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Temple Sculptures & Dance

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

By Dr. Shashikala Ravi

Since ancient times dance has got infused into temple iconography. Dance has influenced sculpture making so deeply that the grace of dance can be seen in these sculptures. Iconography is the study of images or sculptures mostly religious. It is very interesting to note that the very purpose of temple structure is the image residing in it. The word icon is derived from the Greek word ‘eikon’ and it stands for an image or a symbol which resembles the god it represents. The Indian term for iconography is Pratimā- Lakṣaṇa, the study of images. Image worship was probably not unknown to the Vēdic Indian and evidence shows that he occasionally worshipped God in the form of images. With the passage of time magnificient temples were built by the rulers where these images of gods and goddesses were consecrated and worshipped and exotic sculptures and Nṛttamūrtis were built all around the temples. With reference to the sculptures in the temples the noted historian Kapila Vatsayan says, “No historian of Indian dance sculpture can afford to ignore the overpowering evidence of a systematized attempt at notating dance movement through sculptural relief.” Further she says, “The Nṛttamūrtis and their iconography is an integral aspect of dance movement.” Very interestingly these dance movements are as described in the Nāṭya Śāstra.

Here a special mention needs to be made about iconography or Pratimā – Lakṣaṇa in relation to Nāṭya Śāstra and Śilpa Śāstra. Nāṭya Śāstra is a treatise on all aspects of drama, dance and music which was written by Bharata Muni between 200 B.C.E and 200 C.E. It consists of four volumes, 36 chapters and six thousand verses. It is one of the oldest reference texts to all dancers. Śilpa Śāstra is the science of sculpting. It includes principles of sculpting and the practice of the technique. The association of the various Gods with dance made it necessary for the sculptor to have a knowledge of the Nāṭya Śāstra and Śilpa Śāstra before depicting these deities in stone, wood etc. This knowledge was one of the main factors that contributed to the refinement of sculptures. When we look at the temple sculptures it becomes evident that the Śilpa Śāstra is closely related to the Nāṭya Śāstra. Otherwise how could such sculptures have been created depicting dance poses and movements. Indian temple sculptures are dynamic movements arrested in stone and are representations of the dance movements and poses described in the Nāṭya Śāstra.

The concept of a perfect symmetry is present in Śilpa as in Nṛtya. When we see the images of the deities in the temple it is as if the overpowering technique of the Nāṭya Śāstra is translated into stone and carved on the temple walls. In the words of Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, “The Śilpa Śāstra insists on a basic knowledge of dance for the sculptures” The presence of an accomplished Nartakī - the dancer - attached to the temple inspired the sculptor to create dance sculptures. In turn, such sculptures remain as everlasting guides for successive generations of dance students. They served to codify and preserve the art for all times. For a dancer this is of utmost significance because when we study the dance movements in the Nāṭya Śāstra and other related texts, we cannot always visualize the posture or movement. Hence a visit to the temple and understanding the images makes several things clear.

Tamil Nadu is a home to many magnificient temples. The dynastic rulers of Tamil land namely Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara empire, Nayakas and Marathas made great contributions towards this. All the great rulers were patrons of art and promoted dance and music which flourished since ancient times in the temples they built. The dynastic rulers left behind a rich legacy in the form of magnificient temples. They took utmost care not only to build the temples but also to preserve the sculptures in them. Each successive dynasty not only preserved what was already built and also extended the temples adding their own dimensions to them. Dancers as courtesans and court musicians who excelled in their art were also prevalent in the kingdoms. Many rulers were themselves well versed in dance and music.

