Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bhuleshwar on a Hill: Exterior

There is a chapel on a hill in a place called Bhuleshwar near (~50 kms) Pune. This is thought to be a Shiva temple from the time of the Pandavas in local parlance which in modern historical times could be anywhere between the 11th and 13th century (AD or CE as they would like to have it nowadays). It has no connection with Bhuleshwar and its Mumba devi temple in Mumbai. I also do not know what Bhuleshwar actally means. I have just called it Bhuleshwar on the hill. It has been associated at some time or other with Muslim rule/fort of the Deccan sultanate kind.

While browsing through the internet I came across a post on a female ganapathi in the temple at Bhuleshwar The fact of a female ganapathi is interesting as the male Ganapathi who is the object of much prayer and reverence (especially around Pune) has always been considered a model for good behaviour especially when it comes to abstinence from sexual desires. I always thought that he could easily abstinate since there were no females of his kind. So why did a sculptor sculpt a female ganapathi? How did this female Ganapathi get conceived? A visit to Bhuleshwar seemed compulsory.

It turned out that Bhuleshwar is much more than just a female ganapathi. One would require several visits to understand the place even if the person is an anthropologist or architect of the University kind. This blog will be the first part of a first description. It will have almost nothing on the female ganapathi.

The road to Bhuleshwar from Pune is fairly simple by car. You take the Hadapsar road. Finish the first toll section of the road. After about three kilometers from the exit a sign board shows an exit Bhuleshwar which is on the right going away from Pune. Bhuleshwar is about eight kilomteres away from the road. You will be able to see it on a hill from far away. At the time of the year that we went (January - February) the country side was rather parched (Fig 1 left; click on pictures to expand) though one would see quite extended fields of marigold in some patches. You climb the hill rather easily and as you climb it, the view of the temple becomes clearer (as it should, I guess). There is an irritating relay tower which dominates and spoils the entire landscape. The image on the right of Fig 1 is without this tower.

One parks one’s car under the shade of a tree, climbs up the steps and is met with an unexpected structure. There is a rectangular main block built with stones (size of a dog, Bruno) on top of which there are three dome-like constructions. In the absence of a proper term to call these structures I will simply call them as “dome” --- dome with inverted commas. These constructions, all of which have a dome, seem to consist of Islamic style minarets --- except that there is no place for the muezzin to stand and invoke Allah and other daily rituals.

These minarets are rather tall the full proportion of which becoming clear when seen from far. It reminds me of distant snow-capped mountain ranges, where you don’t get to see the snow when you are close to it. It also reminded me (somehow) of the Kailas temple of Ajanta which had smooth plaster work on the top so that it resembled Mount Kailas, the abode of the gods.

Fine masonry has been first used to build Saiva temples in southern India around the seventh century AD. Bhuleshwar is often spoken of as a Shiva temple. The minarets and other parts of the domes are covered with stucco as sculptural and artistic puroses as well as a base material for paints. Such use of stucco work perhaps predate its use in Baroque and Rococo architecture, which is the hallmark of European nobility. The ease with which stucco material may be molded into shapes and painted was widely exploited in Indian temple architecture especially in the south. The “domes” of Bhuleshwar could form a prime example of this use.

There are many big octagonal and smaller square minarets themselves on the left dome (facing it from the path up) while the dome on the right has only octagonal minarets. The minarets and the dome seemed to be made of lime and sand variously named as plaster (mainly for ineriors) or stucco (mainly for exterior decorations). The peculiar structure suggests strong Islamic influence, especially as far as the minarets are concerned. However, the Islamic influence could have come later. Early native Indian (Hindu in a non-bigoted sense) beliefs considered the earth to be square (at least to a first approximation; never mind Aryabhata) and there were pillars at the corners to support the sky. Square or octagonal shapes were preferred (always add “it seems” if I sound too confident) for the Hindu temples. Square or Octagonal minarets are then alright with Hindu temples.

Saiva temples are usually square or octagonal in plan. The nature of the main domes as well those on the top of the minarets with their up-turned lotus-petals resemble those of the temples in or around those in Pune. The “dome” in the centre (Fig , left) has pedestals with the lotus petals turned downwards – seen most prominently in the centre of the figure -- which is characteristic of capitals of Asoka-Buddhist pillars (fig 4 left, inset). I have not noticed such “bell-shaped” “inverted” lotus petals in temples around Pune. But they have been around since Ashoka’s time, probably carved from wood even before that time when it served as a symbol for Buddha’s birth. Ashoka cast his pillars with Persian craftsmen used to working with stone since he desired permanence of his edicts inscribed on them “… as long as the moon and sun shall endure”. The presence of the bell-shaped structure with lions around it in the central “dome” of Fig 4 left would suggest a Saivite-Buddhist origin perhaps with a Asokan-Buddhist influence (or vice-versa).

