Resting in modern Uttar Pradesh is one of the earliest extant free-standing Hindu temples in the Indian subcontinent. Deogarh, also known as Devagadh or Luacchagira, dates to the late 5th century CE. The main attraction is the Dashavatara temple devoted to the numerous incarnations of the god Vishnu.
The Dashavatara, ‘ten incarnations,’ temple rests on top of a ruinous platform but much of its original art is still present on the square, brick building. Built during the Gupta-period, the sculpture is often cited as one of the premier examples of early Hindu iconography. The extant square temple is about 5 meters long on each side. Beneath it, the square plinth once had smaller shrines in each corner, adhering to the well-known panchayatana, or ‘five-shrine’ plan that the Guptas and post-Guptas made famous.
Facing west is Deogarh’s doorway, an elaborately sculpted piece of art. Many pieces from the temple itself and its plinth have either been lost to time or placed in museums. Each of the outside walls carry distinct themes relating to Vishnu in his avatara, or ‘incarnation’ forms. Niches made for large relief-images are book-ended by ornate stone pillars. Besides the major forms of Vishnu, the site features 22 of his minor forms as well. The main temple does not seem to discriminate between major and minor forms as each niche presents one or the other equally prominently. The south niche displays Vishnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta while the east niche displays the sages Nara and Narayana, two minor forms. Some scholars date the images and architecture more broadly based on the shared features between this site and the Buddhist site at Sarnath outside of Varanasi, which also had a major construction period during this time. At one time, each of the niches were capped by stone chadyas, or ‘awnings’ but these have been lost or are severely damaged like the temple’s superstructure.
The Vishnu Stories
The name “Deogarh” is derived from the Sanskrit compound “deva-garbha,” meaning “the Lord’s inner chamber.” The Lord of the site is clearly Lord Vishnu who rose to even greater prominence during the Gupta period. Devotees of Lord Vishnu typically looked to him for safety and also for his creative power. Most of his themes can easily be seen in the various artistic representations of the temple. All of these scenes on the outside of the square temple are in direct contrast to the main chamber, which is altogether windowless, thus giving it an aura of distinction and importance. However, the main object of worship of the main shrine, or ‘garbha,’ is lost, so any attempt to analyze it in relation to the rest of the art and architecture is speculation only. All that may be assumed is that the main chamber housed a large image of Vishnu which may have been removed by the local priests to prevent it from being defaced or even stolen. Overall, the main theme of the shrine is an attempt to display the grand and diverse nature of Vishnu, whose numerous forms have protected and preserved the world and universe for all eternity.
The north niche’s image features an elephant and a serpent, or ‘naga,’ engaged in battle. Vishnu rides above the scene on his vehicle Garuda, the celestial bird. Vishnu is swooping down riding on Garuda in order to save the elephant from certain demise. Upon the site of the great Lord and his bird, the Naga and Nagini (‘female serpent’) are folding their hands in devotion. However, it is very clear that prior to Vishnu’s arrival the two serpents were quarreling with the elephant as their bodies are twirled around his legs. It is unclear if the serpents are asking for forgiveness or are simply worshipping Vishnu. Above the whole scene, celestial nymphs watch in amazement. The theme here is obvious: Vishnu is a savior to those in need, even animals. In relation to the rest of the temple, this niche would be the first one encountered if one were to circumambulate the temple beginning from the main shrine.
Following the circumambulatory path, the east niche features the twin sages Nara and Narayana, who together form the 4th incarnation of Vishnu according to the tradition. The image shows the two sages conducting great penance as they sit underneath trees upon rocks in what appears to be an ashram. The sages are easily identifiable based on their matted hair, which is a typical iconographic and real feature for sages in Hinduism. They are each wearing deerskin on their backs. Above them is the goddess Lakshmi, the known consort for Lord Vishnu. She is being showered by elephants who are bestowing upon her royalty and wealth. The theme of this panel is Vishnu as an ascetic with great powers. In ancient India, ascetics were thought to possess tremendous power obtained through austerity.
To the south is Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, whose name literally means “endless.” The snake’s hood forms an umbrella to shield Vishnu. Curiously, unlike in most representations of this scene, Vishnu’s eyes are open rather than closed indicating that he is not in fact asleep. Also interestingly, the god Brahma, who normally emerges from Vishnu’s navel in this scene, appears to emerge from the serpents coils instead. The poet Kalidasa is likely the innovator of the normal iconographic features such as Vishnu sleeping or Brahma born from his navel. Deogarh dates to a period prior to Kalidasa. Lakshmi appears again but is massaging Vishnu’s feet. The theme of this scene is preservation and creation of the cosmos.
Despite the fact that the temple itself is still standing with these wonderful relief images, other smaller panels and images were not so lucky as to survive in-situ. Other panels were found at the site and are now preserved elsewhere. Some of these panels depict scenes known from the Ramayana, the epic tale of Lord Vishnu incarnated as the dharmic king Rama. Other panels show scenes from the Mahabharata or what would eventually become the Bhagavata Purana in the 11th century. These stories of course show Vishnu as Lord Krishna, the cowherd from Braj.
One such scene from the Ramayana depicts Lakshmana, the brother of Rama, deforming Shurpanakha. Shurpanakha made sexual advances to Rama but was denied. She then turns to seduce Lakshmana but he also turns her down. After being teased by both Rama and Lakshmana, Shurpanakha attacks Rama’s wife Sita. Lakshmana foils the attack and cuts off the woman’s nose, which is what is shown here.
One scene depicting Vishnu as Krishna is the one where Krishna sleeps underneath a butter-cart. While sleeping there, young Krishna is startled awake by the teasing gopis, or ‘cowherd women.’ Awakening intensely, Krishna, being the divine god that he is, does not know his own strength and thrashes about kicking over the large, heavy butter-cart. Krishna’s divine strength is the theme here, a startling revelation to the ordinary human beings in the scene and to visitors of the site. Like the tales from the Ramayana, many other Krishna stories were liked carved at Deogarh but have all been long lost or removed out of context.
The Architectural Program
Deogarh is unique because it has never been fully deciphered. Although it is similar to other temples, it’s early date has often thrown off large interpretations of its architectural construction plan. Some scholars believe the temple was constructed based on an architectural plan called a Sarvatobhadra, which is a specific kind of temple mentioned in the Vishnudharmottara-purana written in the 7th century CE. One chapter in the text seems to describe a real temple because it elucidates upon the benefits of building, worshipping, and seeing a temple which particular features and ornamentations. However, because Deogarh dates to a period before this text was written, it is difficult to determine if Deogarh or the Sarvatobhadra style plan came first. The chicken or egg question is not able to be resolved, although it is clear that Deogarh was, at the very least, a model for later temples, if not the Sarvatobhadra style itself.
Since Deogarh is one of the earliest free-standing Hindu temples, many of its features were innovative, especially the way it brings together many different stories of Vishnu. The architecture itself appears cookie-cutter but may have been an entirely new innovative concept for the time, influencing the construction of later Hindu temples persisting until the present era. The temple’s complete and utter devotion to Vishnu represents the new need for Hindus during the Gupta era to worship Vishnu and only Vishnu in a separate space from other gods such as Shiva.
- S. L. Huntington and J.C. Huntington: The Art of Ancient India. (Boston and London, 1985).
- M. S. Vats: The Gupta Temples at Deogarh, Mem. Archeol. Surv. India, lxx (Delhi, 1952)
- J. Williams: The Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province (Princeton, 1982)