Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Dasavatara temple, Deogarh - Seven thousand wonders of India


Dashaavatara temple, Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh


We read about the Golden age of the Guptas, but very few Gupta monuments have survived the destruction. One of them is the Dasavatara temple in Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh. Even this is not the complete original temple, but has what has survived the ravages of time. A forlorn fragment of an amalaka hints that the temple’s vimaana may have been a Rekha Naagari devaalaya. The temple is on a tall platform, an upapiThaa, with flights of steps leading up to it from all directions. The moolavigraha of the main moorthi is also absent.

Nearby remnants of the upapitha-s in square sections suggest that the temple may have once had parivaara shrines all around it. On one side is a small pond.

But there is an entrance doorway to the sanctum, with sculptures decorating it. And on the three walls, there are three kostha-s with three of the most marvelous sculptures in Indian art. We can study these in detail, appreciate their aesthetic and narrative skill, and compare them to similar sculptures across India.

There are some temples of the Gupta era in Sanchi, near the famous stupa. One of these is small and compact but plain and undecorated, except for the pillars. The other is more elaborate, but has suffered a great deal of damage. In nearby Vidisha, in the rocky hills of Udayagiri, there are quite a few cave temples of the Gupta era, also.

But first let us see the three main sculptures.

Gajendra Moksha

The story of Gajendra Moksha is quite well known, but worth repeating. An elephant, Gajendra, an ardent devotee of Vishnu is caught by a crocodile when it stepped into a pond; it screamed out Vishnu’s name for help; Vishnu mounting his vaahana Garuda, instantly came to the rescue, used his Sudarshana chakra to slay the crocodile and rescued Gajendra. This is the most popular rendering. In Deogarh, though, a naga (snake) rather than a crocodile is depicted as attacking Gajendra.

Gajendra Moksha, Deogarh

Let us examine this sculpture in detail. The panel is very rectangular, taller than it is broad, but the figures inside form graceful curves. Central and dominant is Vishnu, seated on Garuda, depicted with human face and body and wings. Garuda has infinite strength, so he comfortably bears a larger Vishnu. This is a conquest, but it is effortless – the chakra has already been cast and it has split the chest of the Naga. It is not a battle like Narasimha fighting Hiranya, or Siva destroying Gajaasura. Not only Vishnu, but every single character seems to have a calm expression, including the Naga. Remember this is one of the oldest sculptures. The eyes of the characters all seem closed - I suspect that they were painted in later, but this has been lost due to erosion. You can see this in every single sculpture in this temple.

The naga is seven hooded, and is accompanied by a nagini. Both hold their palms together in surrender and supplication. The naga’s long coils wrap around the front and back legs of Gajendra, whose expression is frozen in shock. How does one show water in a sculpture? With lotuses and creepers, as we saw in the Gajalakshmi panel in Ellora. We see lotuses in all directions, horizontal, vertical, in profile. Wavy stalks carrying unopened buds emphasize the turbulence of the pond. The arch of Vishnu over Garuda dominates the left upper quadrant, and is complemented by the mirroring arch of the naga in the right lower quadrant. His magnificent hood arches towards us, but one senses his towering dominance over Gajendra, before the arrival of Vishnu. Gajendra’s trunk forms a gentle upward arch, the lotus at the tip touching the very feet of Vishnu; a brilliant touch by the sculptor.

Vishnu’s kirita makuta, also noticeable in the Anantashayana panel, is a fascinating contrast to all the jatamakutas of Siva that we have seen in many sculptures, in this series.

Garuda has his right hand in tarjani (warning) mudhra. By showing the prayoga chakra in Vishnu’s upper right hand, and also in the Naga’s chest, the sculptor has captured two moments in time. Vishnu’s lower left hand rests casually on his knee.

Far above, a line separating them from the action on the ground, hover two sets of gandharva couples, who have come to witness this leela of Vishnu. The entire panel is set off by beautifully decorated pilasters, with ghaTapallavas (pot with vines). Patra-toranas climb inner pilasters. A row of vyaaghra-mukhas (tiger faces) above the koshta, and seated lions in the corners, hint at the inspiration for, and continuity in, all later sculptures across the land.

