Tala (ताला) is the site of two temples in the village Amerikapa of the Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh. It is located on the east banks of the Maniyari river. J D Beglar, the assistant of Alexander Cunningham, mentioned the Jethani temple however he did not visit the site.1 Unfortunately, the site remained obscured and did not feature in later works, covering Chhattisgarh and Dakshina Kosala region, until the decade of 1970s when first debris clearance work was undertook by the state government. The first descriptive account of the site came out in 1980 by Donald M Stadtner2. K D Bajpai3 identifies the present village of Tala with the Sangama-grama village mentioned in the Mekala Panduvamshi king Surabala’s Malhar copper-plates. The epigraph, datable early seventh century CE, mentions a grant of village Sangama in Mekala to one Narasimha, the latter with the permission of the king gave it away to the illustrous god Jayeshvara bhattaraka. The site of the confluence (sangama) of river Shivnath and Maniyari is located about 4 km from the present temple ruins, and this is a considerable distance for that period, therefore the identification is contestable and L S Nigam4 rejects this identification however he does not provide any supportive evidence but only states Bajpai’s identification is not based on any firm evidence and hence untenable.
Monuments – There are two temples of importance at Tala named Devarani and Jethani temples. The Devarani temple is fairly preserved while the Jethani temple only exists in its ruins. In the past, three three phases of excavations and clearance work had been carried out in Tala. The first was a minor work carried out in 1977-78 by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museum, Madhya Pradesh under the supervision of A. K. Risbud. This work was confined to the Devarani temple and in it debris were cleared revealing the steps leading to the temple. The next phase was carried out in 1985-87 under the supervision of G. L. Raikwar and R. K. Singh, of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museum, Madhya Pradesh. This phased was focused on the Jethani temple and clearance of its debris. The third phase was focused around the Devarani temple, and was carried out in 1987-88 under the supervision of G. L. Raikwar, R. K. Singh, and K. K. Chakravarty. This phase revealed the famous Rudra-Shiva sculpture.5 The name of the temples are local appellations as they took the images of Ganga and Yamuna as Devarani and Jethani, denoting younger and elder daughters-in-law in a typical Indian family.
Jethani Temple – During the visit of Stadtner6 in 1980s, the temple was in such ruined conditions that he was not able to make its tentative ground plan. The temple faces south and has three entrances, the main entrance in the front and two entrances in the rear, in the east and the west. At the base of the main entrance were found remains of four pillars suggesting that there was once a roof above the entrance. These pillars have bharavahakas (weight-bearers) at the base. Pillars are also found near the eastern and the western entrances. An elephant is placed at the eastern entrance. Stadtner tells the style of sculpture surrounding the Jethani conforms to that of the Devarani temple and it can be concluded that both the temples were constructed at the same time.
The most interesting sculpture of the temple are its bharavahakas (weight-bearers) who support columns and pillars above them. In most of the cases we see dwarfish human figures however in a few cases animals do this duty. These dwarfish human figures are depicted in various animated and imaginative postures that sometimes appear funny however the figures carry a jovial attitude though they are very much under the pressure of the weight above them. Various scholars have suggested that this temple was one of the first attempt when the architects moved away from the wooden structures to stones.7 Considering the weight of the stone, it was indeed an ingenious idea to carve these bharavahakas demonstrating a sound foundation required to support the heavy structure above. It is indeed unfortunate that the overall structure did not survive and it probably fell soon after its construction. There are evidences that brick buttresses were used to provide the additional support however that also did not help to avoid this collapse.
Devarani Temple – This east facing temple is in fairly preserved state however its shikhara has not survived. Stadtner8 mentions it as the only earliest standing temple in the ancient Kosala region. He opines that Kosala region being a buffer state between the Guptas in the north and the Vakatakas in the south, we witness in Tala the affinities and art influence from both the sides. This Gupta influence is accepted by Williams while the Vakataka influence is accepted by Krishna Deva. This makes Tala a very important monument for the study of art and iconography and it must be counted among the finest sources of sixth-century Indian art. He also explains that the source of patronage and a precise date for the temples at Tala are difficult to determine, for there are neither inscriptions associated with any of the sixth-century remains in Kosala nor certainty regarding the exact nature of political power in the region during this period. However, Chakravarty brushes aside these foreign influences stating that the site of Tala was not an isolated experiment but an important link between the previous and future temple architecture of the Chhattisgarh region. The temple consists of a garbha-grha, antarala and a mukha-mandapa. Both, the garbha-grha and antarala, are rectangular in plan and almost equal in size. The temple shikhara had not survived, Stadtner suggests based upon the brick debris lying in the temple premises, it appears that the shikhara was built in brick. However, this has been ruled out in the excavation of 1987-88 that proved the bricks were part of the buttresses for support. Chakravarty9 opined that the garbha-grha was probably surmounted by a flat roof as evident from the height of the pillars and square sockets on the pilasters of the antarala etc.
