Nagara Doorway Motifs

in Article
Published on: 12 June 2018

Madhurima Chaudhuri

Madhurima Chaudhuri has a background in history and art history. She is interested in South Asian art. She currently holds the position of an Executive Curator at Weavers Studio Resource Center, Kolkata.

Indian art, since time immemorial, had strong religious and devotional undertones—a result of diverse philosophical, political and socio-cultural developments across the landscape. The idea of appreciating art for art’s sake was non-existent, as every artistic element adhered to a greater symbolic meaning. Sacred spaces developed by different religions ranged from excavated caves to the eventual freestanding temples and mosques. In northern India, frenzied building activity was seen around the Hindu temple structure, due to the transition in the kind of material used—from perishable wood to durable stone—which in turn created unique spaces for individualized worship to be performed. Consequently, it imbued religion with its permanence and tangibility.  


Growing ritualistic paraphernalia ensured that simple, undecorated structures evolved into complex spaces of worship, aesthetically aided by sculptural decoration. The temple was a representation of a palace or prasada, in which the deity resided. Each individual component was infused with esoteric nuances and was given a designated space derived from the ancient artistic canons (Mitter 2001). The usual dwelling of the deity known as the garbha-griha, or sanctum sanctorum soon accommodated additional structures of a high platform (jagati) supporting a porch (ardhamandapa) and a hall (mahamandapa) topped off by elaborate roofs (Mitter 2001). Ornamentation across the façades and interiors of the temple aided the worshipper in their darshana or viewing of the deity. Subsequently, the door way or garbhadvara, the most iconic element, allowed the viewer to enter the realm of the supreme deity. Thus, it was only fit for this portal to be embellished with ornamentations with a deeper, metaphysical significance. 


Temple architecture within the subcontinent acquired regional idiosyncrasies influenced by the existing socio-cultural environment and canonical injunctions. This gave rise to the Nagara style, predominantly found within the geographical confines of the Himalayas and the Vindhyas (Singh 2008). The doorways of such temples comprised of an ornamented stone frame supporting a wooden door. Given the perishable nature of the door, the frame is seen as the most essential component of the garbhadvara, composed of vertical and horizontal mouldings. Shakha, or branch, was the term given to the vertical mouldings on the doorjamb, whose proportions are stated in the Brhatsamhita (Kramrisch 1946). 


The doorway served a dual purpose: not only framing the main deity for darshana but also acting as a gateway for the worshipper to enter the womb of the temple belonging to metaphysical domain (Mitter 2001). Thus, the ornamentations on the mouldings, lintels and even the threshold were to be viewed as a functional unit instilled with a deeper meaning instead of merely visual aesthetics. The idea of symmetry played an important role in the decorative scheme of the shakhas. This ensured that the differing ornamentations of each shakha on one side would be replicated on the mouldings found on the corresponding side. Motifs occupying the door frames were often derived from nature, including floral and faunal elements. The idea of transforming nature into anthropomorphic figures was legitimized by Hindu philosophy. Following this derivate trend, fantastical beings were incorporated in the decorative scheme as well. Divinities belonging to the Hindu pantheon were placed on the lintel instead of the door jamb mouldings. These elements were then accentuated by purely decorative ones represented by geometric and architectural motifs. 


Common floral elements found on varying shakhas include rosettes, palmettes, lotuses, vines and floriated bands. Often a single floral element individually consumed a shakha in a repetitive fashion. Patralatsakha was used as an umbrella term to describe floral depictions on a shakha (Singh 2008). Given the agrarian nature of the society, these motifs were usually associated with the idea of fertility. Such procreative symbolism remained apt given that it was placed near the womb of the temple. Moreover, flowers were widely used in the ritualistic aspects of the temple including the abhishekha ceremony wherein the deity was adorned with flowers (Stietencron 2010). This ensured that the sculpted motifs had both philosophical underpinnings and immediate ritualistic connections with the temple space. Gupta door frames were known to incorporate patralatsakhas with animated and structured representations evolving from the earlier rudimentary form. Lotuses not only represented the universe but were also seen as a pan-Asian symbol of purity (Kramrisch 1946). Within the Hindu pantheon, the lotus was often associated with the idea of creation owing to its associations with Brahma and Vishnu. In the Orissan temples, such motifs were accompanied by either organic or decorative scroll work which could be viewed as a never-ending source of procreative energy (Donaldson 1978). Elements belonging to the patralatsakha were derived from the earlier tradition of Buddhist art.


