Sculptural Art of Neelkanth Mahadev Temple

Parnagar or Paranagara, historically known as Rajogarh or Rajyapura, is home to several temples predominantly dedicated to the Shiva and Jain religious traditions.[1] M.A. Dhaky has listed over a dozen temples here.[2] The site is in the middle of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, which makes accessibility to the temple complex a little difficult. Except for the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, other temples in this complex are in utter disrepair, with only their plinths remaining. At the turn of the 10th century CE, Rajyapura was ruled by a vassal of the Pratihara dynasty. During this period, the two dominant religious traditions in the region of Rajasthan were Shaivism and Vaishnavism.[3] Both these religious traditions have been represented in the sculptures on the Neelkanth Mahadev temple.

Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, one of the better surviving complexes in the group, has three shrines and a shared mandapa (pillared hall). The temple exterior has deteriorated over time but has been partially restored. Especially, the central west-facing shrine from this temple has a profusion of sculptures on its exterior walls. The other two shrines have completely reconstructed exterior walls. In contrast to the exterior, the interiors of the temple are in a much better condition, adorned with intricate carvings and detailed depictions of various figures. The temple premises also have several loose sculptural fragments. Sculptures from the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple are of fine quality and exhibit exquisite craftsmanship. This article presents the general scheme of sculptures, the dedication of temples, and the stylistic patterns of the rich sculptural art of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple.

Sculptures are found on the walls, the vedibandha (basal mouldings) of the main temple as well as side shrines in the complex, the lintels and pillars of the mandapa, and the dvarashakhas (architraves) of the three garbhagrihas (sanctum sactorum) of the temple. The sculptures include images of deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Ganesh, Brahma, Chamunda, Varaha, Narasimha, and Bhairav, among others, along with surasundaris and apsaras (celestial damsels), dikpalas (gods of the cardinal directions), mithunas (amorous couples) and maithunas (erotic imagery). The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has placed several sculptures in a storehouse that has been set up to the southeast of the temple. Not all these sculptures have been preserved well enough to effectively identify the depictions based on the form, stance, or attributes of the deity. The loose sculptures speak to the richness of the Neelkanth Temple in its original construction.

Exterior Walls of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple

The triple-shrine temple of Neelkanth Mahadev is pancharatha (consisting of five projections) in plan and with a latina nagara shikhara (mono-spired variety). The main locus of sculptures among the exterior walls is the central shrine. On each side, the bhadras (central projections) have images of deities, intermediary projections have depictions of surasundaris, vyala figures, mithuna-maithuna, and ascetics, while the corner projections have sculptural images of dikpalas. This iconographic scheme is commonly found in several contemporary temples.[4] For instance, the Harshatmata Temple in Dausa, the Shiva Temple at Arthuna group of temples in Banswara, and the Suswani Mata Temple of Morkhana in Bikaner are examples with similar iconography.[5]

The three principal projections of the walls of the central shrine in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple have Narasimha, Harihararka (or Hariharapitamaharka), and Tripurantaka on its north, east and south sides, respectively. The standing image of Narasimha is a form of Vidarna Narasimha, where the deity is shown killing the demon Hiranyapashiku using his nails (Image 1). Narasimha is the fourth incarnation among the commonly known lists of Vishnu dashavataras. He killed a demon with a divine boon by which he could not be killed by any beast or human, with any weapon, and not during the day or night. Narasimha is shown holding a gada (mace), chakra (discus), shankha (conch), padma (lotus), all common attributes associated with Vishnu. Below his right leg is a figure standing in namaskara mudra (hands folded near the chest) who could be Pralhada, the son of Hiranyakashipu and an ardent devotee of Narasimha.

Image 1: The bhadra (central projection) has a depiction of Narasimha killing the demon, Hiranyakashipu. The recesses have vyala and mithuna/maithuna figures.
Image 1: The bhadra (central projection) has a depiction of Narasimha killing the demon, Hiranyakashipu. The recesses have vyala and mithuna/maithuna figures.

The ferocious form of Vishnu is complimented on the south-facing wall of the temple by an equally aghora form of Shiva called the Tripurantaka (Image 2). In this form, Shiva as Tripurari sought to destroy three demons, sons of Tara, who had captured the three cities and disrupted the world. Shiva raised his arrow to destroy all three asuras (demons) and restore the world. In the image on the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple wall, Tripurantaka Shiva is shown holding a bow and arrow in the upper left hand. Among the other attributes, the visible ones are a khatvanga (a club with a skull), kapala (skull bowl) and naga (snake), all in the right hands.