The vertical elevation of the temple currently has adhishthana and jangha as the upper parts such as baranda and shikhara, etc. are missing. The adhisthana of the temple shows southern influence as the moldings above the wide kumbha are not found in later Chhattisgarh temples but can be seen in the early temples of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The temple may be assigned between tri-ratha and pancha-ratha style as the problem here is that not all the rathas are projections as expected in a typical style. The central and corner niches are recessed to the same depth while the intermediate niches are projected forward. The niches are compartmentalized within pilasters and these starts from the adhishthana and extend till the roof cornice. It appears that no images were ever adorned within these niches as evident from the available space in these niches as well as missing statues in the temple debris.
The mukha-mandapa has an exquisitely carved doorway. Stadtner tells the sculptures over this doorway are extraordinarily high in quality and, in style, can be considered a regional formulation of late north Indian Gupta mode. The columns positioned in the front of the doorway, on either side, has seven bands decorated with floral and foliage patterns. The interesting feature of the doorway is its carved lateral faces. The lateral face is divided into unequal spaces and carved with sculptural panels. The inner face of the south door-jamb has Yamuna with her retinue at the base, A group of amorous couples, kirtimukha, and Kubera with his corpulent body. The panel depicting Kubera is of much importance as it shows linga-worship. Kubera is shown holding leaves in his both hands, and his halo is also made of leaves. Above the head of Kubera rises a linga and the latter is worshipped by six sages, three on each side. Chakravarty10 identifies this panel as depicting Kubera’a devotion to Shiva. The inner face of the north jamb has Ganga at the base, Shiva and Parvati surrounded by a group of gana, kirti-mukha, and again Shiva and Parvati over Kailsasa mountain.
The doorway intel is a broad block. The lower half of the lintel is divided into three compartments, the inner boundaries are marked by a seated elephant with a tree in the background and the outer boundaries are marked by a figure of a makara without a tree background. The central figure in the middle compartment is identified with Shiva-kankala-murti by Stadtner. He tells though the figure is much ruined however enough remains to reconstruct the original, writing, ‘The right hand of the figure to the left of Kankala holds a rosary while his damaged left hand seems either to rest against his waist or to grasp a long staff adorned with indistinct objects that can be interpreted probably as bones (kankala-danda). It is more likely, however, that the lower right hand of the central image holds this important attribute. Another important aspect in the identification is the deliberately conceived asymmetrical stance of the figure, despite its appearance as the central focus of the lintel. The figure is turned to the right, with is left leg distinctly bent, serves to represent Kankala at the moment of his departure on his pilgrimage to Varanasi, a point on which the majority of he texts are in agreement.’11 The evidences presented by Stadtner are not strong enough to support this identification and this is also opined by Bosma12. Another interpretation comes from Chakravarty13 who identifies the central figure as that of Shiva as Gangadhara. The male figure on the right side of Shiva is taken as Bhagiratha and the female figure on the left is suggested to be of Parvati. Nigam14 suggests that this scene represents the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Though one hand of Shiva is reaching out to the female figure on his left however there are a few missing essential elements such as ritual fire, Brahma as the priest, etc. Bosma15 rightfully identifies that the upper two hands of Shiva are holding an animal that looks like an elephant. Shiva is shown with elephant hide in two icons, one is Gajasura-samhara-murti where he generally is shown trampling over elephant’s head and the other is Andhakasura-vadha-murti where he is holding the hide and slaying demon Andhaka with his trishula. A very similar Andhaka-vadha-murti is preset over the door jambs of the contemporary Bhima Kichak Temple at Malhar. The present icon misses some key elements to be identified with either Gajasura-samhara-murti or Andhaka-vadah-murti. She draws parallel from Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava where the poet describes dripping blood from elephant’s hide gave proper contrast to the bridal garment of Parvati that was adorned with swans. However, this also seems a far-fetched and imaginative identification as I do not see an issue in identifying this icon with Shiva with elephant hide as the latter is a distinctive attribute Shiva holds in various representations. This of course may not fit with Gajasura-samhara-murti as we do not see action in play. The upper part of the lintel has Gaja-Lakshmi in the center flanked by flying celestials carrying garlands. The lower face of the doorway lintel is carved with half-lotus design at the terminals and in the middle it has a roundel made of fifteen identical figures of sages, each seated in squats keeping right hand on the next figure.
