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December 09, 2015

3 Indian Temples That Are Sculptural Marvels

Text by Geeta Rao. Illustration by Rahul Das

Odisha’s Konark Sun Temple, the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, the Kailasa Temple at Ellora – these spectacular temples of India bear testimony to sculptors who have told myriad stories in stone

There is a magical quality about stone. Take a chisel and put a hammer to it and who knows what stories will emerge — stories that are cinematic, three-dimensional and teeming with a life of their own.

On first seeing Odisha’s Konark Sun Temple, Rabindranath Tagore said, “The language of stone surpasses the language of man.” He was right. Temple art and stone carvings are the story of Indian art. It is a language unbroken for 5,000 years and expressed best by unknown artists, sculptors and architects as both a civilisation’s textbook and manual of life, and a celebratory commentary on the human connection with God.

The Konark temple, known to sailors as the Black Pagoda, was conceived of as the giant chariot of the sun god. Twelve huge chariot wheels, each one intricately carved, seven horses in motion and a scientific orientation towards the sun make it a sundial. This 13th-century monolithic marvel is now a World Heritage Site.

But the Konark temple is merely one of the spectacular temples in India. There are 33,000 sculptures at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. The 16th-century temple dedicated to the goddess Parvati would make it to several record books if it so desired. One of its mahamandapams or great halls has 985 pillars, each one carved out of a single stone. This is one of the temples, legend has it, where Shiva arrives and performs as the Nataraja or the god of the dance of creation.

What compelled artists to dedicate their lives to working with stone, a hard medium that needs to be coaxed into yielding its secrets? What made them work with nothing but a hammer and chisel even on large rock faces? The Kailasa Temple at Ellora has been carved out of a single rock face and took 200 years to complete. It is hard to describe its scale but it is a must-visit.

Temple art has so many schools ­— Gandhara, Mathura, Amaravati — and styles — Nagara, Dravidian, Kalinga — and great dynastic periods — Gupta, Pallava, Chandela, Rashtrakuta, Chola, Pandyan — and religious classifications — Buddhist, Jain, Hindu — that it would need a historical scholar to write a coherent article on it. I am not one but as a traveller I have stood awestruck at the stone carvings so exquisite that human emotions literally pour out.

At the very top of the Kandariya Mahadev Temple in the Khajuraho cluster is a relief of Shiva and Parvati that is a beautifully carved human form with such an expression of romantic love and tenderness on their faces and their body language that it would be compelling enough to ask who could have created this. Did the artist carve this from a portrait, from a real-life couple or from his imagination? Was this his own love story?

One of the challenges as an ordinary spectator is to wrap your head around the ‘monumental anonymity’ of the works. These are historian Ananda Coomaraswamy’s words but they beg the question: did no one seek fame?

Or write a daily journal? Or sign secretly onto his or her favourite carving?

It can be mind-boggling and overwhelming but the more temples you visit, the more you will see a repetitive pattern emerge. You will see ornamental gates and entrance arches, detailed pillars, a central hall and an entire cast of recurring figures and animals. Some are real, some mythological, some pure fantasy. Portly yakshas and beautiful yakshinis, maithunas or coupling figures, dwarapalas or gatekeepers, vrikshshakhas or tree goddesses, 16 human emotions depicted as women, apsaras, ceremonial arches with alligators and elephants. The lower panels show the human condition, the upper panels take you towards the abode of the gods. The architectural movement is always inward from large, oversized and opulent to small and almost non-existent. The most important part of a temple is the smallest and darkest, the garbhagriha or the sanctum sanctorum, where you finally reach your innermost self, stripped of all illusion. Or so it is hoped.

The 10th-century Khajuraho temples are a must-see cluster because they are so well preserved. Yes, the erotic element is right there in your face, leaving you to marvel at the acrobatic nature of sex in the Chandela times. There are many interpretations of this erotica. One school of thought has it that the temples were built to celebrate the wedding of Shiva and Parvati and hence the whole cluster is a version of the Big Fat Indian Wedding, side shows and main players included. And hence it is a sex manual too.

On another level, scholars argue that this is a tantric view of the human condition moving towards liberation from base to divine. Yes, for the maithunas are mind-boggling in the acrobatic and sexual gymnastics they depict…are some of those positions really possible? But it is the other detailing that is of much more significance. I remember seeing scenes from the Mahabharata carved on the ceiling of one of the temples. How did someone carve so perfectly upside down? In the Varaha Temple, a giant boar has 674 Hindu gods and goddesses carved onto its body. The boar is the symbol of Vishnu but the three-dimensional nature of the carving is like reading an illustrated storybook.

In Vijaynagar’s Hampi, the 15th-century Virupaksha Temple is the star attraction because it is still open for worship but I find the deserted Vittala complex built a century later so much more evocative of life. Music rooms, singing pillars, anterooms, a big market, dance halls, all carved from stone. It was built as a royal abode for the god Vishnu so everything is larger than life here. A chariot temple is so well detailed that its stone wheels could rotate on their axle to bring true realism into the picture. Sadly, the powers-that-be in this century decided to cement the wheels to prevent curious tourists from turning them, so they are immovable now. There is a sadder end to this story. Local legend has it that the god Vishnu could not handle the excess and opulence of the Vittala complex when he saw it and decide to choose a more humble abode. I am not sure if this was an excuse for the reigning royals to move in.

One of the reasons Indian artisans took to stone, we are told, was that it was easily available and much more lasting than wood. At the Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, which dates back to the third century BC, the style replicates woodcarvings but transfers them effortlessly to stone. The elephants, the lions, the tree that symbolises the Buddha and tales from the Jatakas are all carved in minute detail.

Marble was the stone of choice for the Jains; 1,400 white marble pillars hold up the spectacular Ranakpur Jain temples near Udaipur. This is definitely on my bucket list. The change of light varies the colour of the marble from white to blue. The pillars detail the lives of Jain saints. But look up and at about 45 feet you will see rows of exquisite apsaras or swapansundaris. There is an entire pillar dedicated to snakes that seem to move. Why are they there? Yes, the guidebooks and scholars will probably be able to explain why but it is so much more fun to speculate.

The Rani ki Vav stepwell in Gujarat is an inverted temple. Built in the 15th century, it moves seven floors underground towards the water table. Stepwells are a uniquely Indian invention, which became a centre for social interaction. Because women used them the most, the temple walls respond to the interests of the target audience. You see naag kanyas or snake women, panels depicting solah sringar or the art of dressing, and vrikshshakhas.

In a sense, these are the infographics of an earlier age communicating an entire dynasty’s history. Or like some grand age of cinema, we see the visual rise and fall of mythological and religious stars. The Shakti temples give way to Shiva and Vishnu temples and the rise of the Krishna cult. The lower panels depict human desires and foibles and are like modern Facebook updates — they depict how people lived, partied, went to war, had some crazy hooking-up practices, hunted, rolled dice, played chaupar — enacted in vivid photographic detail.

Look closely and you will see some little quirk, an artist’s wink from an earlier era — someone yawning in a prayer meeting, a musician tuning his instrument in a hurry, a lustful maid and charioteer, and a peeping Tom. The upper panels are for the gods but there is some artistic fun down below with human beings.

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