Saturday 19 October 2013



Halloween will soon be upon us and we will be mercilessly bombarded with all that is dark and scary. This is the time when ugly is beautiful and fear mongering is the norm. My thoughts turn therefore to a varied yet common motif donning mainly historical buildings of most western metropolises, Toronto being no exception. Blissfully unaware we all go about our daily business under the protective gazes of grotesque gargoyles.

Gargoyles are actually the good guys for they are said to frighten off and protect those structures, old buildings or churches from any evil, harmful spirits.

About AD 631-641, a colourful French legend sprang up about St. Romanus (“Romain”). In this the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, recounted the tale of how he’d delivered the country around Rouen from a diabolical monster called Gargouille or Goji.

Rouen-gargoyles courtesy of Jon Marc & Mary Carol's Ex-pat adventures

The description of La Gargouille pegged him to be a typical dragon, with bat like wings, long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth.  At that time this dragon had engendered much fear and perpetrated much destruction with its fiery breath. Spouting water, he supposedly devoured men and ships whole. Each year, the residents of Rouen were forced to placate Gargouille with an offering of a victim, usually a criminal, though it was said that the dragon much preferred maidens.  St. Romanus promised to deliver the townspeople from this terrible danger and in recompense they would all be baptized and later construct a church. 

rouen-cathedral-gargoyle by ShironekoEuro

It is natural to have multiple versions of such a popular fable: In one scenario, St. Romanus purportedly subdued the creature using a crucifix and led the then docile beast back to town on a leash made from his priest’s robe. In another version St. Romanus captured the beast with the help of the only volunteer, a condemned man.

In both cases the monster was led back to Rouen and burned, but only partially. You see the head and neck, being tempered by its own fiery breath, could not be incinerated. Undaunted, the head of Gargouille was still utilized for protection and was promptly mounted on the wall of the newly built church to scare off evil spirits.

Since then, in commemoration of St. Romain, the Archbishops of Rouen were granted the right to set a prisoner free on the day that the reliquary of the saint was carried in procession.

During the 12th century when gargoyles were manifest in Europe the medieval world already held the view that many creatures exhibited varied mystical powers and several animals were privileged by being anthropomorphized, (that is to say, human qualities ascribed to them). 

The Roman Catholic Church, by then an influential entity, seizing this opportunity, utilized these images to convey certain ideas to the illiterate populous and also to convert pagans to Catholicism.

Gargoyles were viewed in two ways by the church; the primary use was to convey the concept of evil through the form of the gargoyle. Some medieval clergy viewed gargoyles as a form of idolatry, for example, in the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against gargoyles. Also gargoyles were said to scare evil spirits away from the structure, thereby reassuring the congregants that their church was a safe haven from evil spirits.

On the practical side, Gargoyles serve another vital purpose in architecture. Usually an elongated, granite beast with a spout, was designed to direct the flow of rainwater off of the roof. A trough, cut in the back of the gargoyle (the length of the gargoyle determines how far water is thrown from the wall) directed rainwater to exit through the open mouth. Ingeniously therefore, the damaging rainwater was also steered away from the masonry walls and the mortar between to prevent erosion.

Gargoyles had their humble beginnings in the form of fountainheads. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans fancied these animal configured waterspouts. The term gargoyle was most often applied to medieval work, but throughout history some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, were adopted. In ancient Egyptian architecture, gargoyles showed little variation, typically carved in the form of a lion's head. Similar lion-mouthed water spouts were also seen on Greek temples, modeled in the marble or terracotta cymatium of the cornice.

Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. Although most had grotesque features, over the years the term gargoyle had come to include all types of images. Some gargoyles were depicted as monks, or as combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. Unusual animal/human hybrids, or chimeras, did not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques. They served more as ornamentation, but are now synonymous with gargoyles.

Both ornamented and unornamented water spouts projecting from roofs at parapet level were a common device used to shed rainwater from buildings until the early eighteenth century. After that time more and more buildings installed drainpipes to carry the water from the roof gutters to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. This was because some people found them frightening and sometimes heavy ones were eroded and fell off, causing damage.