Image 2: Tripurantaka Shiva on the south facing wall of the Neelkanth Mahadev temple complex.
Image 2: Tripurantaka Shiva on the south facing wall of the Neelkanth Mahadev temple complex.

The third bhadra image on the exterior wall facing east contains a unique composite image called the Harihararka (or Hariharapitamaharka), in which representations of Shiva, Vishnu, and Surya (and plausibly Brahma) have been incorporated into a single sculpture (Image 3). The three-faced figure is shown sitting on a chariot of seven horses and possesses attributes of all these deities. In the left hand, the figure holds a chakra, a padma, a gada, and a kamandalu (pitcher) corresponding to the attributes of Surya, Vishnu, and Brahma. Unfortunately, the attributes in the right hand of the sculpture are all broken. The presence of such a composite image indicates the presence of a syncretic religious attitude prevalent in the period when this temple was constructed.

Image 3: This is the east-facing elevation of the central shrine in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. The bhadra (central projection) image on the exterior wall facing east, contains a unique composite image called the Harihararka (or Hariharapitamaharka), which is a depiction wherein Shiva, Vishnu, and Surya (and plausibly Brahma) have been incorporated into one sculpture. The three-faced figure is shown sitting on a chariot of seven horses, holding the attributes of all its representative deities.
Image 3: This is the east-facing elevation of the central shrine in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. The bhadra (central projection) image on the exterior wall facing east, contains a unique composite image called the Harihararka (or Hariharapitamaharka), which is a depiction wherein Shiva, Vishnu, and Surya (and plausibly Brahma) have been incorporated into one sculpture. The three-faced figure is shown sitting on a chariot of seven horses, holding the attributes of all its representative deities.

M.A. Dhaky has pointed out that the choice of the three bhadra figures, containing a Narasimha while excluding a goddess, is a peculiar iconographic scheme not generally found in other temples of this period.[6]

Apart from the main temple walls, sculptures are also found on the kumbha (pot-shaped) moulding of the temple plinth. Most of these are no longer extant, but some sculptures on the northern plinth have survived. These include the images of Saraswati, Mahishasurmardini, and Bhairav, while several others are difficult to identify owing to erosion. Similarly, on the kumbha moulding of the south-facing wall of the same shrine, there is a depiction of Bhuvaraha, mithuna couples, and two sculptures of goddesses.

The north and south-facing side shrines in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple have lost their exterior walls except for the basal mouldings up to the level of the kumbha moulding. The south-facing shrine has images of Ganesh, Saraswati, Shiva-Parvati, Surya, Bhairav, erotic couples, and ascetics. The north-facing shrine has images of Ganesh, Lakshmi-Vishnu, plausibly an image of Narasimhi (shakti form of Narasimha), Bhuvaraha, Narasimha, and Saraswati, among others, on the south and east faces of the kumbha moulding (Image 4). A very similar scheme of sculptures is also seen on the kumbha moulding of the karna prasadas (corner shrines) within the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple complex.

Image 4: Sculpture of Ganesha on the kumbha moulding corresponding to the bhadra (central projection) of the north lateral shrine in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple complex.
Image 4: Sculpture of Ganesha on the kumbha moulding corresponding to the bhadra (central projection) of the north lateral shrine in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple complex.

Interior of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Complex

The interiors of the temple have sculptural depictions on the lintels, dvarashakhas, and pillars. The niches above the beam of the antechamber entrance, just below the samatala vitana (flat ceiling), have sculptures of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma with their consorts on the east, north, and south-facing shrines, respectively. These sculptures are indicative of the original dedication of these shrines, even if the original images in the sanctums are missing. Based on iconographic depictions, it is likely that the main shrine was dedicated to Shiva (owing to the presence of a Shiva linga) while the lateral shrines would possibly have been dedicated to Vishnu and Brahma. The lintels of the dvarashakhas of each of these shrines have a row of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya, and Chamunda images. When Shiva is in the centre, the lalatbimba (keystone of the doorframe) has an image of Nandi (Image 5). M.A. Dhaky had suggested that the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple was built as a tripurush devalaya, a temple dedicated to the tripurush: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiv.[7] He has noted that Temple no. 7 in the Neelkanth Mahadev complex, also a triple shrine temple, could likely also have been a temple built for tripurush.