Faunal elements were usually incorporated within the floriated shakhas but were sometimes shown on an individual moulding as well. Birds and elephants were popular depictions, with floriated stalks appearing from their mouth as a vertical moulding. (Donaldson 1978). Yet, the animals were individual symbols of life and fertility. Interestingly, the elephant was seen as the bearer of rain as the worshipper underwent a ritualistic cleansing before entering the sanctum sanctorum. The ghata-pallava motifs, a Vedic symbol of life and riches, were popular depictions at the bottom of the shakhas as well as mouldings on the jagati, or platform of the temple. Its pictorial representation was in the form of a round pot overflowing with flowers, leaves and wealth. The idea of abundance was applied to both material wealth and spiritual well-being of the devotee. 


The rupashakhas were doorjamb mouldings that were accompanied by figures placed within architectural frames. The figures that were usually shown in pairs included mithuna, or amorous couples and sura-sundaris or celestial beauties. The sexual or the provocative nature of these figures was justified despite being in a sacred realm as it was placed near the womb of the temple. Placed within pillared frames, the amply modelled and bejewelled figures were also considered auspicious (Singh 2008). At the same time, it allowed the devotee to leave behind the idea of pleasure and instead awaken his spiritual self by entering the garbha griha. However, the sexual representation was mild in nature. The overtly provocative depictions occupied the exterior walls of the temples as seen in Khajuraho. This artistic vocabulary that emerged during the mid-Gupta reign gained popularity among temples belonging to the medieval times. 


Vertical shakha motifs were also accompanied by sculptural elements that were usually few in number and found on either side of the door frame. The height of the guardian divinities or dvara-palas, was required to be a quarter of that of the main door and the divinities were placed at the bottom on either side of the door frame (Kramrisch 1946). As the name suggest, these figures were gatekeepers and protectors of the main temple deity. Depicted upright with passive faces and weapons, these guardian divinities were often accompanied by other figures. Serpents or nagas, in human form were always found in Vishnu temples. 


An iconic sculptural representation that was found on door frames included personified figures of the river goddesses (nadi devatas), Ganga and Yamuna. These figures were first discovered by Cunningham and were wrongly identified as the patron Queen’s veneration of the shrine (Stietencron 2010). However, this assumption changed once it was consistently realized that these figures were accompanied by vahanas, or animal mounts. And it was these vahanas that became the main identifying element as both the figures were carved in graceful tribhanga postures with similar ornamentation. Ganga is found standing on a composite animal titled makara (half crocodile half fish) while Yamuna is seen standing on a kacchapa or turtle. The iconography of these figures was derived from the shalbhanjika figures in Buddhist architecture as seen in the Sanchi Stupa (Stietencron 2010). The philosophical relevance of these sculptures placed at the doorway is to allow ritualistic cleansing of the devotee along with the supply of votive water to the deity (Stietencron 2010). In time, the river goddesses were placed at the bottom on either side of the doorway. Its symmetrical and decorative appeal was magnified by its esoteric symbolism. 


Temple-building activities persisted in northern India from ancient times, taking decorative and structural inspiration from the earlier cave architecture. The developent of canonical literature on the arts further legitimized tangible religious spaces and devotional practices. A common pool of motifs evolved to fit in the regional artistic vocabulary, resulting in elaborately ornamented temples. Thus, the simplicity attached to earlier motifs was now infused with greater decorative and symbolic elements. It appeared in both the interiors and exteriors of the temple. With time, the symbolic relevance of motifs changed with the introduction of other elements while some others became redundant. Through the evolution of temple architecture in India can be traced the changing ideologies of the socio-cultural milieu.



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———. 1978. ‘Scroll Motifs on Orissan Temples.’ East and West, 28.1/4:225‒48.


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