Miniature cosmos

Print edition : February 01, 2008

Virat Mandir, Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh, c. A.D. 700. By this period, the temple form had fully evolved, with numerous representations of deities and of worldly life made upon its walls. In central India and in the east, clusters of towers were made around the main tower to replicate mountain peaks.-

The temple and the sculpture upon it represent the cosmos and its eternal harmony.

THE Upanishadic vision of India sees the material world as Maya, or Mithya, an illusion experienced by our limited perception. The high purpose of life and of art is to lift the veils of this illusion and see the Eternal, that which is beyond the forms of the world.

From the earliest times, simple forms were made to remind us of the essence that underlies the whole universe. In Chitrasutra, the oldest known treatise on art-making, this question is put to the sage Markandeya: The Supreme deity has been described as devoid of form, smell and emotion and destitute of sound and touch, so how can such a form be made of Him? Markandeya replies: Prakriti and Vikriti come into existence through the variation in the form of the Supreme Soul. That form of Him which is scarcely to be perceived is called Prakriti. The whole universe should be known as the Vikriti, that is, Modification of Him when endowed with form. Worship and meditation of the Supreme Being are possible only when He is endowed with form. The best position of the Supreme Soul, however, is to be imagined without form. (Translated by Dr. Stella Kramrisch)

The simplest forms that were made, such as the stupa and the Siva Linga, were placed in the heart of the sacred space. These take us closest to the truth of the formless Eternal. In their simplicity, they remind us that all that there is, is divine. The most revered Aakash Lingam of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu takes us a step further. Behind the curtains before it, there is nothing to see; we have come the closest to the concept of recognising the formless Eternal.

Raja Mahipals temple, or the Sahastro-Baho temple (the thousand-armed temple), Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh, 11th century. Popularly misnamed the Sas-bahu temple, it presents a vision of the beauty of creation.-

The inner sanctum of the temple is where we come to meditate upon the Truth, to recognise the divinity that is all around and within us. Here, in the garbha-griha, the womb-home, we are to be born again in knowledge. We come past the temple walls, through the halls, to this place, where we may experience the truth and be transformed. The Indian temple is conceived as a place for the self-transformation of the devotee. It is a place where the noise and confusion of the material world are left behind, where, in the sanctified silence, one may gain the knowledge of the oneness of all of creation.

The earliest surviving temple is at Sanchi, next to ancient Vidisha, in Madhya Pradesh. It is of the 5th century. The Vishnu temple at Deogarh, also in central India, is of the early 6th century.

The temple and the sculpture upon it represent the cosmos and its eternal harmony. This is the theme that underlies all early Indic religious traditions. The temple is conceived as the cosmos in miniature. Brihatsamhita, written in the early 6th century, describes the centre of the sanctum as the place for Brahman, the formless divine that pervades all that there is. Around the shrine, manifestations of the deity are made in the forms most closely associated with it.

The sanctum sanctorum is called the garbha-griha, or womb chamber. The womb contains the seed from which life is created. Therefore, the most sacred is found here. This is where the devotee transforms himself through the act of looking upon the image of the divinity. All that is, is within, and the moment of realisation of the Truth is the moment of transformation. The sight of the divine lifts our spirit and creates peace and joy, taking us on the path towards realisation. This acquiring of grace by looking upon the deity is known as darshan and is common to all Indic faiths.

Siva temple, Nachna, Madhya Pradesh, originally of the 5th century. The tower of this temple is a later construction. The earliest surviving structural temples are of the Gupta period.-

The temple is a place where the cosmos is replicated and explained to the devotee: from the representation of the unmanifest Eternal to the multitude of forms of the world. As time progressed, the temple became more grand and complex in its depiction of this theme. The abundance of life and the depiction of the innumerable creatures of the world began to cover the walls of the temple.

A tower was made over the sanctum of the deity. As the number of people who visited the temple grew and as provisions needed to be made for gatherings on festive occasions, a hall, or mandapa, was constructed before the sanctum. Both the tower and the hall developed different shapes in North and South India. In North India, a curvilinear tower in the style termed Nagara was developed.

Through its buildings, ground plan, wall structure and tower, the temple expresses the expansion of the deity from the centre to every direction of the world, not only the four cardinal directions but infinitely upwards and downwards too. The structures of the temple express this idea: they come out from the centre and relate in all of their measurements to the dimensions of the sanctum space within. This is also reflected in the sculptures that started appearing on the walls and pillars of temples from the 5th century onwards, culminating by the 10th century in a vast range of images. All these structures express the expanding form of the deity within.

