Temples of peace

Print edition : August 01, 2008

The style of the Solanki temples is at its grandest in the Surya temple built by King Bhima I at Modhera in Gujarat.

TRADE and commerce bring the people of different lands together in a spirit of cooperation. Naturally, this leads to mutual appreciation and understanding. People take from each other the best of what each has to give. Instead of a culture dominated by military aims and ambitions, this results in an atmosphere where art and the finer aspects of life flower. Since the time of the Indus Valley civilisation of the 3rd and 2nd millennia B.C., India has been known for its thriving culture and trade. The early cities of the Indian river valleys have fascinated historians, who speak of the cooperative system of administration in place of conventional kingship in these centres of trade. In all other cultures of that period, archaeology has found vast numbers of weapons of war and barracks to house armies and, in the art, much depiction of war victories and prisoners. Here, in the Indus Valley culture, these have not been found, which indicates it was a region of peace. A vast number of seals, perhaps used for marking trade goods, were found in these cities.

In later times too, western India carried on extensive commerce with West Asia, across the Arabian Sea, and even with faraway Europe. Several Roman writers mention the trade with India. Pliny the Elder writes in 77 B.C. that Roman coffers were being emptied to buy fine textiles from India. Several B.C. and early A.D. period inscriptions in the Buddhist caves in Maharashtra record the donations of sculptures by Greek devotees. The art of Rajasthan and Gujarat, in western India, over the ages, reflects the cosmopolitan heritage of this region.

The sculptures of the 6th century found at Shamalaji in Gujarat display a rich synthesis of styles. The languid and graceful postures continue the tradition established in the earlier Gupta period. The treatment of the heavy folds of drapery recalls the art of Gandhara in the north-west of the subcontinent. The remains of the 6th century temple at Gop in Saurashtra recall the high standards of artistic achievement of Gujarat. There were several trade routes across the deserts of Rajasthan that connected the Indian subcontinent with West Asia. The prosperity of Rajasthan and its flowering culture can be seen in the remains of its temples. On the plinth of the Harsat Mata temple in the village of Abaneri near Jaipur are fine sculptures of the 8th century. The graceful figures, gentle expressions and the delicacy of carving are remarkable. Sixteen temples of the 8th and 9th centuries stand at Osian, which would have been a flourishing city in its time. A Surya temple there, of the 8th century, displays pan-Indian traditions. There is a magnificent depiction of Mahishasuramardini, Durga killing the demon buffalo. The sense of movement and activity in these figures is a departure from the repose and stillness of the Gupta-period tradition. A number of 8th century temples here are dedicated to Hari-Hara, who represents a synthesis of Vishnu and Siva. The fine carvings convey the liveliness and animation of this periods art. At Osian, a Jaina temple, originally built in the 8th century, has exquisite sculptures. In Indic philosophy, the beauty and grace of the art is of fundamental importance: it is to awaken the grace within one and keep one reminded of the divinity underlying all creation.

A Mata temple, dedicated to Durga as the Mother, built high on a hill at Osian, is of the 8th century. The sculptures from its earliest periods have a lilting grace, which transports one. As in the art of this period everywhere, from Jaina reliefs at Kalugumalai in Tamil Nadu to the Hindu temples of Orissa, here too one can see many representations of rearing leogryphs. These fearless creatures remind one of the courage within one with which the obstacles on the path towards knowledge must be faced.

In the 10th century, the Rajput clan of the Solankis came to power in the Gujarat region. Close to their capital at Patan are a number of temples, which were probably built in the late 10th century. The Nilakantha Mahadeva temple at Sunak is a fine example of the styles developing in that period. Though it is a small structure, it is lavishly sculpted both on the inside and on the outside, reminiscent of the profusely sculpted temples of this period at Khajuraho.

The temple is made in the North Indian style with a shikhara, or tower, over the shrine, which resembles the clustered peaks of a mountain. While the final knowledge is to be encountered in the garbha-griha, or inner sanctum, within, the walls of the temple provide manifestations of the Truth in many forms. All that there is in the world is presented on the temple walls. This is to remind one that it is all but a manifestation of the Divine.

The style of the Solanki temples is at its grandest in the temple to Surya, the sun god, at Modhera. The temple is of the early 11th century and was built by King Bhima I. In front of it, to the east, is a large tank, with flights of steps leading down to it. There are small shrines at regular intervals on the descent, creating a marvellous design. Water tanks are often made next to temples, and this is the grandest such example in the subcontinent. At the entrance to the temple complex is sculpted torana, or gateway.

The profusion of sculpture here reflects the pan-Indian traditions of this time. The temple is one of the most profusely carved seen anywhere. It is believed that the detailed sculptures of the temples of Gujarat reflect the exquisite wood-carving traditions for which the region is well known. Indeed, one can scarcely find an inch of wall surface that has not been transformed by the sculptors chisel. Though the stone has been considerably weathered and damaged over the years, the original beauty of the sculpture is still apparent. A grand torana of a temple of the early 12th century survives at Vadnagar, not far from Patan. Here too, the detailed and fine work is reminiscent of carvings on wood, which is much easier to work upon.

A recently excavated site at Umta, near Patan, reveals what would have been a large and impressive temple complex. The style of the sculptures there shows that the complex may have been built between the 11th and 13th centuries, during the rule of the Solankis. Intricately carved door frames indicate the preference the Jainas have for white marble. Along with the images of deities and Tirthankaras, one can see the figures of nayikas, or beautiful maidens, who communicate the gentleness and lilting grace of the sculptures of this period.

