Asian Music and Dance

Indian Temple – the Mise en Scène of the Divine

In the last of her series on Hindu temple architecture, Doria Tichit shows how architecture and sculpture aid the journey of the devotee towards the divine.

I ndia is covered with temples and many are endowed with rich sculptural programmes. A Hindu temple is the representation of a god’s heavenly palace on earth and the sculptures the reflection of the divine court. The main god lives in the innermost part of the edifice, while gods, goddesses and attendants teem on the exterior. The arrangement of the deities is the result of careful consideration. It reveals the reality and supremacy of the revered god. Although recurrences in the choice and the placement of the representations do exist, each iconographic programme is unique and may reveal religious concepts, political aspirations and artistic dialogues. 

“The arrangement of the deities is the result of careful consideration…  and may reveal religious concepts, political aspirations and artistic dialogues.”

The Great Cave at Elephanta (Maharashtra, mid-sixth century) dedicated to Shiva reveals, as demonstrated by Stella Kramrisch, the unfolding process of the divine, whereby the Absolute becomes manifest. The successive steps of the progression from transcendency to matter are illustrated in stone. The sanctum houses a plain linga which is the most fitting symbol of the transcendental dimension of Shiva, the Absolute, from which all emanates and in which everything is reabsorbed. The linga acts as a generative source. The process of emanation engaged, the different stages are portrayed on the cave walls. On the south wall, the colossal tricephalic bust of Shiva represents an intermediary state:  the god is about to become manifest. The main hall is adorned with eight anthropomorphic representations of Shiva (fig.1). The god fully manifested is engaged in an action, in a form intelligible to everyone. The sculptures illustrate the mechanisms of the emanation process, making visible the progression from the subtle, unconceivable and unmanifested to the gross, understandable and fully manifested. 

“The Great Cave at Elephanta… reveals… the unfolding process of the divine, whereby the Absolute becomes manifest.”

Similarly, Devangana Desai showed how the sculptural programme of the Lakshmana temple at Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh, tenth century), dedicated to Vishnu, gives us an insight into the Vaishnava Pancharatra system and its cosmogony whose emanatory character is highlighted through the placement and size of the images. As the architectural forms of this Shekhari temple seem to pour from the sky and to be projected from the centre, the divine spreads. Visually, architecturally and sculpturally, the path of emission is portrayed as a descending motion and a radiating movement. It is a cinematographic mise en scène of the divine.

“As the architectural forms of this Shekhari temple seem to pour from the sky and to be projected from the centre, the divine spreads.”

Through the pairing of figures with iconographic and symbolic affinities, themes can be developed and a system of correspondences between representations on different parts of the edifice created. 

At Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, the Varaha Cave (seventh century) contains four large reliefs. Two on the back wall depict Lakshmi, goddess of fertility, and Durga the warrior goddess, while two on the lateral sides represent Vishnu as Varaha (the boar) rescuing the Earth and Trivikrama measuring the universe with three steps (fig.2). Such a selection and mirroring effect reveal the quintessence of royal function; the king’s action responsible for the prosperity and expansion of the kingdom. 

The Virupaksha at Pattadakal (Karnataka) built in the first half of the eighth century by the Chalukyas of Badami is endowed with a complex iconographic programme. Edith Parlier-Renault remarked on the peculiar arrangement of two episodes of the Ramayana on the south wall of the hall: the fight of the monkey brothers Valin and Sugriva, and the murder of the bird Jatayu as he tries to rescue Rama’s wife, Sita, from being kidnapped by Ravana (fig.3). The devotee engaged in the circumambulation ritual around the temple first encounters Valin and Sugriva’s fight and then Sita’s abduction, while in the Ramayana the abduction precedes the fratricidal duel. The inversion of the episodes on the temple wall is not haphazard, but illustrates the progressive degradation of the cosmic order (dharma): an unfair duel is followed by the murder of an innocent. Such an arrangement contributes to the dramatisation of the discourse. The tension is redressed on the north wall in harmony and serenity with divine syncretic forms: Ardhanarishvara (form combining Shiva and Parvati) and Harihara (form uniting Shiva and Vishnu).

“The inversion of the [Ramayana] episodes on the temple wall… illustrates the progressive degradation of the cosmic order (dharma)…”

Iconographic programmes may also reveal political aspirations and emulation between two artistic traditions. Indeed, the same episodes of the Ramayana are similarly presented at the colossal monolithic Kailasanatha at Ellora (Maharashtra, second half of the eighth century), excavated by the Rashtrakutas who freed themselves from their overlords, the Chalukyas of Badami (fig.4). In both cases the devotee experiences the deterioration of the dharma on the south wall of the hall. However, the resolution of the crisis is different. At the Kailasanatha, the conflict is solved through violence, with the victories of Shiva over Andhaka and Durga over the demon buffalo (fig.5). The destruction of the demon marks the end of the antagonism and the re-establishment of dharma. This example shows the appropriation of a tradition, as well as a distancing from it, to create a unique composition. 

At the Udayeshvara temple at Udayapur (Madhya Pradesh, eleventh century), the organisation of the pantheon on the hall is governed by the pairing of deities whose systematic application enhances the architectural design. The ten aedicules (miniature buildings) half emerging from the structure are inhabited by deities who share strong affinities. The corner projections welcome the eight guardians of space, the Dikpalas. They define and protect the sacred space. Three themes are developed on the six remaining aedicules mirroring each other. For instance, two aedicules offer a global vision of the divine. On the south wall, Ardhanarishvara, illustrating the reconciliation of the contraries, is paired with the syncretic figure of Harihara, uniting the functions generally distributed between the gods (fig.6). On the opposite aedicule on the north side are depicted Natesha, a destructive image echoing the alternation of the cosmic cycles, and Shiva and Parvati, an image of cosmic harmony linked to creation. Involved in circumambulation the devotee encountered igneous gods linked to Time; forms who, through the evocation of the plurality of the divine, reveal its essential unity, and forms celebrating knowledge. The repetition of the same themes induces a linear progression and assumes a didactic character, highlighting the values illustrated.   

“…[the devotee’s] physical journey around and in the temple is also a spiritual one.”

The temple is the deity’s temporary abode on Earth, and sculpture and architecture work together to create a favourable place for worship. The devotee approaches a temple to revere the god enshrined in the innermost space of the sacred complex. His physical journey around and in the temple is also a spiritual one. The iconographic programme reveals the god’s reality and prepares the devotee for the meeting with the supreme deity.


Desai, Devangana, The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho (Mumbai, 1996)

Kramrisch, Stella, ‘The Great Cave Temple of Shiva in Elephanta: Levels of Meaning and Their Form’, in M.W. Meister (ed.), Discourses on Shiva (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), pp.1−11.

Parlier-Renault, Edith, Temples de l’Inde méridionale (vie-viiie siècles). La mise en scène des mythes (Paris, 2006)

Tichit, Doria, ‘A Royal Temple: The Udayeshvara temple at Udayapur’, in Michael D. Willis, Pankaj Raj, O.P. Mishra, Doria Tichit (eds), Patrimoine Culturel de l’eau: Cities and Settlements, Temples and Tanks in the Medieval Landscape of Central India (Bhopal, Directorate of Archaeology, Museums and Archives, Madhya Pradesh, 2014), pp.65−95.

‘Indian Temple – Abode of the Gods and Centres for Community’, Pulse 125 (Summer 2014), pp.18−20.

‘Indian Temple – Architecture’, Pulse 126 (Autumn 2014), pp.18−21.



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