Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh
One of the earliest structural Vaishnavite temples in ancient central India, the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh, Madhya Pradesh, dated to the early sixth century CE, is considered a precursor to the north Indian Nagara style of architecture. It is popularly known as the Dashavatara temple after the relief panels depicting various incarnations of the Hindu deity Vishnu. As suggested by its architectural ruins, the temple is constructed in the panchayatana scheme of five shrines. The intricate sculptural work demonstrated in the frieze and walls of the shrines, which contain high-reliefs illustrating episodes from Vaishnava myths; the roof form ornamented with gavakshas; and the repeating pot-and-foliage motif make the temple an exemplary monument of Gupta art and architecture.
The central shrine of the temple is topped with a pyramidal shikhara, that would have originally been about 40 feet tall. It sits atop a square plinth, or jagati, with stairs on each side, and the ruins of smaller shrines at each of its four corners. The plinth itself bore mouldings and frieze panels depicting scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vishnu Purana as well as various mithuna scenes. Each wall of the central shrine bears a different depiction of Vishnu, set in broad and deep central niches enclosed within elaborately carved frames. Framing these niches are elaborate door jambs, or lalata bimbas, featuring carved chaitya windows, pot-and-foliage capitals, terminal lion-headed kirtimukhas and representations of flying celestial figures.
The central shrine’s west-facing carved doorway features a relief sculpture of Vishnu above the ornate door jamb. He is depicted in his four-armed Vasudeva aspect, seated on the coils of the multi-headed serpent Shesha, holding a chakra in one right hand, a shankha in one left, while the other right hand is held in abhaya mudra and the other left hand rests on his thigh. Seated below on his right, massaging his feet, is the presumed figure of Lakshmi; to his top right and bottom left are his Narasimha avatar and Vamana avatar, respectively. The door jamb itself is framed by four courses of sculpture. At the base are male and female attendants, flanked by dwarf-like forms and floral ornamentation. To the right and left sides of the jamb are figures of Ganga on her makara mount and Yamuna on her koormah mount.
The niche on the northern wall contains a relief of the Gajendramoksha scene depicting Vishnu on his mount Garuda, wielding a mace in one hand and in the act of delivering the elephant-king Gajendra from the coils of a many-headed serpent. Standing beside Gajendra are the serpent couple Naga and Nagi, whose hands are folded towards Vishnu in a gesture of submission.
On the eastern wall, the relief in the niche features a Naranarayana panel depicting Vishnu in his meditative aspect. The two saints – Nara to the right and a four-armed Narayana to the left – are also shown in deep meditation, holding rosaries in their hands and seated on rocks amidst the wilderness of an hermitage. This entire scene is framed within a canopy of tree branches. Above them is the celestial nymph Urvashi and, in a separate register above that, is Brahma seated on a lotus and flanked by celestial couples. The left pilaster bears an image of Gajalakshmi, whereas the right is worn beyond recognition. Several other human and animal figures appear in small reliefs in the central panel and the flanking pilasters on either side.
Finally, the niche on the southern wall has a panel depicting a four-armed Vishnu reclining on the coils of the serpent Shesha (also known as the Anantashayana posture) with Brahma seated on a lotus arising from his navel. Vishnu is flanked by four figures: to his right are Indra on his elephant mount and Kartikeya on his peacock mount, and to his left are Shiva and Parvati seated on the bull Nandi. By Vishnu’s right foot is his consort Lakshmi, along with his Garuda and a whisk-bearing female attendant. Below this large relief are the mythological demons Madhu and Kaitabha in battle with the ayudhapurushas – anthropomorphic forms of Vishnu’s weapons.
These four depictions of Vishnu from Vaishnava mythology are interpreted by some as a realisation of the chaturvyuha concept of the four emanations of his divine nature, and by others as the themes of progressive enlightenment and attainment of moksha. If the chaturvyuha doctrine were to be considered, the circumambulation would be clockwise, whereas if the alternate theme of spiritual progression were to be considered, it would be anti-clockwise. A notable point of contention among scholars is the validity of the label ‘Dashavatara’ popularly ascribed to this Gupta temple. Although the temple is undoubtedly dedicated to Vishnu and his various incarnations, some scholars argue that, in the absence of an actual Dashavatara panel, its name could have been mistaken.
There is no doubt about the historical and architectural value of this temple. Often discussed in the context of other early Gupta period temples such as the Parvati temple at Nachna-Kuthara and the Bhumara temple in Madhya Pradesh, the Dashavatara temple is the earliest fully structural temple in north India to possess a shikhara. Most of the knowledge that we do have about the temple is owed largely to its intact central shrine, the partially damaged shikhara and the many sculptural panels found in and around the temple site. At the time of writing, some of the narrative plinth panels recovered from the site are housed in the National Museum, Delhi.
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