On the parapet of the approach to the mukha-mandapa, two corpulent gana figures are placed on either side. The figures are much mutilated except the outline of their body. On either side of the mukha-mandapa stand two columns over which a female figure carrying a vase is carved. The identification of these figures are not certain however as they carry water vase therefore they should be related to water imagery such as the river goddesses. Due to missing foundation inscription or any other epigraph, the dating of this temple is attempted based upon architectural and art comparative studies. The general consensus around dating of this temple is in the first half of the sixth century CE, Stadtner16 suggests 525-550 CE, Krishna Deva17 to 550-575 CE, Joanna Williams18 to 480-530 CE, and Nigam19 suggests that the temple was constructed during the reign of the Sarabhapuriya king Prasannamatra (510-535 CE).
Inscriptions – There is no important inscription except for a few label inscriptions. Names of two brothers, probably pilgrims, are engraved at the base of a gana figure on the left of the entrance and over a makara pedestal. These names read, Hetukarana and Brahmakarana, engraved in the characters of 7th century CE.20
Rudra-Shiva Image – This enigmatic image was discovered on 17th January, 1988 during the excavation work by The Department of Archaeology and Museums, Madhya Pradesh.21 The image was found among the stock of pile near the entrance of the Devarani Temple in the south-east direction. It was found buried with its face down. Considering the dimensions of the statue, 8 feet high and about 5 tons in weight, it can be safely assumed that the statue was not removed far from its original location and probably was standing at the same location where it was found buried. This stone image represents a male highlighting his masculine characteristics. He stands straight, has two arms and is depicted with urdhvareta (ithyphallic).
Various organs of his body are represented by animals. Starting from his top, his hair are bound by snake coils forming a turban over his head. Two snake hoods are protruding over his shoulders on either side of his head. at the side of his head. A lizard forms his nose while its hind legs form the brows. Eyes are formed probably of a frog who can open his eyes wide. The moustaches are formed of two fishes while a crab forms the lower lip and chin. Two peacocks with their fanning tails form the ears while makaras form the shoulders out of which his arms emerge.
His fingernails are adorned with snakes and a snake also forms his belt over his waist. Two human heads are present over his chest, one in the right and one in the left, and one large human head is carved on his stomach. His penis is made from a tortoise and two bells make his testicles. Four human heads are present on his thighs, two in the front and two on the sides. The heads in the front are in anjali-mudra (joined hands). As these heads are shown without moustaches, these may be taken as female heads. Two lion heads are present on his knees and one snake-hood is near his feet on the ground. His one hand rests on his waist while the other was resting over a club, the handle of which has partially survived. This is a very interesting image with no parallel in the Indian art and therefore it opens up scope for interpretations and identification for the scholar community. L S Nigam organized an international paper seminar and various scholars submitted their papers. However, there is still no consensus in the community over a specific interpretation or identification. Dr. Pramod Chandra once stated that this image will be a problem from the iconographic students for a century at least.22
There can be many thought processes one can approach when trying to identify this icon and Nigam23 provides such a list. Presence of multitude of animals over the sculpture, and the human figure shown ithyphallic, it may be equate with Shiva as Pashupati (master of all living beings). A few of these animals, tortoise, fish and lion, may also be equated with Kurma, Matsya and Narasimha avataras of Vishnu and the human figure being dwarfish in appearance can be taken as Vamana. A few of these animals, crab, fish, makara, lion, can also be taken as zodiac signs, Karka, Meen, Makara and Simha respectively, and then this figure may also represent a form of a zodiac-circle. A few of these animals are also mounts of various gods, peacock for Kartikeya, lizard for Parvati, lion for Durga, makara for Ganga and tortoise for Yaumna, therefore this figure may represent a super-god carrying these different vahanas thus different gods. Due to multiple heads present over the icon, it can also be equated with multi-head figures of Shiva from the Vakataka period, sometimes identified with ashta-Shiva and Dvadasha-Shiva.
