Art historian unlocks secrets of the ancient Virupaksha temple
The Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal is one of the most stunning landmarks in India and the main center of pilgrimage at Hampi, the capital of the ancient Vijayanagar empire. Dating back 1,300 years, the magnificent structure consists of a layered tower of elaborate, hand-carved friezes populated by a bevy of Hindu deities and symbols. Now, for the first time in centuries, the ancient temple may be giving up some of its secrets.
Cathleen Cummings, an associate professor in the UAB Department of Art and Art History who specializes in Asian art history, has suggested that the figures depicted in the friezes are more than just architectural decoration. "For a long time, there was an assumption that the sculptures on the outside of Hindu temples didn't necessarily mean anything as a group," she says. But "it seemed to me right away that there were certain, very conscious choices being made as to where deities and specific forms of deities were placed."
Carved animals and figures at the Virupaksha Temple ( Wikimedia)
More than a decade of work and 11 trips to India led to her recent book, Decoding a Hindu Temple: Royalty and Religion in the Iconographic Program of the Virupaksha Temple, Pattadakal (South Asian Studies Association: 2014). Her discoveries identify images that glorify the king by referencing his family, conquests, and accomplishments, as well as other sculptural elements that offer religious guidance. Cummings describes one series of sequential inscriptions that depicts taking refuge in a deity, showing faith and then salvation. "It seemed like a clear sequence for devotees to follow," she says. "It didn't seem to be random images. There was a particular message that they could take away from it."
The Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal. Credit: Arian Swegers / flickr
Cummings's research on the temple also sheds new light on the important role that women played in ancient Indian politics and culture. Queen Lokamahadevivi, the chief wife of the king, Vikramaditya II, led the construction of the temple to the Hindu god Shiva during the early Chalukya dynasty, around the year 733 to commemorate her husband’s victory over the kings from the South. Cummings found that the queen had a prominent placement in the temple’s iconography.
"Women have a very prominent role as temple patrons and probably also controlled resources much more than we tend to believe or know," Cummings says.
This female figure may depict Queen Lokamahadevi, who led the temple’s construction. The elephant standard that she carries signifies her role as a prominent representative of the royal family. ( uab.edu)
The builders didn't leave many clues for Cummings to follow, however. "Apart from a few, very terse inscriptions on this and other Early Chalukya monuments, historians have not recovered much primary source documentation for this dynasty," she says. Consequently, Cummings followed a scientific path, developing a hypothesis and following her instincts to find evidence to make her case. She pored over the placement of statues, studied Sanskrit inscriptions and ancient court documents from contemporary South Indian dynasties, investigated the temple's rituals, and traveled to other Indian holy sites to build upon her findings. Teasing out the meanings behind the iconography was like an unfolding detective story, says Cummings, who is pleased that her work "fleshes out the Chalukya dynasty a lot more."
View video on the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal by UNESCO:
Featured image: The Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal. ( Wikimedia / Apadegal )
University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Secrets in stone: Art historian cracks the code of an ancient temple." ScienceDaily. 12 November 2014.