Royal shrines

Print edition : January 18, 2008

Siva and Parvati, Kailasanatha temple. The dance of Siva as Nataraja is the cosmic dance of creation, nurture and destruction. Amid all the dynamic movement, the peace upon Sivas face represents the stillness at the centre. In a fine philosophic conception, Parvati is the eternal witness to the dance, and the dance cannot take place without her to look upon it.-

Pallava reliefs are the earliest surviving royal portraits in India after the Kushana images of the 1st century.

Siva and Parvati,

AT the end of the 6th century, after the decline of the Gupta empire, King Harsha ruled from Kannauj in North India. Besides being a fine administrator, he was known as a poet and playwright. His dramas on Buddhist ethics are performed as operas in Japan even today. His inscription shows that he was a devotee of Siva. He also patronised Buddhist institutions. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang was so impressed by his donations for Buddhists that he took it for granted that the king was a Buddhist.

In the south of India, the Pallavas, rulers of what is today Andhra Pradesh, were spreading their control over much of Tamil Nadu. They established the first large empire in the region, an empire whose fame spread far and beyond India to South-East Asia and China. King Mahendravarman I, who ruled from A.D. 590 to A.D. 630, expanded his rule southwards to the river Cauvery in present-day Tamil Nadu.

In ancient India, the focus of rulers was never limited to administration and military might. Artistic and cultural pursuits and the search for Truth played a vital role in their lives. Mahendravarman was a poet, an accomplished musician and the author of at least two well-known plays, which were satires on contemporary life. King Rajasimha, also of the Pallava dynasty, was a great lover of art. In fact, one of the titles he used was Kalasamudra, that is, the ocean of art. Inspired by such kings, who gave so much importance to art, artists must have worked with zeal and devotion.

The earliest surviving monument of Mahendravarmans period is a simple rock-cut cave at Mandagapattu, not very far from Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. An inscription proclaims that he had made a home for Brahma, Vishnu and Siva without the use of bricks, timber, metal or mortar. Though rock-cut caves were excavated on a vast scale in the Deccan in the 800 years before this period, it appears that these were rare in South India. This also explains the lack of extant remains. The cave at Mandagapattu has large dvarapalas, or door guardians, which from here onwards become characteristic of South Indian temples.

Durga, Kailasanatha temple. The lion rises up in fury as Durga reaches for an arrow in her battle against the evil of ignorance. In the Saivite tradition, she represents the power and vigour within us that can combat the darkness of confusion.-

Durga, Kailasanatha temple.

Halfway up the hill, in the centre of present-day Tiruchirapalli city (Tiruchi), is another, more elaborate cave of this period. A panel depicting Gangadhara Siva is very finely made and heralds the elegance of later Pallava works.

A marvellous chapter of Indian art opened with the reign of Mahendravarman Is successor Narasimhavarman, who was also known as Mamalla, or the Great Warrior. He expanded the port of Mamalai, or great hill, and named it Mamallapuram, or city of Mamalla.

At Mamallapuram, massive boulders were transformed into a world of divine and earthly beings. Caves with exquisite sculpted panels were hewn out of the hills. Great temples, displaying the shapes of contemporaneous structures made of materials such as wood, were cut out of rocks. These are the earliest records of the development of the styles of temples in South India. King Narasimhavarman II, also known as Rajasimha, ruled in the first quarter of the 8th century. He made the first structural temple in stone in Tamil Nadu, on the shores of the port town of Mamallapuram.

Seventy kilometres away from Mamallapuram is the city of Kancheepuram, a seat of learning in South India from ancient times. It was the Pallava capital from the 4th to the 9th century. Xuanzang visited Kancheepuram in the 7th century and described it as a glorious city. There was considerable trade with South-East Asia, China and Rome from early times. Great Buddhist teachers, including the famed Buddhaghosa, lived here in the 6th century.

Rajasimha made a glorious temple at Kancheepuram for his personal worship. A foundation inscription states that he erected this extensive and wondrous house of Siva to reflect his own glory and the laughter of Siva. The temple is dedicated to Gangadhara Siva, the bearer of the river Ganga.

Kailasanatha temple, Kancheepuram, 8th century. One of the most beautiful temples in India, it has well-balanced proportions and is sculpted with exquisite detail, almost like a jewel box. It also marks a turning point, for it is from this instance that direct patronage and close involvement of rulers are seen in the making of Indic temples.-

Kailasanatha temple, Kancheepuram,

The inscription likens the rulers descent from King Paramesvara with that of the birth of Skanda from Siva. The deity in the temple, and by implication the temple itself, was named Rajasimha Pallavesvara, or the Lord of Rajasimha Pallava. This practice was to become popular in all South Indian temples. The temple also has the name Kailasanatha, or Siva, the Lord of Mount Kailas.

Just inside the main entrance on the east, is a smaller shrine built by Mahendravarman III, Rajasimhas son. Unlike the main shrine, this has a barrel-shaped roof. There is a row of smaller shrines in front of the temple. Inscriptions show that at least two of them were made by queens. A mandapa, or hall of the temple, with a Nandi inside stands at a considerable distance from the temple. In later times, such a mandapa was made much closer to the shrine.

