Dikpala ceiling panels in Karnataka temples

Over time, a need would have arisen to standardise these directions, which would have led to the division of space.

Published: 21st June 2022 12:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st June 2022 12:18 AM   |  A+A-

Kedareshvara Temple in Balligavi, Karnataka (Western Chalukya)

Kedareshvara Temple in Balligavi, Karnataka (Photo| EPS)

Ashta-dikpala refers to the group of eight deities representing the guardians of the eight directions. The idea would have started with the references to where one was standing, i.e., forward, backward, up, down, etc., as a few Vedic hymns mention directions in this referential frame. Over time, a need would have arisen to standardise these directions, which would have led to the division of space.

There are references to four, five, six, seven, eight, ten and sometimes eleven directions in various Vedic hymns. This standardisation would have soon been fixed into four major directions (east, west, south and north) and four minor directions (south-east, south-west, north-west and north-east).

To this set of eight, sometimes two additional directions were added, making a group of 10, one representing the zenith above and another the nadir below. Sometimes, an eleventh direction, the direction of the Pole Star, was also added to the group.

Once the space division was fixed, there arose a need to fix guardian deities to seek protection and welfare. This led to an idea of auspicious and inauspicious directions in different circumstances and situations. Rules were laid down for worshipping the guardian deities as to how and when to invoke, propitiate and offer sacrifices.

The concept of ashta-dikpalas was transitional during the Vedic age as sometimes only their numbers or only a few names were provided. In the famous Purusha-sukta of the Rig Veda, directions are said to be born out of the ears of the Virata-purusha. The Buddhist idea of four lokapalas (guardians of the world) or chaturmaharajika (four great kings) is also centred around the same thought process.

The idea of ashta-dikpalas was crystallised during the Puranic period. The group consists of Indra guarding the east, Agni in the south-east, Yama in the south, Nrrtti in the south-west, Varuna in the west, Vayu in the north-west, Kubera in the north and Ishana in the north-east. Protection from all quarters was one of the basic principles of Vastu-shashtra.

The foundation rituals of a building generally included ceremonies to invoke deities for its protection from all the quarters. During the early medieval period, these deities started being placed on the karnas (corner) pilasters of a temple vimana; eight faces of these corner pillars provided eight spots to place the ashta-dikpala group.

While the vertical elevation was protected by placing the dikpalas in the above arrangement, protection for the horizontal space was carried out by placing the same group on the ceiling panels. The idea of the ceiling decoration started with the Chalukyas of Badami who ruled between the 6th and 8th century CE. Their early instances do not depict the whole group of eight deities; there are sometimes four or six as found in Cave No. 3 in Badami.

The first set of the full ashta-dikpala group as a ceiling decoration appears in the Papanatha temple in Pattadakal. Due to the political and cultural engagement of the Badami Chalukyas with other regions and dynasties, this idea of ceiling decoration propagated further north towards Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

This idea was later extended by the Western Chalukyas, Hoysalas and Gangas, all ruling over different regions of Karnataka. This resulted in Karnataka having the maximum concentration of temples and mandapas where ashta-dikpala panels were carved on ceilings.

This also led to the standardisation of the ceiling design. A square or rectangular ceiling was divided into nine compartments using a three-by-three matrix layout. The eight compartments on the periphery were occupied by the ashta-dikpala group and the ninth central compartment was reserved for the main deity to whom the temple was dedicated.

Instances of Shiva occupying this central compartment are more than other deities such as Vishnu and Brahma. The same ceiling device is also seen in a few Jain temples where a Tirthankara or yaksha occupies the central compartment.

The ceiling panels in Balligavi, Betur, Aralaguppe and Kambadahalli are of great interest. The panel in the Kalleshvara temple (Aralaguppe) is considered the most exquisite among all for its style and execution. It has a four-armed Nataraja in its central compartment, and the remaining eight regions have dikpalas riding over their mounts and accompanied by their consorts.

The panel in the Kalleshvara temple (Betur) is larger and has Shiva-Gajantaka in the centre. Except for Nrrtti, the rest of the dikpalas are shown with their consorts. All the dikpalas are accompanied by a large retinue consisting of dancers and musicians.

The panel in the Kedareshvara temple (Balligavi) has an impressive 16-armed Shiva in its central compartment, accompanied by Ganesha and Kartikeya. All the dikpalas in the panel are riding over their respective mounts, and accompanied by their consorts and a large retinue of dancers and musicians.

The Jain temples at Kambadahalli have multiple shrines and there are two dikpala ceiling panels, one with a Jain Tirthankara in the centre and another with Yaksha Dhanendra. The dikpalas are shown riding over their mounts and accompanied by their consorts. We encounter fewer instances of such ceilings in later-period temples, where this design is generally found in standalone mandapas. 

(The writer is founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites and can be reached at puratattva.india@gmail.com)


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