The ancient land of the Rashtrakutas displays fine craftsmanship in chiseling out a place of residence and worship right into the heart of the very earth that surrounds their land. The Rashtrakutas are better known during the 6th to 8th century for their contributions to the Ellora caves. Their sculpture is not the finest, being extremely broad shouldered sculptures with very small legs; they are rather disproportionate, such that the sculpture cannot carry his/her weight. This is the point of view of a current day art critic.
The Rashtrakutas provided places to stay for wandering intellects and tired travelers during the Monsoons. Pune would have been a fabulous destination during the ancient days. Today the city has grown swallowing up this tranquility into itself with cement residential areas coming up everywhere.
There was a time when intellects and monks stayed here in these caves for a brief period. During this time they discussed matters of philosophy and worshipped the Lord in the main shrine. Beating the Monsoons and providing a quiet ambience, Pataleshwar temple defines every inch of what rock cut cave architecture is about. The circular mandapa is a treat to the eye, with pillars carved into a single bed rock that stands sculpted in the middle of the courtyard. This whole temple complex would have once been a sheer solid rock outcrop and carving into it would have been an ambitious task.
Moving back to the era of the 8th century around which time this temple was planned, the initial landscape would have been that of a rocky boulder with probable thick vegetation surrounding it. Assuming the surface was flat, the initial ground plan would have been visualized to describe the form of a Shiva linga, with the current Nandi Mandapa forming the main linga circle of this temple in aerial view. Digging down into live rock, with acute sense of geometry and precision, this temple would have taken a few years to sculpt out of live rock. Situated on the river side, this temple has the perfect ambience of a Buddhist chaitya and vihara.
The courtyard is simple, flattened out and smoothened, leading up to a small cave with 2 rows of simple square pillars very similar to those found at Ellora (Teen tala). This cave was carved during the same period hence the resemblance is very vivid. Walking deeper into the main hall, this cave was left half finished in the interiors. What was probably planned for was a path of circum-ambulation around the main sanctum which was left incomplete, mysteriously in the same way as that of the ancient cave temples in the south at Mahabalipuram. The plan for this sanctum was to have a single entrance only.
Two rows of distinctly crafted pillars carefully chiseled out indicates that as the temple was being dug into, there were a set of sculptors polishing up the exterior row of pillars while others had already begun to carve the iconography of the Lord onto the large niches. None of the sculptures remain; hence it’s largely guess work to identify the sculptures of Shiva that adorned these walls. The central zone has three chambers in a line; I would suspect that these were originally empty. The present sculptures of Rama, Lakshman and Sita are later additions, maybe belonging to our era. By iconographical reference, they do not fit into this temple given their Vaishnavite origin. During the 8th century, there was no mix of divinity in these forms.
The main shrine is a living temple today, with a rather small Shiva linga in the center of this little chamber. Given the monumental shrines we see at the sanctums of Ellora, Ajanta and Elephanta, this is particularly small. I would suspect the Linga had been destroyed in time and has now been reinstalled for this size does not fit that era. The shrine chamber definitely has been subjected to a high degree of renovation in current times, given the floor has tiles inlay for the peetha and a brass crown covers the present linga.
This is a beautiful example of Rashtakuta design in sculpture and architecture, a clear representation of deep faith, a result of all the sweat and hard work to sculpt this abode for the Lord. The crowning glory of this region of course is not remembered for the making of this cave temple during this period but later during this period of the Peshwas in 1749 A.D. when Maharaj Chatrapati Shivaji came to reside here with his mother.
The Rashtrakutas have faded into history, their dynamism stretching across Karnataka and Maharastra is embedded within these cave temples that now provide the much needed peace and tranquility in the middle of a bustling metropolitan city.
Photo courtesy: Flickr.com (creative commons)