In a corner of Bhaktapur's Durbar Square, standing prominently below the old palace, is a small shikara type temple to Bhagwati, significant because it boasts some amazing sculpture. Images of the goddess are particularly fine, but eclipsed by a double row of stone statues that flank the temple stairway.
At the base are two strong men, perhaps watchmen or royal guards. They restrain savage mastiffs with heavy chains, and in their free hand clutch what have been described variously to me as children or criminals. I favour children because the nude figures clutch what look like balls or fruit in their hands. On the other hand, the firmness with which they are held suggests evil doers of some sort, their small size perhaps reflecting the old artistic device of making lesser characters smaller than important ones. Whatever, the dress of the larger figures is extraordinary. To me they look like Venetian Doges, but obviously they wear the costume of the court. Very grand headdresses wound around with figured turbans and secured with jewelled clasps. Carefully pleated robes, handsome belts in which are tucked daggers, Tibetan type boots and a wealth of jewellery around their necks and cascading from their ears.
I asked passers-by as I sketched if they knew who these figures represented and the answers were fascinating. Wrestlers. Policemen. Royal ayahs. Gods. Zoo keepers Executioners. Noblemen. The child was being punished, dragged for a walk, going to be killed, fed to the dog. Since the child, or criminal, wears a sort of cornet on its head, guessing becomes difficult.
Above the men are two horses, richly caparisoned, hung with bells, bejewelled, and even their hooves appear to be carved, perhaps painted with bold designs. These surely were royal mounts, or more important, mounts fit for the gods. They look spirited without a trace of devilment.
With the two one-horned rhino above the horses, we are into conjecture again. Were these primordial beasts brought from the tarai in the heavy chains they wear to fight before the king, or were they exhibits in his zoo? That they wear rich saddle cloths seems to suggest that they may have been tame and used especially for processions. The anonymous sculptor, however, has captured a meanness in their eyes that together with their heavy chains makes me believe they belonged either to a royal menagerie or were watched in duels, distinguished by the colours they wore.
Sitting above the rhino are the most intriguing of all the sculptures. Undoubtedly they portray wild-men, jungle-men, ape-man, or could they possibly be yetis? They have human faces with beards, manes and moustaches. But their ears are pointed, like animals, their bodies are as much animal as they are muscular human. The way in which they crouch rather than sit points to the wild. And they wear head chains of captivity. Is it possible that a Malla king had ape-men in his zoo, or had the sculptor either himself seen or heard the tales of wild men of the snows?
Lastly are a pair of camels, the only two stone sculpted camels in the Kathmandu valley. In fact, it is only in Bhaktapur, carved into an ornate wooden window and here on the steps of the Bhagwati temple, that camels have inspired sculptors and carvers. Could it be they echo the camel caravans that crossed the high Gobi desert on their way to Tibet and Nepal? Or do they recall the camels of the Rajputana desert that the early Rajput immigrants remembered?
I have been unable to discover the purpose of these delightful sculptures other than that they protect the deity in the temple. Many of the great temples of Bhaktapur have their entrances guarded by legendary wrestlers of superhuman strength. One memorable example has the ascending humans, beasts and divinities each ten times stronger than the other so that the accumulative strength protecting the temple image is enormous.
This Durga temple was raised in the seventeenth century, in all probability by the master builder of Bhaktapur, King Bhupatindra Malla. His love of the beautiful and bizarre may well make him responsible for this temple and its unique sculpture. If only he had kept a diary. I'd love to know about that ape-man. That yeti. t
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999)