The entire complex of this royal temple is grand and lavishly sculpted. A sculptural motif seen everywhere is the rampant lion, a royal symbol of the Pallavas. The main shrine was made of sandstone, except for the lowest two tiers, which were made of granite for additional strength.

There are shrines on the outer ambulatory path, which prepare the worshipper for the journey away from the noise and anxieties of the material world. They have dramatic images of Siva and Durga in the climactic moment of vanquishing the demon of ignorance. There are also many sculptures that present the quiet, gentle and approachable aspects of the deities. In these, personifications of the qualities within us are made in a manner we can easily relate to: enjoying relaxed moments with their spouses or looking graciously at the viewers below.

Durga, Kailasanatha temple. The deity stands in the temple wall, a marvellous image of power and grace with slender, tapering limbs and a relaxed, naturalistic posture. She is the very epitome of confidence and elegance.-

Durga, Kailasanatha temple.

The sculpted figures breathe with the inspired workmanship of the artist. A shrine portrays Siva as the enchanting mendicant. Around him are the enamoured wives of rishis. We see Siva as Tripurantaka, when he destroys the forts of demons. This was an icon that was to become very popular with the Cholas, who succeeded the Pallavas in this region.

The shrines made in the outer walls of the sanctum house large images of Siva. These are among the most impressive and elegant ever made. On either side of the entrance to the sanctum are images of Sivas cosmic dance the Tandava. This was a favourite theme with Rajasimha. The dynamism of the dance is expressed in Sivas many arms that move around him and in the bent knees that power the rhythmic leap upwards.

Ambulatory, Vaikunthaperumal Temple, Kancheepuram, 8th century. As one proceeds around the temple, one is transported to the world of the deities and to concepts of the eternal. Within the sacred space, the mundane world outside is forgotten as one follows the enchantment and the stories of the divinities.-

Ambulatory, Vaikunthaperumal Temple

Besides the Siva Linga, the shrines of the temple have the image of the Somaskanda. In Rajasimhas time, this icon was constantly seen in the sanctum sanctorum of temples. The Somaskanda shows Siva with Parvati as Uma and their son Skanda, or Kartikeya. Siva and his spouse are presented as universal parents. A parallel is drawn between the divine family and the family of the king. The foundation inscription speaks glowingly of the Pallava rulers. One even refers to the birth of Rajasimha, son of Paramesvara, and likens it to the birth of Kartikeya, or Kumara.

From the 2nd century B.C. onwards, the art of India was sponsored by the people. Inscriptions everywhere inform us that it was fishermen, farmers, bankers, merchants, housewives, monks and nuns who paid for the making of all the great sculptures at ancient stupa sites. The king considered it his duty to give generous grants for the maintenance of all religious establishments, including those of faiths other than his own.

"Ganas", base of the Kailasanatha temple. Those who have been most devoted to Siva win the boon of being perpetually close to him. These are the "ganas", who inhabit the walls of Siva temples. Having gained the opportunity of being with Siva, they are full of joy and share this with the worshipper through their dancing, music and frolicsome pranks.-

"Ganas", base of

In the 7th and 8th centuries, a clear shift took place. The grandeur of the king was expressed through art. The Pallava reliefs at Mamallapuram also have portraits of Paramesvara and Rajasimha. The Kushana rulers, who hailed from tribes of Central Asia, had images of themselves made in royal shrines in the 1st century. This was a clear departure from Indic norms of art, in which ephemeral personalities were not depicted. After that period, the Pallava images are the earliest surviving royal portraits in India.

The mandapa of the Kailasanatha temple was originally a detached structure and is today connected by a 16th century construction. The enclosing wall of the temple complex has a series of small cells that face east or west. The outer niches have sculpted images of deities. Deep within the inner niches are paintings of Siva in his various forms. These are valuable as they are among the very few remains of the beautiful paintings of the Pallava time.

The Vaikunthaperumal Temple, dedicated to Vishnu, is a grand structure, with a tower taller than that of the Kailasanatha temple. It was made soon after the latter. It has an unusual feature for a temple as early as this: the enclosure wall has a gallery of sculpted reliefs, including depictions of the glory of the Pallava rulers. This is the first such account in Indian art.-

The Vaikunthaperumal Temple

In several of the paintings, Parvati looks towards Siva as he performs his cosmic dance. It is a fine philosophic concept. The dance cannot take place without her as the eternal witness. The fragments of plaster and paint that remain on many of the sculptures reveal that they would once have all been covered with a layer of plaster and painted. Until recently, the beauty of all the sculptures of the Kailasanatha temple was hidden under plaster that was put on in British times. The removal of the plaster has revealed the exquisite beauty of the art.

There is a panel of ganas, only 30 inches in height, which runs along the base of the temple. It displays the high quality of carving everywhere in the temple. Ganas are an important motif in Siva temples as they depict the joyous spirit of the worship of Siva. The dwarves that are made in Siva temples are the souls of individuals who were greatly devoted to him. They have achieved the state in which they will always remain in his company. Thus, they are shown happy, dancing and singing because they have reached the abode of Siva and are constantly in his presence.

