Introduction | Lingaraj | Rajarani | Konarak
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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.
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.
The Rajarani Temple, one of the most beautiful temples in Bhubaneshwar, waslike the Lingarajbuilt 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 areaa situation which does no justice to the temple's aestheticsthe 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 actuallyand never has beena functioning temple. The king who commissioned its construction died before the final act of the temple-building enterprisethe actual installation of a deitywas completed. Thus, the temple was left without its god, though not without a sense of abiding peace.
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 buildingor what's left of it after the collapse of the towerare 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.
Pictures and text Copyright © 2000 by Kalarte Gallery and Bernard Cesarone.
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