A large part of the scholar community is inclined towards the identification of this image with that of a Yaksha, gana or dvarapala. One major argument in favor of this identification is the finding spot of this statue. This statue has been found near the entrance of the temple, and taking note of its gigantic dimensions, it can be safely assumed that its finding place was the original place where this statue was installed. Therefore, this statue does not indicate a major deity but a subsidiary deity or an attendant figure. Nigam provides hints from Kena-Upanishad where Brahman appears to gods in form of a Yaksha and Williams24 and Meister25 tend to agree towards this Yaksha identification. Srinivasan26, and R C Agrawala27 agreeing with her, also tend to agree towards the yaksha iconography stating that the icon represent the Maha-Yaksha or Rupa-Yaksha as described in the Shatapatha Brahmana.
I K Sharma28 identifies it as a dvarapala stating there are instance where fierce looking Shaiva dvarapalas were carved and adorned on the temples. Bakker29 agrees for the protective purpose of the image stating that it probably represents a composite gana aimed to protect the temple. Keeping the theme of a gana, identifications are also attempted of that which specific gana it may be. P K Agrawala30 refers to the description of Aghorastra provided in various texts and suggests that this icon was not a freak of artist’s imagination but is created against an evolved mythological background taking references of iconographic details of Aghorastra.
Among the other specific identifications, we may take note of Dasgupta31 who while emphasizing on the pashupati aspect of the icon, also includes the vishvarupa aspect stating that the image represents the both forms of Shiva. Gupta32 identifies the icon with Skanda-apsamara, the grha that inflicts infants as mentioned in various Ayurveda texts. Rao33 identifies him as Varuna explaining that Varuna, being the lord of ocean, therefore various aquatic animals are found on this image. J P Singh Deo34 takes him as a composite tantric figure of Mahakala and Mahakali.
Let’s also look at the opinions of the party involved in the excavation and finding of this specific statue. Rahul Kumar Singh35 says ‘Whatever, attempts have been made up till now to identify the icon are thoughtful and logical, yet none of them give due consideration to the regional source material’. He points to the Soma-Siddhanta sect, mentioned in a copper-plate from Malhar, telling that Soma-sect was often considered unorthodox and severest warnings were imposed on them who follow this sect. It appears that the Tala temple was involved in Soma-sect practices and later on another dominant Shaiva-sect took over the temple and removed all the traces of earlier abominable and unorthodox practices and this is the reason we find the statue was buried its face down. G L Raikwar36 quotes a Mahabharata reference where Shiva, as a Mahayogi, is described in detail detailing Shiva taking various forms of different animals, birds and multi-head appearances. He says that these references from Mahabharata helps theoretically however practically we do not have any iconographical text particular to this icon. K K Chakravarty37 identifies it with a Rudra image of Lakulisa cult stating that the leftover of the base of his lakuta (rod) is still present in the hand of this figure.
Absorbing the above and contemplating over these different identification is a mammoth task for an individual. However, trying my humble attempt here, I believe the most important aspect for consideration should be the finding spot of this statue as well as the intended purpose of erecting it. As the finding spot is outside the temple therefore it probably represents a deity/semi-deity who was usually installed in the open and its sacrificial rites, if any, were performed in an open space. It may not be equated with a dvarapala as we need them in a pair and at Tala we did not find its counterpart. He may be a gana whose does not warrant a pair however still performs his duty as a guardian. In case of a gana, we also get rid of the need of any sacrificial rites as those were not necessary for a gana. He may also represent one of the local/regional tribal deity who were mostly installed in an open space and their sacrificial rites were performed in the open. In that case, this image probably was not contemporary to the temple, either it existed before or was installed later. Bakker does mention this point that looking at the style and carving of the statue, it does not match with what we see otherwise at Tala and Malhar, both the sites dated to the 5th-6th century CE. And in the case of a tribal/regional deity, it also explains why this statue was buried face down as when the Shaivism grew from leaps and bounds, the purpose of this image was not required anymore and probably seen detrimental if the status continues to stand in front of the temple.
