Beauty of devotion

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

The Lakshmana Temple of the 10th century. The shikharas of the temples at Khajuraho resemble the rising peaks of a mountain range.-

The Lakshmana Temple of the 10th century. The shikharas of the temples at Khajuraho resemble the rising peaks of a mountain range.-

One of the most splendid temple cities in the history of the world was created by the Chandella kings at Khajuraho.

THE medieval period saw significant changes in the art and architecture dedicated to eternal concepts. The purpose of ancient art was always to help one lose ones ego, and so personalities were not depicted (with the exception of the period of the rule of the Kushanas, who came from southern China). By the 8th century, a few portraits of kings had been made under the Pallavas in what is present-day Tamil Nadu. Earlier art had presented the gentlest of images, steeped in the grace of compassion, to dissolve ones ego and transport one through sublime love. By the 7th and 8th centuries, it was the intellectual quest that came to the fore. The eternal concepts and qualities within people were studied in detail and complex pantheons of deities were created in different faiths to personify these. The art depicted the dynamism of the intellectual endeavours of the time.

Earlier structural temples were relatively small: havens of peace where the beauty and grace of the deities took one far from the confusions and concerns of the material world. In the ancient period, kings did not sponsor directly the making of rock-cut caves, stupas or temples. They provided only indirect support to monasteries and shrines of all faiths. In the medieval period, rulers began to patronise personally the making of temples. This led to larger temples being made, especially from the 10th or 11th century onwards, under the Cholas in South India. Similar changes were seen under the rule of the Chandellas.

In the 10th century, the Chandella dynasty rose to power in the ancient land of Vatsa, in central India. This region, later known as Bundelkhand, has a long history of temple building and art. It witnessed the making of the Bharhut stupa, with its sculpted railings, in the 2nd century B.C. Exquisite temples were made here at Deogarh and Nachna during the 6th century A.D. during the Gupta period.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Chandella dynasty was well established in the region and there was peace and prosperity. Art and culture flourished and the kings were great patrons of poetry and theatre. The culmination of their cultural achievements was at their capital city of Khajuraho (in present-day Madhya Pradesh), where, between the 10th and 12th centuries, one of the most splendid temple cities in the history of the world was created. There were originally 85 temples at Khajuraho, of which 25 remain today.

The temples of Khajuraho formed a strikingly homogenous group and were all made within a relatively short period. The concerted effort of making so many grand temples in one place speaks of the dynastys desire to create a great centre of worship and learning.

By this time, the Indian temple form had fully developed. The entire temple was a manifestation of the deity in the inner sanctum (womb chamber), or garbha-griha. The devotee came to the temple with the aspiration of self-transcendence: to look upon the deity within and receive grace; to awaken the best within himself; and, eventually, to realise the truth of the oneness of the whole of creation.

As the devotee circumambulated the temple, he was met by the images of the world around him, the world of forms that was familiar to him. Here, he all saw the forms in their true context, as manifestations of a single reality, which may be called divine. Each sculpture of the temple makes its own statement, yet they all work together to create a vision of the cosmos in its entirety of which everyone is an intrinsic part.

By this period, the temple had become a complex form in which the numerous parts were seen in their relation to the whole. These sculptures are all beautiful in their own right. They are also all related and have their meaning in the context of each of them being a manifestation of the ultimate reality in the garbha-griha within.

The massive platforms on which the temples are built are ornately carved with depictions of contemporary life. An interesting detail showing men carrying a stone immortalises the anonymous workers who built the temples. There is an exuberance of detail in these panels, which speaks of the vitality and prosperity of the time. Great armies, musicians and hunters march in endless processions around the entire base of these temples. These moments frozen in stone are also valuable as they are the only record of society then.

Ones response to the beauty of the world has always been regarded in Indian philosophy to be a stepping stone towards enlightenment. The belief is that the perception of beauty is a view of the grace that underlies all creation. Thus, the depiction of beauty has always been a dominant theme for the Indian artist. Since the earliest times, the figure of the woman is seen as auspicious and is one of the main vehicles to communicate this grace. Woman has also symbolised the fertility of nature, which ensures the continuance of life.

On the walls of the temples of Khajuraho, there is a profusion of depictions of women in every possible posture. As in ancient stupa railings and in later art, they portray the rich abundance of nature and the joy of life. It is a celebration of the feminine principle and the generous abundance of the natural world. Women are depicted in myriad moods and moments: writing a letter, applying kohl to their eyes, drying their hair, playing with a ball, looking into a mirror, painting their feet or pulling out a thorn.

Mithunas, or loving couples, have been seen in Indian art since the 1st century A.D., in the Buddhist caves of Karle in western India. In the early period, their being together in mutual affection was enough to represent the harmony of the natural order. As time progressed, the depictions of their coming together became more explicit. The desires and forces of human love were depicted as part of life in the world. Here, on the temple walls, the viewer sees them in their correct perspective, as only a reflection, like all else is, of the great reality that is to be met in the sanctum.

Says Mary Ann Milford: We have the popular impression of a certain sort of erotic element in the art of Khajuraho. When one sees the male and the female coming together, there is often a sense of eroticism. Here, I would say it is sensual, and sensual in a devotional way, which is very different from sexual. I think I would associate eroticism with sexuality, and I do not see that in this. They are coming together as one, as more in a sense of community, in a sense of grace.

