Tala – The Riddle of an Icon


Introduction – Tala (ताला) is located on the bank of Maniari river near village Ameri Kampa. K D Bajpai identifies Sangamagrama which is mentioned in a record of the Panduvamshis of Mekala with Tala as it is situated at the sangama (confluence) of Shivnath and Maniyari. However Tala is just the name of the place or spot where these temples are situated, the village as such is called Ameri-kapa. Hence the antiquity of the name Tala cannot be substantiated.

A M Shastri suggests that it is same as Tali which is mentioned in a copper-plate of Mahabhavagupta I Janamejaya. However here also the same issue comes up that Tala is not the name of the village but just the place where these temples are. S K Pandey suggests that it could be same as Talahari-mandala mentioned in a Kalchuri record. But here again the same pertinent question props up. In the current state of knowledge, it is not easy to assign this place with some ancient place.

Monuments – There are only two temples at Tala, Devrani and Jethani temples. They are so called as both are located within a single complex and situated side-by-side otherwise there is no specific meaning to these names. Devrani Temple is better preserved in comparison to the other temple which is much dilapidated.


Jethani Temple

Jethani Temple –  This south facing temple was excavated in 1986 when it was just a big mound. Though excavated carefully but it’s much dilapidated at present. The temple constitutes an ardha-mandapa (hall) and a garbhagriha (sanctum). The plan suggests that these elements were arranged in rising floors, so that garbhagriha was higher than the ardha-mandapa. There are three entrances to the temple, one in front and two on the rear sides. The front entrance was covered by a roof as remains of four pillars are found at the bottom of this 20 feet wide staircase. Rear entrances directly takes a visitor to the grabhagriha.





The pillars of the temple has attracted the scholars and few have termed these among the best specimens of that time. Hans Bakker mentions that these are delicately carved with oblique bands of floral and foliage patterns. Many pillars have huge bharvahaka (weight carriers) carved at bottom. The temple is constructed with layered red-sandstone which was quarried locally.



S N Mishra mentions that the sculptures of Jethani Temple at Tala are the earliest, colossal in form about 10 to 15 feet high, carved in round and bear influences from the Kushana art. He further mentions that it was a Dashavatara temple and icons like Narasimha, Buddha have been identified in the temple.

Devrani Temple


Devrani Temple – This east facing temple is fairly preserved however roof of the temple has not survived. S N Mishra suggests that the temple had a flat roof earlier and it was renovated during 600 CE and a shikhara was constructed in brick. The temple would have been dedicated to Shiva as a Shiva image is found at its lalat-bimba (lintel center). This rectangular temple constitutes of garbhagriha, antarala (vestibule), mukha-mandapa and open space in front probably for maha-mandapa which was never constructed. Visitor can reach this open space with a flight of stairs. There are two dvarpalas on either sides of these steps, meshapurusha (human with head of a ram) or Naigamesha.

Mandapa Doorway
Shiva Parvati playing dice game
Shiva as Kalyana-Sundara


The mandapa has an exquisitely carved doorway which is made of six panels (sakhas). There are two female figures on the extreme side of the doorway. Figure on the southern side is fairly preserved. On both the sides, a large image of a lady is carved in the middle, above her is a male figure as bharvahaka (weight carrier) and below her is another female figure. Donald Stadtner described the lady in middle as holding a long garland which has a vase at an end. Krishna Deva, however, describes these two middle ladies as dipadharini (carrying lamp) and chamaradharini (carrying a fly-whisk). Nigam, however, does not agree with both as dipa and chamara attributes are not very clear. Both the ladies are indeed related somehow to water as per him. Can these be river goddesses?