While Bhima I built the Surya temple, his wife Udayamati made a marvellous stepwell dedicated to Vishnu at Patan. On either side as one walks down the steps to the water is a world of sculpted forms. It is a journey similar to the parikrama, or circumambulation, of the temple. The walls and pillars present the world of forms. One can see them here in their true context as a manifestation of the Divine, who lies at the end of the journey.

Many images of nayikas flank the deities made in niches. They are shown in postures and activities similar to those at Khajuraho and later at Konarak. One can see nayikas playing with a ball, putting on an anklet, and in many other acts. The faces are gentle, and they are not shown as impersonal forms but are infused with a deep warmth and an inward look. Ones response to the beauty and grace of the figures awakens ones finest qualities and prepares one in ones journey.

At the wells deep end, far from the noise and clamour of the material world, one faces Vishnu. Resting on the serpent Sesha, he dreams the world into existence. The image represents a fine philosophic concept: Sesha means that which remains. The serpent is also called Ananta, or endless one.

The style of the sculptures continues the infinite gentleness of the ancient art. It also displays the angularity and sharp features that characterise the figures of the medieval tradition in India. This can be seen in the Buddhist art of Nalanda, in eastern India, and thereafter, reflecting the vigour of intellectual developments. In western India, the medieval idiom was developed further in coming centuries, in a profusion of Jaina manuscript paintings. The Jainas were among the communities that prospered in western India. They did not believe in warfare or any kind of violence and mainly engaged in peaceful trade. The trade routes that crossed what is now Gujarat and Rajasthan made this a region where the Jainas flourished.

In Indic beliefs, it is most important to take time off from ones worldly attachments to seek peace of mind and the stillness within. Over the centuries, the Jainas made many places of pilgrimage that were located far from the cares of the mundane world.

As in other Indian faiths, the basis of Jainism is ahimsa, or non-violence, and tapa, or meditation. In the Jaina faith, the principle of non-violence has no limits. Jainas even decry forceful arguments as a form of violence. They believe in the passage through life in a detached manner. One lives in a world of illusory forms, and one must not be attached to them. Duties must be performed in the world, yet with the spirit of a distant observer, with detachment. It is this aloofness that keeps one stea dy on ones journey through the world.

Jaina art carries its philosophic beliefs faithfully and presents one of the most abstracted schools of Indian art. The simplicity and uniformity of the figures may not always invite admiration for the artists work, but these do convey the strength and inner peace and dignity of the Tirthankaras. The art historian Heinrich Zimmer writes of the colossal Bahubali sculpture at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka: The majestic aloofness of the perfected, balanced, absolutely self-contained figure of the saint becomes emphasised in its triumphant isolation.

There is a purity of philosophic belief maintained by the Jainas. They pay homage to the Tirthankaras, those who have made the great crossing and conquered the fear of death. Yet, they do not do so because of any hope that the great being might assist a worshipper. They are beyond the reach of prayer and there is no possibility of their help. They are beyond all actions and absolutely at peace.

While Bhima built the temple to the sun god and his queen made the stepwell dedicated to Vishnu, the kings minister Vimala constructed a marble temple at Mount Abu to honour Adinatha, the first Jaina saint. This marvellous tradition of the coexistence of all faiths has been seen in the subcontinents since the earliest stupas and temples. Several Jaina temples were made at Mt. Abu in succeeding centuries. The tradition of temples made of white marble continued at the Chaumukha temple (Adinatha Jaina temple) at Ranakpur, in present-day Rajasthan. The temple nestles amidst low hill ranges, far from any town. It was made in A.D. 1439 and, in an unusual instance, the architects name, Deepaka, is inscribed on a pillar there.

There are 80 domes, supported by 400 pillars, covering the structure. The pillars are elaborately carved, and it is said that no two columns are alike. The abundant light coming through gaps between the canopies and from courtyards highlights the fine carvings and the effect of the spacious interior. The white marble all around creates the appearance of a pure land. The figures seen here present the fully developed style of Jaina sculpture. The forms of the body are abstracted to almost pure geometric shapes. The surfaces of the body are smooth, presenting a visual equivalent of the spiritual perfection of the Tirthankara.

Unlike the icons, the subsidiary figures are animated. Female musicians twist and turn in space. The quality of abstraction remains. The limbs have a rod-like appearance, and there is an angular, geometric quality to the poses. Every ceiling, known as a vitana, or canopy of the heavens, is unique and exquisitely carved. There is a profusion of foliate and geometric motifs and figures. The work is so intricate it was often suggested that the sculptors were paid according to how much stone they removed. Indeed the work is deeply undercut and finely detailed.

One of the greatest expressions of the Jaina faith is the temple city of Palitana, on the Shatrunjaya hill, 35 kilometres from Bhavnagar in Gujarat. The Adinatha temple there was first built in A.D. 960 and rebuilt in 1530. This sacred space, created on two peaks with a valley in between, displays the continuing spirit of devotion. There are more than 500 temples here, big and small, and about 7,000 images in worship. It is an enchanted world where the spirit within is glorified. Jainas seek here a realm of detachment from their daily concerns and material desires.

The history of Indian art is the story of one of the oldest cultures of the world. As in the ancient past, the focus is on the Truth that is to be found within. It is a great continuity of belief that spans over 3,000 years and continues today.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×