The “dome” at the extreme left (Fig 3) has the most complex stucco decorations (Fig 5). A closer look (close-ups are shown in Fig ) at the “dome” on the left shows that the minarets have intricate workmanship characteristic of Islamic geometrical patterns. Such decorations are absent on the minarets of the other two main domes (Fig 4). It is possible that before the geometrical stucco work was carried out, the walls of the square or octagonal shaped minarets would have had painted decorations which have since been washed away.

A characteristic geometrical pattern is on the top border of the stone base. In Fig 3 the pattern is made from cement and must be a recent addition. The basic pattern of the border manifests itself in several ways in temples all around Pune. This pattern could have emerged from the most simple considerations of brick-laying as in fig 6a. This pattern is on the walls of Akbar’s tomb in Sikandara (fig 6b), on the walls of a house near trishundiya ganapathi temple (fig 6e) and on the walls of its sanctum sanctorum, starts developing intricacies in fig 6d (border of the stone structure in fig left) to the right and becomes more intricate in Saswad (fig 6c). Variations of the basic pattern is present on the minarets (see the patterns at the top in Fig 5). I am not aware (limited awarness, of course) of the existence of such patterns in ancient Indian (Buddhist) or Tibetan work. It does not seem to be there in the Tajmahal decorations (see Raghu Rai’s Taj Mahal).

I was reminded of Escher’s description of Islamic art: “Moors were masters in the art of filling a plane with similar interlocking figures, bordering one another without gaps. … … What a pity that the religion of the Moors forbade them to make images…” when writing about “Regular Divisions of the Plane III” (part of which is shown in left of Figure 7). The border of the stone structure is reminiscent of Escher’s drawings themselves. “Day and Night” (1938) in which he “…tried, almost without knowing what I was doing, to fit together congruent shapes that I attempted to give the form of animals.” Escher had made one of his more keen perceptions when he said “… is not one led naturally to a subject such as Day and Night by the double function of the black and the white motifs? It is night when the white as an object, shows up against the black as a background, and day when the black figures show up against the white.” The raised/lowered pattern in the border of the stone structure has this day-and-night character.

The sculptures of man and gods and animals decorate the minaretted-structures and give them the domes the required life. I have no idea of how the images developed, whether the geometrical pattern came first and the images later. Nor am I sure whether the craftsmen were actual artists or just masons who filled the gap. Some of the non-geometrical images are shown in Fig 8.

Extended and repetitive geometrical patterns which fill space are disorder- or entropy-less space requiring considerable regimentation without scope of further experiment to grow. It is lifeless because it is predictable. It is not at the heart of the true Indian spirit shaped by the abundant influence of nature which has its own proclivity for not cloning itself. We do not like to mass manufacture. I have a suspicion that the native (aadivasi in the true meaning of the word) Indian artist would have been perfectly happy with Penrose tiling. Like Penrose they must have looked for a tessellation of tiles of fixed shapes that would cover a surface but would not repeat itself. Unlike Penrose, the stucco craftsmen may not have had the time nor a parent interested in these things. So they would have taken a geometrical pattern and must have deliberately avoided repeating the pattern by filling it with images of animals and gods and other shapes without requiring to preserved the geometrical pattern ad nauseum.

The stucco work on the main “domes” gets blocked from view as one approaches the temple. It reappears in another avatar as one climbs the steps to get inside the temple.

The entrance to this temple is separated from the main stone-walled structure on the left (of Fig 2) by a small gap which is just big enough for one to walk through. The minars are no longer emphasized (see Fig 2 right) on the structure on the other side. Instead there are rectangular brackets on the wall on which some figures are sculpted out (Fig 9) from the scutto material which cover the stone-work. These figures have their basic shapes simply to indicate what they could be. There seems to be a use of pre-cast faces so that one makes out from the body who the figure is supposed to represent. The masks themselves seem to be of uncertain ethnic origin and bear little resemblance to the figures in Yadav period temples such as those in Saswad. The main emphasis seems to be on the painted figure with emphasis on the paint rather than the painting. There is a co-existence of Vishnu avatars such as Narasimha and Durga.

The image of Durga (Fig 9 right) herself is rather peculiar. All the hand holding knives and swords seem to be right-handed in the way they hold the swords, irrespective of the side these hands are actually in. The lion is not seen prominently. The lion seems to be a small figure on the left bottom corner nibbling at the buffalo’s rump. Durga does not seem to be riding the lion; instead she seems to be holding it by its tail. This is a peculiar feature of early Durga stone-work from south-east Asia. We don’t know if the buffalo’s head is severed from the body. The buffalo seems to be quite puzzled himself. There seems to be no ethnic difference between the mask used for the rakshasa being slaughtered and other faces. It is not clear whether Durga is wearing a sari, or a blouse, skirt and dupatta. She does show considerable strength, anyway.