Deities who provide a view of the knowledge that is within are depicted on the walls of the temple. They serve to give personalities to the Divine, which is all-pervasive and without form. Here, the deities are seen often with their spouses and with human qualities one can relate to. Myths and stories are made around the deities, which capture the imagination of the devotee and explain the truth to him in many ways.

On the temple walls, one can see Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Agni and their spouses. There are celestials around them bearing garlands and offerings. The multifaceted walls of the temple provide a vast canvas for the depiction of these innumerable manifestations of the divine.

The Lakshmana temple, completed by A.D. 945, is one of the early structures at Khajuraho. It was built during the reign of King Yashovarman, who was also called Lakshavarman. He is known for having consolidated the Chandella empire and also for establishing the Chandella tradition of temple building.

The shikhara, or tower, of the temple is flanked by a number of smaller replicas of itself. These create a clustered effect, similar to that of mountain peaks. Indic temples are often alluded to as great mountains. An inscription on the temple states that this temple rivals the peaks of the mountains of snow. On the plinth of the Lakshmana temple is the victorious celebration of Yashovarmans powerful armies. An inscription reads: He easily conquered the Kalinjara mountain, the dwelling place of Siva, which is so high that it impedes the progress of the sun at midday.

The apsaras (celestial beings), nayikas (beautiful women), and divine figures made here have won universal admiration for their grace and charm. A sense of activity fills the sculpture of this period, yet amidst all the movement, the faces are serene. The figures are three-dimensional and are sculpted almost in the round. The effect of sunlight and deep shadows fills these depictions with vitality. The fine-quality sandstone used was very responsive to the chisel. The artists were able to capture minute details of ornamental jewellery and elaborately coiffured hair. Rearing leogryphs are an essential theme in Indic temples. These fearless creatures are supposed to awaken the courage within one.

Extolling the beauty of the Lakshmana temple, an inscription says: The inhabitants of heaven, when they meet together at festivals, are filled with increasing delight and are struck by wonder at the sight of this temple.

Having completed a circumambulation of the temple, the devotee proceeds inside towards the knowledge that lies deep within. In the profusely ornamented mahamandapa, or big hall, the beauty of apsaras and other celestial beings welcomes the devotee on his journey. The windows of the hall are high above and provide just enough light to see the exquisitely carved pillars and ceilings.

The ambulatory surrounding the shrine is adorned with celestial attendants and representations of the many incarnations of Vishnu, who resides in the garbha-griha of the temple. The image here is of Vishnu Chaturmurti, which has four faces, the form that was very popular in Kashmir then. Under a canopy in front of the temple stands a monolithic Varaha, an avatara of Vishnu. Exquisitely finished, the Varaha has 674 figures carved on its body.

The largest and most magnificent temple at Khajuraho is the Kandariya Mahadeva, dedicated to Siva. It was probably constructed by King Vidyadhara between A.D. 1017 and A.D. 1029.

The towering shikhara and its subsidiary replicas, clustered at varying heights, present a grand analogy to Mount Kailasa, Sivas abode. The temple is over a hundred feet (30 metres) tall. Its monumentality is in keeping with the trend in all parts of India at this time. The grandeur of Siva and of the kings who worshipped him is also presented in the roughly contemporaneous Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, and the Lingaraja temple in Bhubaneswar, Orissa.

The Kandariya Mahadeva temple is adorned on all sides with celestial nymphs, mithunas and many deities. Over 600 figures are carved on the exterior of the temple and more than 200 inside. The teeming figures that fill these walls are made in accented postures, active and turning in myriad directions, and can be seen from all sides, including from the back and in three-quarter profiles. These are the culmination of the tendency towards the hardening of facial features, the elaboration of jewellery, and the depiction of a greater sense of activity, all of which had been developing in the previous period.

Five kilometres from the village of Khajuraho is the southern group of temples. The Chaturbhuja temple is a magnificent temple of the beginning of the 12th century. Its finely sculpted figures provide an ordered view of the world and transport one to a realm of grace.

Among the grandest monuments of Khajuraho is the 10th century Jaina temple of Parsvanatha. According to an inscription found here, it was built soon after the Lakshmana temple, and its beautiful sculptures have a striking affinity to those of the Vaishnava temple. Their fine modelling, proportion and poise places the divine figures among the finest to be found at Khajuraho. The numerous deities of the Brahmanical pantheon are represented along with Jaina images.

Next to the Parsvanatha temple stands the temple dedicated to the Jaina Adinatha. This is a smaller temple of a later date and is beautifully sculpted. The temple is girdled by three bands of sculptures, including some charming nayikas. Here again, one can see images of Brahmanical and Jaina divinities.

The Jaina temples here have a profusion of Brahmanical deities. This tradition of making the deities of all faiths in one temple can be seen even as far away as in the Buddhist temples of Nara in Japan. Here again one can see many Brahmanical deities. They constantly remind one of the ancient traditions of Indic philosophical streams. In all these traditions, the belief is in the unity of the whole of creation. In these faiths, deities are personifications of the qualities within one. By meditating upon them, one awakens the best that there is in one. Thus, there are no barriers separating the deities of the different streams of belief, all of which flow towards the same truth.

Khajuraho is a splendid example of the cosmopolitan culture of India, in which there were no divisions between faiths. There were no religious dogmas to create barriers between followers of different paths, which were all believed to lead towards the gaining of knowledge about ones own true nature and the shedding of material desires.

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