Silparatnakosa A Glossary of Orissan Temple Architecture by Rajendra Prasad Das

Silparatnakosa A Glossary of Orissan Temple Architecture

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Silparatnakosa A Glossary of Orissan Temple Architecture
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The Silparatnakosa is a 7th century Orissan text composed by Sthapaka Niranjana Mahapatra, describing all the parts of the temple and the most important temple type of Orissa, such as the Manjusri and Khakara. It also contains a section on sculpture (Prasadamurti) and an appendix on image-making (Pratimalaksana). This text, though much later than the temples described, reflects the still living tradition and it contributes much to clarify the terminology of Orissan temple architecture. It contains interesting references to the symbolism of the temple and its elements. The most important contribution of this text, however, lies in the identification of the Manjusri temple with the Sricakra, which has helped the authors to re-identify the Rajarani temple at Bhubaneswar as a temple dedicated to Rajarajesvari in the form of a Sricakra.

The text ha been edited form three palmleaf MSS and translated with numerous illustrations (line-drawings and plates). The glossary adds to the usefulness of the book. This text is an important addition to the Silpa/Vastu literature published so far, and it will be very useful to all those interested in Orissan temple architecture.

About the Author

Dr. Bettina Baumer, an indologist from Austria, is living an working in Varanasi since 1967. at present she is Honorary Coordinator of IGNCA, Kalakosha Division, Varanasi, and Director of Research, Alice Boner Foundation for Fundamental Research in Indian Art. Her main fields of interest are Kashmir Saivism and Silpasastra of Orissa, as well as interreligious studies and comparative mysticism. She has published several books in German, (Upanisads, a selection from Abhinavagupta, etc.) and she is editor of Kalatattvakosa, a Lexicon of Fundamental Concepts of the Indian Art (Vol. I, 1988, Vol. II, 1992). Among the Silpasastras of Orissa she has edited the Vastusutra Upanisad (Motilal Banarsidass, 1982).

Prof. Rajendra Prasad Das is a noted archaeologist and historian of Orissa, and also a creative writer in Oriya. After serving in the Archaeological Survey of India he became Professor of History and Principal in several Colleges in Orissa. He served as Dy Director, Education, Government of Orissa. He is co-author of the important book by Alice Boner, New Light on the Sun Temple of Konarka (Varanasi, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1972). After his retirement he is engaged in the study on Orissan temple and Silpasastras.


The Silparatnakosa by Sthapaka Niranjana Mahapatra is the sixteenth in the series of Kalamulasastra. Although many Vastu texts are planned in this series, this is the first to be printed. It is hoped that in the course of the next year similar texts such as the Mayamata and Manasollasa will be published. Despite the fact that the Silparatnakosa is a late text attributed to the seventeenth century, it has an importance from different points of view. Its structure and contents differ significantly from the contents of other Orissan texts, particularly the Silpa Prakasa and the Silpasarini. Nevertheless, all these texts are distinctively Orissan in character. Besides, they belong to a Pan-Indian tradition in so far as the temple corresponds to the image of Man and that the ground plan and elevation concretize the concept of 'Purusa' on the micro and macro level. The Silpasarini develops the maharasasta pancaratha prasada on the geometrical motif of the square. The ground plans of most other Indian temples are also based on the geometrical motif of the square, circle or ellipse. The Silparatnakosa accepts the basic symbolical identification of the parts of the rekha temple to the body of the divine person (Purusa). However, the governing geometrical motif of the Manjusri type of temple is the Sriyantra. Logically. This type of temple is called Manjusri, both signifying the feminine principle and goddess Sri. Few Indian texts have given attention to the Manjusri type of temple plans built in the shape of the Sricakra, both ground plan and elevation. For this one reason alone, the Silparatnakosa assumes importance in the textual corpus of Indian architecture.

Divided into two sections on temple architecture and temple sculpture, the Silparatnakosa elaborates on the rekha type of temples and details the shape, size and measure of the different architectural members from the pitha to the kalasa. Of great interest is the detailed account of the placements of the naga and vyala motifs. This detailed account of the rekha prasada is followed by a lucid description of the Majusri type of temple. The author declares: "The Manjusri is a most beautiful variety of the rekha type of temple.

In Part II on Temple Sculpture the author is concerned with sculpture (Prasadamurti), an integral part of temple architecture. The programme of the placement of the figures is outlined, while pertinently dividing the images into those of worship (arca) and those for decoration (mandana). More significant is the classification of the images into avyakta and vyakta (unmanifest and manifest). It is only after the author has stated the broad classification that he dwells on the techniques of making images.

A perusal of this text is convincing proof of a distinctive Indian vision, a approach, methodology, and technique of not only architecture but also the other arts.

The visualiser, the composer and the sthapati accept a single basic grid at the level of macro or micro architecture, Purusa or Sakti serving as a model. He concretizes this vision through setting up a series of correspondences in theme, contents, and, most fundamental of all, a mathematical or geometrical shape and form which determines measure, be it in architecture, sculpture, drama, poetry, music or dance. The Silparatnakosa systematically establishes these correlations by accepting the Sriyantra as a basic design grid, imbues it with symbolic significance and then expands both the ground plan as also the elevation. The images on the outer walls o the temple as in the Rajarani Temple in Orissa are parts of a single vision where each image serves a geometrical or symbolical function in relation to the basic Yantra and is also a dramatis persona in a larger mythical choreography.