The entrance to the temple has two pillars on either side. Each of these pillars have two brackets for figures on each side. Durga (Fig 9) is the figure on the lower bracket on one side. A prominent figure in the lower slab or bracket is that of Vishnu (or so it would seem) resting on a (vertically) coiled snake with five human heads. Would that be some revenge of the stucco craftsman aimed at his supervisors? The figure resting on the snake has a head-gear that one could associate with Vishnu. There is no sign of Brahma emerging from a lotus flower on Vishnu’s navel although there seems to be a flower in line with his navel. The lady at Vishnu’s feet (Laxmi? Sridevi?) wears apparel and ear-rings in a style similar to that of Durga.

The main “dome” of the Bhuleshwar structure (Fig 3, Fig 10 left) also has a figure resting on a (horizontally) coiled snake. The face of Vishnu, however, is more tribal with large ear-rings. There seems to be a semblance of a moustache (quite unlike Vishnu). The snake has five snake-like heads. Whether Vishnu’s snake, Ananthasesha, should have five or more heads is not clear. The image of Vishnu-Narayana at Mamallapuram near Chennai has a five-headed Anantha sesha serpent. A five-headed snake is connected with a Shaivite-Buddhist transformation. A five-headed serpent is thought to represent the fire-spirit and a five-headed snake inhabits the fire-shrine. Buddha is said to have performed a miracle in such a fire-shrine that converted thousand Vedic (read Brahmin) fire-worshippers. This is depicted on the east gate of the Sanchi stupa in which the sacred fire, represented by the five-headed serpent, is protected by hermits. The heavenly serpent is symbolized in Indian images by lines of gold representing lightning. A brass statue of Buddha kept in Ceylon shows the Buddha seated on Mucalinda serpent (see Frontispiece of A Handbook of Indian Art, E. B. Havell, John Murray, London, 1920) with five branches on the hood of the snake representing five rays of light emerging from his head.

So where is the lady Ganapathi? I must say that, because of this interest in the feminine ganapathi, we ignored many things we should not have ignored. There was little evidence for a prominent role of a female ganapathi in any case in the masonry. It was after we had explored the temple complex inside (where we found the female ganapathi displayed on the internet) and outside (with its masonry work, where a male ganapathi is prominent, Fig 11 left) and then went around looking for left-overs that we found what looked like a female ganapathi (Fig 11, right) not only because of what looked like her breasts, and the jewels around her, but also because of what looked like a bindi on her forehead. The fact that it was a female ganapathi was obtained from photo (inset of fig 11) from a web site "Images of Himalayas, Sahyadri Mountains And India Tourism". Both these ganapthis did not have the mudras or whip that one associates with (what we think should be) the traditional ganapathi posture. Both the four-armed ganapathis held an axe with one right hand while the other mudra-less right hand rested on the right thigh. Both the ganapathis had a snake (cobra) as a waist band. Both the ganapathis had one left hand to feed him/herself with his/her trunk (that’s the kind of ganapathi we love to love). The male ganapathi had one left hand filled with sweets while the lady ganapathi had one empty left hand in a twisted position.

But why was the lady ganapathi hidden from view? Was it just another example of gender bias? It is well known in the internet that Ganesha as we know is not confined to India alone. There are different versions of the Ganesha although most of them have attributes similar to the Indian Ganesha. Strangely, stone representation of Ganesha appears (as per the internet) in China around the middle of the sixth century and in Japan around the beginning of the eighth century. It is possible that Ganesha may have originated elsewhere, say, in Tibet, and then traveled to different countries around the same time.

It turns out that a female ganapathi is known in China and Japan as part of an embracing couple Daiboujin (“great wild god” who is the eldest son of Daijizaiten an avatar of Shiva) and Kannon Bosatsu who tamed Daijizaiten and converted him to Buddhism. These two embracing figures (some are shown in Fig 12) are known as Kankiten and are supposed to represent happy conjugal relationship. The lady ganapathi has her head covered and when embracing she is shown standing on the foot of the male counterpart. The images of the embracing couple is often more sexually implicit than that shown in Fig 12. Because of this sexual explicitness the figures (nearly 250 of them in various temples in Japan) are hidden from public so they are thought to be secrets.

This first impression of the Bhuleshwar mandir, inconclusive as it is and as it would be for some time to come, does take one away from the ordinary and the mundane. It would require some cynicism to write this temple off as unimportant or to say that there are more important temples to study, as some learned architects and scholars would want me to believe. The fashionably and up-worldly mobile look for the midas touch to load their purse. There is lot to be gained, however, for the soul to stay in touch with and be richened by the ordinary. I am reminded of my first (and last) talk before modern-day environmentalists. I spoke on why saving a toad is an integral path of saving a tiger; and why deforestation can be initiated by saving the shrubs and weeds which eventually helps to save the trees. Nobody cared. Maybe, studying the lives of ordinary people and their remote temples such as Bhuleshwar gives you important insights into hiding female ganapathis. Maybe we have done it so well we cannot see them. Maybe female ganapathi suggests happy hidden conjugal relationships?

No comments: