The Harshatmata Temple: An iconographic puzzle

The Harshatmata Temple at Abhaneri, Rajasthan, is a 9th-century CE complex and was originally dedicated to Pancharatra Vaishnavism. The temple today is an active worship site, and while its dilapidated state makes it difficult for us to visualize the original grandeur of the temple, a possible architectural format has been offered by Michael W. Meister in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture (EITA).[1]

The temple faces east and stands on a double jagati (platform), accessible via a staircase that begins with a chandrashila (half-moon) stair (Image 1). It also has elaborate pranalas (drainage chutes) decorated with images of women holding pots, along with makaras (mythical crocodile-like water creatures). The jagatis feature spade-like merlons, a common motif found in the temples of the region (Image 2). The temples of Osian, near Jodhpur, also display a similar coping pattern in an inverted orientation. This would have been spaced with makara-shaped pranalas, pieces of which are now stored in the Chand Baori. The vedibandha (basal mouldings) has localized features that add a unique character to the temple architecture. The second jagati can be accessed via an east-facing sopanamala (series of steps), with the chandrashila serving as the initial step (Image 3). This jagati has dvi-anga (two planes of an offset), which likely supported smaller shrines. The side facets would have had images of deities, of which only Narasimha survives on the south facet.

Image 1: Site plan of the Harshatmata Temple
Image 1: Site plan of the Harshatmata Temple
Image 2: Broken debris from the original temple assembled on the southeast face of the adhisthana (elevation of the first tier). U-shaped rounded stones are assembled on the parapet (their position or purpose in the original temple is unknown). Relief carvings of geometric, flora, and fauna motifs feature all around the adhisthana.
Image 2: Broken debris from the original temple assembled on the southeast face of the adhisthana (elevation of the first tier). U-shaped rounded stones are assembled on the parapet (their position or purpose in the original temple is unknown). Relief carvings of geometric, flora, and fauna motifs feature all around the adhisthana.
Image 3: The steps on the adhisthana have a chandrashila (moonstone) on the third step. Moonstone is a hemispherical stone in the shape of the moon placed at the entrance of Hindu temples and is designed like a lotus flower.
Image 3: The steps on the adhisthana have a chandrashila (moonstone) on the third step. Moonstone is a hemispherical stone in the shape of the moon placed at the entrance of Hindu temples and is designed like a lotus flower.

The mancha (dais) level has twelve surviving niches protruding from the karna (corner wall division) offsets, corresponding to the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) and gudhamandapa (closed hall) of the temple structure.[2] These niches at the mancha level contain images depicting lovers and royals, along with a possible depiction of Kamadeva (Images 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). Devangana Desai classifies such sculptures as group III A of amorous couples in a non-coital embrace, often accompanied by attendants.[3] The mancha is connected to the temple via a staircase, with small devakulikas (subsidiary shrines) present at the base of the staircase. Among these, only the northern structure survives and houses a Shiva linga.

