Tradition of grace

Print edition : February 29, 2008

Lingaraja temple, Bhubaneswar. The small, approachable temples of the earlier period are left behind and the home of the deity is presented in all its glory and magnificence.-

In what is now Orissa, prolific temple building occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Lingaraja temple, Bhubaneswar.

FOR a thousand years, from the 3rd century B.C., rock-cut shrines were made in the Indian subcontinent. There are a few surviving remains of the 5th century A.D. that show that the tradition of structural temples had also begun. It is from the 7th and 8th centuries onwards that we see grand, free-standing temple structures made out of stone. By then, different forms of temple towers had developed in the north and in the south. A southern form of temple building was seen in Tamil Nadu under the Pallavas. Under the Early Western Chalukyas, both southern and northern forms were seen at Pattadakal and Alampur.

In the meantime, further north-east, in what is present-day Orissa, prolific temple building occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries. The region around Bhubaneswar was a great centre of spiritual activity from early times. There are Emperor Asokas edicts of the 3rd century B.C. and Jaina caves of the 2nd century B.C. The oldest surviving structural temples here are of the 6th or early 7th century A.D., of the Shatruganeswara group. The temples are dedicated to Siva and are of the Pashupata sect, which followed the teachings of Lakulisha. The Parasurameswara is a well-preserved temple of the 7th or 8th century, where many manifestations of Siva have been made with great feeling and fluidity of form.

The "BHO" is a temple feature that consists of a "chaitya" arch with a "kirtimukha" above it. Here, the "bho" of the Shatruganeswara temple, 6th/7th century A.D. This temple has the richly ornamented style that was to remain in the temples of Orissa. It is an art filled with the vital energy of nature and a profusion of mythical and worldly forms. Above all, a sense of movement and grace prevails.-

The temple is where the unmanifest Eternal is given a form. The devotee has a representation to meditate upon so as to awaken qualities within himself, qualities that will take him on the path of realisation. The outer surface of the temple presents the many aspects of the deity within. It also presents joyous images of the world of creation. The temple is, in fact, a miniature representation of the cosmos, with the multiplying forms of the material world made on various parts of its architecture. Each sculpture and unit of architecture is closely related to the divine in the garbha-griha, or womb chamber, at the centre.

The doorway of the temple is given special attention. It is here one leaves the world of outward forms to enter the sacred interior. Doorways in Orissan temples continue the richly foliated designs seen from the 5th century during the Gupta period. Themes and an Orissan style that continued in Hindu and Buddhist monuments in the centuries to come were established.

Mukteswara Temple, Bhubaneswar, 10th century A.D. This temple represents the full development of the Orissa temple form in its "deul", or tower, and "jagmohan", or hall. Both structures as well as the "torana" entrance are profusely carved.-

All Indian temples are made according to norms and proportions that are carefully laid down. In Orissa, it is fortunate that the texts giving distinctive names to and descriptions, proportions and measurements of the different sections of the temples have survived. Orissa is also a rare place where, among a few surviving families of sthapatis, or builders and artists, the traditions and canons have been passed on from father to son up to today.

The temple is made in two parts, a tower and a hall. In Orissa, the tower is called deul and the hall, jagmohan. The Parasurameswara temple faces west and its deul is about 40 feet (12.2 metres) high. The walls of both the deul and the jagmohan are lavishly sculpted with architectural motifs and a profusion of figures. The most repeated form is the horseshoe shape, which has come from the earliest times, starting with the large windows of the chaitya-grihas. In early times, this was made in imitation of bent-wood architecture. Here, the shape is a motif that frames figures of animals, humans and divinities.

The temple represents the expanding form of the deity. From the linga in the dark interior of the sanctum, Siva can now be seen in many manifestations. Central projections on three sides of the tower contain the images most closely related to Siva, which include his sons Ganesha and Kartikeya. The latter occupies the niche on the eastern face of the tower. The peacock that he rides can be seen below him, killing a snake, as peacocks are known to do. The lintel above the niche depicts the wedding of Siva and Parvati.

The Mukteswara temple in Bhubaneswar, of the 10th century, has many developments over previous structures. It is small, with a deul less than 35 feet (10.7 m) high. However, it is acclaimed as a gem of Orissa architecture and is richly carved. Nagas and Naginis can be seen here with their long serpent tails coiled around the pilasters on which they are made. This was one of the favourite themes of Orissa sculptors and is rarely seen in any other part of India. The roof of the jagmohan has by now taken on the pidha shape, which was to become typical in this region.

