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The Unity and Gravity of

an elemental Architecture

Michael W.Meister


India's Paµca-Mah¡bh£tas have been given an order different from the Western system of four Elements - Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.[i] First, in India, Comes Water and Earth; then Fire and Air; and finally Ether, the latter particularly important for the Indian-held sense of an eternal reality lying behind what we make or experience (Plates 10.1, 10.2).

          Indian ritual begins with earth and fire. In the fire-pit or on the stone altar, all the Elements are combined, with ritual potency and for cosmic effect. The temple also roots itself in water, placing among its wall's base-mouldings (vedi-bandha) a fruiting, flowering, water-pot that represents India's water-oriented cosmogony. (kala¿a; Plate 10.5) acts both as the source and as a ritual lustration for the sacred mountain - which is the temple - acting both as the house for a divinity and as a 'crossing' intended for the transformation of mankind.

          The temple, by the intention of its architects, is poised between the Elements: always placed near Water; built of and on the Earth; it is itself the home of Fire. Its tower is the embodiment of Air; and its apex - or rather the space above it - of Ether (Plate 10.4). "Let the earth reside in the [moulding's] khuraka hoof" says one fragment of an architectural text translated by M.A. Dhaky; and let the cosmos be distributed throughout the structure.[ii]

          The mouldings that support and bind the temple (both p¢¶ha and vedi-bandha) have at their root the petals of the lotus.[iii] This, in India, is always the supernal support for deity, seen as the plant that spans the Earth, Water, and Air, and opens itself-that is its calix, the potent seed-pod - toward Ether and eternity (Plates 10.1, 10.4). Among these mouldings, elephant courses suggest the rain clouds hovering, like Indra's elephant, between the earth and sky (Plate 10.10). Above is the temple-mountain - áaiva's mansion - which, like the Himalayas themselves, hovers above the monsoon's water-laden clouds (Plate 10.6)

          Through the centre of the temple's tower itself (Plates 10.4, 10.6). It this tower, called the 'sheath' (ve¸uko¿a) of the temple, meant also as a ritual tool for clasping the Ether? Does it hold the cosmos, as if by a ritual instrument, in order to make it material?[iv]

          The walls of the temple are themselves a 'case' (paµjara) forming a pillared enclosure giving a body to Air (Plate 10.4). The Agni-Pur¡¸a states that "the five Elements - Water, Light, Air, Sky, [and Earth]" - act "as the wrappings", in the temple's wall-frieze (ja´gh¡), for the microcosm (brahm¡¸·aka) guarded within.[v]

          Embodied up the corners of the curvature of the shrine and used as its crowning member, ribbed stones called ¡malakas - the myrobalan fruit (Plates 10.7, 10.8) - ascend, supported by their own pillared k£¶a cages (Plates 10.4, 10.6). They grow upwards and proliferate, as if toward their final realization at the pinnacle. It is this seed - placed beyond Ether, not in Air - that may one day flower at the tower's top.

          Like the flagpole bearer who carries the temple's standard upward, each worshipper is said to ascend the temple's invisible axis from materiality towards the transcendent eternal.[vi] The spaces within the temple, both the flat surface of the hall and the womb-chamber of the sanctum, are meant to be the Earth- altar of human sacrifice.[vii] The sky-ceiling is both the cage/body and the Air within, much like the whale-bone cathedral in Melvill's Boby Dick.[viii]

          At the temple's top, flags are used to signal the wind; and the seed-¡mala again signals space in its endless, unrealized, potential. It is, indeed, the temple as Cosmos - as Dhaky's early article had put it - the temple as Cosmos Man.[ix]

          Four personified figures of the Mah¡bh£as were placed on the corners of the upper vedi-platform of the famous Shore temple at Mahabalipuram, near Madras, in the seventh century; but the full range of  'Elementals' - the particulate fragments or atoms of reality - are infinite in number and at times associated with áiva's host of spirits (pramathas).[x]

          The architects of the áiva temple at Amrol in Central India, built early in the eighth century, have placed such bh£ta-globlins, in part representing Elements, in corner niches on the wall (Plates 10.12, 10.14). These take the place of a familiar set of deities that act as "guardians of the Quarters", the Dikp¡las.[xi] One of these goblins, placed on the southeast (Plate 10.14), is radiant with Pramoda's fire and by its very location has been compared directly to the Vedic fire-deity, Agni on the adjacent kapil¢-wall.[xii]

          The architect of this temple has placed images of Agni and Ì¿¡na on the south and north kapil¢ entry-walls, clasping the worshipper's approach (m¡rga). He has done so, perhaps to represent the purifying ritual of Fire along with the goal of transcendent Ether. Yama is shown among the goblins on the southwest corner (Plate 10.14).