Image 4: The central male figure and female figures are enjoying a musical concert in a grove. They are seated on circular raised seats; the male is in a lalitasana pose. The female figure is leaning towards the male and playing a stringed musical instrument (likely a veena). They are surrounded by four smaller figures. A male soldier is holding a sword and shield (on the left). One musician is playing the flute (bottom), sitting between the seats. A small female attendant is (top right) whispering in the ear of the central female. Mangoes hang from the tree branches.
Image 4: The central male figure and female figures are enjoying a musical concert in a grove. They are seated on circular raised seats; the male is in a lalitasana pose. The female figure is leaning towards the male and playing a stringed musical instrument (likely a veena). They are surrounded by four smaller figures. A male soldier is holding a sword and shield (on the left). One musician is playing the flute (bottom), sitting between the seats. A small female attendant is (top right) whispering in the ear of the central female. Mangoes hang from the tree branches.
Image 5: The central male figure is seated in a lalitasana pose on a raised seat. The central female figure is seated on his left thigh, looking towards the man with her head turned. The man is admiring the beauty of the woman, placing his left hand on her coiffure and inspecting her face with his left hand (missing). Chauri dharini (fly whisk bearers) stand on either side of the couple, looking towards them. A small female figure features at the right bottom, likely an attendant or servant.
Image 5: The central male figure is seated in a lalitasana pose on a raised seat. The central female figure is seated on his left thigh, looking towards the man with her head turned. The man is admiring the beauty of the woman, placing his left hand on her coiffure and inspecting her face with his left hand (missing). Chauri dharini (fly whisk bearers) stand on either side of the couple, looking towards them. A small female figure features at the right bottom, likely an attendant or servant.
Image 6: The central male figure is seated on a raised throne in a lalitasana pose with the central female figure seated in a padmasana pose. The man is facing the woman and caressing her chin with his left hand and holding a flower in his right hand. The female has her right hand placed over the man’s right shoulder and her left hand rests upon the head of a female attendant seated on the ground. The man is resting his right foot on a lotus next to a musician playing the flute (bottom left). Three more attendants appear on the left, the largest holding a fan.
Image 6: The central male figure is seated on a raised throne in a lalitasana pose with the central female figure seated in a padmasana pose. The man is facing the woman and caressing her chin with his left hand and holding a flower in his right hand. The female has her right hand placed over the man’s right shoulder and her left hand rests upon the head of a female attendant seated on the ground. The man is resting his right foot on a lotus next to a musician playing the flute (bottom left). Three more attendants appear on the left, the largest holding a fan.
Image 7: A central male figure is seated in a lalitasana pose on a raised seat, looking towards the central female figure seated on his left thigh, who is playing a stringed musical instrument. The female figure is also in a lalitasana pose and her right foot is resting on a footrest. Her body is slightly raised towards her left compared to the man. Hence, she is looking down towards the man. Positioned below her left leg is the figure of a male attendant. The central male figure is forcefully pulling a female attendant (holding a hand fan), towards him with his right hand.
Image 7: A central male figure is seated in a lalitasana pose on a raised seat, looking towards the central female figure seated on his left thigh, who is playing a stringed musical instrument. The female figure is also in a lalitasana pose and her right foot is resting on a footrest. Her body is slightly raised towards her left compared to the man. Hence, she is looking down towards the man. Positioned below her left leg is the figure of a male attendant. The central male figure is forcefully pulling a female attendant (holding a hand fan), towards him with his right hand.
Image 8:  The central male figure is seated on a circular raised seat in a lalitasana pose, firing an arrow from a bow. Standing on his left are two female figures (faces defaced), looking towards him. The female on his immediate left is holding a flower in her right hand. The female to his far left is holding a floral scroll. The female figure on his right is damaged. A bunch of mangoes hang above them. As mangoes are symbols of kama or sexual desire, this may be a depiction of Kamadeva (Hindu God of erotic love, pleasure, and desire) and the females may be apsaras (celestial nymphs) or his consort, Goddess Rati.
Image 8: The central male figure is seated on a circular raised seat in a lalitasana pose, firing an arrow from a bow. Standing on his left are two female figures (faces defaced), looking towards him. The female on his immediate left is holding a flower in her right hand. The female to his far left is holding a floral scroll. The female figure on his right is damaged. A bunch of mangoes hang above them. As mangoes are symbols of kama or sexual desire, this may be a depiction of Kamadeva (Hindu God of erotic love, pleasure, and desire) and the females may be apsaras (celestial nymphs) or his consort, Goddess Rati.