1 Beglar, J D (1878). Report of a Tour in Bundelkhand and Malwa, 1871-72; and in the Central Provinces, 1873-74, vol. VII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp. 159-168
2 Stadtner, D M (1980). A Sixth-Century A. D. Temple from Kosala published in the Archives of Asian Art, vol. 33. pp. 38-48
3 Bajpai, K D (1978). New Light on the Early Pandava Dynasty of South Kosala published in the Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 58/59, Diamond Jubilee Volume (1977-1978). p. 435
4 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. p. 45
5 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. p. 46
6 Stadtner, D M (1980). A Sixth-Century A. D. Temple from Kosala published in the Archives of Asian Art, vol. 33. p. 47
7 Williams, J G (1982). The Art of Gupta India – Empire and Province. Princeton University Press. New Jersey. ISBN 0691039887. p. 140
8 Stadtner, D M (1980). A Sixth-Century A. D. Temple from Kosala published in the Archives of Asian Art, vol. 33. p. 38
9 Chakravarty, K K (1992). The Temples at Tala and the Art of Daksina Kosala, a Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Harvard University. p. 49
10 Bosma, Natasja (2018). Daksina Kosala: A Rich Centre of Early Saivism, a thesis submitted to the The University of Groningen. ISBN 9789403403939. p. 177
11 Stadtner, D M (1980). A Sixth-Century A. D. Temple from Kosala published in the Archives of Asian Art, vol. 33. pp. 44-45
12 Bosma, Natasja (2018). Daksina Kosala: A Rich Centre of Early Saivism, a thesis submitted to the The University of Groningen. ISBN 9789403403939. p. 187
13 Bosma, Natasja (2018). Daksina Kosala: A Rich Centre of Early Saivism, a thesis submitted to the The University of Groningen. ISBN 9789403403939. p. 188
14 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. p. 48
15 Bosma, Natasja (2018). Daksina Kosala: A Rich Centre of Early Saivism, a thesis submitted to the The University of Groningen. ISBN 9789403403939. pp. 188-89
16 Stadtner, D M (1980). A Sixth-Century A. D. Temple from Kosala published in the Archives of Asian Art, vol. 33. p. 47
18 Williams, J G (1982). The Art of Gupta India – Empire and Province. Princeton University Press. New Jersey. ISBN 0691039887. p. 128
19 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. p. 49
20 Chakravarty, K K (1992). The Temples at Tala and the Art of Daksina Kosala, a Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Harvard University. p. 23
21 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. p. 61
22 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. p. 8
23 Nigam, L S (ed.) (2000). The Image of Siva from Tala: Issues in Identification and Interpretation of the Symbols Therein published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 61-68
24 Williams, Joanna (2000). Thoughts about a Remarkable Sculpture from Tala published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 69-72
25 Meister, Michael W (2000). Too Late to Tala published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 73-81
26 Srinivasan, Doris Meth (2000). Rupa Yaksha: Unique Icon/Unique Identification published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 89-96
27 Agrawala, R C (2000). An Enigmatic Statue from Tala published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 107-109
28 Sarma, I K (2000). A Polycephalus Image from Tala: Analysis and Identification published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 97-100
29 Bakker, Hans T (2000). An Enigmatic Giant from Tala published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 101-105
30 Agrawala, P K (2000). Saivite Gana Statue from Tala published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp.111-116
31 Dasgupta, K K (2000). An Enigmatic Image of Siva published in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 83-88
32 Gupta, Chandrashekhar (2000). Identity of the Unique Sculpture from Talapublished in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 117-120
33 Rao, L S (2000). A Mysterious Sculpture from Talapublished in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 121-126
34 Singh Deo, J P (2000). Composite Tantric Yogic Figures of Mahakala and Mahakalipublished in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 127-134
35 Singh, Rahul Kumar (2000). Tala Icon: A Comprehensive Attempt of its Identificationpublished in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 135-142
36 Raikwar, G L (2000). A Classical Icon from Talapublished in Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639. pp. 143-151
37 Chakravarty, K K (1992). The Temples at Tala and the Art of Daksina Kosala, a Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Harvard University.
Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.