Religion seems to have influenced construction of temples and dance. In ancient times the temples formed the religious and socio economic centres. The temples were not just places of worship. They were the centres of several activities. The kings, queens and ministers spent a considerable portion of the state wealth in constructing and maintaining these temples. The temples in turn were places of worship, centres of Vedic studies, centres of festive celebrations, centres for social gatherings and also provided employment to a lot of people. Finest of architects and sculptors were appointed to construct these temples. A large part of people’s lives centred around these temples. It is very clear that the construction of the temples and consecration of the idols had to be done according to the Vaiṣṇavāgamas, Śaivāgamas and Śākṭāgamas which also allowed the maintainence of the temple dancers as Nityasumaṅgalis in the temples. Agama is a Sanskrit word and means ‘Anything handed down or fixed by tradition’. It is that which has been handed over from the past to the people of present. It refers to a huge collection of Sanskrit scriptures which are revered as Śruti. The Agamas form the source and authority for rituals, and temple constructions. These Devadāsīs or Nityasumaṅgalis were wedded to God and were not allowed to lead a normal married life. According to the Agama Śāstras they participated in the daily rituals of the temples playing a major role in the preparatory rites and rituals. One of the important tasks they performed was offering of Kumbhārati along with the priest to ward off the evil eye. The Kumbhārati was offered with or without being accompanied by any dance composition. They also took part in all Utsavams (festivals, celebrations)performing Nṛtya in front of the deity being taken in procession. The system of Devadāsīs was an accepted one since the Śāstras allowed it. This system made many of the dancers highly accomplished excelling in dance, Śāstras and other fields of music. They fully concentrated on preserving the art. The Rock Cut temple and Shore temples of Mahabalipuram, Kailasanātha Temple and Vaikuṇṭha Perumāl Temple at Kanchipuram are examples of magnificient Pallava architecture. Bṛhadīśvara or Rājarājesvara temple at Tanjavore, Ādi Kumbeśvarar temple, Śārṅgapāṇi temple and Rāmasvāmi temple at Kumbakonam are some examples of some magnificient temples built by the great Cholas of the past, which have beautiful sculptures engraved on their walls and pillars. The Pandyan empire was home to temples including Mīnākshi Ammān temple in Madurai and Nellaiappar temple which also display magnificient sculptures. A field study was made in some Vaiṣṇavite, Śaivite and Devī temples in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. The temples studied were Śārṅgapāṇi, Cakrapāṇi, Rāmasvāmi, Ādi Kumbeśvarar, Nāgeśvarar, Someśvarar, and Paṭṭīśvaram Durgai Amman temples. All of them showed three types of sculptures – 1. Dance sculptures which showed movements which could be correlated with the Nāṭya Śāstra. 2. Dance sculptures which showed no movement but were only postures. 3. Sculptures of deities. All the temples that were studied were huge store houses of information regarding history of dance. All the sculptures were also studied and analysed according to Nāṭya Śāstric traditions. The study clearly proved that Dance and Sculptures have evolved together in the Temples. The bigger temples like Śārṅgapāṇi and Ādi Kumbeśvarar have many dance sculptures on the Rājagopuram and pillars in the Mahāmaṇḍapam. Specially Śārṅgapāṇi temple exhibits a series of Karaṇa movements which were captured in the sculptures and embedded as plates in the Rājagopuram. Strangely these sculptures are of Śiva performing the Karaṇas in a Vaiṣṇavite temple. Ādi Kumbeśvarar does not show the dance sculptures in such a systematic way as Śārṅgapāṇi temple but many sculptures could be identified showing either Cārī movements or some movement correlating with the Karaṇas as described in the Nāṭya Śāstra. Nāgeśvarar temple also has the dance sculptures on the eastern entrance walls on either side but many of the sculptures have been washed away with time due to erosion and were difficult to identify. Yet many could be identified. Rāmasvāmi temple shows amazing sculptures mainly depicting scenes from Rāmāyaṇa, Daśāvatāra and Kṛṣṇa Līlā. In addition there are also sculptures of Temple Dancers or Nartakīs and Apsaras standing in simple dance postures or performing simple dance movements. Sōmeśvarar temple and Cakrapāṇi temples do not depict many dance sculptures, Sōmeśvarar being a smaller one and Cakrapāṇi temple being a very orthodox temple. The dance movements captured in the sculptures adhere to the common dance codes described in the Nāṭya Śāstra. Photographs of some sculptures (as clicked by me) from the temples where research was conducted- (all photos subject to copyright) Baddhā Cārī (Śārṅgapāṇi temple) Ūrdhvajānu Karaṇa (Śārṅgapāṇi temple) Daṇḍapāda Karaṇa Sūcī Cārī (Śārṅgapāṇi temple) (Rāmasvāmi temple) Rāma and Sītā Kalyāṇam Ulagaḷaṇḍa Perumāḷ (Viṣṇu) (Rāmasvāmi temple) (Rāmasvāmi temple) Parivṛtta Karaṇa Śakaṭāsya Karaṇa (Ādi Kumbeśvarar temple) (Paṭṭīśvaram Durgai Amman temple)

Photographs of some sculptures (as clicked by me) from the temples where research was conducted- (all photos subject to copyright)

Baddhā Cārī (Śārṅgapāṇi temple)

Ūrdhvajānu Karaṇa (Śārṅgapāṇi temple)

Daṇḍapāda Karaṇa (Śārṅgapāṇi temple)

Sūcī Cārī (Rāmasvāmi temple)

Rāma and Sītā Kalyāṇam (Rāmasvāmi temple)

Ulagaḷaṇḍa Perumāḷ (Viṣṇu) (Rāmasvāmi temple)

Parivṛtta Karaṇa (Ādi Kumbeśvarar temple)

Śakaṭāsya Karaṇa (Paṭṭīśvaram Durgai Amman temple)

Author is a renowned performing artist, Guru, Choreographer and Research Scholar based out of Pune.

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1 Kommentar

13. Sept. 2022

Dear Ma'am, This article is a wonderful read. Thank you for writing and sharing it here. I am also curious to know the source of Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan's quote. Could you please share the source for the same with me? I am a Ph.D. scholar and felt her saying could be useful for my ongoing work; thank you!

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