As such there is no foundation inscription, however scholars have tried to assign date to this temple. Stadtner assigns 525-550 CE, Krishna Deva assigns 550-575 CE while J G Williams assigns 480-530 CE. S N Mishra suggests that the temple was probably constructed by the Sarabhapuriya king Jayaraja (550-560 CE). L S Nigam agrees with the Sarabhapuriya origin however in his opinion it would be during the rule of Prasanna (525-550 CE) or in one of his predecessor. A coin of Prasanna was discovered during the excavation from the Jethani Temple. K D Bajpai identifies Tala with Sangamgrama as mentioned in an inscription found at Malhar which mentions Jayeshvar Bhattaraka which probably seems to be the name of the God whom Jayabala, the originator of the Panduvamshis of the Mekala dynasty, worshipped. He identifies Devrani temple with Jayeshvar-Bhattaraka-temple and assigns it to Jayabala and his son, Surabala, made a donation to this temple.



S N Mishra states that the sculptures of the Devrani Temple represent mature phase of the Gupta art. These excel all other contemporary plastic art in the entire Chhattisgarh area. Nigam states that the sculptural art of Tala is par-excellent. Both the temples have various depiction of gana images which are either depicted as attendants or independent. One peculiar gana image is that of Naigamesha, which has a human body with the head of a ram.



Inscriptions – There is no important inscriptions as such in the temple. Names of two brothers, probably pilgrims, are engraved on the first step and similar names are found behind the one dvarpala image. These names are, Hetukarana and Brahmakarana.

The Tala Icon


Iconography Riddle – This enigmatic image was discovered in 1988 during an excavation work taken up by The Department of Archaeology and Museums, Madhya Pradesh by G L Raikwar, Rahul Kumar Singh, A P Singh and C L Gupta under the supervision of K K Chakravarty and V K Bajpai. The image was found near the entrance of the Devrani Temple in the south-east direction. It was found buried on its ventral side. Considering the dimensions of the statue, 2.7 m high and weighing about 5 tons, it may be said that the statue could not have been removed far from its original location and probably was standing at the same location where it was found buried near the entrance of the temple.

Features of the Main Face


This stone image represents a male in sampada posture. This two-armed image is carved in urdhvamedhra (erect penis) mudra. Various animals are shown all over his body, amalgamated to form different limbs. Snake coils form a turban over his head with two snake hoods 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 crocodiles form the shoulders out of which his arms emerge. Snakes are also used in adorning the fingernails and thumbs.

Various Heads


There are total of seven human heads on his body excluding the main head of the image. Three heads are with moustaches while four are clean shaven. The face on the stomach is the largest, even than the main face of the statue. A tortoise neck makes his erect penis while two bells form his testicles. Two lion faces are depicted as his knee-caps. The feet are supposed to be of an elephant. One hand is broken however it appears that it was resting over a club as a part of this handle is still left there. His another hand is akimbo.

Features of the Lower Part


The image is very interesting from iconographic point of view as it have many peculiar features which are otherwise unknown in iconographic texts and art forms. This opens up a scope for various interpretations for the identification of this image. Let’s have a look on various identification proposed by various scholars. Dr Pramod Chandra once stated that this image will be a problem from the iconographic students for a century at least.

Shiva – Joanna Williams mentions that were it not that the doorway of the Devrani temple bears several Shiva images, then one might question whether this image belongs to Shaiva or Vaishnava sect. However she does not go ahead with this proposition. Doris Meth Srinivasan states that this image is devoid of all major Shaivite symbols in use at that time. G L Raikwar gives reference of the Anushashana Parva chapter 14 of Mahabharata where Shiva, as a Mahayogi, is described in detail. It is mentioned that he assumes the form of all aquatic animals, tortoise, fish etc. Among the various forms which Shiva can assume, lion, peacock, lizard, elephant, birds are specifically mentioned. He also can have innumerable stomachs and faces, sometimes six-faced or multi-faced.. His hair is long and he stands erect and perfectly naked. He possesses large and terrible eyes. He sometimes has one mouth, two mouths, three mouths or many mouths.