Myths of Siva and the tales of the victory of knowledge over the evil of ignorance abound on the temple walls. An all-pervasive sense of joy fills the depictions. The sculptures include a fine figure of Nataraja, Siva in his cosmic dance. Warriors, both men and women, mounted on lions and griffins are shown, often trampling an elephant.

Alasya kanyas, or young maidens filled with the languorous grace of nature, such as these from the Brahmeswar temple, abound on the walls of Orissa temples. In their mellifluous lines and bountiful curves, they represent the vigour and creative force of nature.-

Alasya kanyas, or

The torana entrance, reminiscent of the stupa gateways of ancient times, is first seen here in this region and has exquisite carvings upon it. On the upper part of the deul there is an elaborately decorated ornament of Orissan architecture, the bho. It consists of a chaitya arch with a kirtimukha above it.

Brahmeswar Temple, Bhubaneswar, 11th century A.D. By this period, the "deul" of the Orissa temple had gained height and was visible from afar. This precedes the vastness and grandeur of the later temples of Orissa.-

The Rajarani temple was built around A.D. 1000. Its jagmohan has a pidha roof in many layers, in the established Orissa style. However, the deul has many clusters of the tower shape built around it. This gives it the appearance of mountain peaks. Such clusters are also seen in the towers of the temples that were developing in central India at this time. The entrance to the jagmohan has marvellous depictions of a Naga and a Nagini created around pilasters. These represent the abundance of as well as the protective forces of nature and are a theme seen in Indian art from the earliest times.

The deul of the temple is richly carved. There are numerous images of beautiful maidens. Along with Nagas, ancient Indian art of all faiths has always depicted Yakshas and Yakshis, representing

Jagannath Temple, Puri, 11th/12th century. This temple is dedicated to Vishnu and is one of the most revered in the Indian subcontinent. It is also famous for its annual "rath yatra", or temple car procession.-

Shilpa Prakasha, the text on temple building, states that these are indispensable in the making of a temple. It describes the 16 types of such beautiful young girls that can be made. Popular themes include a maiden pulling down the branch of a tree, which is similar to the shalabhanjika of ancient times. Others include the maiden removing her anklet or holding a pet bird. These figures embody the creative impulses of the natural world, which ensure the continuance of life. In the Indic temple, the worshipper does not shy away from the various aspects of life upon earth. Instead, he comes to see them as a part of the totality of creation, all of which is divine.

Corner projections of the deul have finely made dikpalas, the deities who are the guardians of the different directions. Agni, who represents fire, can be seen with the ram upon which he rides. Yama, the Lord of Death, can be seen with a noose and his buffalo. There is a very fine representation of Varuna, the Lord of the sky and the rain.

Rajarani Temple, Bhubaneswar, A.D.1000. From the Nagas coiled around the pillars of the entrance to the "jagmohan" to the profuse depictions of deities and beautiful maidens upon the "deul", this temple conveys the fruitful and pulsating life of nature.-

The Brahmeswar temple of the 11th century is made in the typical Orissa style. It is dedicated to Siva and is made in the panchayatana form, with four smaller shrines around the main one. The surface of the temple is richly covered with finely made sculpture. Alasya kanyas remind one of the joy of creation, and the divinities convey the essence of the grace that underlies it all.

The Lingaraja temple of the 12th century marks a high point in the tradition of temple building in Orissa. The temple is dedicated to Siva and continues to be in use today. The deul rises to a height of about 150 feet (45.7 m). The balance and proportions of the various parts of the temple and the elegance of its surface treatment make it one of the crowning achievements of the Orissan architect. The sculptures on the temple blend perfectly with the lines of its architecture, and the effect is majestic. A subsidiary shrine in the compound is dedicated to Parvati. It is probably of the 13th century and is richly carved.

Mahishasuramardini, Khichakeswari Temple. In all her vigour and fury, as well as grace and beauty, Durga slays the demon of ignorance within us. She is shown with a dynamic sense of movement, contained within the rhythmic arrangement of her many limbs.-

At Khiching, in what is today a very remote area in the north-eastern part of Orissa, stands the reconstructed Khichakeswari temple. It was originally of the 7th or 8th century and was restored in the early 20th century by the local raja. The work was carried out in the traditional manner, using an earthen ramp to take up large blocks of stone, but there were no references to determine the original shape of the temple. Therefore, the temple structure is disproportionate. However, the high quality of the sculpture on this temple and on others in the area testifies to the fact that this was an important centre of culture.