Gajendra Moksha, Tirukurungudi, Tamilnadu
Photo – Ashok Krishnaswamy

This story is depicted in Ellora, Pattadakkal, Tirukkurungudi etc. The Tirukkurungudi sculpture in a fifteenth century temple is in Madurai Nayak style. It shows the crocodile, which is much smaller than Gajendra. Vishnu is eight armed, wielding his sword, bow and arrow, shield etc. Garuda too wears a crown, and bares fangs, while bearing Vishnu’s feet with his hands. Two munis, hands in worship, rather than gandharva-s bearing garlands, bear witness. Vishnu and Garuda are almost identical to the Deogarh sculpture!

Three versions
Pattadakkal photo – VK Srinivasan

The Pattadakkal sculptor shows a huge tortoise, instead of a crocodile or snake, grabbing Gajendra. He depicted it on a pillar rather than a kostha or a broad wall, so he used space very differently: Vishnu hasn’t released his chakra; he is not facing the tortoise, which is unaware of his arrival. But Gajendra’s shock and the lotus pond setting are very similar. The Ellora version also is very vertical, but the lower portions have eroded considerably.

The shilpi in Srirangam, working on a segment of a pillar, ignored the physical act and has shown Vishnu lovingly petting his elephant, which gambols delightfully at his knees. Audacity? Tenderness? Both?

Doorway sculptures, Deogarh

Before we look at the other two panels, let us examine the sanctum’s highly decorated doorway. Surya and Chandra serve as dvaarapalakas. ; a lovely lathaa (creeper) climbs up one side, over Surya across and down the other, up to Chandra, and features demigods frolicking amidst. The center of the lintel features Vaikuntanaatha seated on a coiled Adisesha.

The consorts of Surya and Chandra form the base of the next set of pilasters; mithuna couples alternate with pairs of ganas, and fill the segments above them. Voluptuous chamaradhaari kanyaa-s form an outer pair; the pilasters above them have various geometric segments and a couple of dancers.

Doorway sculptures, Deogarh

The hair decoration and the ornamentation of mithunas and others extraordinarily elaborate, perhaps more sophisticated than even today’s styles.

Nara Narayana

The other wall features two munis, two-armed Nara and four-armed Narayana, at Badari ashrama. Krishna tells Arjuna that the latter was Nara and himself Narayana in an earlier incarnation. The ashrama is depicted like in the Kanchi Kailasanatha panel of Dakshinamurthy  - with deer and tigers peacefully seated together.

Nara Narayana, Deogarh

There is no action in this panel; it is all serenity. The two munis are in deep discussion, seated under different trees; shishyaa-s listen in the background. Other gods come to witness. There is no ornamentation, except for splendid jatas; their bare clothing bespeaks simplicity. Both possess akshamaala-s in their right hands, their mudhras convey their message; perhaps the most remarkable feature, is an antelope’s head marking the clasp of Nara’s yajnopavita. The auspiciousness of the whole scene is subtly conveyed by Gajalakshmi in a pilaster under a ghaTa-pallava.

I am yet to see NaraNarayana anywhere else. It seems unique to Deogarh.


Gajendra Moksha depicts action; NaraNarayana serenity; the Anantashayana panel manages to combine these two apparent opposites!

