Kalarte Gallery

Scenes from Orissa
Temples: Lingaraj, Rajarani, Konarak

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Introduction | Lingaraj | Rajarani | Konarak

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NOTE: Images temporarily unavailable. August 30, 2007

A Brief Introduction to the Orissan Temple

The state of Orissa, famous for its temples, is located in northeast India, on the Bay of Bengal. It has a long history, during which Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism all flourished for extended periods. Buddhist and Jain temples and caves predate Hindu architecture. The classic period for the Hindu temple in Orissa is from perhaps the beginning of the eighth century to around the middle of the thirteenth century. These classic temples were constructed in the Nagara style common to north India. Temples in this style consist of two principal structures. The first of these (first in the sense that one approaches the temple at this structure, which is "in front of" the other, larger building) is a prayer hall, called a mandapa in north India generally and, in Orissa, also called a pita deul or jagamohana. Behind this structure is the vimana, which is comprised of the sanctum of the temple (called a garbha griha, or "womb-house") that contains the image of the deity surmounted by a tower. This tower is called a shikhara in India generally and a rekha in Orissa. Hence in Orissa, the building is called the rekha deul.

The prayer hall (jagamohana) is the smaller of the two structures. It has a characteristic roof design of stacked layers, called pidhas. The general shape of the roof is (or at least was by the middle of the classic period) pyramidal. Compared to the tower that stands next to it, the prayer hall accents the horizontal. On the walls of the jagamohana one typically finds two horizontal layers or ribbons of relief sculptures. Each layer is called a jhangha.

The rekha deul also typically has an upper and lower sculpted layer (jhangha) on its base, on top of which the tower (shikhara) ascends in a gentle convex shape. The shikhara is crowned by some characteristic architectural elements. The first of these is a ribbed disklike structure called an amalaka or amla. On top of the amalaka is the kalasha, reminiscent of the shape of a water jug, symbolizing a state of plenty or bounty. As it rises, the surface of the tower is decorated with projecting vertical ribs or segments (called pagas). Sometimes the vertical ribs are divided into segments called bhumis, which are topped by smaller versions of the amalaka or amla. This repetition of "themes" at various places on the shikhara greatly enhances the aesthetic beauty of the tower.

This style of temple building in Orissa, and elsewhere in north India, is thus characterized by the contrast of the horizontal prayer hall (jagamohana) and the dominantly vertical tower (shikhara). The two structures are typically joined by a short corridor. They may be surrounded by other buildings comprising an elaborate temple complex. On the walls of both the prayer hall and tower, the dominant subject matter of the sculptural decoration is not especially religious, though there are some images of deities. The relief sculptures typically depict beautiful girls (sundaris), snake deities (nagas), lovemaking couples (maithuna), horsemen, and animals. Spaces between sculptures are carved into beautiful arabesques and geometric patterns.

During the classic age of Hindu temple building, there were many temples constructed in Bhubaneshwar (now the capital of Orissa), in the seacoast pilgrimage town of Puri, and in many other towns and villages in the state. The student of Orissan temple architecture can observe several trends that progressed over the centuries. For example, on the prayer hall (jagamohana), there was a trend toward an increasing number of roof layers (pidhas). Some earlier temples in the fourth and fifth centuries have a single roof slab. The Parasurameshwara Temple, perhaps of the seventh century, has three roof layers. By the time we get to the Lingaraj Temple in the eleventh century, we find 15 pidhas, and finally, 17 pidhas comprise the roof of the prayer hall of the Sun temple at Konarak. Another change was reflected in the prayer hall's crowning elements. Early in the classic period the jagamohana was crowned only with a kalasha (or "vase of plenty"). Near the end of the period, the disk-shaped amalaka and the kalasha were both present (as on the shikhara). Another trend was that of the steady increase in the number of vertical ribs (bhumis) on the walls of the tower or shikhara. Although its ground plan originally was, and remained, basically square, the tower became augmented with so many projections that it appeared increasingly to be circular.

These trends are instances of the more general trend toward an increasing complexity in the design of and an increasing size of the temples in Orissa. With time, temples became more "baroque," if we may use a term from Western art. Towers became taller, and external walls (though not internal walls, which generally remained austerely plain) became more elaborately decorated.

Lingaraj Temple

The Lingaraj Temple is located in Bhubaneshwar. The temple was built in the middle of the eleventh century and is part of a large complex that grew up around it over the succeeding centuries. The tower, or shikhara, of the Lingaraj temple reaches 45 meters in height.

