Art Wanderer: The Hindu Temples – take 3

Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India

Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India

After our first entrance into the Hindu temple beginnings and how it developed, it is inevitable to start to talk about the Negara temple type and the Dravida (southern) Temple styles.

This distinction is what you find in the books. And truly there are some main lines along which we can try to distinguish these two groups. I have yet to confess: to me it seems very hard to put everything together under these categories. In India the regional realities , the village ones, are the unit of measure, and there is a myriad of wonderful worlds and styles.

Artisans moved across India in the wake of wars or famines or simply looking for more generous patrons, and so did religious, philosophical and literary currents. Often they started in one area, reached the other side and bounced back with renewed vitality. Isn’t this that make art so lively and creative? The fact of picking here and there, reinterpreting and being inspired by new things to absorb them into an even newer style.
For example if you ever have the chance to go through Kinnaur, a beautiful forested region suspended between the foothills (it is after Shimla) and the Himalayas proper, you are going to marvel at temples and vernacular houses with magnificent, engrossing woodcarving: here temples are made of wood and stone and do not ressemble anything I have read in those art books. There are some nice pictures here (mine are from the non digital era, somewhere lost into my family cardboxes).

Well, let’s start at least with the quintessential example of the Negara temple.

Khajurao is mostly famous for the erotic sculptures, that spur a lot of questioning about their function, and they are not only controversial but truly masterpieces, the perfect concretisation of the ideal of beauty along with an incredible dynamism in what has been called their “corkscrewing” twisting.

It seems a miracle that Khajurao has survived to our days, left intact by the Muslim conquest: some said it must have looked so evil to the conquerors that they left it alone. Seriously ? Have we ever heard of conquerors that leave alone a place because it looks so evil??not that i remember of in the little of human history I have studied. Probably the temples that survived were simply too remote and obscure to deserve attention or to be aware of.
On the other hand, I would have wished to see the faces of the British administrators looking at it in 1830 : that must have been quite some day for them!

Let’s leave Indian sculpture for another moment and look at the temples. There is a fair group of temples. The largest one is the magnificent Kandariya Mahadeva dedicated to Shiva and built under the Chandella rulers,  chieftains that proclaimed independence and their own reign (by founding the first temple in Khajuraho) around the 10th century.

You can see in it the full development of the initial temple: the plinth (base) is raised but much more, there is a portico that evolved in full vestibule and balconies and there are beautiful shikara to surmount it and not only in the last section above the sanctuary but all around the main one and on top of the vestibule. There is an incredible dynamism, the temples seems to lift their own stone mass to the sky in the vertical plane and yet it seems to expand to breathe through its verandas all around the horizontal plane. The receding and expanding balconies are indeed a feature of this temple that make it so accomplished.

Look at the shikaras, (the soaring tower and its smaller repetitions), and its upward thrust.
Between us, do not be tricked: the Hindus at this point did not know the true arch and had to resort to a trick, to reduce the stones in width to give the impression of a dome. Only with the Muslim conquest the arch would have made its entrance to India (and India was not alone in not knowing, so probably was for China, and the Greek too did not have a clue, only the Etrurian and Mesopotamian had figured it out).

The shikaras repeat the image of the main one in smaller size and they grow around each other like mushrooms.

Now let’s play a trick: close your eyes and try to recompose the Kandariya image in your mind. Don’t you have the impression that it pixelises itself from the blank page like a graphic image? Maybe it was true only for me when I tried it.

Indeed, researchers have found that this temple construction, rules of proportions can be explained with the fractals theory. Does it seem to be crazy? Were the Chandelas aliens then? Not really, fractals repetition is common in nature and since this temple is the representation (and so emanation) of the Mount Meru how could it be less natural to have it repeat itself like a mountain or the stalactites in a cave.

Partha Mitter in his “Indian Art” explains this principle very admirably with the example of the cauliflower: in a cauliflower you find the same pattern in each small floret as much as in the whole piece.

Another reason why this temple pixelises itself in the memory, comes probably for me in the refined and exquisite treatment of the surface: Partha Mitter again compares it to lace. It is very difficult to see it from the resolution of the images, but the decoration is a tiny repetition of horseshoe arches (an image inherited from Buddhist temples, in that constant porous world of art and creation.). In the south the same shape will be used for a very different type of ornament.

