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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

Khajuraho - Forms of Vishnu

I have written about the temples of Khajuraho, and as the philosophy behind them. Yet, there is so much more to see and appreciate, so let me show you the temples through a different lens - by taking you on a visual journey of the temples through their amazing sculptures, identifying some of the many forms in which deities are portrayed. I begin with the various Forms of Vishnu......

There are 10 temples dedicated to Vishnu at Khajuraho. It is, therefore no surprise, that there are so many forms of Vishnu to be seen! The most impressive of course, is the Vaikunta Vishnu, that I have already written about. He is, however, still the most fascinating form of Vishnu, so I begin the post with him.....

Vaikunta Vishnu in the sanctum of the Lakshmana Temple.
Notice his three heads - human, boar and lion, and the avatars carved on the panels around him. Right on top of his head is Surya, flanked by Matsya on the left and Kurma on the right. Near his elbows are Varaha on the left and Narasimha on the right. 

The concept of Vaikunta Vishnu is integral to the Pancharatra system of Vaishnavism, which came from Kashmir. He is visualised with four heads, three of them visible - the human one in front, and on two sides, the boar (varaha) and the lion (Narasimha), the two most important forms, according to the Pancharatra philosphy. The fourth head, which isn't visible, is behind - the Kapila or the terrible face. The different avatars emerge from one aspect of this cosmic form of Vishnu, which are then depicted all around the central figure, as well as all over the temple.

Another Vaikunta Vishnu from the Lakshmana temple. He can be seen near the entrance of the hall. While his front face is defaced, we can still clearly see the lion and boar faces. Over these are more faces... either 6 or 7, symbolising his different forms emerging from this, his cosmic form. We can't make out the weapons he holds, but he also has ayudhapurushas as well as attendants standing by his feet. 

Among the Dashavatars, which are the most commonly seen forms of Vishnu,  Matsya and Kurma are mainly seen around idols of Vishnu, while Varaha, Narasimha and Vamana are seen in the niches around the temple as well. Both, Varaha and Vamana have temples dedicated to them as well. Among the rest, Parasurama, Balarama and Krishna are seen on the interior walls of the temple (which I have no photos of, due to the low light), and Rama is hardly seen, as is Kalki. It would appear that the acharyas who designed the temples focussed only on the early avatars of the Lord.

Avatars on the sanctum door of the Lakshmana Temple. From the bottom, Matsya as fish, with the 4 Vedas seen as 4 heads, Varaha as the boar, and Vamana the dwarf.

The other half of the door above, with Kurma Avatar (bottom) - the tortoise, shown during the churning of the ocean, Narasimha, killing the demon Hiranyakasipu, and on top, Parasurama, who is defaced and not clear. 

Varaha is one of the most depicted avatars in Khajuraho. To begin with, there is the massive Varaha in the temple dedicated to him.

The most gorgeous Varaha at Khajuraho, in the Varaha Temple

Varaha on the inner wall of the sanctum of the Lakshmana Temple

Varaha from one of the outer niches of the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. This sculpture is in much better shape, and the iconography is almost the same as the one above, though I love the way Bhudevi has been shown caressing his snout! 

This Varaha is seen on one of the outer niches of the Chitragupta Temple. While at first glance, the panel appears to be almost exactly the same as in the earlier two temples, there are some additional things to notice. First, see the animal at the base, below his leg. It appears to be a turtle (at least to me), which I have never seen with Varaha before. I wonder if it represents the ocean he emerges from? Next, at the top are 4 of the avatars - from left, Matsya, Vamana as Trivikrama, Narasimha and Kurma. 

Yet another Varaha, from the Vamana Temple in the Eastern Group. 

These are just a few of the Varahas at Khajuraho... samples, so to speak, from some of the temples. Why was this great importance given to Varaha? Probably because he is associated with Bhudevi or Earth, and therefore, Land. The Chandela Kings probably associated themselves with him when they conquered kingdoms. The Varaha temple, for instance, was built in AD 950, to celebrate the Chandela king Yashovarman's victory over his Pratihara overlord. The King, thus seems to be comparing himself to Varaha, saving the earth from the reign of the evil demon (enemy king) he has defeated!

Narasimha is only seen in a few temple niches. A terribly mutilated, multi-armed Narasimha lies in the Museum. We can only imagine how majestic he would have looked! 

Narasimha, in all his glory, in a niche on the outer wall of the sanctum of the Lakshmana Temple. Notice the demon being torn apart, while his soldiers try to attack the man-lion.There is also a smiling boy on the side who just might be Prahalada. 
Narasimha from the new museum at Khajuraho.. I have never seen a Narasimha with such numerous arms, have you? I can count almost 48 in all! 

Vamana is the only other Avatar of Vishnu enshrined in a temple. And interestingly, it is only his dwarfish form which is seen, both inside and outside the temple. His cosmic form, as Trivikrama is only seen in a few instances, as in the the panel of Varaha from the Chitragupta Temple. 

Vamana, in the sanctum of the Vamana Temple. His body is short, and plump, distinctly dwarfish, but exquisitely detailed. The temple is not in worship, but locals still come to offer flowers, as you can see from the photo. 