Lingaraj temple

This is a view of the shikhara of the temple as seen over the outer wall of the temple complex. Note the projections and insets on the tower, as well as the crowning elements, the disk-shaped amalaka and the vase-shaped kalasha. Note also the free-standing animal sculptures atop the tower.

This is one of the several temple in the area that are closed to non-Hindus. Hence I was unable to get any closer pictures of the temple.


Lingaraj temple neighborhood This is a street scene just outside the Lingaraj temple complex. The temple is located in a busy section of the city. This temple is known for the so-called "priests" and "guides" who accost visitors, offering to give them a tour of the temple complex (though not, of course, of the temple itself for non-Hindus). When visitors (at least those from the West) offer a "donation," they are strenuously and repeatedly informed that the typical Western visitor offers ten times that amount, and the "guide" produces a ledger book of donations to prove his assertion. My own experience was consistent with this aspect of the temple's reputation.

Rajarani Temple

The Rajarani Temple, one of the most beautiful temples in Bhubaneshwar, was—like the Lingaraj—built in the eleventh century, but nearer the beginning of the century. As noted earlier, in the general development of the Orissan temple, these structures became bigger and more elaborate with time. Thus the earlier Rajarani, with its tower at about 63 feet tall, is a smaller temple than the Lingaraj.

Unlike the Lingaraj, which is located in the middle of a busy city market area—a situation which does no justice to the temple's aesthetics—the Rajarani is set within a beautiful and quiet garden park. One simply pays a small entrance fee to the caretaker at the garden gate to enter and enjoy the temple and the grounds with no hassle from crowds or self-appointed guides. Also unlike the Lingaraj, here there is no complex of ancillary buildings surrounding the main temple.

One reason that this temple is particularly quiet is that it's not actually—and never has been—a functioning temple. The king who commissioned its construction died before the final act of the temple-building enterprise—the actual installation of a deity—was completed. Thus, the temple was left without its god, though not without a sense of abiding peace.

Rajarani Temple

This is a view of the temple from the front, facing the jagamohana or prayer hall. Note the layered, stepped, pyramidal roof of the jagamohana, very typical of the Orissan temple. At this stage in the evolution of the style, the roof contains 13 layers (pidhas). The rekha deul has the typical convex shape and includes many projections and insets in its external walls. There are the usual disk-shaped amalaka and vase-shaped kalasha atop the shikhara, whereas the jagamohana's roof is crowned with a kalasha only. The two buildings that comprise this temple are set upon a stone slab.

On the Rajarani temple, the jagamohana has relatively undecorated walls. It is very austere when compared to the elaborately sculpted shikhara. The contrast in form between the jagamohana and the rekha deul is one of the aesthetic delights of the Orissan temple. With the Rajarani, this additional contrast in levels of sculpted decoration between the two buildings increases this delight and particularly enhances the beauty of the shikhara.


Rajarani Temple Here is another view of the temple as a whole, this time from the side of the shikhara. This view shows that the shikhara is divided into vertical ribs or segments (called pagas). At the base of the shikhara are two layers (jhanghas) of relief sculptures. The upper jhangha contains erotic figures.
Rajarani Temple Here is a nearer view of one side of the jagamohana. The 13 layers (or pidhas) of the roof rise above the building which is approximately 10 meters square. Although the surface of the walls are nearly bare, they are not completely so. You can see some sculpted images in the large columns at either side of the central "window."
Rajarani Temple This is a close-up of one of the sculpted columns. There are three lions or lion-like beasts, each one riding on or on top of an elephant.
Rajarani Temple

This sculpture inside a column on the shikhara depicts a figure that may be derived from earlier figures of female tree spirits. Examples of such tree spirits have existed in Indian art since the earliest Buddhist sculptures. Unfortunately, the head of this figure has been broken off and lost.

Many of the sculptures of the Rajarani, and indeed many of the sculptures on medieval Orissan temples in general, reveal the sculptors' delight in earthly form and earthly activity. This applies not only to erotic sculptures but also to sculptures of animals and to people and deities in various poses.


Rajarani Temple Here are two additional figures on the pagas. This picture clearly shows the beautiful leaflike or scroll-like carvings on the surface of the shikhara between the vertical pagas.
Rajarani Temple This carving on the shikhara mimics the roof pattern of the jagamohana. This recapitulation of the form of the temple as a whole in smaller sections of the walls enhances the rhythm and integration of the architectural composition.
Rajarani Temple This is another example of a smaller sculpted section mimicking a larger structure of the temple, in this case, the shikhara.