The temple structure sits above the mancha level. The garbhagriha is tri-anga (three planes of offsets) and pancha-ratha (with five offsets from kona to kona on a given side) in plan. The sanctum’s walls are thick to support an early form of anekandaka (multi-spired) superstructure, of which only architectural fragments survive. The temple was built in the sandhara (temple with inner ambulatory passage) format. The structure also had kakshasanas (seat-back) with railings that would have been decorated with the elephant heads currently kept at the Chand Baori enclosure. Today, the garbhagriha has a reconstructed dome at the top, and currently houses a white marble idol of Harshatmata or Harsiddhimata (Image 9). The door jambs of the sanctum have not survived, but architectural fragments display a tri-shakha (three jams) door frame with an inner patravalli (foliage pattern), nagapasha (intertwined serpents), and rupashakha (figural representation). It is similar to the lintel present at the National Museum in Delhi.

Image 9: A four-armed female deity holding a mace, conch, flower, and chakra is seen standing in the samabhanga pose. She is venerated in the sanctum for daily worship.
Image 9: A four-armed female deity holding a mace, conch, flower, and chakra is seen standing in the samabhanga pose. She is venerated in the sanctum for daily worship.
Image 10: Standing male deity in the samabhanga pose adorned with a mukuta (headgear), meshed armour, uttariya (stole or scarf-like garment) and boots. He holds lotuses in full bloom in both hands. Broken figures of Danda and Pingala are present on either side of the legs.
Image 10: Standing male deity in the samabhanga pose adorned with a mukuta (headgear), meshed armour, uttariya (stole or scarf-like garment) and boots. He holds lotuses in full bloom in both hands. Broken figures of Danda and Pingala are present on either side of the legs.

The sanctum is preceded by a gudhamandapa, which retains some surviving pillars and pillar bases. This gudhamandapa, also square in shape, shares the same interior dimensions as the garbhagriha. However, it appears larger in dimension due to the projecting pratirathas (wall offset flanking central offset). Four of the pillars remain intact, supporting a dome constructed by the ASI. There would also have been an antarala (vestibule), of which only pillars exist today. Meister suggests that the temple may have originally featured another pair of chatushkis (porches on four pillars/pilasters) to support a large receding central ceiling, comparable to that present at the Harshanatha Temple at Sikar. He further highlights that the temple’s ‘openness’ would have been a structural flaw, as it would not have adequately supported the anekandaka shikhara (multispired superstructure).[4] Unlike the superstructure that would have adorned the sanctum, architectural remains such as a ghanta (crowning bell member of samvarana or phamsana roof) point towards the presence of a phamsana (tiered pyramidal shaped) roof for the gudhamandapa. Loose shurasenas (antefix above the roof) with images of Shiva, and Durga in red sandstones also hint at the elaborate nature of the superstructure. Meister states that they may have been used as shukanasa (antefix above the roof of kapili or connecting walls) frontons. The gudhamandapa has a rupakantha (recess carved with figures in the ceiling) adorned with various sculptures depicting myriad scenes of Krishna lila (playful activities of Krishna) along with panels of musicians, dancers and other reliefs of a more generic subject. The ceiling also has images of Surya, Narasimha, and Varaha (Images 10,11, 12). Additionally, scenes showing devotees worshipping the linga, along with depictions of Natesha, Shiva, and Parvati, and other Shaiva themes, are also present.

Image 11: The male deity, depicted with a lion's face, is four-armed. He holds a disk in his upper left hand and makes an abhaya mudra (hand gesture of assurance and protection) with his upper right hand. The lower hands are engaged in tearing apart the demon on the deity's flexed knee.
Image 11: The male deity, depicted with a lion's face, is four-armed. He holds a disk in his upper left hand and makes an abhaya mudra (hand gesture of assurance and protection) with his upper right hand. The lower hands are engaged in tearing apart the demon on the deity's flexed knee.
Image 12: A male deity with four arms stands firmly with his right leg on the ground, while his left is placed over nagas. He is adorned with a vanamala (garland of forest flowers) and has a small dagger tucked in his waist. A female attendant, in a tribhanga pose, holding a flower is on the right. The sculpture is badly damaged.
Image 12: A male deity with four arms stands firmly with his right leg on the ground, while his left is placed over nagas. He is adorned with a vanamala (garland of forest flowers) and has a small dagger tucked in his waist. A female attendant, in a tribhanga pose, holding a flower is on the right. The sculpture is badly damaged.