Anatashayana, Deogarh

Having passed on the act of creation to Brahma, Vishnu rests in yoganidra upon Adisesha; Sridevi tends to him. Out of his ears, emerges a speck which transforms into two asuras Madhu and Kaitabha. They spot the Almighty in yoganidra, foolishly assume he is asleep, assume they will get his powers if they kill him, and attack him. While Vishnu is in anantashayana, his weapons are all awake and alert as aayudha-purusha-s: the chakra Sudarshana, the shankha Paanchajanya, the sword Nandaka, all male and the gadha Kaumodhaki, a woman. They proceed to independently take on Madhu and Kaitabha. A ferocious battle ensues, Adisesha spits venom with his thousand hoods; the asuras run, unable to withstand the ferocity. The furor disturbs Vishnu’s yoganidra and he battles the two  asuras himself. So goes the story. But the Deogarh panel shows almost none of this. The sculptor has chosen to depict only one asura and Nandaka, with weapons drawn; at the earliest moment of the battle. If anything, this is even more serene than the NaraNarayana panel, where at least the central figures are wide awake!

Kartikeya on his peacock, Indra on his elephant, Brahma on a lotus, Siva-Parvati on a bull all witness this extraordinary scene. The seven hoods of Adisesha form an awesome canopy over the majestic crown of Vishnu. So we see a tripartite vertical division of the sculpture.

This particular scene is a pan-national favorite, especially in the south, where several temples like Srirangam, Srirangapatnam, Thiruvananthapuram, Thirumeyyam, Yatoktakaari in Kanchipuram, all feature Anantashayana as the moolamurthi in the garbhagriham. Two particularly stunning depictions are in cave temples : Mamallapuram  and Thirumeyyam, of Pallava and Pandya vintage respectively.

Anantashayana, Mahisharura mardhini cave, Mamallapuram,  Tamilnadu

The Pallava depiction is of serenity in the substantial center and ferocious action at the perimeter. Madhu and Kaitabha flee from the tsunami of fire emitted by Adisesha. Bhudevi is shown worshipping Vishnu. The aayudha purusha-s are in full battle pose, charging at the asuras.

The Thirumeyyam sculpture is equally dynamic, and simply teeming with characters. All the devas, the rishis, the gandharvas have turned out in full force to witness. The flames from Adisesha are depicted literally in the middle of the back wall. The aayudha purushas attacking are all at the foot of Vishnu. Garuda near his head is unperturbed. There is a horizontal partition of action vs serenity. But it is the depth and length, and the profusion of characters, which overwhelm the viewer with grandeur.

Photo – Ashok Krishnaswamy

North or south, Gupta, Rashtrakuta, Pallava or Pandya, it is not only bhakti and literature that runs as a cultural seam across time and space in this Jambudvipa. Artistic genius, a deep sense of aesthetics, an irrepressible sense of delight and mischief, conformity and improvisation, imbue the various visual splendors that range from the shores of the Ganga to the waters of Kanyakumari. Anonymous sculptors have expressed their manodharma, not with tapas and yagna, but by tapping their very jivaatma using little chisels and merging themselves into the paramaatma.


  1. Site Seminar reference books, Tamil Heritage Trust, Chennai

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Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Mukteshvara temple Bhubaneshvar - Seven thousand wonders

Mukteshvara temple

Foreword I wrote essay this for a series on temples, titled Seven Thousand Wonders of India, in Swarajya magazine last year. They stopped after six essays. This is the seventh. Here is the link to the first six essays.


Until I visited Bhubaneshvar, I used to think Kanchipuram was the temple capital of India. The difference is that Kanchipuram temples are of Dravidian architecture, while Bhubaneshvar has temples of Nagariarchitecture. Puri gets the fervent devotees, and Konarak gets the UNESCO tag and global acclaim, but Bhubaneshvar has so many marvelous temples, it is a crying shame they are not far more famous. Orissa history too, gets subsumed under the larger Indian narrative – Asoka’s conquest of Kalinga is all we ever hear. But Orissa has a long and amazing history. The Bhaumakaras, Shailodbhavas, Somavamshis, Chodagangas, Gajapatis and other dynasties that ruled Orissa developed and continued a distinct line of Nagari architecture, called Kalinga.

The Mukteshvara temple has no inscriptions, but art historians say it was built in the Somavamshi era, most likely by the king Yayati I.