Raikwar says that these references from Mahabharata helps theoretically however practically we do not have any iconographical text particular to this icon. He states that iconographic and iconometric canons are necessary for comparison between theory and practice. He further mentions that a different style and art school was dominant in Dakshina Kosala, particularly in Tala and Malhar, parallel to the Gupta style in fifth-sixth century CE. Unfortunately, we do not have any corresponding literature about this style.

Shiva as Rudra – K K Chakravarty identifies it with a Rudra image of Lakulisa cult. However K K Dasgupta states that Lakuta (rod) which is a mandatory characteristic of Lakulisa icon is absent in this image hence it should not be considered as a Lakulisa representation.

Shiva as Vilakshana – G B Deglurkar suggests that it is a Vilaksana form of Shiva and is related to multi-head images found at Mandhal. He describes the image as Dvadashamukha Shiva however only eight human faces are present on the image. But Deglurkar counts two lion heads on knee-caps and two eyes of the image as well in his counting thus arriving at twelve heads. S K Chitale agrees with Deglurkar and identifies this image as ‘Sarva-bhutah-yudhistita-dasatanu-Mahakala’.

Shiva as Pashupati – In view of the animals constituting and accompanying the image, L S Nigam points to the Pashupati icon similar to the one found on Indus seals. However Hans Bakker does not agree with this as he is perplexed with multiple heads on the statue. K K Dasgupta suggests that this icon is a composite form of Pashupati and Vishvarupa forms of Shiva which are described in Satrudiya and Rudradhyaya text of Yajurveda. Pashupati form describes Shiva as the protector of all animals and allows them to be merged with his body. Whereas Vishvarupa icon can have multiple forms.

Vishvarupa icon was later associated with Vishnu and Krishna with stories like Krishna showing whole universes in his mouth to Yashoda and showing his gigantic form to Arjuna during Mahabharata war. Doris Meth Srinivasan states that the animal and human forms on the image are not positioned in a hierarchical or cosmic progression, that is the creatures of the water do not occupy the lowermost position followed by earthly creatures and so on, as they are for example in the Vishnu Vishvarupa image from Samalaji of sixth century CE.

Shiva of Soma-siddhanta – Rahul Kumar Singh was a member of the team who did the excavation and found this icon in 1988. He has carried out an extensive village-to-village survey around this area during his field work. He 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 Soma-Siddhanta talks about the creator and creatures interrelation, their unity and diversity with reference to Shiva philosophy.

Singh mentions that very little is known about this sect as no literature is available so far. However this sect is mentioned in the Malhar plates of Shivagupta Balarjuna which records a donation to an Acharya of Soma-tradition. It appears that Soma-sect was often considered unorthodox therefore severest warnings were imposed on them who follow this sect. Singh points out to few instances where additional carving is noted upon the figures of Ganesha and Naigamesha. It appears that the 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. But if this is the case, then why this particular icon was not destroyed or mutilated but buried carefully?

Vishnu – Doris Meth Srinivasan mentions that this statue bears no visual affinity to Vishnu or Vasudeva-Krishna cult. Just because three of the animals, fish, tortoise and lion, depicted on this image corresponds to three incarnations of Vishnu does not put this image under Vaishnava category. L S Nigam suggests that as this male statue is proportionately short in height so it may be taken as Vamana incarnation however he does not suggest that this image represents any Vaishnava icon as such.

Yaksha/Maha-Yaksha/Rupa-Yaksha/Maha-Purusha – L S Nigam identifies this image with a Yaksha due to emphasis shown on its muscular strength, turban head-dress and colossal size. Nigam quotes Kena Upnishad where a Brahman won over the arrogance of the Gods and this Brahman is seen as a Yaksha. Michael W Meister though does not specifically states whether it is a Yaksha icon however his research paper talks about various forms of Yakhas and their representation which suggests that his thought process was in the line of L S Nigam only. R C Agrawala mentions that such life-size statues were in vogue during the Sunga and Kushana period and viewed in this light he suggests that this enigmatic and gigantic image should be considered as some unusual form of Maha-Yaksha.