          The temple has, in its overall ornament, a cosmic geography. It places on its doorway both the personifications of the two most sacred rivers of India, the Ga´g¡ and Yamun¡, and representations of Himalayan sages (Plate 10.11). The walls of the Gupta period áiva temple at Nachna in the fifth century were rusticated to look like the foothills of the cosmic mountain.[xiii] Its doorway's ornament suggests the world's cage of illusion: its sanctum, the fertile womb of the cosmos (Plate 10.9). At the doorjamb-bases, Ga´ga and Yamun¡ are meant to mark an Ëryan earthscape, and at the door's top are placed earth-spirits (yakÀ¢s) sheltered under flowering trees (Plates 10.9, 10.11).

          If the Elements of Water, Earth, and Space can be seen as the fertile forge for the growth of actual lotus and ¡mala plants in Nature, to temple architects, the flame of temple ritual generated growth toward transformation of the worshipper that could be represented, both ornamentally and iconicaily, by vines and other foliage encircling the temple in their many furling coils (Plates 10.3-6, 10.9, 10.11).[xiv]

          Figures of the eight Guardians of the Directions of Space (Dikp¡las) are placed on the corners of most temples (Plate 10.13). They both measure space, as its guardians, and provide one further manifestation of Mah¡bh£tas as they 'wrap' the wall of the temple  - in the V¡stu¿¡stra's description - around the microcosm within.[xv] Varu¸a appears on the West on a crocodile, associated with Water, as is the Mah¡bh£ta Pramukha. Agni is placed on the South, like Pramoda, encircled by an aureole of Fire (Plate 110.14). V¡yu, the wind-god, on the North like Durmukha, carries a fluttering flag or is wrapped by a billowing scarf filled by Air (Plate 10.13). The war-god Indra, on the East (like Amoda), can be taken as an embodiment of Matter; and áiva as Ì¿¡na some texts associate with Ether.

          We should not be too literal, however, in our attempt to 'read' monuments made within a worldview that sees in each particular, the whole and in each proliferation of a thing, everything. The basal square form of the Universe, for example, is implicit in each of the temple's increasing and encircling offsets (Plate 10.6).[xvi] It is God's unfolding that creates the Bh£tas; and they are always a part, if only one part, of God's ritual unfoldding.[xvii] They are indeed his physical wrappings and the substances from which each of his multiple particles is made. But whether in medicine or cuisine, philosophy or architecture, these material parts are only a clothing for the microcosm. They cannot define its essence, nor more than transmute us back to its ceaseless centre.  


Plate 10.1 Banaras, Uttar Pradesh. Lotus pond (photo: Meister).

Plate 10.2 Arna, Rajasthan. Natural t¢rtha (photo Meister).

Plate 10.3 Khidarpura, Rajasthan. áiva temple, ca. A.D. 825-50. Lotus ceiling in sanctum (photo: Meister).

Plate 10.4

(a) Rajim, Madhya Pradesh. R¡j¢valocana temple, ca. A.D. 600 (drawing: Meister);

(b) Sirpur, Madhya Pradesh. LakÀma¸a temple, ca, A.D. 600-25, from southeast (photo: American Institute of Indian Studies, Banaras).

Plate 10.5 Sirpur, LakÀma¸a temple, pot moulding (kala¿a in vedibandha (photo: Meister).

Plate 10.6 Palari, Madhya Pradesh. Siddhe¿vara Mah¡deva temple, ca. A. D. 675-700, from east (photo: Meister).

Plate 10.7 Amala-fruits (photo: Ajay Sinha)

Plate 10.8 Deogarh, Madhya Pradesh. Gupta-temple ¡malaka, ca. A.D. 500-25 (photo: Ajay Sinha)

Plate 10.9 Nachna, Madhya Pradesh. P¡rvat¢ temple, ca. A. D. 450-75. Sanctum doorway (Photo: AIIS)

Plate 10.10 Ellora, Maharashtra. Ellora, Kail¡sa temple, ca. A.D. 750-75. Sanctum Doorway (Photo: AIIS) 

Plate 10.11 Amrol, Madhya Pradesh. R¡me¿vara temple, ca. A.D. 700. Doorway on east (photo: AIIS)

Plate 10.12 Amrol, R¡me¿vara temple from south (photo: AIIS)

