A dais as big as earth, a canopy as wide as sky

The mantapa, in front of the same vedi, contains many pillars with numerous panels showing various themes from Indian epics, mythologies and even a few genre ones.

Published: 08th April 2021 07:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th April 2021 08:49 AM   |  A+A-

(L) The dais in the Kalyana Mantapa of the Jalakhanteswara Temple in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore; (M) a ceiling panel of the Jalakhanteswara Kalyana Mantapa showing Asta Dikpalakas in a procession and a circ

If a person’s life is flourishing, say, like a flower perpetually in full bloom, others would say about the person, “Nitya Kalyanam, Pacha Toranam”, which in English may not sound great; but the idiom means ‘eternal wedding, green streamers’. These days, most weddings occur in marriage halls where wedding planners take care of the dais, its decoration, etc. But in earlier times, a family would set a modest dais (arugu in Telugu) for the bride, bridegroom and a few others, and also a spacious canopy (pandiri in Telugu) in front of the dais for guests. Before setting them, the family head would say a fine idiom, “Aakasa-manta pandiri, Bhoodevi-anta arugu”, which means that the wedding would be conducted on a dais as big as the Earth-Goddess in front of a canopy as wide as the sky. This particular expression reminds me of the Kalyana Mantapa of Sri Jalakhanteswara Temple in the Vellore Fort (late 16th century), which was built by Chinna Bomma Nayanka and Timma Nayaka. The exquisitely carved Kalyana Mantapa, which appears to date earlier than the surrounding fort, presents a visual version of the same idiom in its architectural and sculptural layout, and also adds many more nuances to the expression, quite fascinatingly.

Wedding halls in South Indian temples seem to have been added only from the mid-15th century onwards, and were known in inscriptions as kalyana vedi (wedding dais); for, such vedis were built in stone, but without a permanent canopy. The splendid Kalyana Mantapa (before 1554) in Sri Vijaya Vittala Temple in Hampi is one such fine example where the pillared vedi is open in all directions with ample open space around it for guests to sit. 

The Jalakhanteswara wedding pavilion comprises a spacious pillared Kalyana Mantapa and a Kalyana Vedi with a large arena around it, all built in stone. The square-shaped vedi is shown resting on Adi Kurma (chief tortoise), which has its head at the front, and its four legs below the four corners of the dais. The lowest recess on the dais contains standing images of Indra with his elephant and other figures. As the dais is a three-dimensional sculpture, when a person goes round it and observes keenly, only then he/she would realise that the carvings in the recess include the Asta Dikpalakas (rulers of the eight cardinal directions), Asta Diggajas (eight divine elephants) and the Asta Seshas (eight divine serpents). These three sets of figures, in my opinion, clearly suggest that this specific vedi represents the whole earth, symbolically. Further a pair of lions, each at the four corners of the dais, hint that the vedi is like a simha-asana, the throne of a king. Interestingly, a continuous row of wavy patterns have been carved right above these earth-bearing divinities; this pattern seems to represent the ocean surrounding the earth. Ancient Indian literature contains many references that state that Adi Kurma, Adi Sesha and Asta Diggajas carry the earth; and the same idea was also replicated in art, as on the outer wall of Sri Mallikarjuna Temple at Srisailam and many other edifices. But the Jalakhanteswara wedding dais is very unique; for, it presents the idea in greater detail.

The mantapa, in front of the same vedi, contains many pillars with numerous panels showing various themes from Indian epics, mythologies and even a few genre ones. The ceiling of this edifice is even more captivating; for, it displays a galaxy of sky-bound divinities set in two independent square-shaped panels around a blooming lotus with many petals and parrots on them. These two panels seem to represent two different realms of the sky. One shows the eight cardinal rulers seated on their respective mounts and accompanied by their assistants, seemingly in a procession to attend the wedding of Siva and Parvati to be held on the vedi. The lotus here is surrounded by dancers, suggesting the wedding-related festivities.

The other panel is more intricately carved with many divinities, including Vishnu and other Gods and Goddesses, and also Narada, Tumbura and so on. As no procession and dance are shown here, these divinities seem to be viewing the wedding from their own realm, without descending from the sky. These two panels suggest that this ceiling represents the whole sky. Thus, this unique combination of the entire earth and the vast sky, respectively, in the form of the dais and the canopy, make the Jalakhenteswara Kalyana Mantapa very special, and in many ways, like a poetic recitation in stone, a one of its kind masterpiece in Indian architecture and sculpture. 

Srinivas Sistla
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam


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