A Hindu Temple Door at Eichberg Hall
The Hindu temple is a place where the divine is made visible and accessible to humans. The divinity present is also made manifest within the temple architecture itself. The temple is a place where one “may progress from the world of illusion to that of knowledge and truth.” This quest for spiritual knowledge is often metaphorically expressed as a physical journey, one which passes through many stages of consciousness. Doorways within the temple are associated with the concept of transition, forming elements which lead from the temporal to the eternal.1 Their decoration elucidates this transition; protecting the sanctity of the gods residing within and reinforcing the function of the temple as a place where the gods manifest themselves in this world.
Over twenty years ago, I came to possess a doorway to a Hindu temple which is now on display in the Architectural History faculty office in the basement of Eichberg Hall. It is a massive piece of work, with its frame standing almost eight feet tall and all together weighing close to three hundred pounds. The door itself is made of carefully fitted teakwood pieces attached to a wooden backing, creating four recessed panels on its surface. It has three heavy crossbars containing decorative brass bosses. These were likely added to reference the defensive nature of medieval wooden doors, which were often fitted with pointed metal protrusions to prevent elephants from pushing in the door during times of attack. Massive teakwood beams make up the frame, with a threshold that, when fit in place, stood four inches high. The surrounding trim is intricately carved with a continuous floral frieze, and above the doorway are sculptured panels containing floral and animal imagery.
In the frame above the temple door is a niche resting on the lintel which would have provided a platform for an image, presumably representing the deity residing within the temple. This most likely would have been Shiva, although this sculpture had been removed when I acquired this door. However, directly above this space is a small, almost hidden image of a face which may represent some form of divine presence. Flanking this empty niche are two carvings of bulls, facing in towards where the sculpture of the deity would have been. These figures may well represent Nandi, the divine bull which serves as Shiva’s mount and who functions as the gatekeeper of Shiva and his consort Parvati in accordance with Hindu mythology. Typically images of Nandi are found at the entrance of Hindu temples and images of a seated Nandi within the temple are often placed to face towards the inner shrine. However, the identity of these sculptures on this door as Nandi may be somewhat questionable, since these images shows a bull with what appear to be feathered wings, which is not a common feature in Nandi representations.
Both above and below these bull images are multiple bird images, which may represent peacocks. The peacock has a long and complex meaning and symbolism in Hindu mythology. The peacock is considered the vehicle of the God of War, Kartikeya (a.k.a. Skanda), who is one of Shiva’s sons. It is also associated with the Goddess Saraswati, who represents benevolence, kindness, love and compassion (the Hindu equivalent of the bodhisattva Kwan-yin). Lord Krishna was also known to have worn peacock feathers in his hair and tied them on his flute. The peacock is thought to possess protective powers, and their feathers are believed to protect against and even cure poisonous snakebites. Two smaller representations of these birds are also found flanking the bottom frame of the doorway, following a tradition that can be found in ancient Persian art.
In their peaks the peacocks hold what appear to be stems to which flowering buds are attached. Similar floral imagery are carved throughout the surfaces of the door and door frame. These flowers may be representations of lotus blossoms, which are symbols of spiritual enlightenment in both Hindu and Buddhist contexts. Because the lotus flower repels water, it is able to bloom with a brilliant purity unsullied by the murky waters from which it emerges, symbolizing for Hindus (as well as Buddhist and Jains), the attainment of spiritual perfection and enlightenment, while its many unfolding petals also represent the expansiveness of the enlightened soul.
As this short examination attempts to show, looking closely at a single architectural element can provide significant insights into the nature of the structure as a whole. As openings into an enclosed architectural space, doorways are points of vulnerability, ones that need to be protected both physical and metaphysically. The heavy wooden construction of this doorway and its added metal elements creates a physical barrier which delineates a corporeal boundary providing physical protection for the activities and occupants within. Likewise, this doorway serves the symbolic function of delineating a spiritual boundary which needs to be recognized and protected through the addition of mythic imagery. As such, it sanctifies the transition from the secular to the sacred, creating a point of transformation designed to protect and reinforce the sacred nature of the deities that reside within.
1. Michell, George, The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms, University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 61 and 66.