In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction spelling the general demise of Gargoyles and relegating them to place in history and fable.

Still Gargoyles are popular as ornamentation on distinctively styled modern buildings. There they not only live but also thrive, frightening and fuelling the imaginations of new generations.

The End

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Dragons in Journey to the West

The Dragons in Journey to the West

Journey to the West is one of the Four Major Classical Novels of Chinese literature written in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty. Its authorship was attributed to Wu Cheng'en. The novel is a fictionalized account of the legendary pilgrimage to the "Western Regions" by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang to obtain sacred Buddhist texts called sūtras.

In real life, Xuanzang (c. 602 – 664) was a monk at Jingtu who actually travelled to India during the Tang Dynasty. He left Chang’an in 629, seeking to attain better transcripts of Buddhist scriptures despite the fact that the borders were closed because of the ongoing war with the Göktürks. Xuanzang’s determination and persistence paid off and, helped by sympathetic Buddhists, he travelled via Gansu and Qinghai to Kumul (Hami), then onto Tian Shan Mountains to Turpan. His journey led him across to what are today Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Gandhara and finally (in 630) to India.

Sha Wujing, Sun Wukong, Xuanzang and Zhu Bajie
In the fictional version pilgrimage took about fourteen years to complete, the actual records however provides an evidence of only nine years. After reaching his destination during the subsequent thirteen years Xuanzang travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent visiting important Buddhist pilgrimage sites and studying at the ancient university at Nalanda. Xuanzang left India in 643 and arrived back in Chang'an in 646 to a warm reception by Emperor Taizong of Tang. He joined Da Ci'en, where he led the building of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in order to store the scriptures and icons he had brought back from India. In the following years he recorded his journey in the book Great Tang Records of the Western Regions. With the support of the emperor he also established an institute at Yuhua Gong monastery dedicated to translating the scriptures he had brought back into Chinese. His translation and commentary work established him as the founder of the Dharma character school of Buddhism. Xuanzang died on March 7, 664. In 669 the Xingjiao Monastery was established to house his ashes.

Sun Wukong

Suffice to say popular stories of Xuanzang's journey were in existence long before Journey to the West was written. In these versions, dating as far back as the Southern Song Dynasty, a monkey character was already a primary protagonist. Before the Yuan and early Ming dynasties, elements of the Monkey story were already in existence.

This enduringly popular epic adventure story is full of spiritual insight and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India represented individuals journeying towards enlightenment.

The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)

The brief account of the story is this: The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin), on instruction from the Buddha, gave this task to the monk and his three protectors in the form of disciples — namely Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing — together with a dragon prince who became as Xuanzang's steed, a white horse. The four disciples agreed to do this in order to atone for past sins.

Sha Wujing, Yulong, Zhu Bajie andSun Wukong

Sun Wukong, the first disciple is the most interesting character, taking equal billing to Xuanzang. 

The first disciple of the Monk, Sun Wukong, was born from a stone and nourished by the Five Elements. Earlier on he’d learned the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformations, combat, and secrets of immortality and through guile and force made a name for himself, "Great Sage Equal to Heaven". Sun Wukong’s had in his possession the greatest of weapons, a staff called, "Ruyi Jingu Bang".

 This, as well as his previous consumption of the peaches of immortality, three jars of elixir, and his time spent being tempered in Laozi's Eight-Trigram Furnace (that far from being burned to death, gave him a steel-hard body and fiery golden eyes that could detect from then on any demon or disguise) made Wukong a most powerful protector.

 Besides these abilities, he could also pluck hairs from his body and blow on them to convert them into whatever he wished (usually clones of himself to gain a numerical advantage in battle). Although he was master of the 72 methods of transformation into animals such as a bee, fly, or bird, which would give him the ability to fly, he could use his "somersault cloud" to travel vast distances in a single leap. The Monkey, nimble and quick-witted, used these skills to defeat all but the most powerful of demons on the journey. Sun Wukong's childlike playfulness was a huge contrast to his cunning mind. This, coupled with his great power, made him a trickster hero. His antics presented a lighter side in what proposed to be a long and dangerous trip into the unknown. Such a being would be impossible to handle but Sun's behavior was checked by a band placed around his head by Guanyin, which could not be removed by Sun Wukong himself until the journey's end. Xuanzang was given the ability to tighten this band by chanting the "Ring Tightening Mantra" (taught to him by Guanyin) whenever he needed to chastise Wukong. The spell was referred to by Xuanzang's disciples as the "Headache Sutra", which was the Buddhist mantra "oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ". Xuanzang speaks this mantra quickly in repetition.

