Craft in Architecture: Woodcarving

Craft in Architecture: Woodcarving


The profusion of carved wood in the old Newar towns in the Kathmandu Valley is so great that it almost defies description. Every traditional townhouse, every temple and monastery, and every palace, offers examples of an enormous variety of carved doors, windows, struts, pillars, toranas, and so on - many of these are unique in themselves. Wood was the medium through which the artistic exuberance of the Newar craftsperson was expressed to the fullest. According to tradition the valley of Kathmandu derives it name from kastamandapa meaning a temple built from wood of a single tree which it is believed was constructed some 800 years ago.

Until the comparatively recent past, much of Nepal remained richly forested and timber was readily available. It was therefore used extensively in local architecture, much like it was in the architecture of Kashmir, of the Himalayan districts of India and, further east, of Bhutan. Wood was used both structurally and for the decoration of buildings in the Kathmandu Valley; as time went on, its decorative function seems to have outstripped its structural role. Thus, although doors and windows are obviously necessary for access to a building and to provide both light and air, they increasingly became more like vehicle for the artistic endeavours of the woodcarver, to the extent that many of Nepal's richly carved temple doors were never meant to be opened, and that there are windows that serve to illuminate upper storeys where no human being has ever ventured, or ever will.

The Newars have a rich vocabulary, particular to them, to describe the tools, components, decorative motifs, and patterns used in woodcarving - many of the Newars' techniques and compositions follow the stipulations of medieval Vastuhastra texts such as the Manisara. Typically, the components of a wooden artefact such as a window frame or a door are assembled without the use of metal nails or glue, although wooden pins are used on occasion.

For the exterior of the buildings the craftsmen use a hard wood which is not easily destroyed by sun, wind or rain. Their first choice is therefore the hard sal wood that is seasoned for several years before it can be used. Chanp, pine, cedar, sissoo varieties of wood are used for carving objects that are not exposed to the elements. The sal wood that is used for exterior decoration requires the carvers to put in extra hours of work and exercise great care while working - the carvings on such wood is a far more painstaking job. However if there is proper upkeep and care the wooden doors and windows can last for many decades.



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