Krishna with mother, Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, Bhopal, 11th century. The image of the baby Krishna is one of the many human images created to embody the divine. It is an image that helps us relate to him with all our love and direct the warmth of our affection towards him and thereby come close to him.-

After the period of the Gupta empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, the next great king of North India was Harsha, who ruled from the beginning to the middle of the 7th century. His capital was in north-central India, at Kannauj, and under him an atmosphere of great culture and learning was created.

After Harshas death in A.D. 647, various Rajput chiefs governed northern and central India. They supported the learned Brahmin community, continuing the tradition of patronage that started in ancient times. Many temples and shrines were built in this period, especially from the 8th century onwards. Though the structures of much of this period have been destroyed in central India, there is a wealth of sculptures, which brings alive a period of flourishing temple art.

The temple represents an entire vision of the cosmos. Each part, each image upon it, makes its own statement, yet is a part of the whole. The closely interrelated parts and forms of the temple replicate the Indic view of the oneness of creation. The central buttresses of the temple walls hold the images that are closest to the temples main deity. These represent an aspect of the deity in the sanctum. They make the deity, who is deep inside, visible on the outside. It is through these images that the formless Eternal is given a personality and made more approachable for the devotee. A mythical family is created, much like a human one, yet always transcending the mundane realities of the everyday world.

The images are placed in line with the garbha-griha. They serve as windows through which the deity is manifest to the world outside. These are also mirrors for us as all deities are personifications of qualities within us. The image on the back wall of the temple is the one most closely related to the deity in the inner shrine. As most temples face east, the rear wall is normally the one facing west. In Siva temples, it is his son Ganesha who can be seen on the south wall. He is also known as Ganapati, the leader of the army of Sivas ganas. Sivas consort, Parvati, in her many forms, can normally be seen on the north wall.

These images are for personal devotion and are known as Ishta devatas. They relate to the world as it is known to the worshipper through images of the family life of the deity. Yet, they take the devotee to another plane of reality, where the separated forms of the world begin to come together in the divine. The worshipper is provided a glimpse of the reality beyond the mundane world. He is slowly prepared for the great crossing, deep inside the temple, from the world of illusion to the knowledge of the oneness of it all.

Ekmukha Siva Linga, Mau, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 8th to 9th century. A subtle concept is embodied in the Siva Linga, the mark of the formless Eternal, which takes upon itself the living vitality of forms in the world.-

All the sculptures on the inner and outer walls of the temple have a relationship with the image in the sanctum and follow a logic that pervades the whole. The temple is really like a vast sculpture in which all the parts, whether visible at the same time or not, are related. Dikpalas, or the eight protectors of the directions, are made around the temple. They provide the temple with a sense of harmony and order by keeping away the confusion and chaos of the outside world.

The temple walls abound in images of the abundance and fruitfulness of nature. This is the world of forms, the manifestation in numberless parts of the eternal truth of the garbha-griha. Nagas, or divine serpents, embody the protective forces and the harmony of the natural world. Leogryphs rear upon the walls, awakening the courage within us to face the inner truth.

Celestial apsaras and languorous kanyas, or lovely women, continue the tradition of the Yakshis of ancient times. Beauty is a very essential element in these depictions. In Indic philosophy, it is believed that the moment of the aesthetic response is akin to Brahmananda, or the final bliss of salvation.

Uma Maheshwara, Barhad, Bhind, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 10th century. Siva is shown as a loving family man, with his beautiful consort Parvati, or Uma, and their children. The warmth of the affection between them provides an emotional link to the life of the human worshipper.-

Our appreciation of beauty is a glimpse of the grace that underlies the world, the essence of divinity that is in all. This experience transports us from the confusion of the material world to the peace that is deep within us.

The doorway of the shrine is given special importance for it is here that we leave behind the noise and confusion of the world to enter the peace of the cosmic order. The great rivers, which water the plains of India, are made at the doorways to bless us with their treasure of fertility. Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, has been present from early times in the shrines of all Indic faiths.

