Photos by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra
Continued from Part 4
“Man’s seeking after beauty reaches its most intense and satisfying expression in the great creative arts, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, but in its full extension there is no activity of his nature or his life from which it need or ought to be excluded,—provided we understand beauty both in its widest and its truest sense. A complete and universal appreciation of beauty and the making entirely beautiful our whole life and being must surely be a necessary character of the perfect individual and the perfect society.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 25: 136-137)
Located about 200 metres away from the main cluster of Pattadakal temples and about half kilometre south of the Virupāksha temple is the Pāpanātha temple, notable for its fully conceived cycle of imagery from the two itihāsa-s, particularly the Rāmāyana, portrayed on its exterior walls. Built around 680 CE, the temple presents a fusion of elements from the Dravidian and Nagara styles. It features a curvilinear shikhara of the Rekha-Nagara style — the largest in the complex with such a shikhara — while the elements such as the parapets above the walls are typical of Dravidian temple architecture.
Originally built as a modest temple dedicated to Shiva as Mukteshwara, the Lord who grants Mukti, this temple was extensively renovated around the time when Virupaksha temple was constructed, towards the end of the rule of the early Chalukya dynasty. Interestingly, none of the inscriptions discovered in the temple reveals any information about the principal deity, though we find details about some of the key architects and sculptors associated with this temple (Revaḍi Ovajja, Devaraya, Chengamma, Baladeva). But near the temple complex an upright stone slab bearing commemorative inscription refers to the deity as “Kisuvoḷala Mūlasthānada Mahādeva.” Over time, the deity of this temple came to be known as Pāpanātha, and this name is now stuck to the temple.
The east-facing temple which features remarkable sculptural decoration on its exterior walls is built on an unusually raised platform. The five mouldings of the huge plinth are decorated with animal motifs and floral designs. The mukha mandapa or entrance porch is open on three sides with a kakshāsana, a feature typical of Chalukya temples. The ornately carved pillars of the mukha mandapa feature images of dwārpālas, kinnara couples and apsarās — many of which are now damaged.
The door frame to the sabhā mandapa is ornately carved. On the top are seen Shiva and Pārvati in a sitting position with a gana blowing conch just below them. On their sides are two lions which don’t appear to be furious. A delicately decorated Gajalakshmi is also seen on the lowest slab.
On the opposite side is a sculpture of a mythical being which has the face of an elephant and the body of a lion, possibly signifying the intelligence of an elephant and the physical strength and agility of lion.
The ceiling of the mukha mandapa is made of three stone slabs. And there we see the pièce de résistance of this area of the temple — a relief depicting Shiva as Natesha, in a charming dancing pose; he is joined by Pārvati and his entire celestial entourage.
Unlike the Virupāksha temple there is no separate Nandi mandapa at this temple presently. Perhaps there was a separate mandapa for an ornate Nandi once which was later brought in under the extended sabhā mandapa during the temple reconstruction. Now all that remains is a badly mutilated Nandi in the eastern half of the sabhā mandapa.
The sabha mandapa has 16 pillars, many of which feature carved images of apsaras and other celestial beings, including maithuna couples. An eight-armed Mahishasurmardini occupies a special place in the sabha mandpa.
Four lattice window provide natural light inside the ardha mandapa which is of same width as the garbhagriha and pradakshina together. The central nave has a raised ceiling as compared to the garbhagriha.
The ceiling near the garbhagriha has several marvellous intricately carved reliefs including those of Shiva and Pārvati, Gajalakshmi and Nāgaraja which has a human bust and coiled serpent for his lower half. Unfortunately most of them are now badly damaged, primarily due to water seepage and poor maintenance.
The Pāpanātha temple stands out from all the other early Chalukya temples of the time because of the detailed portrayal of the two epics — Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata — on its exterior walls on the southern and northern sides, with the climactic scenes from both culminating at the front porch pillars. It is speculated that perhaps the architect of the temple intentionally designed the double mandapa of the temple so as to create enough niches in the outer walls for an extensive depiction of the epics. There are also labels flanking the friezes to ensure correct reading of the events portrayed.
“These epics are… a highly artistic representation of intimate significances of life, the living presentment of a strong and noble thinking, a developed ethical and aesthetic mind and a high social and political ideal, the ensouled image of a great culture. As rich in freshness of life but immeasurably more profound and evolved in thought and substance than the Greek, as advanced in maturity of culture but more vigorous and vital and young in strength than the Latin epic poetry, the Indian epic poems were fashioned to serve a greater and completer national and cultural function and that they should have been received and absorbed by both the high and the low, the cultured and the masses and remained through twenty centuries an intimate and formative part of the life of the whole nation is of itself the strongest possible evidence of the greatness and fineness of this ancient Indian culture.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 353)
The depiction of Rāmāyana on the south wall of the temple begins with king Dasaratha performing the putra-kameshti yajñá and ends with the battle between Rāma and Rāvaṇa. In between we have panels depicting many important scenes such as the Rāvana abducting Sītā, Jatāyu fighting with Rāvana, the battle between Sugrīva and Vali, Rāma killing Vali, and the vānara-senā building the bridge to Lanka. On the pillar of the front porch we find the portrayal of the final scene from the Rāmāyana — coronation of Sri Rāma shown seated with Sītā, Lakshmana and Hanuman, and a panel on top showing king Sugrīva with his queen and his subjects.
“The greater figures of our epics are ideals, but ideals of wickedness as well as virtue and also of mixed characters which are not precisely either vicious or virtuous. They are, that is to say, ideal presentments of character-types. This also arises from the tendency of the Hindu creative mind to look behind the actors at tendencies, inspirations, ideals.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 36: 131)
“Tangled is the way of works in the world. When Rama the Avatar murdered Vali or Krishna, who was God himself, assassinated, to liberate his nation, his tyrant uncle Kansa, who shall say whether they did good or did evil? But this we can feel, that they acted divinely.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 467-468)
Several events from the Mahābhārata are carved across the north wall. The Kirātarjuniyam sequence portrays an elegant Shiva as a forest hunter, Arjuna’s penance and their fight over a boar.
As we close this virtual tour of the Pāpanātha temple with another look at its overall grandeur, let us reflect on these words of Sri Aurobindo and invoke the great living shakti that India has always been.
“It was not men of straw or lifeless and will-less dummies or thin-blooded dreamers who thus acted, planned, conquered, built great systems of administration, founded kingdoms and empires, figured as great patrons of poetry and art and architecture or, later, resisted heroically imperial power and fought for the freedom of clan or people. Nor was it a nation devoid of life which maintained its existence and culture and still lived on and broke out constantly into new revivals under the ever increasing stress of continuously adverse circumstances. The modern Indian revival, religious, cultural, political, called now sometimes a renaissance, which so troubles and grieves the minds of her critics, is only a repetition under altered circumstances, in an adapted form, in a greater though as yet less vivid mass of movement, of a phenomenon which has constantly repeated itself throughout a millennium of Indian history.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 247)