Two images of Mahishasuramardini on the north wall of the temple are of a very fine quality. Durga can be seen as killing the buffalo demon, signifying the victory of knowledge over ignorance. The power in the images and the fine features display an excellent quality of art. The chaitya arches, the mithuna figures, Nagas and Naginis, and the foliated carvings are similar to the Bhubaneswar temples. The structure is made of blue fine-grained chlorite, a stone that endures well and is conducive to fine carving.

With the emergence of structural temples in the plains of the Ganga from the 5th century onwards, similar themes and motifs began to be presented in northern, central and eastern India. Yet, these are transformed by hands that bring out the full richness of the local idiom. In the 10th and 11th centuries in Orissa, the subjects of art are very similar to those of this period in central India at Khajuraho. However, the sculpture is unmistakeably Orissan. It is this colour of the local culture in every region of India that makes the tapestry of Indian art infinitely rich and varied.

Khichakeswari Temple, Khiching, originally 7th-8th century A.D. This temple, dedicated to Durga, is in a remote part of Orissa. The continuing local traditions of worship and the exquisite sculptures upon its walls make a visit to this temple a rich and rewarding experience.-

In the meantime, the western Ganga dynasty ruled in the region of present-day Karnataka. They were most prominent in the 10th century and are known for their monuments at the Jaina holy site of Shravanabelagola.

Chandragupta, Asokas grandfather, was the great Maurya king of the 4th century B.C. He is believed to have renounced worldly life and become a Jaina ascetic in his later years in keeping with Indic philosophic traditions. It is believed that he came to Shravanabelagola to give up the bindings of his mortal body.

In A.D. 982, Chamunda Raya, a minister of King Rajmalla IV, made an impressive temple at Shravanabelagola, which is commonly known as Chamunda Raya Basti. The granite temple is southern in form. In A.D. 983, the minister dedicated a colossal statue of Gomatesvara, also known as Bahubali. This is about 60 feet (18.3 m) high and is the largest free-standing monolithic sculpture in the world.

One of the grand celebrations of the divine is the "Maha Mastaka Abhisheka", or great ritual bath, of the colossal Gomatesvara statue at Shravanabelagola, Karnataka. It takes place once in 12 years and is a colourful and joyous event.-

The early art of the Jainas was similar to that of the Buddhists, as can be seen at the stupa sites of the Kushana period. By now, the Jaina style had developed in a different direction. The depictions appear formal and stylised, rather than naturalistic. They convey a spirit of extreme detachment from the material and sensual world. Their objective is to take one to a rarefied realm of pure objectivity.

Gomatesvara was the son of Rishabhanatha, the first Jaina tirthankara, or victor over the fear of death. Gomatesvara stood for so long in meditation that creepers and anthills grew around his unmoving body. He is shown standing in the specific position of meditation known as kayotsarga. The limbs are held straight and the arms do not touch the body. The slightest of smiles is upon his face. It conveys the inner tranquillity of the figure, without disturbing the concentration within.

The Jainas believe in Samsara, as do believers of the Buddhist and Brahmanical faiths. This is the illusory nature of the world of separated material forms around us. One needs to lift the veils of the illusion to see the unity of creation. Jaina teachings focus upon the path towards realisation with intellectual discipline and a great clarity of vision. Renunciation of attachments to the material world is a prime consideration in their path towards salvation.

Siva in his cosmic dance, Parasurameswara temple, 7th-8th century A.D. There is a lyrical quality in the depiction that is unique to the Orissa idiom. The lines curve continuously, almost without angular joints.-

In the Indian tradition, deities of all faiths are adored. They are treated with reverence and fondness. They are given ritual baths and offered fresh flowers and fruit. The tradition finds its most exuberant expression in the grand Maha Mastaka Abhisheka of the colossal Gomatesvara statue, which is held every 12 years. On this occasion, the statue of Bahubali is ritually bathed with water, milk, ghee and yogurt and showered with flowers, saffron, turmeric and gold coins.

The aim of Indic spiritual traditions, from extreme asceticism to the celebration of divinity, has always been to free oneself from mundane attachments and desires, to lose oneself in the quest for the realisation of the divinity that pervades all creation.

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