Mystique of the misshapen

It’s the good old fear-and-fascination trope. The grotesque gargoyle has come a long way from its plumbing origins to startle people everywhere.

March 05, 2016 04:39 pm | Updated 05:46 pm IST

A formidable Foo dog in China. Photo: Sheila Kumar

A formidable Foo dog in China. Photo: Sheila Kumar

These phantasmagorical creatures are something of an obsession with me. Wherever and whenever I come across them, I pull out my camera and get into action. I spend ages closely observing them, walking slowly from face to fascinatingly ugly face, wishing desperately I could sketch them… except, I can’t draw a line for the life of me.

I take these walks by myself, becoming guide (with the help of Lonely Planet et al), commentator and tourist all at once.

From this to gargoyle walks was but a step. The dictionary definition of gargoyle is something of an anticlimax: a spout, usually in the form of a grotesquely carved face or figure, projecting from a roof gutter. The word originates from the Old French gargouille as well as the Latin gurgulio, both meaning throat. However, the mystique of the misshapen is kept alive by an appropriately captivating legend. St. Romanus, the Archbishop of Rouen, is supposed to have saved his country from a monster named Gargouille — a dragon with the wings of a bat, an extra-long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth. This terrifying monster was defeated by our hero and led back to Rouen to be burned. Only, its head and neck would not burn, as it was tempered by its own fire-breath. The head was then mounted on the wall of the local church to both ward off evil spirits and din piety into the good folk. Soon, similar carved pieces came up on other churches and buildings, and a trend was born.

It’s the good old fear-and-fascination trope. Across cultures, ancient history, folk myths, hoary legends abound with stories of frightening and fantastic fiends, some petrified in stone. Creatures of the night, the stuff of nightmares, they are believed to come alive, roam the earth at unearthly hours and accost humans. And thus, what was basically a gutter quickly came to occupy a formidable niche in human imagination. As Pagan symbols that serve as protection and threat, few objects can beat the weird, open-mouthed garg that are usually suspended from great heights, hideous enough to scare off passersby. What’s more, they serve as insurance policy against building collapse, by warding off the evil eye, and this aspect is the most common in India.

Gargs, believe it or not, apparently have a fun side too. The Ely Cathedral in the U.K. has a nose-picking garg or two, leading one to suppose them to be examples of Medieval humour. Elsewhere, there are records of gargs bearing a close resemblance to some notorious figure from the clergy or the political arena of the times, a case of the gargoyle-maker giving in to irresistible temptation. It seems that most people in Medieval times would pull their lips wide apart in a grimace with their hands. This attempt to pull a garg face was called ‘gurning’.

I’ve seen gargoyles in wood, terracotta and stone, even limestone and marble, and over time, the word ‘gargoyle’ has distanced itself from its plumbing origins and applies to any grotesque carving.

After a long spell of near-obscurity, when they were but unlikely ornaments on buildings, gargoyles got their moment in the sun again. They became cartoon characters, acquired cult status in Neo-Gothic circles, became famous in Internet fantasy literature and even entered the modern lexicon, with people getting in touch with their Gothic selves.

Gargoyles are traditionally thought to have been created during the Medieval period but examples date back to some ancient civilisations as well. They have been found on the roofs of Egyptian temples where their mouths served, of course, as a spout for water. Greek temples had their own version of gargs, often lions and other ferocious animals. The temple of Zeus originally had 102 lion-headed gargoyles or spouts, 39 of which remain.

Europe, of course, is gargoyle heaven; they dot buildings in Toledo in Spain, Trondheim in Norway, Hillerod in Denmark, Vienna in Austria, Brugge and Mechelen in Belgium, Cologne in Germany, Zagreb in Croatia, and across the Netherlands and Portugal. Strangely, they are found also in Quito in Ecuador, the Forbidden City of Beijing, Ottawa in Canada, and Sydney in Australia. Closer home, a Shiva temple just outside Kollengode in Kerala and the temples of Uttarakhand come to mind, though these Indian spouts resemble your regular lion, horse and elephant. The gargs on newly-built structures usually have the mask of a raakshas or demon.

Virtually all the old Gothic churches in France sport gargs of varying monstrous proportions. The ones atop the Notre Dame in Paris have been a tourist attraction for ages, while the U.K. has its fair share atop the ancient academic buildings of Oxford, in Manchester, at Westminster Cathedral, at Winchester Cathedral, and in Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Wales, Ireland and in the many abbeys of Scotland.

In the U.S., gargoyles were used as a form of ornamentation on more modern buildings, such as the Chrysler Building in New York City, Princeton University, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, Duke University, in Rochester, Minnesota, and in the Oakland cemetery in Atlanta… why, there’s even a Darth Vader garg in the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author based in Bengaluru.

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