Sculptures in situ are predominantly found on the vedibandha mouldings of the main structure. Only four sculptures are present on the jangha (wall). The niches on the vedibandha have seated figures on the karnas, and standing figures on the pratirathas. Indra is located in a small niche on the southern pratiratha of the east wall adjacent to the sanctum entrance (Image 13). An image of acharya (preceptor) in high relief is present on the southern karna (Image 14), accompanied by Shiva Gauri and musicians on the northern karna of the eastern wall (Image 15). The musicians are seated in a niche on the vedibandha mouldings, alongside the damaged Shiva Gauri on the jangha. The bhadra (central projection on the wall, often in cardinal directions) on the northern wall displays Samkarshana Balarama accompanied by nagas (serpents) on the vedibandha. The karnas of this wall present a dancer and musician in the northern niche, along with a musician in the eastern niche. A surasundari (heavenly damsel; apsara) is placed on the jangha of the eastern karna which, however, would have appeared on the pratiratha offset (Image 16). Only the eastern pratiratha flanking Samkarshana on the northern wall has in situ sculptures on the jangha and vedibandha. The jangha has a highly damaged male musician standing next to an elaborate chandrashila, along with a nayika (female dancer) holding a flower separated by a small bhadraka pillar (square pillar-type with central projection on plan and in elevation). The vedibandha displays a musician. The bhadra niche on the vedibandha of the western wall displays the image of Pradyumna (Image 17). EITA recognized the sculpture as Varuna due to the presence of makara beneath the deity's feet, it is now identified as Pradyumna, in agreement with Cynthia Packert Atherton's identification.[5] The northern karna and pratiratha niches on the western wall have mithuna (amorous couples). There is a damaged unidentified seated male present on the southern karna niche on this wall. The bhadra niche on the vedibandha of the southern wall contains a seated image of Aniruddha (Image 18). Together, all three sculptures on the bhadras clearly point towards the worship of Vaikuntha Vishnu at the temple. On the western karna niche of the southern wall, there is a seated image of a female musician. On the eastern karna niche, there is a standing figure of Agni placed on the jangha, along with a seated image of Shiva on the vedibandha.

