THE DECORATIVE FEMALE FIGURES ON THE WALLS OF THE SUN TEMPLE AT KONARAK: AN APPRAISAL – PART I

The Sun temple at Konarak, remarkable for its architecture and building techniques, is magnificent for its immortal sculptures of various types. There is a profusion of sculpture on the outer surface of the temple walls, mostly of a high order. The temple, with all its beautiful carvings and symmetry of design, outnumbers and far excels the sculptural activities of temples ever built in Orissa and other places. Being termed as a microcosmic universe for its depiction of everything which is found in the universe1, Konarak is rightly regarded as the best specimen of human skill in art, architecture and sculpture. It has been said that if the early European visitors had seen it, they would have called it, and not the Taj Mahal, the building of India2. All her glory, grandeur and greatness, however, are mainly due to the depiction of thousands of immensely beautiful female figures on its walls3.

The female figure is one of the common motifs of Indian temple sculpture, as it is of art, painting or poetry, anywhere in the world. The auspicious nature of the female has long been recognised in Indian art. She has been placed at the entrance of sanctuaries as Yakshi figures to protect the sacred precincts from evil sprites.

In Vedic ritual, as a rule, no sacrifice could be performed without the presence of the sacrificer’s wife4. In the Silpa-sastras, it is enjoined that, during the sacrificial offerings, the architect must be accompanied by a girl or a courtesan5. Beautiful young girls, placed in position of lesser or greater prominence, decorate the walls of most of Orissan temples. The text of Silpa Prakasa is emphatic about the necessity of decorating a temple with figures of maidens, and its author tells us that naribandha (panel of maidens) is indispensable to architecture. “As a house without a wife, as frolic without a woman, so without the figure of woman, the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit”6. That is why, probably, the Orissan artists have carved innumerable female figures on the temple walls7.

In the earlier temples, there was a kind of ban and taboo on the presentation of the female. She appears as a devotee here and there or as a Goddess and we do have, now and then, certain vrikshikas or naginis, denizens of worlds other than that of the human beings. The figures are squat in body proportions, have a doll like face with their hair arranged in a broad chignon on top of the head. Facial appearances are sharply delineated and are seen to wear only a small amount of jewellery. But in course of time and, as the philosophic concepts began to undergo that change which brought women into the forefront and converted her into Goddess, as philosophies concerning the female flowered out and the Sakta and Tantric-cults began to dominate the thoughts and beliefs of the people, there was a most striking change in the sculptural representation8. The walls of the temples now began to display women beautiful in all her attraction, as forms of Mohini or Tripurasundari.

In Orissa, at Parasuramesvara, the carvings are elegant and chaste and exhibit artistic experience of its own. At Markandesvara, on the torana of Muktesvara, we have two exquisite females. The two surviving examples on the western raha of Gauri temple are remarkable for sensuous modelling and plasticity. The kanyas of Rajarani temple are unrivalled in Indian art. Carved in high relief, their lithe beauty, their tall stature, sophisticated grace and their rhythmic movements add special charm to this gem of Orissan architecture. The jagamohana of Brahmesvara also possess dampati or kanya figures. In Lingaraj temple, however, they have lost their classicism. One of them is shown removing a thorn, the second is a Vrikshabhanjika, the third is caressing her pet and are natural to a degree9.

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(Courtsy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Konarka_Temple.jpg)

But the depiction of beauty of women in Orissa regained its prominence in the 13th century and found its place and charming expression in the Sun temple at Konarak. The finest Orissan sculptures are in the courtyard of the temple of the Sun at Konarak10. There is, perhaps, no other temple in India where the structure and its sculptural decoration complement each other in so organic and harmonious a manner as at Konarak11. Innumerable beautiful women in various forms, poses and ornamentations with various instruments have been carved on the body of this temple. The Konarak temple expresses a delight in the female figure – its riches, variety, multitude, originality, with novel and sensuous themes12. The great anonymous artists of Orissa seem to have devoted the best of their skill, imagination and devotional labour to recreating the women of their dreams in stone, shaping them with as perfect charm and loveliness as would be possible to impart such a hard substance, by any sculptor if any country in the world13. It is worth noticing from how many varying perspectives has a woman been perceived at Konarak and in how many moods, postures and poses has she been idolized with fine and subtlest expressions chiseled out on hard stone. The poses are so very curiously conceived and so very delicately interwoven with men and women, that they simply throw light upon the vigour and intensity of love, passion and romance between male and female. The female motifs include alasa-kanyas, vaunting their voluptuous beauty in seductive poses, musicians and dancers, nayikas and apsaras in greatly moving form.

The women portrayed fully in the round on the kanti of the bhadra jagamohana of Konarak are have poise, inner warmth of feeling and an understanding and responsive maturity14. Their larger-than­-life size presentation, in a perspective where they seem to come up alive amidst aesthetic music and dance, is perfectly in proportion to the massive size of the pida roof of the jagamohana itself.

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(Courtsy: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/design-inspiration/a934-konark-sun-temple-ancient-indian-structural-marvel/)

The richness of Orissan sculpture is clearly reflected in its nayika images. Art historians and iconographers term them surasundari figures; but they are locally known as alasakanyas or salabhanjikas15. They reveal the extreme humanism of the art. They are treated as mortals engaged in the ordinary day to day pastimes of this earth16. The nayika figures in their rhythmic stances, bedecked with bracelets, anklets, girdles, necklaces, earrings and having different styles of coiffure, breathe an air of romance. One of the nayikas is finishing her toilet with the aid of mirrors, another nayika has a mirror in a mood of reverie.

The sculpture at Konarak is carved out from the most gigantic size to almost miniature figures; fitted into almost inconceivable niches, these figures exploit to the full the beautiful feminine figure and the teachings of the Kamasutra and the Natyasastra17. Here, the artists executed monumental standing statues of female musicians playing on flute, cymbal, drum, and strings, placed high up on the roof galleries of the hall. Their massive rounded beauty, presented in movements designed to capture their all sided charms, has been carved with ‘relish and inspiration’18. They are three-dimensional figures, standing away from the wall, and outlined boldly against the sky, and are visible from a long distance. With their feet posed in dance, stumping the rhythm of their music, they are superb works of art, full of life and movement. They have no parallel in Indian art anywhere, and constitute one more example of the original creative power of the individual artist in India19.

Another most impressive series of sculptures is that of the apsaras and the gandharvas who grace the two lower storeys of the roof of the jaganmohana. Since the apasaras dwelt in the heavens, the problem of the sculptor was to carve, out of coarse stone, bodies constituted not of flesh but rather of air “rich with all the gifts of grace, of youth and beauty”. The apsaras are the consorts of gandharvas and are also known as suranganas or celestial damsels20. Most of them are either playing with various musical instruments or dancing rhythmically in different styles. According to O.E. Ganguly, “we find them standing out in bold relief against the continuous recess of the tier, singing and dancing and playing on various instruments such as the cymbal, the drum and the flute apparently in praise of the maker of the day”21.

Thus, we can find many striking figures of comely damsels as full bosomed musicians who are placed high up on the roof of galleries. The beautiful female figures of drum, flute, and cymbal player exquisitely chiselled are redolent with exuberant vitality and their plastic flesh of stone vibrates with an innate lust for life22. They seem to sing a wild and rapturous hymn of worldly existence in all its manifold variety – the joys and pleasures of a full-life23.

to be continued …

Dr. R.C. Misro
Reader, P. G. Department of History,
Berhampur University, Orissa

&
Mr. N. Nayak
Former Research Scholar of the same department

 Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 2002.

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