Between these two layers of an abstract geometrical paradigm and its manifestation through figurative art, as specific images, there are other layers. Con-currently, the temple is Purusa (as rekha prasada) and is also Manjusri, but it is also symbolic of the five elements (mahabhutas) as well as the three gunas. Thus the physical structure of the temple is a coordinate of multiple levels of consciousness almost like the staff lines of music notation. A reading of the text makes it clear that the system of establishing correspondences was sensitively understood and practised until the 7th century. This text is also important because it is codifying an existing tradition and an actual architectural practice rather than laying down guidelines or ground rules for the making of temples. Dr. Bettina Baumer's detailed analysis of the Rajarani temple as a Manjusri type of temple based on the Sricakra is therefore most welcome.

Bettina Baumer and Rajendra Prasad Das, who have so assiduously edited the text, have raised important questions regarding the nature of the textual tradition in regard to Sastras in the introduction. These issues assume a new validity in the context of the modern discourse, on what constitutes a text, whose text, and what text, and for whom? Medieval Indian writers of the Sastras may not have been participants to a modern discourse but they were certainly anticipators of this discourse. For them the text, specially the Sastra, was not prescriptive, fixed, nor was it theory, understood in its usual connotation. Instead it was indeed flexible and fluid, immutable in regard to certain guiding principles but with an inbuilt capacity for change, flexibility and varied interpretation. Thus the text and the practice interpenetrated and walked in and out of each other. The importance of the text (Sastra) is not as theory tendency to evaluate these texts merely on the basis of early or late therefore needs reconsideration. This is as true of Silparatnakosa and other text on architecture as it is of texts on Music published by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (especially the Brhaddesi). I hope that a careful reading of these carefully edited texts in the different arts will enable future art-historians to be aware of the deeper dynamics of the creative and critical discourse within the tradition.

I hope that the publication of this text will stimulate further discussion both on the particular text, on the terminology of Orissan temple architecture as also on many questions which the distinguished Editor has raised in her Introduction. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts is grateful to her and Sri Rajendra Prasad Das for having undertaken to critically edit and translate this text.


The Silpasastra presented here is a living testimony to the fact that the Silpa tradition in Orissa continued practically unbroken up to the present day. The text was composed in 1620 A.D. or 1542 of the Saka era, i.e. ten to four centuries after the construction of the temples of Bhubaneswar, Konarka and others which it describes. One might ask, what was the purpose of composing such a text in the 17th century? It seems that it served as a practical architectural dictionary (kosa) to the students of Silpa and Sthapatya, first, to let them understand the existing historical temples in all their parts, and second, to assist them in the construction of temples following the same age-old prescriptions and rules which had bestowed sanctity and beauty (these being inseparable) on the Orissan temples.

Another important function of such a text, which it can fulfil even today, is to reveal the symbolic significance of the temple and all its parts, a significance which is easily forgotten. After studying its content, one will look at the temples with new eyes, and discover hidden aspects which a superficial view, and even a purely archaeological description or art-historical analysis, cannot unravel. In any art-form, a knowledge of its principles, symbolism and form-language leads to a fuller appreciation. One may enjoy Indian classical music without any knowledge of the ragas and 'talas, but the more one knows and can recognize each raga and tala with their subtleties, the greater and more appropriate will be the enjoyment of music. Thus the function of theory in the Sastras of the Indian Arts is far more than a technical aid for the practitioner.

Just as poetry uses language in a free way, yet it has to follow the rules of grammar, so the Silpasastra contains a grammar of the form-language of a given art, its content and style. A grammar always gives rules for possible combina- tions of words forming sentences, and similarly our text describes form-elements which can be variously combined and applied. The description is therefore not simply sequential, but often topical. For example, where the context requires the description of a pillar, this leads the author to describe all possible shapes of pillars, although they may belong to other parts of the temple than the one under study. This methodology, which resembles the enumeration of gram- matical forms, has to be kept in mind, while trying to understand the text. Architecture consists of structures and patterns which are repeated, and where the details and the whole are in a harmonious relationship. A modern archi- tect like Christopher Alexander speaks of the same laws governing' architecture: "The structure of the language is created by the network of connections among individual patterns: and the language lives, or not, as a totality, to the degree these patterns form a whole."!

Of course, a kosa is not a technical manual of construction, but one has always to place such texts in the context of the living practical tradition. This is true of almost all classes of Sastra in India, which often appear to be dry enumerations of definitions or instructions, if they are not combined with a living guru-parampara, which can fill each word, sutra or sloka with meaning. Thus,' even today, sthapatis in Orissa quote verses from ,the Silparatnakosa, relating them to temple construction, and not merely to the description of existing temples. If this text had not been useful for them, they would not have taken the trouble to recopy it up to the 19th century, even though, from a literary point of view, each recopying involved a deterioration of the textual tradition.

