A journey into temples

Print edition : June 24, 2016

In the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, a group of 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the second century BCE to about 480 to 650 C.E. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Atmanatha temple at Avudayarkoil in Tamil Nadu, which was associated with the great Saiva saint Manikkavachakar. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A collection of articles on temple architecture in South and South-East Asia.

Temple Architecture and Imagery of South and Southeast Asia, Prasadanidhi (temple’s treasure) celebrates the life and scholarship of Professor Madhusudan Amilal Dhaky, best known the world over for his works on the subject of Indian temple architecture and Jain art and literature. Those of us who are not art/architectural historians as such, or did not have the privilege and opportunity to be associated with him, do have an idea of his profound erudition through the mega volumes of Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, which was a vast undertaking of inestimable importance by M.A. Dhaky along with Michael Meister and Krishna Deva. He was the real force behind the success of the Encyclopaedia.

The editors, Parul Pandya Dhar and Gerd J.R. Mevissen, deserve our congratulations for this well-produced and well-onceived felicitation volume. As expected, the volume in honour of Dhaky has contributions from well-known scholars of South and South-Eeast Asian temple art and architecture both from India and abroad. Indeed, as the editors correctly stated, “the thirty-two essays reflect the most recent and revised research in South and South-East Asian art history by some of the finest minds engaged in the field”.

The volume begins with a foreword by Kapila Vatsayan. Her close association with Dhaky Saheb, as he was often called, helps to her underline the facets of Dhaky’s personality, which she characterises as strong, tenacious and unwavering with a kind of flexibility. Devangana Desai’s “Dhaky Saheb: Reminiscences” is a vibrant journey down memory lane. The editors’ introduction gives us an insight into the succeeding pages, which they have curated with great care. It is really the call of the day to not only look at the temple arts and architecture from the perspective of India but also include the art historical traditions of other regions of South Asia and South-East Asia.

This broadening of horizon goes well with Dhaky’s own understanding of the art and architecture beyond India, which for him is a dialogue, a kind of conversation with Indian art and architecture.

In keeping with the master’s own endearing engagement, temple obviously gets the first preference as a theme in this volume. But there are essays related to other issues, such as patronage, rituals and memorial monuments, which are significant and form essential elements of a religious and social landscape.

It was imperative that this book should have an essay dedicated to the academic journey that Dhaky had undertaken for years for his passion, the temple. Parul Pandya Dhar has been immensely successful in presenting a representative discussion of his writings on temples, offering readers his research methods, his critical art historical construct, his emotional attachment with temple yet maintaining a scientific temper. This reading into the works of Dhaky sets the stage for reading and understanding the 32 essays in the next section.

Hemant Dave illuminates us about Dhaky’s penchant for writing in regional languages, particularly Gujrati, his mother tongue. He gives us a succinct account of the invaluable treasures that came from the master’s pen in Gujarati and a few in Hindi.

The book is laid out into six sub-themes: Architectural Styles, Modes, Materials, and Milieus; Architectural Elements; Architecture and the Configuration of Imagery; Embodying the Deity; Inhabiting the Temple; and Piety, Society and Ritual Performance.

All these themes are linked some way or another to Dhaky’s contribution to the disciplines of art and architecture. The first section is directly related to the field to which Dhaky substantially contributed. It opens with an essay by Walter M. Spink on the development of the vihara shrines from Bagh to Ajanta. Taking the two sites together, he weaves a wonderful narrative of the interface between them —Bagh as a source for the development of the stupa shrines at Ajanta and Ajanta for the introduction of Buddha imagery in Bagh caves.

The second essay by Michael Meister, entitled, “From Sikhara to Sekhari: Building from the Ground Up”, explores the formal development of the sekhari mode from the north Indian sikhara. According to him, the birth of sekhari began in the early 10th century and the Kandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho was the first truly sekhari temple.

The next two essays deal with brick temples. Parul Pandya Dhar takes us to Champa (central and southern Vietnam) where numerous independent brick temples dot the landscape. She has painstakingly examined all the temple groups and her study demonstrates the gradual transformation of Champa temples from a modest platform on which the deity was established to brick-walled temples with brick superstructures. Her essay enlightens us on the sharing and transferring of function and form and points to the fluidity of the transformative processes that shaped a precise architectural language in Champa. Adam Hardy enlightens us on two little-known brick temples of the Pratihara period from Kalayat (Haryana) and Nasirabad (Uttar Pradesh). Through a methodical study of the jalaka patterns and structural components of these temples, he draws our attention to a common source for these temples, the early stages of mainstream Nagara tradition in Madhyadesa. Thus, despite the geographical distance between the Kalayat temple and Parasuramesvara in Odisha, their similarity is striking.

