Sculpture at Virupaksha Temple, Pattadakal
Commissioned by the Early Western Chalukya queen Lokamahadevi in the eighth century, Virupaksha temple (originally the Lokeshvara temple) at Pattadakal in Bagalkot, Karnataka is considered an important example of early mediaeval Deccan temple architecture. It is one of the few major mediaeval shrines known to have been patronised by a queen: four of her inscriptions are present within the temple, and two in its courtyard. Lokamahadevi’s inscriptions, while emphasising her role as its patron, also link the temple to the military successes of her husband Vikramaditya II over the Pallava Dynasty.
The temple is a part of a larger complex of temples at Pattadakal, the coronation site of the Western Chalukya monarchs. These include the Sangameshwara, Virupaksha, and Mallikarjuna temples, built in the Deccan Vesara or Dravida style. The complex also includes temples in the north Indian Nagara style, such as the Kadasiddeshvara, Jambulinga, Galaganatha, and Kashivishvanatha temples. Another temple in the complex, the Papanatha temple, incorporates both Dravida and Nagara features into a hybrid form. All temples in the complex bear iconic imagery as relief carvings and friezes over walls, doorways, and columns. Virupaksha temple is especially notable for the complexity of its iconography and the profusion of sculptural decoration.
The temple consists of an entrance gateway, a Nandi pavilion, porches, a mandapa, and a linga in a garbhagriha. The walls are laden with sculptures, which are positioned in regularly-spaced miniature shrines on the exterior of the building corresponding to its axes of symmetry. The outer columns of the temple exterior depict courtly couples in intricate dress and ornate hair-buns; those in the mandapa portray deities, stories from myths, decorative designs, and figures such as dancing ganas, courtly couples, and animals.
The mythological narratives depicted include episodes from the Ramayana such as Lakshmana cutting off Shurpanakha’s nose and the story of the golden deer that leads to the abduction of Sita; those from the Mahabharata include Bhisma lying on a bed of arrows and the confrontation between Arjuna and Karna. Other narratives include the churning of the ocean of milk, the descent of the river Ganga to earth, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, and eight-armed Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. The Nandi Pavilion of the temple features a large sculpted bull carved out of a single block of black granite, seated between four columns decorated with carved petals, garlands and mithuna couples. On the corners of the pavilion are niches with figures of women, one of which has been identified as a portrait of the temple’s patron, Queen Lokamahadevi.
The temple’s iconographic programme has been extensively studied for its presentation of Chalukya royal power. The recurring depictions of the male and female form, for example, have been interpreted as allusions to the royal couple’s performance of their religious and political duties. The iconography also suggests a parallel between Vikramaditya II and Vishnu, and Lokamahadevi as his consort Lakshmi. The portrayal of the couple as a righteous king and queen is possibly depicted in the Ramayana imagery at the south of the temple.
The sculptures of Virupaksha temple present a complex web of associations relegated to the domain of politics and polity. The presence of icons such as Ravananugrahamurti, Kirata-Arjuna, and Narasimha reveals a preoccupation with territorial expansion. There are also instances of iconographic appropriation: the depiction of Shiva Gangadhara on the temple, uses the same visual idiom as that seen in the Descent of the Ganges relief commissioned by the defeated Pallavas. Other icons include those more typically associated with Chalukya kingship, such as Harihara, Varaha, and Ardhanarishvara.
As of writing, Virupaksha temple remains a tourist attraction and a site of worship, and is part of the Group of Temples at Pattadakal UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cummings, Cathleen Ann. A Study of the Iconographic Program of the Lokesvara (Virupaksa) Temple, Pattadakal. PhD Dissertation. Ohio State University, 2006. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=osu1158176390&disposition=inline.
Fergusson, James and James Burgess. The Cave Temples of India. London: W.H. Allen & Company, 1880.
Harle, J.C. The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.