Image 13: This panel may be a depiction of Lord Indra who is king of the devas (celestial beings) and ruler of swarga (heavenly realm). Indra is also the dikpala (guardian of directions) of the east, hence he is placed facing the east direction. The central figure is a crowned male standing in samapada mudra (feet equally balanced) and carrying a vajra (thunderbolt). An elephant is standing behind (its head visible on the left) which could be the white elephant Airavata, the mount of Lord Indra.
Image 13: This panel may be a depiction of Lord Indra who is king of the devas (celestial beings) and ruler of swarga (heavenly realm). Indra is also the dikpala (guardian of directions) of the east, hence he is placed facing the east direction. The central figure is a crowned male standing in samapada mudra (feet equally balanced) and carrying a vajra (thunderbolt). An elephant is standing behind (its head visible on the left) which could be the white elephant Airavata, the mount of Lord Indra.
Image 14: This panel depicts a male figure seated in the udichya mudra (cross-legged position). The panel depicts a central male figure seated on a raised asana in the udichya mudra (cross-legged position). At the bottom of his asana, a pair of footwear is placed. Two female attendants are present on either side, standing in front of trees in the background.
Image 14: This panel depicts a male figure seated in the udichya mudra (cross-legged position). The panel depicts a central male figure seated on a raised asana in the udichya mudra (cross-legged position). At the bottom of his asana, a pair of footwear is placed. Two female attendants are present on either side, standing in front of trees in the background.
Image 15: A four-armed male standing in a tribhanga posture with a female. He holds a trident in his right, and the lower left is placed around the consort's waist. The remaining hands are broken. Fluid and slender style of the body, with diaphanous clothing.
Image 15: A four-armed male standing in a tribhanga posture with a female. He holds a trident in his right, and the lower left is placed around the consort's waist. The remaining hands are broken. Fluid and slender style of the body, with diaphanous clothing.
Image 16: The female figure may be an apsara (celestial nymph) or surasundari (young girl as a symbol of graceful beauty) standing in the tribhanga pose (triple-bend). She holds a darpana (mirror) in her left hand and the free end of a dupatta-like garment wrapped around her arms, back, and shoulder in her right hand. While the face is badly damaged, the headgear and hoop earrings are still discernible. Among the various ornaments she is wearing, is a pendant hanging till the navel and two leaf-shaped pendants hanging from chains attached to the katibandha (decorative belt) around her waist.
Image 16: The female figure may be an apsara (celestial nymph) or surasundari (young girl as a symbol of graceful beauty) standing in the tribhanga pose (triple-bend). She holds a darpana (mirror) in her left hand and the free end of a dupatta-like garment wrapped around her arms, back, and shoulder in her right hand. While the face is badly damaged, the headgear and hoop earrings are still discernible. Among the various ornaments she is wearing, is a pendant hanging till the navel and two leaf-shaped pendants hanging from chains attached to the katibandha (decorative belt) around her waist.
Image 17: This panel depicts Varuna, a Vedic deity. Varuna is the God of oceans and also a dikpala (guardian of directions). He is the guardian of the west, hence his image is placed on the west face of the adhisthana. Varuna is seated in a lalitasana posture on its mount, the mythical sea creature called makara. In his left hand, Varuna is holding the Gandiva, a divine bow which was gifted by Varuna to Arjuna in the Mahabharata. He is surrounded by four female attendants. Two attendants in the foreground are seated on circular seats and two in the background are standing.
Image 17: This panel depicts Varuna, a Vedic deity. Varuna is the God of oceans and also a dikpala (guardian of directions). He is the guardian of the west, hence his image is placed on the west face of the adhisthana. Varuna is seated in a lalitasana posture on its mount, the mythical sea creature called makara. In his left hand, Varuna is holding the Gandiva, a divine bow which was gifted by Varuna to Arjuna in the Mahabharata. He is surrounded by four female attendants. Two attendants in the foreground are seated on circular seats and two in the background are standing.
Image 18: This panel depicts lord Vishnu seated on his mount Garuda. Lord Vishnu is depicted as chaturbahu (with four hands). In his rear right hand, he is carrying the gada (mace), named Kaumodaki, and in his rear left hand, the chakra (discus) named Sudarshana, while the front two hands are broken. A pair of vidhyadharas (knowledge bearers) are seen flying on the top corners, showering floral garlands. Two male attendants (seated) and two female attendants (standing) flank Vishnu on either side.
Image 18: This panel depicts lord Vishnu seated on his mount Garuda. Lord Vishnu is depicted as chaturbahu (with four hands). In his rear right hand, he is carrying the gada (mace), named Kaumodaki, and in his rear left hand, the chakra (discus) named Sudarshana, while the front two hands are broken. A pair of vidhyadharas (knowledge bearers) are seen flying on the top corners, showering floral garlands. Two male attendants (seated) and two female attendants (standing) flank Vishnu on either side.

Satya Prakash's documentation of the temple during its reconstruction by the ASI provides valuable insight into the possible original locations of some sculptures before their relocation to the enclosure at Chand Baori.[6] He makes note of a mutilated image of Durga in the sanctum, which was draped to conceal the broken sections and had become smeared due to ritual practices. Despite its dilapidated state, the temple continued to be a site of worship. Additionally, Prakash noted the worship of Ganesha in one of the devakulikas. Since only one out of the two subsidiary shrines survives, it can be assumed that the Shiva linga established in this shrine must be of a later date, possibly post-the 1960s. An image of Ardhanarishvara was found within the mandapa (pillared hall), while the images on the exterior walls were in situ. Another sculpture that merits closer attention is that of Kartikeya kept in the enclosure (Image 19). The sculpture has three faces, with the right displaying a male figure wearing a crown, and the left depicting an animal, possibly a lion. R.C. Agrawala mentions a niche-panel portraying a standing Vishnu and consort, flanked by a male and female devotee respectively on either side.[7] This niche-panel was fixed above a principal niche outside the main shrine.

