Bhima ratha - Abode of Vishnu

Surprizing as it may sound, and very rightly deduced by J C Harle, there is a very high likelyhood that this ratha was attributed to none other than vishnu himself. The unfinished carving of the interior and the very width of this cave indicates, that there are strong possibilities of a plan for a reclining vishnu on ananta well within these walls.

And how sure are we? to think that mahabalipuram already flaunts 2 other reclining vishnus not too far away in the mahishasuramardhini cave as well as in the heart of the shore temple, it appears that vishnu had a very strong role to play as a cult deity paralleling shiva, who seems to have gained reasonably strong ground in these regions. whats even more interesting is that apart from this form vishnu has been depicted in his varaha incarnate as well as trivikrama in the varaha cave. These is interestingly the krishna govardhana panel that cannot be ignored, but all in all there is no garuda depicted, instead we have a boar right next to the shore temple. The boar is the varaha incarnate and definitely not the vahana as it would project itself to be in this case.

So coming back to the unfinished rock we see at the left of the Bhima ratha (not visible here) its very clear that there is a strong possibility of a boar being carved out of this rock more than garuda, as we have previously seen next to the shore temple. Inicidentally, the rock is unfinished, but there is no indication that a boar could have been carved there. yet given the trend of the way things seemed to have worked there, its highly possible that a boar would have taken position next to the Bhima ratha indicating this cave being dedicated to Vishnu.

Pulling ourselves a step away, is there a point we are beginning to see here? The rathas seem to be dedicated to the respective deities, Mother goddess, Shiva, vishnu, Indra ... the only ratha that does not follow the rule is the Dharmaraja ratha, which takes on Shiva, and displays an entire calatogue of shiva iconography on its walls.

truely amazing apart from iconography is also the architectural elements of this ratha. this is one of the few monuments that seems to have taken after the chaitya graha at Besra, this again is quoting J C Harle. Interesting opinion as we notice very clearly that a small cell in the besra monument has very beautifully been depicted here on monolithic rock on the roof of Bhima ratha. even more interesting is that most of the old houses (wooden prototypes) depicted on the bharut and sanchi stupa have remote resemblances with this roof!

Interestingly the botton line is that the main arched window atop most of the structures seems to be the main source of light into these houses. Very close to the buddhist chaitya graha - or the later cathedrals for that matter. yet the corners indicate barrel vaulted roof which has a stupa at the far end - altar maybe. The pillars like the rest of the monuments echoes pallava style with squarting yalis at the base.

Interestingly this ratha is also the prototype to later Gopurams that sprang up during the later pallava and chola periods. If you had to add more of this roof to itself and taper them as you go along, you end up with a gopuram. Interestingly, the ganesha ratha is a clear indicator of such innovations in architecture. The finial of this structure seems to find itself not only at the roof (currently destroyed) but around the rathas as well, specifically the draupadi ratha! Am yet to figure out their function. The main decor of the roof has a kapota and a line of shala kutas and karna kutas forming one hara above the pillars. These are interspaced with smaller arched windows or gavakshas also called kudus in Tamil.


Smashan tara, a form of Kali?

The mystery of the draupadi ratha has indeed made me post again. Dwelling into the tantric cult of west bengal, here is something of interest:

At midnight on the dark night of the moon an aghori sits alone in the great cremation ground (smashan) of Tarapith ­ the 'sacred site of Tara' ­ in Bengal, India. He is naked or 'sky-clad', fearless and unashamed, and gazes in wonder at the resplendent form of his beloved goddess, Smashan Tara. His matted hair is piled up into a topknot ­ symbolizing that he upholds his tantric vows, and the rest of his hair hangs down freely ­ representing
that he is completely free from the restraints of conventional reality. His right hand holds a skull, indicating that he has realized the insubstantial nature of all phenomena and the ultimate truth of selflessness. With his left hand he counts the beads of a rosary made from rudraksha seeds as he invokes the goddess with her mantra. He is seated upon a stone plinth and surrounded by pieces of bone from the charnel ground, and has created a protective circle around himself by hammering pegs of bone into the ground and binding them with black thread ­ a ritual practice known as kilana.