Vamana, from the hall of the Lakshmana Temple. He is not as detailed as the earlier pic, but the style is clearly the same. 

This is a tiny Vamana, seen on the outer wall of the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. The sculpture is just about a foot high, but the detail is just the same as the earlier sculptures, which are about 3 to 4 ft tall. 
As I have already mentioned, Parasurama, Rama, Balarama and Krishna are seen in some of the panels inside the Lakshmana Temple. However, due to low light, I do not have any photographs. The exception is this one...

Balarama, Kandariya Mahadev Temple. This figure is on one of the topmost niches of the temple, and can't easily be seen, unless you are looking for it. It is one of the few such clear and beautiful depictions of Balarama that I have ever seen! Note how he holds his trademark Plough in one hand, and a wine cup in the other. The snake hood behind him signifies that he is a form of Adishesha, the divine serpent. 

While we are used to thinking of the 10 avatars as the only forms of Vishnu, there are many more we see in Khajuraho, of which the most important and interesting one is Hayagriva, where the Lord is seen with the face of a horse. It is believed that He took this form to retrieve the Vedas stolen by a demon, who also had the face of a horse. I have seen this depiction only in the South, so it was quite a surprise to see him here, and that too accorded the special place in a niche just outside the sanctum! 

Hayagriva, at the Lakshmana Temple. I have only seen Hayagrive in the south, so seeing him here was a surprise. He is so beautifully shown, though, and his importance in the pantheon is emphasized by his presence on the outer wall of the sanctum. 

Vishnu is not often seen in a Yogic posture, but at Khajuraho he is often seen in this form too. These two panels are from the sanctum of the Lakshmana temple, where Vishnu is seen seated in a Yogic posture, as Narayana, surrounded by his devotees, who are trying different methods to attain his blessings. These two panels, along with two others, which I do  not have photos of, are extremely interesting, and you should read Dr. Devangana Desai's book on Khajuraho to know more about them. 

Vishnu in Yogic Posture, from the VamanaTemple

There are other forms in which Vishnu is seen too.... For example, at the Chaturbhuj Temple, he is enshrined in the sanctum in the form of an ascetic.

Idol in sanctum of the Chaturbhuj Temple.
The figure is that of an ascetic, as the hair, and the mudra of the hand suggests. While some believe that this might be Shiva as Dakshinamurti, the posture seems to suggest that this is an ascetic form of Vishnu. This is reinforced by the fact that the lintel has a figure of Vishnu on Garuda at the centre, suggesting that the shrine is to Vishnu.

Standing figure of Vishnu, in the sanctum of the Javari Temple. Though the head is missing, the figure can be identified as Vishnu thanks to the figures carved around. You can see the avatars, especially Varaha and Narasimha, clearlt near the hands, and other forms of Vishnu on the arch. 

Standing Vishnu, on one of the subsidiary shrines of the Lakshmana Temple

Vishnu seated on Garuda, Kandariya Mahadev Temple
Unique, 11 headed Vishnu, Chitragupta Temple. 

Vishnu is most often seen alone, unlike Shiva, who is often depicted with Parvati as Uma-Maheshwara. Here, however, there are many instances where he is seen with Lakshmi, both of them entwined with each other, just like Shiva and Parvati. 

Vishnu with Lakshmi, or Lakshmi-Narayana, from the Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Lakshmi Narayana, from the Javari Temple

These are just some of the forms of Vishnu at Khajuraho. As you can see from the images, it is the size, depiction and placement that determine his importance in the pantheon, though He is seen in both, Vaishnava as well as Shaiva Temples. 

Is the same true for Forms of Shiva as well? Wait for my next post to find out! 

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  1. Thank you Anushankarn for sharing. Indeed it was useful information about khajuraho. keep up the work, Appreciate the time taken to share the valuable info with the visitors like us.

    1. YOu are welcome, Divya.. and thanks so much for the appreciation. It is a pleasure to share the wonderful things I see all over India with readers like you, and I relive the experience as I write such posts.

  2. Loved this post Anu. The details are very informative. Next time I visit a temple, I will look out for these details.

    1. Thank you so much, Lata! I am sure you will notice so many more details next time you visit a temple. and i look forward to reading your posts about them!

  3. Very nice post for sharing with us,Thanks allot!. Many People Really don't Know about khajuraho.How our ancient ART crafted that time.So it is useful information about khajuraho. Appreciating Your Post again.Most people like your post


    1. Thank you so much, Priyanka. Its sad that people don't see this side of Khajuraho at all, and my series of posts are simply my way of bringing this side to the forefront. Hope more people begin to see the details and enjoy them as well.

  4. Thought provoking observation on the Dashavatars. Is it possible that the Dashavatars as we know them today had not yet crystallised? And that other avatars, like Hayagriva were more prominent? Later avatars like 'Buddha' and Kalki hadn't yet taken root?

    PS: I loved the depiction of the Matsya Avatar.

    1. Thank you Sudha. We do know that the Dashavatars were created putting together different cults of worship, but the question is when. I too have been wondering if the Khajuraho temples were created sometime in between... when Varaha, Narasimha and Vamana were important, and Rama and Krishna were less known, and Kalki hadnt even been imagined.

      As for Matsya, now you know why I am so fascinated!


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