Image 19: Broken image of a two-armed male deity with three heads and faces. The central principal head wears a kakapaksha (hairstyle with two side locks with a clearly visible middle section), while the others have small mukutas. He is adorned in a vanamala. Vahana peacock is shown near the right leg. The halo is of lotus petals surrounded by pearls.
Image 19: Broken image of a two-armed male deity with three heads and faces. The central principal head wears a kakapaksha (hairstyle with two side locks with a clearly visible middle section), while the others have small mukutas. He is adorned in a vanamala. Vahana peacock is shown near the right leg. The halo is of lotus petals surrounded by pearls.

Among the loose sculptures at the site, several miniaturized structures aid in the imagination of the temple’s anekandaka shikhara, despite not revealing the composition of the jangha level. These must have been decorated with the large chandrashalas (decorative motif dormer-window) of red sandstone, which are currently present in the enclosure around the stepwell, Chand Baori. Door frames, lintels and pillars are also found in a fragmentary state. A door lintel displaying Shiva and Parvati is kept in the National Museum and displays exquisite tri-shakha jams. Another panel, housed in the Hawa Mahal sculptural gallery in Jaipur, depicts musicians and the dancers along with Kubera and Durga in the right and left sections, respectively.

The artistry found at Harshatmata Temple and the Chand Baori exhibits a post-Gupta influence. Despite significant damage to many sculptures at the site, the devastation does not obscure their exquisite and intricate style. Unique ornamentation of the sculptures, such as the lalantika (belt chain with leaf-like objects dangling at the end), anklets, and the triangular draping of garments, are notable features of the region’s artistry (Image 20).

Image 20: A female attendant stands with her legs crossed. Her left hand is on her waist, while her right holds a fly-whisk. She has an elaborate hairstyle. The girdle that surrounds her waist has a hanging detail. It is linked through with a fine chain, with a leaf-like ornament dangling from it. This ornament, known as the lalantika, is recognized as an iconographic feature at the Harshatmata Temple.
Image 20: A female attendant stands with her legs crossed. Her left hand is on her waist, while her right holds a fly-whisk. She has an elaborate hairstyle. The girdle that surrounds her waist has a hanging detail. It is linked through with a fine chain, with a leaf-like ornament dangling from it. This ornament, known as the lalantika, is recognized as an iconographic feature at the Harshatmata Temple.

Footnotes:

[1] Meister, Cāhamānas of Śākambharī. vol. 2, 222–245.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Desai, Erotic Sculpture of India, 71–72.

[4] Meister. Cāhamānas of Śākambharī. vol. 2, 222–245.

[5] Meister, Cāhamānas of Śākambharī. vol. 2, 235.

[6] Satya Prakash, As Stones Speak: Abhaneri.

[7] Agrawala, ‘Sculptures from Ābānerī Rajasthan,’ 134. While the accession number of the sculpture (AB/10/150) is known, the sculpture or its image could not be traced.

Bibliography:

Meister, Michael. Cāhamānas of Śākambharī: Phase I. Vol. 2 Part 2 of Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture: North India; Period of Early Maturity. AD 700 to 900, edited by M. A. Dhaky and Michael W Meister. AIIS, 1991.

Desai, Devangana. Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio-Cultural Study. New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill Publishing, 1975.

Agrawala, R.C. ‘Sculptures from Ābānerī Rajasthan’ in Lalit Kalā 1-2. 1955-56.

Prakash, Satya. As Stones Speak: Abhaneri. Rajasthan: Archaeology and Museums, 1960.