Sunday, August 23, 1998
By Arun Gaur
ALMOST opposite the tourist bungalow, across the road, the remnants of the Dashavatara temple with its relief-panels can be seen. It is early in the morning and it drizzles lightly on the red sandstones carved out in the latter half of the 6th century. The July sky is overcast and there is no chance of the sun showing its face this day.
When we circumambulate the cella keeping it on our right, the three panels the Gajendra-moksha, the Nara-Narayana and the Anantashai gradually unfold. Stories forming their basis are quite familiar and have been interpreted in various ways but their symbolic interpretation (when viewed in relation to each other) may very well stir the hornets nest.
The first panel deals with the story of the Gajendra-moksha, how the elephant was trapped by the naga-nagin pair and how it was rescued later by the divine intervention of Vishnu. Generally, the myths have a crocodile instead of the serpents. The relief illustrates the Bhagavadgitas proclamation that Gods incarnation takes place to alleviate the sufferings of mankind and to destroy evil that stalls the process of evolution. The chakra of Vishnu has struck the chest of the naga who asks to be forgiven.
The serpent, allegedly, tried to impede evolution and, therefore, had to be restrained by Vishnu even though it was an aspect of himself. The snake would be spared, though struck it seems. This is what the process of natural justice demands.
In another serpent-myth Krishna did not kill Kaliya, but only chastised it, restricting its field of activity to the expanse of ocean. Kaliya had implored to be spared as it had acted according to the law of nature formulated by Krishna himself.
Why should the snake, in either of the cases, be annihilated? In the present panel too, the naga seems to be employing a similar plea. The elephant offers the lotus to Vishnu thus quickly stimulating him to take a prompt action. This offering is a spontaneous but subtle gesture as it reinforces the urges of the elephant with the blessings of Lakshmi.
In this relief, Lakshmi is not present, but her indirect presence is marked here by a bunch of lotus-flowers being offered to Vishnu. She is the lotus-born (padmasambhava), lotuseyed (padmakshi), adorned with lotus-garlands (padmamalini) and carries many more associated attributes. The lotus thus suggests how dear this elephant-in-distress is to the goddess for she is also the Gaja-Lakshmi.
Though the Nara-Narayana is the next relief, yet the Gajen-dar-moksha seems to have a greater affinity with the Anantashai. Let us take up that first. In the Anantashai relief the gandharvas have been displaced by the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
Though there doesnt seem to be any apparent exigency, yet they seem to be in a huff and that too unnecessarily! Or perhaps they have received sudden summons or a secret communication that the moment of cataclysm mahapralya is woefully close, when everything, including themselves, would be drawn back into the dreaming body of Vishnu afloat over the waters of maya. The wings of peacock with Kartikeya are wide open. The front foot of Airavat carrying Indra is lifted to its temple as it madly lunges forward in the sky.
The sky-coursing Airavat reminds one of the flying elephants of the earlier myths where in they were provided with wings, till clipped off later due to the curse of an ascetic. Brahmas lotus, of course, fails to show any momentum.
Shankara is driving the Nandi savagely, its front legs folded in the air and the hind ones horizontal, albeit, Parvati sits at his back in a very delicately balanced posture quite impervious of any kind of impending doom, so comfortably, so blissfully ignorant she sits. Marut evinces his speed with his flying legs. Almost everything seems to have been stretched to its limit.
The rush of the lesser gandharvas of the Gajendra-moksha has been replaced by the tumult of the greater gods. Here the problem is not the simpler one of keeping the insignia of the decorum of the supreme deity intact in its assigned place but it is one with a greater import the dissolution of creation.
In contrast to this huff, Vishnu is relaxed, his state is less expressed by his stolid expression than by his reclining posture and by the stance of his arms. Brahma has usurped the lotus of Lakshmi and she is at the foot of her Swami massaging (samvahyamana) his feet. How would the modern feminist, at the dawn of the 21st century, react to such a spectacle? Will they take a recourse to some esoteric elucidation to assuage their hurt sense of self-respect?