In Journey to the West, the events and adventures are both imaginative and colourful, set against the impassably wide rivers, flaming mountains, various magical kingdoms, a nation of females, a lair of seductive spider spirits just to mention a few. Throughout the epic story, Xuanzang and his disciples were forced to fend off attacks from monsters targeting Xuanzang, often wanting to devour him in order to attain immortality. These manifest monsters occasionally turned out to be an escaped celestial beasts belonging to bodhisattvas or Taoist sages and deities. Then there were the calamities that were either due to obstructive fate or were a test of Buddha.

At the conclusion, each disciple was rewarded in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang for instance achieved Buddhahood, Sha Wujing became an Arhat, the dragon horse was made a nāga, and Zhu Bajie, whose good deeds had always been tempered by his greed, was promoted to an altar cleanser (the eater of excess offerings left at altars).

Draagon King
In Journey to The West, there were also many exciting and colourful references to Dragons. Water Dragons in general were believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. They sometimes showed themselves as water spouts (tornados or waterspouts). As divine rulers of water and weather they were more anthropomorphic in form and were often depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king's costume, with a dragon head and wearing a king's headdress.

Dragon Kings of the Four Seas
They had also the ability to shape shift entirely into human form. In this epic story the Dragon Kings were periodically depicted as living underwater in magnificent crystal palaces. They had of course their own royal court and commanded an army comprising various marine creatures. Apart from presiding over aquatic life, the Dragon Kings could also manipulate the weather and bring rainfall. In this fiction the four Dragon Kings of the Four Seas are: Ao Guang- The Dragon King of the South Sea; Ao Qin, Dragon King of the South Sea; Ao Run, Dragon King of the West Sea and Ao Shun, Dragon King of the North Sea.


Here are the examples of three such incidences where Dragons had manifested:

First Incident: Obtaining the Magic Staff:

This staff was Wukong’s primary weapon, the "Ruyi Jingu Bang", which he could shrink down to the size of a needle and keep in his ear or, when warranted, be expanded to gigantic proportions.

Needing a powerful weapon befitting his strength and skill, Wukong visited the Dragon palace and accosted the Dragon King Ao Guang. It is here the Monkey king obtained Ruyi JIngu Bang, his powerful, magically-expanding, gold ringed iron cudgel after trying and rejecting many other heavenly weapons. According to the legend, Ruyi JIngu Bang had once been a pole used for measuring sea water depth by Da Yu in his flood control and treatment efforts. After Da Yu left, it remained in the sea and became the stabilizer known as "Pillar Holding Down the Sea". As soon as Wukong neared this massive pillar it began to glow, signifying that the monkey king was its true owner. The 18,000 pound rod obediently listened to Wukong’s command and shrunk to a manageable size to be wielded easily. In addition to the magic staff, Wukong also obtained a golden chain mail, a phoenix-feather cap, and cloud-walking boots from Ao Guang. 

Second Incident: Introduction to Fourth Disciple Yulong:

Yulong is the white horse that Buddhist Monk Xuanzang rides. Yulong, the son of the Dragon King of the West Sea, was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father's great pearl. Like Sun Wukon he too was saved by Guanyin from execution and became the fourth disciple, protecting the Monk Xuanzang. Aside from being a white horse, Yulong also makes appearances as a White dragon and a young man in human form.

Third Incident: Is the contest for making rain:

For good measure we shall mention the time when the skill of Monk Xuanzang is pitted against evil spirits posing as Taoist monks. The nation he passed through had long suffered a severe drought. In order to obtain safe passage through this nation Xuanzang engaged in a contest to summon rain. In order to bring this about Sun Wukong utilizes the Dragons of the sky to assist his master.

The End.