The largest, grandest, centralest temple of Bhubaneshvar is Lingaraja, in the heart of the old city. But the most beautiful enchanting captivating temple must surely be Mukteshvara. Oddly, very few locals seem to know it, perhaps because it is maintained by the ASI. KedaraGowri temple, equally ancient, just across the street, is far more famous.

A priest in Lingaraja temple told me that the city has one less than one lakh Siva temples – if one more temple had been built, the city would have equaled Kashi in sanctity; so at Siva’s own request, it wasn’t built.


Mukteshvara and Siddheshvara are twin temples in the same complex, facing west and east, respectively. Siddheshvara temple is taller, but plainer, with far fewer decorative features. They both have a garbagraha and jaganmohana (or jagmohana – called sabha-mandapa in most Nagari temples). The larger Kalinga temples like Lingaraja and Puri also have two more mandapas called nata-mandira and bhoga-mandira. There are also several small shrines, several with lingas, scattered all over the complex.

Pond and the two temples

The stone used is a distinct reddish Orissa sandstone, locally called rajaraniya. In fact, about a mile away is a larger temple called Rajarani, named not for some royal, but after the stone. It is softer than granite, but not perhaps as soft as soapstone, so yields itself to very intricate sculptures. Here and there one sees damage, but a lot of it marvelously well preserved.

Mukteshvara has two unique features - a torana entrance; and a short surrounding wall. There is also a well to its south called Marici kunda, and a beautiful spring-fed pond to its east.


The entrance torana is a beautiful arch, which has suffered some damage, but has been restored so masterfully, that it is not at all obvious. Slender beautiful women languidly grace both sides of the arch – which is one sculpture, not a series of blocks. The two ends of the arch rest on amalakas, which top the dressed pillars. The central portion of these pillars are sixteen sided, topped by kirtimukhas having pearl garlands (muktamaala) coming out of their mouths.

Torana and Compound wall

Compound wall

The short decorative compound wall around the Mukteshvara is not seen anywhere else in Bhubaneshvar. Lingaraja has a huge compound wall around it, but most other temples are just open with grounds around them. Even the Siddheshvara temple in the same campus doesn’t have such a wall. The compound wall parallels the several zig-zag cuts and patterns of the temple itself. Its lower part is decorated with a series of panels with patterns; the corner panels have intricate miniature sculptures, in them. Even smaller sculptures decorate the  upper level.


There are five different types of vimaana or shikhara in Nagari architecture. In Kalinga temples, usually the garbhagruha or deula (devaalaya in Odiya language) is of rekha type and the jaganmohana of phamsana type (called pidha in Orissa). The rekha type is the most common among Nagari temples in general and in Kalinga temples in particular. The shikhara can be very plain, or very elaborately carved: older temples in Bhubaneshvar like Lakshmaneshvara, Bharateshvara and some smaller temples like Uttareshvara, are low in decoration; as is Siddheshvara : but Mukteshvara itself is suffuse with decoration and sculpture, unparalleled for a temple of its size. The most elaborate feature of such decoration are gavakshaas : small circles and semicircles, in several intricate, repeating patterns. These are found in Nagari temples like Kashi Vishveshvara in Pattadakkal, also; but for sheer beauty in patterns and the overall pleasing effect, Mukteshvara is among the best.

The rectilinear look of the rekha temples is most distinct: a series of flat layers, slightly receding from their respective lower layers, seeming to curve towards the amalaka at the top. The levels or talaa-s are less visible in rekha devalayas compared to Dravida temples; these levels are called bhumi, and each is marked by a small amalaka called bhumi amalaka.


The vertical partitions, of rekha devaalaya, called ratha-s, are much more starkly visible. A temple may have three, five or seven rathas – the central one is projecting, and the others are often recessed or alternate, between recession and projection when more than three. Mukteshvara is pancha-ratha temple; the corner rathas are shared among the adjacent faces of the temple. The earlier Bhaumakara kings built tri-ratha temples; and the Chodagangas who succeeded the Somavamshis built sapta-ratha temples.

