Unique depictions of Ravana in Karnataka’s Mahakuta

Published: 20th May 2022 01:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th May 2022 07:48 AM   |  A+A-

The Ravana Anugraha is a popular sculpture scene where Ravana—with his ten heads and multiple arms—lifts the whole Kailash on which Siva and Parvathi are seated along with their entourage.  

In popular culture, Ravana is portrayed as a powerful demon king from Lanka. Sculptors often depicted him with 10 heads and 20 arms. An ardent devotee of Lord Siva, he composed the Ravana Siva Tandava Mantra.  In the Ramayana, Ravana is defeated and killed by Rama, who takes the help of Sugriva and Hanuman. Brahmanda Purana has a lengthy narrative about Ravana. The Purana narrates his life story with important events like his penance, the cutting of his heads, Atma linga (soul of Siva), etc. 

The Badami Chalukya sculptors were very imaginative in their portrayal. They depicted the Ramayana narrative for the first time in Badami’s Upper Sivalaya temple (c. 580 CE). 

The Mahakuteshwara temple (596–600 CE) in Mahakuta, one of the important regions of the Chalukya dynasty, has beautiful narratives showing Ravana’s devotion, the first time such depictions appear in peninsular India. Apart from sculptures of Siva, Mahakuta also has the Vishnupushkarini (Deva Droni), an ancient water pond that is surrounded by temples. Interestingly, Mahakuta also has an inscription from 596 CE that mentions King Mangalesha’s victory over the Kalachuris, along with references to idol procession and certain grants.

Ravana’s devotion was depicted on the adhisthana of the Mahakuteshwara temple; such carving narratives on the temple basement space became a feature in the early medieval period in India. The temple has narrative sculptures carved on the hara portion of the adhisthana (pedestal) of the temple. In addition to this, the temple has depictions of events from the Mahabharata, along with sculptures of Indra Sabha and various deities.

When it comes to Ravana’s devotion towards Siva, three narratives are depicted in Mahakuta. The popular story goes that Ravana’s mother wanted to erect a Siva Linga. He told her that instead of erecting the Linga out of ordinary stone, he would get the Atma Linga of Siva. In the unique Mahakuta sculpture, Siva and Parvathi are seated on Mount Kailash. Ravana stands on one foot to please him and receive the Atma Linga. He even holds a garland all around his body and performs the hatha yoga penance in front of Siva and Parvathi. 

In the second narrative, Ravana becomes more aggressive—he firmly sits on the ground and cuts each of his heads and offers it to Siva, who is seated on Nandi with Parvathi, who looks on anxiously. But each time he chops his head, Siva bestows him with a new head. He does this 10 times; so, Ravana is known as Dasha Kantha

The third, in continuation with the earlier narratives, is one in which Ravana lifting Kailash is depicted as a separate episode. The theme is very popular; it has been depicted by sculptors of various periods and appears for the first time in Mahakuta. The figure of Ravana is compactly composed within the space of the narrative panel. He is seated on the ground holding the weight of Kailash where Siva and Parvathi are seated. Holding weapons, Ravana spreads his hands architectonically. Mount Kailash is depicted in detail and spread semicircularly in the space. The artist has visualised the theme realistically and one can feel the weight of the mountain in the bodily posture of Ravana. 

A similar image of Ravana lifting Kailash is depicted on the southern-side mantapa pillar in Pattadakkal’s Virupaksha temple (734 CE). This highly realistic depiction shows Ravana’s feet partially sinking into the ground while he lifts Mount Kailash. 

Then there is the later Rashtrakuta monument at Ellora that has a 12-feet-tall image of the scene. Ravana lifting Kailash with Siva and Parvathi seated on the hill became a popular subject and has been depicted by artists in later periods as well. 

R H Kulkarni
Professor, Department of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath

(rhkulkarniarthistory@gmail.com)



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