This gorgeously sculpted temple is also of great importance as it presents the essential features of the style of the South Indian temples that followed.

Siva and Parvati, Vattuvankovil, Kalugumalai, Tamil Nadu, 8th century. Divine figures, Nandis, ganas and apsaras inhabit the rooftops of this great temple sculpted out of a hill. Siva and Parvati are made with the ease and leisurely grace of royal beings, and a supple, tangible quality has been imparted to the hard rock.-

Siva and Parvati,

King Vikramaditya II, the early western Chalukyan who ruled in the second quarter of the 8th century, vowed to destroy the city of Kancheepuram. This was to avenge an earlier Pallava attack on the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi. His inscription states that when he captured Kancheepuram, he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Kaukasanatha temple that he left it untouched. It is possible that the styles of the later Chalukyan monuments, such as the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, were inspired by this great temple.

The Vaikunthaperumal temple, dedicated to Vishnu, was made at Kancheepuram in the second half of the 8th century by Nandivarman II. The vimana, or tower, is larger than that of the Kailasanatha temple. Inside the enclosure wall of the temple is a pillared gallery with sculpted reliefs, which depict the history and glory of the Pallavas. Some of these have inscribed labels. This was the first such account in Indian art and clearly marked the shift that was taking place in the manner and role of kings in the Indian subcontinent.

Dance of Siva, Kailasanatha temple. Siva poised to bring his foot down upon Apasmara, the demon, who even as he is crushed, joins his hands in reverence of the deity.-

Dance of Siva,

The Talagirisvara temple at Panamalai, made out of granite, is another fine construction of the Pallava period. It has the remains of an exquisite painting of Parvati.

The Pandyas ruled from the southern part of Tamil Nadu, with their capital at Madurai. From the 6th century onwards, they too became a major force in South India.

Parvati, a mural in a niche in the outer ambulatory of the Kailasanatha temple. Paintings like these, of the early 8th century, are a valuable link to understanding the continuity and development of Indian mural paintings, from Ajanta in the 5th century to the Chola paintings of the 10th century in the Brihadiswara temple.-

Parvati, a mural

The unfinished rock-cut Vattuvankovil temple at Kalugumalai is one of the most wondrous monuments of South India. In the 8th century, a vast section of a rocky hillock was carved into a Siva temple. The many figures carved on the tiers of the roof are in naturalistic poses and are graceful. Different aspects of Siva are shown in easy postures, looking out in the cardinal directions. A host of other graceful beings also occupy the spaces of the vimana. The sculpted lines are flowing, and it appears as if real people are inhabiting the roof of the temple.

Ganas can be seen here in various poses of delightful mischief. The sculptors genius lies in the ability to infuse the deities and their attendants with a sense of the wonder of life and of all of creation. Many figures are seen only from the hip upwards, which conveys the impression that they are leaning out from the upper sections of a building. This convention was also seen in Arjunas ratha at Mamallapuram. Stylistically, the sculpture has similarities to the contemporaneous Pallava idiom.

Siva, a mural in a niche in the outer ambulatory of the Kailasanatha temple. There are small niches along the inner lengths of the ambulatory wall within which survive paintings of the Pallava period. After the simple and gentle images of ancient times, this is the first view of the depiction of royal grandeur in Indian paintings. Siva is shown in all the glory of a king.-

Siva, a mural

Further up the hill, at Kalugumalai, are a number of Jaina reliefs carved on the rock face. The inscriptions here mention that both the common people and the high-ranking officials of this region donated these. The reliefs have been dated back to the end of the 8th century. These sculptures display the pan Indian spread of motifs that are seen in the art of all faiths. Here in the southern-most part of India, rearing leogryphs can be seen flanking the seated figures of Jinas. These are also found in the later Buddhist monasteries, far north in the trans-Himalayan deserts.

The Pallava and Pandya period is one of the grandest in Indian sculpture. Active patronage of art was extended for the first time in this period by great kings. The artists created an enchanted world, with figures both divine and of the earthly realm. Deities, common folk and animals were made infused with the grace that unites all of creation.

Painted sculpture, Kailasanatha temple. In some sections of the temple, plaster and paint survive upon the sculptures. Such remains point to the fact that in ancient times all Indian sculptures were covered in such a manner.-

Painted sculpture, Kailasanatha

The lively representations of this period also have a deep sophistication, which comes from the close, personal involvement of devoted kings.

Vattuvankovil. Carved out of the living rock of the hill during the Pandya period is the unfinished, majestic Siva temple at Kalugumalai, not very far from Kanyakumari. After the cave temples of the early period, the style of rock-cut excavation to replicate free-standing structures developed in Tamil Nadu at Mamallapuram and here. The vast Kailasanatha temple of Ellora in the Deccan may have been made soon after these excavations.-

Vattuvankovil. Carved out
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