- Religious architecture forms a major portion of India’s built heritage. These structures are not only unwritten documents of history, they are also stamps of the might of the rulers who built them and articulations of grand visions.
Some earliest rock-cut architecture:
- The earliest rock-cut architecture is from the Mauryan dynasty, but the Ajanta caves, which I had visited a few decades ago and which left me awestruck, are among the earliest rock-cut temples.
- The Udayagiri caves, in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, are not as popular but they are worth a visit, for they contain some of the oldest Hindu temples and iconography. They were built during the Gupta period (350-550 CE).
When art flourished
- These caves were not just an expression of religious piety but also a political statement. They lie on two low sandstone hills between the rivers Betwa and Bes. It is possible that when these caves were carved out, they fell directly on the Tropic of Cancer and thus the name translates to Mount of Sunrise. On the day of summer solstice, the sun would have been directly overhead, making this a place of worship.
Stages of temple architecture
- The Gupta period was one of political stability. The Gupta rulers are well known as patrons of art and architecture. Art not only flourished but reached a peak during their rule. It was during the Gupta period that we see for the first time the use of dressed stone masonry, which marked a huge step in the technique of construction. Percy Brown, in Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu Period),writes that its introduction “placed a new power in the hands of the workman” and from it emerged the earliest known conception of the Hindu “house of god”.
- Brown outlines the various stages of Hindu temple architecture — from a leafy bower to a reed hut, then a cella of wood and brick, and, eventually, under the Guptas, a small stone chamber called garbha-griha, or “womb house”. The main deity was kept in this garbha-griha. It was square in plan, with plain, dark interiors and richly carved exteriors and with a single opening. Some of them would have a pillared portico in front.
- Udayagiri has 20 caves. Alexander Cunningham, who conducted archaeological investigations in 1875, numbered 10 of these caves; later studies identified 20 of them, and they were numbered separately.
Victory of Varaha
- This site has iconography related to Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism (Durga), as well as important inscriptions from the Gupta period. Of all the caves, cave number 5 is the most famous with its colossal and iconic Varaha sculpture which represents the story of the rescue of Bhudevi (Earth). The story goes thus: Hiranayaksha, a demon, attacked and kidnapped Goddess Earth and confined her to the cosmic ocean. Vishnu appeared in his boar avatar Varaha, rescued her and restored her to her rightful position. She is shown hanging on to his right tusk.
- The image of Varaha with his right hand on his knee and left hand on his hip is impressive in its aggression and power. His left foot stamps the Naga king who is guarding the cosmic ocean. On both sides are carved rows of admiring divine figures: Brahma, Shiva on Nandi, and other gods with halos, heavenly musicians, demons, rishis and humans. Curved lines on the rock create the waves of the cosmic ocean.
- To the right of Varaha are other sculpted gods and goddesses. Of these, a majestic Durga slaying the buffalo demon Mahishasura, Ganga and Yamuna descending from the heavens, and Samudra standing in the waves are noteworthy.
- What seems to be a figure of Chandragupta 2 is shown kneeling behind the Naga king. It was probably a political metaphor to show that he too was like Varaha, for he too defeated evil. The idea seems to have caught the imagination of the people.