Does it reflect the conquest of the matriarchal culture by the patriarchal and the consequent relegation of the fairer sex to the foot of the man? There is an attendant on Lakshmis back identified by some scholars as Gada-devi. Another standing figure that supports the garland of snakes, though has been variously interpreted as that of Shiva or Dhanushapurusha, seems to me to be that of Garuda displaced by the snake as the antagonism between the snake and Vishnu seems to have terminated in this panel. There seems to be a marked resemblance between this figure and the Garuda of the first panel, particularly with respect to the hair-style and the snake that coils around the neck.
Thus the animosity between the Garuda and the snake had sharpened and the motif of the tussle between the two is carried into this panel from that of the Gajendra-moksha. Garuda is the only figure in the upper half of the relief that seems to be not merely disturbed but is also in a challenging mood. Perhaps he has not taken his replacement by the snake, which has been elevated to the status of the sheshnaga, too kindly.
The lower half of the panel carries five Pandavas with Draupadi though there are some interpreters who have seen in these figures, the Ayudhapurushas and the demons Madhu and Kaitabha. It seems that the hopelessly entangled stems and the coils of snakes and the waves have been replaced by these agitated figures.
The six figures and the interlaced vegetation and waves are based, uncannily, on the similar configurational pattern. The only distinction is that the pattern has moved towards a resolution, the wavy confusion has given way to the disentangled, and separated rhythmic contours of the little bodies.
There is no subtlety or suppleness in the facial expressions of the figures. Gestures, postures, thoughtful placing of the hand and its firm grip, the gentle play of the fingers, almost imperceptible depressions caused by the fingers of Lakshmi in the flesh of Vishnus legs, the bend of the elbows and the knees, intricate hair-styles, transparent garments sticking to the limbs and sensual curves of the womans belly help in evoking the feelings, intended or otherwise, in the beholder.
Irrespective of all these reflections of the analyser, indifferent to the tribulations of the celestial world, the divine slumberer, afloat on the cosmic snake, is lost in his own cosmic dream chalking out his plans for the universe to be created anew.
The third panel is generally recognised now as that of the Nara-Narayana. It has even been suggested that Narayana rishi who sang the Purusha-sukta of the Rigveda after having become known as Purusha-Narayana finally became popular as Nara-Narayana. The dryads of trees and a slender-armed damsel hover over the seated ascetics. The lass might be Urvushi or one of the troupe of Kamadeva sent to spoil the meditation of the sage Nara-Narayana conceived as one entity.
The Nara-Narayana pair has been more than once identified with Krishna and Arjuna. But this relief cannot be simply confined to the obvious references to Nara and Narayana in the mythological resources.
When seen in a wider perspective, the relief carries many nuances of the quest motif to unravel the secret of maya involved in the myths of Vishnu-Narada and Vishnu-Markandeya. Besides being a disenchanted Arjuna, Nara is the Narada under the hermit grove; he is the Markandeya too wandering in the wilderness.
The affinity is corroborated by one of the myths in which Narada visited Nara-Narayana who were observing austerities at the Badri ashram, making offerings to the one who is beyond virtues and from whom everything is born. Outside the time and space marked by the rest of the two panels, here the pair seems to be meditating over the secret of the transitory, recurrent (but momentous) agitations. Themselves seated outside this experience, they enjoy an objective and privileged insight of the seers.
They have an introverted vision, a dream of the maya; even the gods, seem to be a part of that relentless cosmic flux. The outward and the inward experiences seem to have become amalgamated into one unity. While Narayana, the divine yogi, resembles the divine dreamer on the endless coils of the serpent, Nara embodies the spirit of Narada, Markandeya and Arjuna.
The three of them have had
the harrowing experience of the maya of Vishnu
wittingly or unwittingly. Nara incorporates
in himself all the divine heroes in the quest of the holy
grail, the elixir, the secret of maya.
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