Tamara Sears gives us an interesting insight when she highlights the diversity of architectural features in 15 temples at Kadwaha from the early medieval period. Her study reveals that unlike the homogeneity of sites with royal patronage such as Khajuraho, those in Kadwaha suggest multiple patrons, and thus there is a need to look at categorising architectural interventions more in terms of diverse communities than dynasties. The next essay, by Alka Patel, is on the plan, style and ornamental repertoire of the Masjid-i-Sangi in Afghanistan (c.1200 C.E.). Her study shows that though Masjid-i-Sangi is a seemingly minor structure in the larger architectural culture in the eastern periphery of the Persianate world, it is invaluable as in this structure one can notice the innovations arising out of widened networks, which resulted in the adoption of cultural forms of both the Persianate and the Indic worlds.

The last two essays are by Catherine Asher and Frederic Asher. Catherine Asher studies the pattern of temple construction by Rajputs, especially those patronised by the Kachwahas, the rulers of Amber and later Jaipur in the Mughal period. She raises a fundamental issue regarding the lack of temples in north India. She makes the exceedingly valid argument that rather than blaming Muslim rule for temple destruction one should look for causes such as lack of finance for the crumbling and withering away of numerous temples. Frederick Asher’s essay is a narrative on the famous Holkar queen Ahilyabai’s massive temple construction project at Mahesvar. He indicates a process of deification of Ahilyabai when he points out that a temple of Siva is also referred to as Ahilyesvara temple, identifying the queen with Siva, “the lord who is Ahilya”.

The second section exclusively studies the specific architectural components that went into the making of a temple. The opening essay is by Corinna Wessels-Mevissen, where she focusses on the ceiling designs in the temples of northern Karnataka with special emphasis on the lotus blossom motif. Her meticulous and elaborate study reveals the stylistic progression of the motif and a supra regional interconnectedness between the features of the ceiling design. Anila Verghese takes up the case study of the composite pillars of the Atmanatha temple in Avudayarkoil in Tamil Nadu, which was associated with the great Saiva saint Manikkavachakar. Her elaborate study brings forth the iconographic complexity and variety of the composite pillars in this temple of the Nayak period. The succeeding essay by George Michell is on the dipa-stambhas of Goa’s temples (18th century), which according to him were influenced by the Deccan Sultanate. He makes a comparative study of the dipa-stambhas and the corner towers of the Bijapur tombs built during the time of Adil Shah. One is tempted to agree with his suggestion that when architects in Goa were commissioned to make dipa-stambhas, they preferred to look at Bijapur in Karnataka for inspiration instead of adopting the style of the bell towers of the Portuguese. The last essay in this section is a little different in the sense that it deals with water architecture in the sacred spaces of Halvad (13th century) and Champaneer (15th century) in Gujarat.

Political statements

Architecture and the configuration of imagery form the theme of the third section. In an engaging essay, Gerd J.R. Mevissen indicates the politics behind the arrangement of Tripurantaka images in three temples—the eighth century Rajasimhesvara (Kailasanatha) temple at Kancheepuram, the 11th century Rajarajesvara (Brihadisvara) temple at Thanjavur and the mid-12th century Rajarajesvara (Airavatesvara) at Darasuram. His remarkable study reveals that in case of the Rajasimhesvara temple, the Pallava ruler placed all the Tripurantaka images towards the direction of his main enemy, the early Western Chalukyas located in north-western Deccan. In the case of the Rajarajesvara temple, the Tripurantaka images face all directions, which could be seen as an indication of Rajaraja’s well-known claim of paramount overlordship. At Darasuram, Rajaraja Chola II constructed the monumental stone chariot for Tripurantaka with a north-south orientation as a last great effort to regain control over his three southern enemies. Thus, the Tripurantaka images were introduced as a political statement by these rulers.

Next, we come across Kumud Kanitkar’s interesting study of the Aundha Naganatha temple, one of the 12 jyotirlingas, located near Nanded in Maharashtra. Through an assessment of the arrangement of its imagery, along with the 12th/13th century works of the saint, she suggests that this temple signifies a paradigm shift in its iconographic programme, from representing jnana marga to bhakti marga. Jurgen Neuss focusses on a new type of “Devapatta” and a few other Vaishnava icons from the Vishnu temple Mandhata. The panel is perhaps datable to the later Paramara period (12th-13th century C.E.). On the basis of the three letters ‘ma’ ‘thu’ ‘ra’ inscribed in the temple, the author is inclined to suggest that the panel might have been manufactured at Mathura.

The final essay in this section is by Anna L. Dallapiccola. She writes on the Ramayana reliefs of the 16th century Chintala Venkataramana temple at Tadpatri in Andhra Pradesh. Her exhaustive study shows that the Ramayana narratives of this temple were probably inspired by the 14th century Ranganatha Ramayana. Finally, she makes an important comparison of these epic narratives with the Ramayana series in the Ramanuja temple in Vijaynagara.

