
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