Behind the aghori's head is a small Shiva temple crowned with an iron trident, whilst in the background are a range of triangular mountains and the ascending columns of smoke from smoldering funeral pyres. Behind his back is a shrine to Bhairava and Bhairavi ­ the wrathful forms of Shiva and his consort Parvati ­ which are represented by a stone boulder with a wrathful face painted upon it, and a trunk of wood painted with the three eyes of the goddess. In front of this shrine are three skulls, which represent Shiva's mastery over the three gunas or qualities of nature ­ dynamic (rajas), pure (sattva), and inert (tamas). At the back of this shrine is a leafless bel or bilva tree ­ a tree that is especially sacred to Shiva and to all manifestations of the goddesses or shaktis. In front of the aghori is a female jackal, who serves as the 'messenger' or emissary of Smashan Tara. The jackal bares her teeth and gazes back lovingly towards her Mistress, after she has crossed the boundary of the aghori's protective circle with her right paw. Behind the jackal is a wrathful lamp fashioned from an upturned human skull. The skull rests upon a square block representing the element of earth, and is fuelled by human fat and a wick twisted from the hair of a corpse. From the flames of this lamp arises the symbol of a tantric staff or khatvanga, which is fashioned from a small skull mounted upon a handle of human vertebrae. At the top of this skull-staff is a flaming iron trident, which symbolizes the goddess's victory over the three realms (beneath, upon, and above the earth), three times (past, present and future), and three poisons (ignorance, desire and aversion). [Note: The wrathful lamp image is on the spine of the book and not pictured here.]

Smashan Tara ­ 'Tara of the Cremation Grounds' - is deep blue in color, with one face, three eyes, and four arms. She arises amidst the blazing heat of a funeral pyre, and stands in 'warrior- stance' upon the fire-consumed skeleton of a male corpse ­ with her right foot pressing upon the breast of the skeleton (the place of desire), and her left foot pressing upon the skeleton's legs (the place of worldly ambition or progress). The roaring flames of the funeral pyre represent the 'fire at the end of time' (kalagni) ­ the ultimate conflagration of the universe, which transmutes all phenomenal appearances into the unified ashes of selflessness. Her body is formed of pure light and the flames can be seen through her lower legs. She is unrestrained, wild, terrifying and fearless, with a beautiful midnight-blue complexion that represents her immutable and indestructible nature. She is the color of space ­ vast and measureless like the night sky ­ and she is beyond all concepts or qualities (nirguna). Her breasts are large or pot-shaped (ghatastani) ­ symbolizing the spiritual nourishment of her devotees, and her stomach is full and rounded (lambodari) ­ symbolizing her hunger for the corpses of selflessness and the blood of ecstatic bliss. She is naked or 'clothed in the sky' (digambara), symbolizing her freedom from the veils of emotional defilements. Around her waist she wears a girdle of eight blood-dripping forearms, which symbolizes her severance of all actions or karmas and the eight worldly dharmas of loss and gain, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, ignominy and fame. Her long black hair is disheveled and hangs freely behind her back, symbolizing that she has untied the knot of appearances and revels in her unconditional freedom.

Courtesy: Robert Beer. 06/09/2002

Of course there is also Anubis, who is the God of death and enbalming for the ancient Egyptians!

Read more on Smashan Tara


Standards of Jatamukuta for Shiva

This is a deviation from my marathon on the Rathas, but i am just floored to see the amazing similarity between the jatamukuta( head gear of shiva with jatas) of Shiva at Mahabalipuram in the previous posting and that of Shiva in the Sadashiva panel at Elephanta.

Shiva in the previous post is of Vrshabhavana and that at Elephanta is of sadashiva, this jatamukuta at Elephanta seems to be a trend followed all across the sculptures there. These caves were carved out during the 6th century by King Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri dynasty. The Pallavas are said to have ruled around the same period till the 8th century. Yet a classic Kalachuri jatamukuta seems to have made its way into pallava sculptures. This is entirely my interpretation without substantial evidence.

Yet it seems too obvious to ignore. Seems like we need to start looking at various kinds of crowns worn by rulers or the like to understand whether this was dynasty specific or whether it was a part of the shilpa shastra. Or maybe kalachuri influences did enter southern territory as there is enough political evidence to suggest they were contemporaneous to Cholas which means they have been around for a while. My guess might not be wrong after all...

