There are plenty of Shiva temples scattered around the country. So what are the original ones i am talking about? Most later shaivite temples depict either little or too much. For eg. Shiva temples at belur and halebid depict the entire pantheon of Gods, vaishnavite included on the over ornate walls of their temples, while some others restrict imagery to very few forms of Lord Shiva, line the later south indian temples in Tamil Nadu. They dont go beyond the depiction of Nataraja, Dakshinamurti, Lingodbhava and if you get lucky a form of trimurti. Of course you do have Parvati, ganesh, karthikeyan and chandikeshwara in all of them.
Original temples of Shiva had sprawling panels of mythological stories on Shiva and his exploits in all his various forms counting upto 26. Today we have few standing examples that depict all these forms and much more, some still unidentified, in few temples built from the period of the Vakatakas to the Cholas.
Here are some of the most authentic Shiva temples still standing:
Elephanta caves Mumbai coast:
Off the coast line of Mumbai stand Shiva caves on the island of Elephanta which have fantastic depictions from Shiva mythology arcoss their their dark walls. The sculptures take their influence from the art styles of the Guptas and the caves of Ajanta. Mammoth life size sculptures, exquisitely carved, depict Shiva in various poses. These include Ardhanarishwara, kalyanasundaramurti, yogishwara, nataraja, andhakasura, vrishabhavana, ravanaanugraha to name a few. The most striking of course is that of Trimurti, whose prototype goes way back to Indus valley. The caves of Elephanta are styled exactly like buddhist caves and were excavated well before structural architecture took shape in india.
Kailashnatha temple Ellora:
Another completely amazing temple and grand at the same time is that of Kailashnatha temple. The interesting part of this tempe is that it is right in the middle of brahmanical, buddhist and jaina caves. Tp top it all it is a museum of architecture that displays the sculptural supremacy of three dynasties that ruled the indian sub continent parallely - the chalukyas, pallavas and the rashtrakutas. there is cultural warfare written all across the walls of this temple. Apart from depicting various forms of Shiva, this temple shows stark examples of sculptors from all dynasties working together in the same place. eg. saptamatrika panel in a cave near the main temple shows few of the goddesses in pallava style, few others in rashtrakuta style and the remaining in chalukyan style. How do we figure that out? A rashtrakuta sculpture knows no proportion, heads are BIG and legs are SMALL. if the figure had to stand up, it would not be able to balance itself. A chalukyan sculpture always has a waist band and a Pallava sculpture is always slender and not intricately carved, very simplistic. Kailashnatha temple is also the first temple in India to be built multi storeyed, and monolithic at the same time. Truely fantastic.
Shore temple Mahabalipuram:
Almost completely eroded but salt and sea breeze over the centuries, we see traces of Shiva mythology on the walls of this temple. More than Shiva iconography this temple yells out the presence of strong naga cults and mother goddess worship. The reclining Vishnu is made of the bed rock, and existed well before this temple was built. Strangely, this is the first temple that hosts two shiva shrines back to back, one facing east and the other facing west. Nandi vahana does not stand in front of any of these shrines but seems to occupy the walls instead.
A truely well preserved and amazing structure, this temple gives us a complete account of shiva iconography ,so complete that we have not been able to identify all of them yet! Its a store house of all the possible forms one can think of. The sculptures are on the temple walls as well as on the walls that enclose it. Interestingly somaskanda panel seems to have been the most popular panel of the time. This temple also has the only example of a shrine chamber well within the gopuram.
Brihadheswara tempe Tanjore:
Truely magneficient archetecture and amazing sculptural depiction of Lord Shiva scatter its walls. This time with more plan and structure. All the walls of this temple depict Shiva or other Gods from his troop counting upto almost 10 per wall and that would be 30 allover. Interesting elements of this temple is that it redefines how a temple of Shiva should be built, with a series of Shiva lingas planted into the ground along the boundary walls of the temple. The yoni pitha of all these temples point northwards for the exit of the libation fluids. Interesting sculpture here is to see Shiva standing near the entrance with Vishnu bowing to him on his kneels. Shows the celebration of shaivite supremacy over vaishnavites. Of course vishnavite temples give it back equally well!!!
Like father like son, but with a difference. This temple is definitely smaller but bursting with architectural creativity more than its older couterpart which is the personification of symmetry. The tower is not all that squarish anymore but more rounded! Shiva iconography covers all its walls as well with repetitions at certain places.
Interestingly all these temples display the various mythologies on the exterior walls except for elephanta cave which is completely on the inside! But its onlyin later stages that the 108 lingas came into temple architecture.
Other temples propbably are subsets of these temples. They house fewer forms of Shiva himself and concentrate more on the Gods and demi gods who accompany him. The outer walls are a little more bare and attention is given to elaborate architecture as compare to elaborate sculptural depictions.
All in all a true shiva temple contained concepts all about HIM and not about people around HIM!
But interestingly it seems to also have a lot to do with the magic of "Kailasa".