The text says clearly that it is meant only for the community of sthapatis and should not be given to outsiders. This is one of the indications that the silpis and sthapatis, the architects, sculptors and craftsmen, just as other traditional groups, were jealously guarding their own respective tradition - not because it contained any secret doctrines or rituals, but because the knowledge which by tradition belonged to a certain community was not supposed to be divulged to another group. The other indication that this text is not the product of learned pandits can be found in its language, which is, in Keith's words, "a pretence of Sanskrit. We shall deal with the problem of the language of the text separately.

Recent research has thrown much light on the nature and function of Silpa- sastras and their relation to existing monuments and works of art. In order to understand the function of the text, it will be useful to reflect upon the most important methodological points. For a long time textual and art-historical studies moved on parallel lines without meeting and enriching each other. This situation has changed drastically, with the result that we now have a better contextual basis for understanding Indian art. T.S. Maxwell, in an article "Silpa versus Sastra" has given a penetrating analysis of the role of Silpasastras in the Indian artistic tradition and in the evaluation of Indian art. About the nature of these texts he says, "it must on the face of it be unlikely that such texts, though cast in what we take to be a shastric form, were ever used as on-site instruction manuals. Their purpose was, rather, to preserve what could be remembered of former traditions and recent conventions and to discuss such obviously associated issues as aesthetic theory. They seem to have been designed to enter the main tradition as sastra alongside silpa as its complement, but not as detailed commentary or explanation... Those texts epitomised and consolidated the culture in which the artist lived and worked, and from which he drew his inspiration." (ibid., pp. 10-11) Against the opinion that there must be a uniform canon and terminology, he stresses the flexibility of art and of the artist even in the most traditional culture. The Silparatnakosa hints several times at this artistic freedom. "In fact," says Maxwell, "there exists no single canon, and certainly no single authoritative text, for any of the Indian arts. There is no Panini at any stage in the development of sculpture; art is not reducible in this way because it cannot stand still. Artistic creation being a process, every work of art - a temple, a sculpture - is to the artist a project abandoned along the path of a continuous pursuit ... " (ibid., p. 13). This flexibility also applies to the regional idiom, in style and terminology. Again, Maxwell says about the function of Silpasastra that "it supports, rather than censors art." (Ibid., p. 15) The controversy of whether it should be considered to be prescriptive or descriptive is no longer valid in the light of Maxwell's observations. This approach will help us to look at the text with the right perspective.

The Conception of the Temple

The Silparatnakosa, like most Silpasastras, is not a speculative but a tech- nical text. It does not elaborate on the basic principles of architecture or the theology of the temple. Yet, being grounded in the tradition, it contains a clear symbolical conception of the temple which is consistent throughout the whole text. This conception is known to us from the Agni Purana:

One should meditate on the Lord of the temple as embodiment of splendour (vairajarupam), 'Lord of the gods', then the wise should imagine the whole temple as Purusa."

Other texts, such as the Silparatna (16th cent.), also refer to this symbolism of the body of the divine Person," Purusa meaning here the cosmic Being in human form. The body of the Purusa is the outer form, so to speak, the sthula sarira, in which the other, subtle or spiritual body of the God dwells. However our text does not speak of the interior of the temple, nor of the image within the qarbhaqrha, as the divine presence. This has to be inferred or rather is assumed to be known.

The symbolical identification of the parts of the temple, from plinth to the kalasa, with the body is applied to the rekha prasada (SRK v. 6). At first the fourteen parts of the vertical divisions of the temple are identified with fourteen parts of the human body {vv. 7-15) in a rather realistic way (e.g. the five mouldings of the pancakarma are the five toes of the feet, etc.). Later (v. 273), with the addition of even the ayudha and dhvaja (the emblem on top and the flag), the whole body of the Purusa is made to consist of sixteen parts, sixteen being the number of completeness (sodasakala purusa). That the temple as the body of the Purusa is a living body becomes evident when the text speaks of the hole on the upper part of the sikhara as the "breath of the raha” (rahasvasa, v. 351).

Another fundamental conception is that of the five elements, which assume visible shape in the temple: "As the world is created from the five elements, so the sikhara is (also) conceived." (v. 84). The five parts of the pancakarma represent the five elements: the khura is the earth tattva, the kumbha stands for water, the patta stands for fire, the kanika represents wind and the vasanta symbolizes vyoman or space (vv. 84-101). There is an inner logic in these identifications, though it may not be evident in each case. The elements are not applied here to all the parts of the sikhara , but only to the pancakarma, because the five mahiibhiitos are the basis of the other tattvas, whether in the Samkhya list of 25, or in the Agamic conception of 36 tattvas. The basic idea is of course that the temple is a microcosm which corresponds to the creation of the macrocosm.

Foreword by Kapila Vatsyayan vii
Introduction 1
Acknowledgments 25
List of Illustrations 27
Silparatnakosa: Text and Translation 29-193
Part I : On Temple-Architecture 31
Part II: On Temple-Sculpture 170
Pratimalaksana 182
Glossary 195
Bibliography 205
Sloka Index 207
Index 215
List of Plates 227
Plates 229

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