Like many other temples in the North the ceilings are stunning: they are integrally sculpted in circles with different patterns; the “entire surface is transformed into a swirling of pattern of circles and semi-circles” (Vidya Dehejia, Indian art). The feat is not only in scultping these patterns but in the way they are supported above your head, there is no mortar and they match into each other perfectly.

Now what can you do inside the Kandariya Mahadeva if you are not a beauty stricken traveller but a humble devotee? as usual the faithful enters the porch, the vestibule and circumambulates (pradakshina) and offer prayers, flowers around the central sanctuary.

In the case of the Kandariya Mahadeva, dedicated to Shiva, there is a precise philosophical programme around which the believer can meditate before encountering the deity.

In order to get to the central sanctum, where the “unmanifest” deity, the Lingam, is housed, the believer has to expose himself to the “Manifest” deity that involve dance and destruction. 

A small digression: When one talks about Shiva and destruction, it should be intended that the destruction is destruction of ignorance and not the medieval image that often tourists elect to


 (Shiva dances in his Nataraja form and tramples upon the dwarf that symbolises ignorance: there is a beautiful interpretation of the image by Coomaraswamy that says the god dances in the believer’s heart. This is an inspiring and fascinating image. Let us leave it for later, although I would love to delve into the captivating contagious swirls of Shiva. Some introduction from Metropolitan Museum of Art can be found here)

Along with the Kandariya Mahadeva, Khajuraho is filled with many other outstanding temples. There are temples to Vishnu, the Lakshmana with a philosophical programme that echoes the one at Deogarh explored in our take 1, and other to Surya (the sun) and Devi, the goddess. There is more: a number of temples are dedicated to the Yogini, divinities worshipped in Tantric rituals. It appears that some of the numerous female figures that decorate the temples are not apsaras or yakshi (fertility lesser divinities) but yoginis, which probably link the Chandellas with Tantric cults.

At this point, it is quite impossible not to talk the sculptures that made these temple famous: how come there are so many erotic sculptures here?
Mind my words: there are several non erotic sculptures that show divinities or beautifully crafted female images. Yet to me, when I travel back to Khajuraho in my memory, it seems that most of them are erotic statues. There are several theories. One is that these erotic sculpture were meant to give protection to the temple: the sacred place had to be protected against evil spirits of all sorts and this is recurrent in Indian monuments. Now the questions that these scholars do not answer is how come erotic couples and group can chase away the bad guys? No idea and if you have any please share. However I will say that once in Vienna in an exhibition I stumbled upon a print showing Luther scaring away a devil by showing his genitalia (the print was showing Luther from behind so no worries) so maybe sex as a taboo to chase away bad spirits is not such a strange act. Again scholars and anthropologist please show up!

Then as we said there is the tantric explanation: the sculptures show some rites. People contest this because Tantrics were opposed to Brahmins but not so were the Chandellas.

Other interpretations link to a theatre play that cannot be proved to exist already at that time.

It is worth mentioning that the Hindu temples are accompanied by a number of Jain Temples. The Jain Temples have none of the erotic images, so surely the Hindu must have put them there with something in mind.

As opposed to the Hindu temples, the Jain temples were patronised by Jain laymen merchants.

At the end, all this wondering about who and why built Khajuraho and in this way walked us thtough an interesting picture of the bygone timrs : in what guidebooks describe today as a as a bucolical Indian village as you can get, there was an effervescent community of jain and hindus, of philosophers and kings, of merchants and farmers, of warriors and artisans, of playwriters and poets, all sharing that little place made today of dusty streets and large soothing banyan trees. This makes look “cosmopolitan” London as cosmopolitan and diverse as a random suburbia.



3 responses to “Art Wanderer: The Hindu Temples – take 3

  1. A beautiful piece on Indian temples. You’ve now charged my wanderlust India. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I love the name of yours – ‘Camel and cats’ – my two most favourite animals!


  2. Pingback: Art Wanderer: Orissa temples | Camel and cats·

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