From architecture and imagery, the next section moves on to independent deities for whom temples exist. This section has two essays on goddess Lakshmi, by A.P. Jamkhedkar and Doris Meth Srinivasan. In his essay “Sri Lakshmi in Oral Tradition and Art”, Jamkhedkar introduces us to the elements of the Lakshmi myth in the Srisukta hymn of the Rig Veda and suggests that this myth inspired the early images of Lakshmi. Doris Meth Srinivasan writes on the presence of Lakshmi on the lion on the earliest Gupta gold coins and attributes it to the influence of Gandhara. Surprisingly, her bibliography does not include B.N. Mukherjee’s seminal work Nana on Lion , which was the inspiration for many later works on the subject.

The next two essays revolve around Buddhist icons. On the basis of stylistic similarities, Stephen Markel attributes to Sarnath a torso of Sakyamuni Buddha housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was earlier attributed to Mathura. Suraj Pandit revisits the fifth century Buddhist panel in Cave 90 at Kanheri and questions its identification as the Sravasti miracle. Through a contextual analysis, he is inclined to interpret this panel as the dharmakaya of the Saddharmapundarika-sutra. The next two essays are by Ratan Parimoo and Devangana Desai, both focussing on Vaishnava iconography. Ratan Parimoo chooses some Seshasayi Vishnu sculptures from Vietnam and Cambodia to highlight the impact of Vaishnavism in these countries. Comparing them with Indian examples, he reminds us that Cambodian sculptors have introduced variations in the postures of Vishnu and Lakshmi.

Devangana Desai discusses an interesting representation of child Krishna on a banyan leaf known as Vatapatrashayi. It is an exhaustive study that includes the depiction of Vatapatrashayi in all kinds of medium and finds textual mention. Gouriswar Bhattacharya draws our attention to some khattakas (ornate niches) from south Bihar containing figures which are not part of a temple. The purpose of these khattakas is not clear. The last but not the least important essay in this section is by Kamal Giri, which identifies and discusses the sculptural treasures in the temples and lanes of Varanasi.

The fifth section talks about the other beings that embellish temples with their presence, apart from the main deities. Pratapaditya Pal introduces a rare gilt bronze of a divine couple from Nepal mistakenly identified as Uma-Mahesvara. With his masterly analysis of the bronze, he identifies it as a Mahasiddha couple. The next paper by Nachiket Chanchani is the story of a lamp-bearer from the Jageshwar valley in Kumaon. He traces the “roots and routes” of influence that went into the making of this sculpture.

In the next essay, Thomas E. Donaldson discusses the depiction of a disrobed female found in the company of a beast in the temple walls. His research shows that this motif appeared in temples for about 500 years and gradually faded away with the introduction of mithuna-maithuna themes.

Mithunas form the subject matter of Kirit L. Mankodi’s study. He discusses the iconography and architectural context of two mithuna sculptures from Atru in Rajasthan. He brings in the extremely vital question of violation of heritage and gives a gripping account of the recovery of these sculptures in the U.S.

The final section, “Piety, Society and Ritual Performance”, delves into the devotional and social aspects of structures. S. Settar’s opening essay is on nisidhis, the Jain memorial monuments. He is a pioneer in working on this theme, and his essay clarifies with analytical rigour the complex ideas, forms and practices signified by nisidhis. Maruti Nandan Tiwari and Shanti Swaroop Sinha write on some vital socio-cultural dimensions of Jain art, interweaving recurrent motifs and iconographies with the core principles and beliefs of Jainism.

The third essay, by Adalbert J. Gail, is an interesting study on the relationship between theatre and temple in India, Nepal and Cambodia. In the first section of his essay, he indicates cultic-artistic presentations that can be taken as theatrical enactments and in the second addresses music and dance that literally took place in temples.

The book winds up with a fascinating essay by Pika Ghosh, who takes the well-known kantha of Bengal to another plane, viewing kantha products as “embroidered temples”. In many cases, the kantha surface is entirely devoted to Krishna, as is the case with many temple walls, and there are inscriptions like temple epigraphs.

The book is undoubtedly a landmark publication. I only wish, in the context of South-East Asia, that one or two essays on the art historical repertoire of maritime South-East Asia were included.

Putting together 32 informative and insightful essays must have been a Herculean task. As Kapila Vatsayan puts it, “it is a veritable collection of writings of ‘who’s who’ in the field of Indian art history”. Each essay in the volume reflects distinctive voices of different sources of our past. The book is a befitting tribute to Dhaky.

Suchandra Ghosh is Professor, Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta

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