Plate 10.13 Osian, Rajasthan. Harihara temple no. 1, ca. A.D. 725-50. North wall, images of Kubera, MahiÀamardin¢ Narasimha, Brahm¡, and V¡yu (photo: Meister)

Plate 10.14 Amrol, R¡me¿vara temple. South sanctum-wall, images of Yama, Ga¸e¿a, and pramatha; south kapil¢-wall, images of Agni (photo: Meister)

[i]  In presenting this paper at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Artss Paµca-Mah¡bh£tas Seminar, I preferred to call it "A Meditation on the Temple and the Elements". I later presented it also at the School of Architecture, University of California, San Diego, for a workshop on "Creating Environments: Nature, Space, and Form".  There I began first by referring "to India's many village-squares, in which people often have planted a central tree and placed an earth platform below for the village's residents to gather, sheltered under its spreading branches. In such villages - with their shifting lanes and public spaces - and in the cool courtyards of her village houses is India's real public spaces - and in the cool courtyards of her village houses in India's real universe and the source for many of her ideas about cosmic order and form".


[ii]  M.A. Dhaky, "Pr¡s¡da as Cosmos", In The Adyur Library Bulletin 35 (1971), pp.211-26.


[iii]  Michael W. Meister, "Ma¸·ala and Practice in N¡gara Architecture in North India", In Journal of the American Oriental Society 99 (1979), pp.204-19.


[iv]  Michael W. Meister, "On the Development of a Morphology for a Symbolic Architecture: India", In Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 12 (1986), pp.33-50.


[v]  Dhaky, "Pr¡s¡da as Comos", p.200.


[vi]  See Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "Svayam¡t¤¸¸¡: Janua Coeli", Zalmoxis 2 (1939), pp. 3-51.


[vii]  Michael W.Meister, "Symbology and Architecturl Practice in India", In Emily Lyle, (ed.), Sacred Architecture in the Tradition of India, China, Judaism and Islam, Edingurgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992,pp.5-24; idem., "Ma¸·ala and Practice".


[viii]  Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or; the Whale, New York: Harper, 1851, Chapter 102, "A Bower in the Arsacides".


[ix]  Dhaky, "Pr¡s¡d as Cosmos." See also Stella Kramrisch, "The Temple as PuruÀa", In Studies in Indian Temple Architecture, ed. By Pramod Chandra, New Delhi: American Institute of Indian Studies, 1975,pp.40-46.


[x]  M.A. Dhaky, "Bh£tas and Bh£tan¡yakas: Elementals and Their Captains", In Discourses on áiva, Proceedings of a Sym[psium omn the Nature of Religious Imagery, ed. By Michael W. Meister, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984 pp.240-56. Some scholars, however, have questioned such an interrelationship between Vedic and Pur¡¸ic figures.


[xi]  Michael W.eister, "Ëma, Amrol, and Jainism in Gwalior Fort", In Journal of the Oriental Institute, Baroda, 22(1972), pp.354-58; Enchclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, Vol. I, Part 2, North India: Period of Early Maturity, ed. By Michael W.Meister and M.A.  Dhaky, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991,pp.12-15. Of the Normal set of Dikp¡las, only Yama appears on the west corner of the south wall with Agni and Ì¿¡na placed on the Kapil¢ walls flanking the doorway.


[xii]  Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, II.2, Plate 11.


[xiii]  Joanna G.Williams, The Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983; Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, Vol.II, Part 1, Foundations of North Indian Style, ed. By Michael W.Meister, M.A. Dhaky, and Krishna Deva, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp.39-40 & Plates 52-59.


[xiv]  For garden-pa¸·¡ls grown over with foliage as ornament see Michael W. Meister,"Construction and Conception: Ma¸·apik¡ Shrines of Central India", In East and West, New series 26(1976), pp.409-18.


[xv]  Dhaky, "Pr¡s¡da as Cosmos".


[xvi]  Michael W.Meister, "Reading Monuments and Seeing Text", In á¡stric Traditions in Indian Arts, ed. By Anna Libera Dallapiccola, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1989, 2 Vols., I. pp.167-73, II.pp.94-108 and plates.


[xvii]  See also Michael W.Meister, "Fragments From a Divine Cosmology: Unfolding Forms on India"s Temple Walls", In Vishakkha N.Desai and Darielle Mason, (eds.), Gods, Guardians, and Lovers, Temple Sculptures from North India A.D. 700-1200, Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 1993, pp.94-115.



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