Kshemkari Durga, Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 11th century. The concept is that Durga is granted the attributes of all the other deities for her glorious battle, the battle of knowledge against ignorance.-

The placement of these images of divinities in the overall context of the temple is significant for each of them is a fragment of a divine cosmology. Through these manifestations, the temple unfolds before the devotee the multiplying glory of the Eternal.

It is not the photographic reality of the world that the artist attempts to present but the essence of reality. The final truth is to be met in the garbha-griha, and its manifestation, its ornament, is the temple around it. Plants, insects, animals, men and women, creatures that combine these and divinities are all manifestations of the same reality.

Skhalitvasana, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 11th century. The walls of the temple are covered with representations of beauty that remind us of the grace of the divine.-

The icons represented in the temple were developed in the religious texts called the Puranas, literally meaning ancient. The Agamas are texts that contain the essential attributes of the deities for their representation in the sacred art of the temple. The main deities of the Brahmanical faith are Siva, Vishnu and Shakti. Myths and stories of glory and power have been woven around them.

Siva has been given many iconographic forms as the destroyer of the demons who personify ignorance or forgetfulness of the Truth. The Nataraja, Siva in his cosmic dance, is one of his most popular representations. Despite the dynamic movement of his many arms, there is peace upon his face; the stillness at the centre of the cosmos.

Shri Bhadri, Shahdol, Dhubela Museum, Madhya Pradesh, 10th century. Besides the male personification of deities, their counterparts as females were also conceived. Beauty, movement, the rhythm of the cycle of life and its end are encapsulated in this wonderful figure that appears to move even as we look upon her. This is one of the masterpieces of the art of this period.-

The aniconic representation of Siva, in the form of the linga, is among the earliest images of Indian art. The linga, or mark, is the representation of the formless Eternal taking upon itself the multifarious forms of the world. In this one image is a complete discourse on the ultimate Upanishadic truth and the real essence of the material world.

Natesha, Indragarh, Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 8th century. The cosmic dance is one of the most-represented images of Siva. It is a marvellous conception in which the cycle of the endless creation and destruction of the material world is represented as simultaneously powerful and gracefully fluid.-

From time to time, when the divine harmony of the universe begins to disintegrate, an avatara, or incarnation of Vishnu, is believed to appear to restore order. Thus, forms of Vishnu in his various avataras are among major iconic representations. Ten of them were standardised in art by the 7th or 8th century. As Varaha, the boar, he rescues Bhu Devi, the earth goddess, from the ocean of ignorance. He represents the great power and regal authority of knowledge.

Shakti-Ganesha, Kunna, Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 10th century. When Siva is envisaged as a family man, he has two sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya. Several stories are made around them. These help devotees focus their concentration, taking them away from the noises and concerns of the material world.-

The worship of the female principle Shakti, or the Goddess, has been a continuous stream in Indic religious thought. For those who worship Siva, the Goddess is seen as Parvati, or Uma, and as Durga. Parvati is Sivas spouse. As Durga, she embodies the power that always results in the victory of good over evil, of knowledge over confusion.

Indrani, Kota, Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh State Museum, 7th century. The deity Indra is one of the earliest seen in Indic stupas and temples. His earliest representation appears to be the one in a 1st century B.C. cave at Bhaja in Maharashtra. Here is a depiction of his female counterpart, Indrani, who is also made holding a vajra, or thunderbolt, in her hand. The vajra is the principal attribute of Indra.-

Mahishasuramardini is one of the most magnificent representations of Durga. In all her grace and measureless strength, she effortlessly vanquishes the Mahisha, or buffalo, who represents the evil of ignorance.

Chamunda is another form of the Goddess. Her name is a combination of the names of the demons she attacks and kills, Chanda and Munda. Just as Bhairava is a wrathful form of Siva, Chamunda is the most horrific aspect of the Goddess. These represent the fearlessness and great vigour that we can bring to our battle against the confusion of the material world.

Sculpted tower, Virat Mandir. The walls of the temple are richly ornamented with figures representing fertility and the natural forces of the world as well as the divinity that pervades it all.-

Across central India, the form of the temple and its carvings developed to a peak from the 5th to the 12th century. The divine was sought in the consciousness of the Eternal within oneself. The art of sculpture flourished. It provided images that were reflections of the sublime qualities in us. They evoke the finest within us to take us on the path towards knowledge. When we look upon these images, we are transformed for a moment. In the act of seeing, there is an acquiring of grace, which awakens the divinity in each of us.

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