Photo Courtesy: American Institute of Indian Studies


Arjuna Ratha - Dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Arjuna ratha: Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this ratha speaks a lot about Shiva iconography and dravida style of architecture. It seems to be governed by the local shaivite faith, interestingly depicting on one of its walls as Vrishabhavana Murti - shiva leaning on Nandi, his bull inteh central niche.

The images on either side seem to be similar to the representations of yakshi couples but cannot be ascertained. I might just be wrong. The main vimana has a stupi below which are three lines of haras making it a three storeyed tower. The hara consists of shala kutas and karna kutas with gavakshas spread across. If you look closer its very visible to see sculptures within the niches.

Here is a larger view of the same, its worth a look

Below the main ratha are a series of rectangular grooves which indicate that there has been some kind of wooden beams that might have stretched out of the main structure. Whether it held a path of circumambulation around it is anybody's guess. The Nandi is carved on a rock behind the main structure, in this case, due ot the availability of rock there. Interestingly, the arjuna ratha and the draupadi share a platform, held up on the backs of elephants and lions, discovered recently in the last 6 months.


Draupadi Ratha

This very clearly represents a hut from a rural area, largely from bengal. Its part of a museum of architecture which also emphasizes in all this the iconography of every diety. The draupadi ratha is dedicated to goddess durga, which is re-emphasized by the lion in front of it, which is the vahana(vehicle) of the goddess.

The dwarapalas are replaced by female attendants or shalabhajikas, who are representations of fertility, the original concept being taken from yakshi cults prevelant in north india. The entrance has an elaborate makara torana which has initially been seen in very early pallava caves later dominating the cholan architecture.

The main shrine on the inside has the goddess in the centre with two attendants on either side among others, one in the act of cutting his head off in repect to the goddess. This is indeed very interesting as the ruling cults of Orissa and Bengal are of mother goddess and largely tantric in nature, which involved human sacrifices as part of their rituals. Maybe the rathas tried to explain a lot more than be mere museums of architecture. The dwarapalikas or the salabhanjikas on the outside have a very seductive welcoming gesture, but what is depicted inside is quite a different story.

This gives the same feeling as the Vittal Deul temple at Chaurasi in Orissa, where the external walls depict acts of seduction while the interior depicts bhairava and kali with scenes of human sacrifices. What really needs to be understood is that the societies were very open towards esoteric cults and such practices were not considered evil, and were very prevelant around the regions of Orissa and bengal.

There was therefore a mingling of cultural practices, and this was not restricted to politics and architecture as has been believed earlier.


Latest on the Rathas at Mahabalipuram

The Rathas:
Interesting evidence shows that the rathas were indeed earlier in chronology as compare to the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora. The fact that prominent elephant and lion base at Ellora has been "discovered" here at Mahbalipuram. This of course is restricted only to what is called the Draupadi ratha and the Arjuna ratha.

Here is some details on the Rathas themselves:

Draupadi ratha: Attributed to the goddess Durga, as its re-inforced by the lion vahana on the outside, this ratha follows pure bengal style of rural architecture. It represents a hut, has the goddess enshrined inside the main and only sanctum. Interestingly, the devotees of this goddess, are shown in the act of almost chopping off thier heads as a mark of adouration.

Arjuna ratha: A miniature version of the dharmaraja ratha, and a true picture of dravida style of architecture, this monument is dedicated to shiva. For one, the nandi is carved right next to it, and secondly the iconography of shiva is extremely rich along its walls.

Bhima ratha: An interesting structure, this clearly is a prototype of later gopurams. Judging by the way its been constructed, it was likely to be dedicated to vishnu, as the rock seems to be prepared for carving a reclining vishnu, as seen in other cave temples at Mahabalipuram as well as shore temple. This would indicate that the unfinished rock next to it was either for a boar, as seen in shore temple next to the vishnu shrine or for garuda, the actual vahana.

Dharmaraja ratha: its all too clear. the iconography speaks for itself, so much so that the nandi was not carved next to this big shrine. the vimana, an elaborate dravida style roof holds a whole catalogue on shiva iconography. This was clearly attributed to Shiva.

Nakula shahadeva ratha: built to the style of a buddhist chaitya, but attributed to Indra, since we have the elephant vahana next to it, this temple seems to be greatly influenced by the only cave temple at besra. the style and motifs clearly indicate strong influences from the north.

More coming later.