A sculpture in a gavakshaa features in every slab except the bhumi-amalakas in the corner rathas. The anuratha-s between the centre ratha and corner rathas are completely covered in intricate gavakshaa-s all the way to the top. The central ratha has a large panel on each side, called  chandrashaala, which has a circular centre, gana-s on either side, and a kirtimukha pouring out pearls from the top. Slightly above these are images of Nataraja in each side. The front and central portion has an important keystone featuring a seated lion; a common feature in all Kalinga temple.

elements of architecture

The Kalinga equivalents of the adishtaana and paada are called paabhaaga and jangha; these together are called badaa and form the lower part of the temple. These are often plain, but even these are extensively decorated in Mukteshvara. Shaalabhanjika-s adorn the pilasters; some are quite damaged though. Mithuna couples, vyaala-virala-s (riders on lions like in the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple), kapaaTa kanyaa-s, gaja-simha-s (lions riding on elephants) can be seen here and there in recessed niches. 

A lion faced praNaala brings water out from the garbhagriha.


The jaganmohana is shorter, squatter, and its shikhara is a series of plain and parallel slabs. But the lower half is just stunning in its complexity and elegance. There are windows in the centre of the northern and southern walls, surrounded by a series of sculptures of frolicking monkeys in a creeper (lathaa); flanked by two elaborate pilasters; the walls on both sides of these pilasters have two pilasters that are in the shape of temples, and a highly segmented corner pilaster, with two cylindrical stambhaa-s in between, around which a naaga is shown climbing. Above the window are two sculptures of kapaaTa-kanyaa-s (women opening or modestly standing behind doors) – these are also repeated on the rekha-deula, as are the naaga stambhas

The twelfth century Tamil epic Kalingathu Barani, narrating the conquest of Kalinga by the king Kulottunga Chola, has an entire chapter, in every stanza of which, women are asked to open the door to welcome victorious soldiers. One wonders whether the poet Jayamkondaar, actually visited Orissa, saw these sculptures and was inspired to include this concept in his poem.


The interior of the jaganmohana is just as splendid, especially the ceiling, though it is difficult to photograph in the darkness. A series of beams arranged as octagons and rectangles, alternating, leads to a circular lotus design at the very center. Remarkably, this internal pattern is not even remotely discernible from the external pattern on the roof. The central lotus has saptamaatrika sculptures in its various petals. The alternating design creates interesting patterns in the corners, and the sthapathis have run riot with their imagination, richly endowing it with various sculptures of dancers and musicians, as bracket figures. Kartikeya and a dancing Ganesha flank the central square.

interior of ceiling

Other Sculptures

The lintel over the entrance to the sanctum features navagrahaa-s in a row. Above them is a Gajalakshmi panel in the center.

The miniatures sculptures in small square panels, topped by single gavakshaas in triangles, are the standout sculptures of Mukteshvara. Some of these are in excellent condition, others damaged to varying degrees. Lakulisa, unknown munis by themselves or with disciples, yoginis, dancers, musicians, composite sculptures – the variety is breathtaking. Perhaps the most charming are images of Surya, Kartikeya, and Sarasvati. A tricky sculpture, featuring four bodies of women in gymnastic posture, but sharing only two heads, is quite similar to such sculptures in every kind of temple in every region in India, from Ajanta to Tirunelveli.

Some sculptures of Mukteshvara deula

Unlike most Dravidian temples, the dvaarapaalaka-s aren’t huge and threatening. One barely notices them, carrying a bow and arrow or a trishula, as we enter the temple. Voluptuous women embracing tree branches; smiling nagas and naginis bearing garlands; shy women holding half open doors; these are the most memorable aspects of Mukteshvara.

More sculptures


  • Lecture by Shyam Raman, THT, 2016
  • Site Seminar book, Tamil Heritage Trust, Madras
  • The Mukteshvara in Bhubaneshvar, by Walter Smith
  • Photos from my visits.

Related Links

Muktesvara temple (TK Krishnakumar blog)