Tuesday, March 4, 2014

DOOR THRESHOLDS -myths and technicalities

Threshold or Udumbara is the most significant element of a traditional door. It perhaps began as a necessary entity to fix a door, but in every culture of the world its mythological connections are reinforced through customs and religious ceremonies from birth to death. In India the Udumbara has persisted mainly due to the importance given in Vastu Shastra (Ancient Indian canons of planning). The Vastu Shastra prescribes that every inner room should be at slightly higher elevation. In India it continues to be physically formed, elsewhere in the world, it is symbolically recognised as a point of initiation and manifestation.

A threshold, at physical level represents an edge or limit of a domain, a break or mark for entry-exit. The threshold represents an interim reality between inside and outside, that may not have dimensional reality only an abstract consideration. It is a Maryada, across which there is a change of state such as the behaviour, conduct, or experience. The line drawn around Sita (Indian epic, Ramayana) by Lakshman (Laxman, younger brother of Rama) was a metaphysical barrier -a threshold.

Threshold was first created to accommodate the bottom end of the pivot. To install or replace a door with a pivot in the post construction phase it was necessary to insert pivots and the pivot-holder simultaneously into the place. Initially the bottom and top pivot-holders were distinctly independent of each other. Later a four-sided frame -the door portal of stone, wood or metal was formed. In masonry and other types of structures the Portal and the Frame had distinct functions. The portal carried the loads from gap-spanning lintel or arch, whereas the frame ‘housed’ the pivot (and hinge, in later periods), and acted as ‘stopper’ for the shutter.

Door portals have had dominantly right-angled shape, forced by the need to have vertical-gravity alignment for the pair of the pivot or hinge. Few Roman door portals have tapered (narrowing at head level) form, but these are the masking or frontal portals (actual door shutters were right-angled shaped).

Early Pivots were of stone, hard wood or cast metals like bronze or iron. Pivots required little maintenance except occasional lubrication. However, a pivot on wearing begins to ‘sink’ the door shutter, and it is difficult to replace it.

Pivoted doors preferably open inward. However, such doors, were often ‘stayed’ by invaders or ‘gate crashers’ by pushing by a wood wedge into the vertical edge near the wall. This ‘staying’ was prevented by masking the side edges with door portal structure.

Hinges began to replace the pivots with the advent of metallurgical skills. For very large and heavy shutters such as fort gates bottom pivots continued to take the loads, but top pivots were replaced with a ‘shelf-pivot’ -a form of a hybrid element of hinge and pivot. Hinges require a mounting frame of wood. As a result stone and masonry portals became superficial decorative elements, or were completely replaced by door frames. Hinges also eliminated the need for a bottom horizontal member for the door portal or door frame -the threshold.

In Indian mythology the door portal sides or jambs are called Dwar-Sakha’ (Sakha or Shakha = branch of a tree, or a limb of body arm or leg). If the branch comes out of a tree trunk, then door portal sides or jambs emanate from the Udumbara (Sanskrit: bottom piece of door portal) or the threshold. The head of the door portal or lintel is called ‘Uttamanga’ (Sanskrit: the head or best part of the body). Matsya Purana suggests the door-sill (Udumbara) and the lintel (Uttamanga) should be one half and one quarter respectively of the width of door jambs.

Multiple Door Jamb and lintel mouldings on the southern door of Kashivishwanatha temple

The door portal head (Uttamanga) is indicative of the North (perhaps due to Indian and Roman-Greek societies being in Northern Hemisphere). The lintel is also called Lalatbimba (the head beam). The bottom (Udumbara) represents the South, the side considered least auspicious in Indian mythology. This could be a reason why thresholds are not stepped on, but crossed-over.

The temple Udumbara or Dehlij is a beam like single material unit but formed with a central round part (2 of 4 width measures) called Mandarak, and on either sides Kirtimukh (animal face like form -Face of Glory) (1 each of 4 width measure), are created. A front platform of smaller height, carved in ardhachandra -moon-crescent shape, is place against it. It is decorated with a pair of gagaraka or kalash -holy pots, a sankha -conch shell and lotus stems.

Udumbara or Thresholds have many synonyms:

A Udumbara is a place for the crocodile, so, called Naakra. Udumbara is also called Umbar, Umbratha or Umara. A threshold is also called Dwarpindi, a Varundi -a door step, or Grahtati a terrace or platform in front of the house. It is also called Pratiharbhumi (Pratihar=protector and bhumi=land) meaning the place for the protector. A threshold is also called a Sandhi -a junction or confluence. Dehli and Dehlij are used for any marker that denotes or enforces a change.

Crossing over a threshold or boundary is called Antarupati (Sanskrit). There is a principle known Dehalidipanyaya which means: A lamp placed on the threshold illuminates both sides or serves a twofold purpose.

Threshold, word has originated from therscvald (old Anglo-Saxon word) which literally meant to thresh a wood. First part of the word threshold, i.e. ‘thersc’, has the same root word as used for threshing grain, andvald (Anglo-Saxon/Germanic) stands for wood or forest. These two words together stand for wood or timber that was placed at the entrance of a house. The wood piece placed in the door was ‘threshed’ or ‘thrashed’ with over-use or heavy wear
Worn-out Threshold

Threshold also stands for two Hebrew words: The first is pronounced sawf meaning a limit or a boundary. The other is pronounced mif-tawn meaning a sill.

The Udumbara or threshold is important for both Grih-Pravesh (entry) and Grih-nirgaman (exit) with regard to a home, temple, built form or territory. Both must occur from the same door, passing over the threshold without touching it with right foot first. The entry relates to occasions such as: when a new member joins the family like a bride, new born baby, groom, a disciple or an apprentice, and when someone returns after some lapse of time such as recovery from an illness, achievement or trip. Vitruvius and Indian Vastu Shasta both prescribe the number of steps leading to the doorway to be odd, so that one crosses the threshold with the right foot.

Some of the elements in Grih-Pravesh ceremonies are Kumbha either filled with rice or water, a coconut and Arati. Arati is a light a lamp light from wicks soaked in ghee -purified butter or camphor. The word has derived from the Sanskrit word Aratrika, which means something that removes the Ratri -night or darkness. The Arati, nominally offered to a deity, in Grih-Pravesh is offered to the new entrant to ward off the evil effects accompanying the person.

In many of the cultures it is believed to be an untouchable element. If one stumbles over a threshold by accident, the entry or exit must be postponed. However. The tradition to carry a bride over the threshold of the married couple's home is a very old one and followed in many societies of the world. Some believe that demons haunt. In India, people do touch the threshold with their head to pay obeisance to the place. In some of the entrance procedures like entry to a new building the host touches the shoulder to the right side bar-shakh (the Door Jamb). The dust particles symbolically collected from the outer part of door thresholds of temples, prostitutes’ houses, and very rich persons’ mansions are considered auspicious, and used in construction of Vedika (Havan kund), fire pit for ceremonial and sacrificial purposes.

A woman who had just given birth is forbidden to tread on another family's threshold, for it was believed that the woman would become a threshold cleaner in her next life. But actual reason could be to reduce the chances of infection. In Liaoning Province of NE China, people, during Dragon Boat Festival (the 5th day of the 5th lunar month), still follow the tradition of sitting on the threshold of the door and eat an egg before sunset. After finishing the egg, they throw all the shells outside the house. Such an act is believed to clear the house of disease and bad luck in the following year’. Lucan, Polybius, and Artemidorus all describe women of classical Greece and Rome wiping the thresholds with their hair to avoid the fury of the gods during times of national calamities.

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