Photos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra
Continued from Part 1
As we start climbing up the steps to reach cave 2, we turn around and take one more look at the majestic cave temple 1 with Nataraja who has already stolen our hearts!
Dedicated primarily to Lord Vishnu, cave 2 is on a higher elevation and to the east of cave 1. Excavated in late 6th or early 7th century, the floor plan of this cave facing north is similar to cave 1 though it is smaller.
The entrance verandah is divided by four square pillars, all carved out of the monolithic rock. The pillars have decorative carvings with frieze of ganas (mythical dwarfs) sporting various facial expressions. On the two sides of the entrance are standing dvarapalas holding flowers, not weapons.
The largest relief in cave 2 depicts the legend of Bhagwān Vishnu in his Trivikrama form; this is in fact one of the earliest representations of Vāmana avatār of Vishnu when he takes three strides. Vāmana avatār shown here has already grown to the size of a giant with one foot firmly planted on earth covering it with his first stride and the other lifted to take his second stride to cover the heavens.
This panel presents a continuous narrative as different episodes of the Paurānic story of Vāmana avatār unfold in time. First, at the bottom of the panel we see Sri Vishnu in his Vāmana avatār as a brahmacharin with the sacred thread and tufted hair, visiting the demon king Bali underneath a royal umbrella; the king and his courtiers are shown standing to the right of Vāmana.
Second, portrayed as the main action in the panel, Sri Vishnu takes his third and final stride placing his foot on the head of Titan Bali thrusting him down into pātāl-loka, who is shown upside down just below Vishnu’s outstretched foot. Finally, on the left side Bali is shown in submission clinging to Sri Vishnu’s firmly rooted leg. The entire composition is supported on a prominent frieze of dwarf musicians.
As magnificent and striking as this great work of sculpture is, the truth expressed here is much deeper, and if we fail to see the spirit of the truth behind the form, we fail to appreciate Indian art itself. The truth of Indian art – or rather, the greatest of Indian art – aims at something more than the appreciation of outer form.
The theory of ancient Indian art at its greatest is of another kind, reminds Sri Aurobindo. And lest we forget, he adds that it is the greatest art which gives its character to the rest and throws on it something of its stamp and inﬂuence.
Indian art is identical in its spiritual aim and principle with the rest of Indian culture. This is one thing we must remember if we are to truly appreciate Indian art. It naturally implies that we first open ourselves to the true truth or the deepest spirit of Indian culture, which has been expressed through all its outer forms and rhythms including Indian art. The integrality of the culture as a whole is also highlighted through this idea.
We find a splendid meditation on the inner meaning and significance of Vishnu’s three strides in Sri Aurobindo’s ‘The Secret of the Veda‘.
विष्णोर्नु कं वीर्याणि प्र वोचं यः पार्थिवानि विममे रजांसि ।
यो अस्कभायदुत्तरं सधस्थं विचकमाणस्त्रेधोरुगायः ॥१॥
Of Vishnu now I declare the mighty works, who has measured out the earthly worlds and that higher seat of our self-accomplishing he supports, he the wide-moving, in the threefold steps of his universal movement.
(Rig Veda I.154.1, Translation by Sri Aurobindo)
The supreme step of Vishnu, his highest seat, is the triple world of bliss and light, priyaṁ padam, which the wise ones see extended in heaven like a shining eye of vision; it is this highest seat of Vishnu that is the goal of the Vedic journey. Here again the Vedic Vishnu is the natural precursor and sufficient origin of the Puranic Narayana, Preserver and Lord of Love.
In this hymn of Dirghatamas Auchathya to the all-pervading Vishnu it is his significant activity, it is the greatness of Vishnu’s three strides that is celebrated. We must dismiss from our minds the ideas proper to the later mythology. We have nothing to do here with the dwarf Vishnu, the Titan Bali and the three divine strides which took possession of Earth, Heaven and the sunless subterrestrial worlds of Patala. The three strides of Vishnu in the Veda are clearly defined by Dirghatamas as earth, heaven and the triple principle, tridhātu. It is this triple principle beyond Heaven or superimposed upon it as its highest level, nākasya pṛṣṭhe, which is the supreme stride or supreme seat of the all-pervading deity.
Vishnu is the wide-moving one. He is that which has gone abroad—as it is put in the language of the Isha Upanishad, sa paryagāt,—triply extending himself as Seer, Thinker and Former, in the superconscient Bliss, in the heaven of mind, in the earth of the physical consciousness, tredhā vicakramāṇaḥ. In those three strides he has measured out, he has formed in all their extension the earthly worlds; for in the Vedic idea the material world which we inhabit is only one of several steps leading to and supporting the vital and mental worlds beyond. In those strides he supports upon the earth and mid-world,—the earth the material, the mid-world the vital realms of Vayu, Lord of the dynamic Life-principle,—the triple heaven and its three luminous summits, trīṇi rocanā. These heavens the Rishi describes as the higher seat of the fulfilling. Earth, the mid-world and heaven are the triple place of the conscious being’s progressive self-fulfilling, triṣadhastha, earth the lower seat, the vital world the middle, heaven the higher. All these are contained in the threefold movement of Vishnu. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 15: 346-8)
Can there be another truth behind the three strides of Sri Vishnu? Yes, indeed!
“Family, nationality, humanity are Vishnu’s three strides from an isolated to a collective unity. The first has been fulfilled, we yet strive for the perfection of the second, towards the third we are reaching out our hands and the pioneer work is already attempted.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 12: 467)
Another key panel in cave 2 depicts the legend of Lord Vishnu in his Varaha avatār rescuing goddess earth, Bhudevi, from the depths of cosmic ocean, with a repentant Nāga sitting below in submission.
The walls and ceiling have traces of coloured paint, suggesting there may have been some fresco paintings also in this cave. The sculptures on the ceiling are striking in their bold patterns, depicting symbols that Hindus since ancient times have considered auspicious and sacred.
“Beauty is the way in which the physical expresses the Divine—but the principle and law of Beauty is something inward and spiritual which expresses itself through the form.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 27: 699)
Before leaving cave 2, we take one closer look at the beautiful art adorning the pillars of this cave. As we appreciate the fine carvings on these massive stone pillars, let us remember with gratitude the brilliant engineering and aesthetic vision and expertise of our ancestors who carved out these pillars out of the massive rock, keeping in consideration the overall structural integrity of the cave temple and without sacrificing the artistic beauty.
Time to step out of cave 2 and move toward cave 3, but not without taking in the views.