Surya Temple at Konarak

Konarak is a sleepy town on the Bay of Bengal about 20 miles up the coast from Puri. It is there that one of the greatest temples in India, and one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world, was built by King Narasimha around the year 1240. As mentioned earlier, with the passing centuries, temples became increasingly larger. And the temple to the Sun god Surya at Konarak is the largest of the Orissan temples. After the Surya temple, a decline in Orissan temple architecure set in. Nothing comparable to the temple at Konarak was built again.

Unfortunately for posterity, this massive structure was built on soft sand at the edge of the sea. As a result, although the sea (i.e., the Bay of Bengal) has receded about 3 kilometers away since the thirteenth century, much of the temple complex has fallen to ruin. The once mighty tower, or shikhara, which had reached to around 227 feet, collapsed in the middle of the nineteenth century. In front of the Surya temple's traditional prayer hall, or jagamohana, is a dance hall, called a nata-mandira, the roof of which has also fallen to ruin. Parts of the other surrounding buildings have also collapsed. The jagamohana itself is still intact, but to prevent its collapse, a British official had its interior filled in with sand and stone in the nineteenth century. Thus, one is no longer able to enter inside the building.

One of the unique features of this temple is that it was conceived in the form of a great chariot driven by seven steeds. It is the chariot that the Sun god rides in his path across the sky. Two horses stand at the entrance to the first building, the nata-mandira. On either side of the buildings are seven giant wheels of the chariot.

The sculpture is lavish on the various buildings of the Sun temple. Besides the horses and chariot wheels, there are various free-standing sculptures in the temple grounds, and free-standing sculptures of female museums at the top level of the jagamohana roof. In Indian temples, however, most sculpture is relief carving, and that is the case here at Konarak. Along the base of the jagamohana, a row of diminutive elephants marches. The two horizontal layers (jhanghas) along the walls of the jagamohana show gods, lovers, and other figures.

In the upper part of the main temple building—or what's left of it after the collapse of the tower—are many erotic carvings. Along the walls of the dance hall, or nata-mandira, are dancers in various poses. Some scholars identify these poses as those that are described in the sangita-darpana or other Orissan treatises on dance; very appropriate themes, of course, for a dance hall. Not all of the various sculptures on these buildings are of consistently high quality. However, with the sheer size of this architectural endeavor and with the large number of carvings, the effect of the whole is very impressive.

Surya temple Konarak The jagamohana is viewed behind the ruin of the vimana. The jagamohana is approximately 36 meters square and 40 meters high. Note the typical horizontal layers (of which there are seventeen) and the pyramidal shape. Between some of the horizontal layers are large recesses in which sculptures are set.
Surya temple Konarak The roof of the nata-mandira, or dance hall, was long ago lost. The pillars still stand, giving some impression of the grand size of the building. A lead horse of the chariot can be seen just in front of the jagamohana.
Surya temple Konarak A ruined building stands in the temple compound.
Surya temple Konarak

Here is one of the giant chariot wheels along the wall of the jagamohana. Scrolls and designs are carved into the surface of the wheel. On each of the spokes, about a third of the way out from the center, is a medallion in which several figures are sculpted.

Note the row of elephants marching at the very base of the building. There are erotic sculptures on each of the two horizontal layers. Other carvings are placed within small niches on the columns.


Surya temple Konarak An erotic carving of a threesome of lovers is still intact on part of the collapsed wall of the tower or shikhara.
Surya temple Konarak A foreplaying couple sport on the wall of the jagamohana, or prayer hall.
Surya temple Konarak

A series of three similarly-sized carvings on the wall of the jagamohana shows a serpent king in the middle; perhaps his serpent queen to the left; on the right, a couple enjoying sexual intercourse (maithuna) in a standing position. In the niche in the column at the far right is a man carrying over his shoulders a pole, from which hang two pots or bags (identified by one scholar as a curd seller).

Besides the figures, note the honeycomb-like carving of the background and the scrolls and arabesques of the columns and bases. Note also how the carving was done on two separate blocks of stone placed one on top of the other.


Surya temple Konarak As you see here, the sculptural work was not quite completed on this architectural wonder. Here we have part of the carvings of another snake king and a beautiful woman.

Pictures and text Copyright © 2000 by Kalarte Gallery and Bernard Cesarone.

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