Image 5: A closer view of the lalatabimba (key stone of the lintel) of the dvarashakha (doorjamb) of the central shrine of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. This lintel has five rathikas (small niches) with depictions of Shiva at the centre, flanked by Ganesha on the right and a goddess on the left. The extreme corner rathikas are not easily accessible. Since the central rathika of the lintel has a Shiva image, the lalatabimba has an image of Nandi.
Image 5: A closer view of the lalatabimba (key stone of the lintel) of the dvarashakha (doorjamb) of the central shrine of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. This lintel has five rathikas (small niches) with depictions of Shiva at the centre, flanked by Ganesha on the right and a goddess on the left. The extreme corner rathikas are not easily accessible. Since the central rathika of the lintel has a Shiva image, the lalatabimba has an image of Nandi.

One type of pillar in the mandapa of the temple has surasundaris carved on its shaft (Image 6). On the cylindrical pillar, the sculptures are on the lower half of the shaft, while the upper part has geometric patterns and maladhara figures (males holding garlands). The brackets above the chatushki are designed like surasundaris. Friezes of ganas (attendants), erotic couples, and human and animal figures are carved on all the diminishing slabs of the ceilings.

Image 6: Closer view of the pillar in the central chatuski of the mandapa (pillared hall) of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. This pillar typology is similar to the pillars of the mukhamandapa (front porch). Octagonal shafts with foliage ornamentation, maladharas sculptures on all sides of the shafts are characteristics of the pillar.
Image 6: Closer view of the pillar in the central chatuski of the mandapa (pillared hall) of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. This pillar typology is similar to the pillars of the mukhamandapa (front porch). Octagonal shafts with foliage ornamentation, maladharas sculptures on all sides of the shafts are characteristics of the pillar.

Scattered Sculptures around the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple

There are several loose sculptures on the premises of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. Notable among these are the sculptures of Padmavati, Yoga Vishnu, Ganesha, dikpalas and surasundaris (Image 7). These sculptures were likely meant to be a part of the jangha (wall) of the lateral shrines of the temple. Dhaky identified a sculpture of Padmavati, framed in a niche on the wall projection fragment.[8] Located north of the main temple, the sculpture has eroded further since Dhaky first documented it. Along the northern boundary of the temple is a peculiar sculpture of Vishnu in padmasana (lotus pedestal) yoga posture. Here, Vishnu is shown holding a shankha and a chakra in the lower left and upper left hands, respectively, while the right hands are broken. The image is flanked by a Vaishnava attendant on the left side. At a short distance from the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple to the east near the baoli (stepwell), is a beautiful sculpture of Shiva-Parvati in a sitting posture. Nandi is carved on the pedestal along with Ganesha. It is plausible that Kartikeya was also once part of the composition but is now missing.

Apart from those in the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, there are also sculptures in the Jain Temple and other Shiva temples of the complex. Most of these sculptures have been removed from their original locations and are scattered around the temple premises. The profusion of Shiva-affiliated sculptures indicates the strong influence of Shaivism in the Paranagara region, along with a syncretic attitude towards various sectarian practices. This also includes the colossal figure Shantinatha Tirthankara, whose presence underlines the stronghold of Jainism in the region. Since the temples of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple complex are not in the best-preserved state, these sculptures aid in analysing the prevalent religious traditions, sectarian choices of the patrons, and the religious inclinations of society.


Footnotes:

[1] Joshi and Deva, Inventory of Monuments, 25.

[2] Dhaky, Beginnings of Medieval Idiom, 348–60.

[3] Vashishtha, Sculptural Traditions of Rajasthan, 11.

[4] Hooja, Icons, Artefacts and Interpretations of the Past, 14.

[5] Vashishtha, 9–10.

[6] Dhaky, 357.

[7] Dhaky, 358–59.

[8] Dhaky, 361.

Bibliography

Dhaky, M.A., ed. Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture—North India: Beginnings of Medieval Idiom c. AD 900–1000. 2 Volumes. New Delhi: American Institute of Indian Studies and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 1998.

Hooja, Rima. ‘Icons, Artefacts and Interpretations of the Past: Early Hinduism in Rajasthan.’ In World Archaeology 36, no. 3 (2004): 360–77. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4128337.

Joshi, Jagat Pati and Krishna Deva, eds. Inventory of Monuments and Sites of National Importance, Volume 2, Part 1 Jaipur Circle, India: Archaeological Survey of India, 1999.

Vashishtha, Neelima. Sculptural Traditions of Rajasthan, ca. 800–1000 A.D. Jaipur: Publication Scheme, 1989.