Doris Meth Srinivasan points towards the Maha-Purusha which is described in the Vedas as a ‘Giant Male’ or a ‘Cosmic Giant’ which contains within himself all the material of the phenomenal world. She believes that the Tala image belongs to the end of an era wherein the Maha-Purusha ideal influenced the form of giant divine male beings. The big belly of this male is the hallmark of a Yaksha. She further states that the early plastic representations of Yakshas reflect the influence of Maha-Purusha and faithfully express the characteristics ascribed to the Maha-Yaksha in the Vedas and the Mahabharata. She states that the Tala image appears to incorporate the basic features of the Maha-Yaksha at a time when its influence is in decline.

Srinivasan gives a reference from Shatapatha Brahmana where it is mentioned that Brahman (neuter) descends into these worlds by means of two great mysterious powers, two large Yakshas who are called by Name (nama) and Form (rupa). Being replete with a variety of animal and human forms, the Tala image may represent the Rupa-Yaksha. Srinivasan, however, clearly states that she knows that she is proposing an unknown identification and she feels that as Rupa-Yakha was found near the staircase so its corresponding Nama-Yaksha should be there on the other side of the staircase. However no such finding has been reported till now.

Dvarpala – I K Sharma gives importance to the finding place of the image. As the image is found near the entrance and it is very sure that the image could not have been removed far from its original location hence it is clear that the image was probably of some dvarpala of the temple. Sharma further mentions that the multi-headed body only emphasizes the fierceness of the dvarpala. He points to two such dvarpalas, Kumbhodara and Nikumbha. He even states that if this identification is not accepted then also this image should be taken as a tantric form aligned to Sakti cult where Bhairava or Ksetrapala images were used to be installed outside the temple.

Hans Bakker writes, ‘I would tentatively propose to consider this image as a composite Shaiva gana figure, who may have had an apotropaic function, protecting the Devrani Temple’. P K Agrawala also identifies this image with a Shiva Gana however he suggests that it could be a personified representation of Shiva’s Aghorastra form which is defined in detail in Uttarakamikagama. However the definition does not suit completely to the image.

Skandapsamara – Chandrashekhar Gupta identifies this image with Skandapsamara, a personified representation of various diseases, specially related to children. He tells that various images of Shiva parivara members are found around the temple such as those of Ganesha, Kartikeya, Naigamesha etc. Hence it appears that these various parivara gods were enshrined around the temple. Thus the image in question should also belong to some member of this pantheon only.

He further states that this Skanda should not be mistook for its identity with Kartikeya though both were synonymous in later times. In Shushruta Samhita, Skanda is the name given to this god and he is said to be different from Kartikeya. Initially Skanda was an evil god and responsible for various nuisances however once he was added into the Shiva pantheon, his status changed to the nuisance remover god.

Varuna – L S Rao identifies this image with Varuna, the god of ocean. He explains that Varuna, being the lord of ocean, it is very obvious to find many aquatic animals on this image. Snake who belongs to netherworld is depicted predominantly on his body which further supports the emphasis given to aquatic animals. Close association of these aquatic animals to the witchcraft strongly supports the contention that the image is of Varuna. Varuna had seven pasas which bind the world within the limits of ethical values. These seven pasas are depicted as seven faces on the image. Piercing eyes of the main face reflects the statement of Rgveda where Varuna is supposed to possess Sun for his eyes which constantly observes the activities of the beings in the world.

Varuna as the god of magic is not very well known fact as he is traditionally associated with water or ocean. Here Rao mentions that some of these aquatic animals like crocodile, tortoise and crab were used in witchcraft as described in the Arthashashtra of Kautilya. This suggests that Varuna was also the god of magic cause he is the god of all water bodies including the animals who live in water. R N Dandekar mentions that Varuna is referred as asura and maya in Rgveda which probably points to his magical powers. As a creator and the constructor of this universe, Varuna is regarded as the awe-inspiring working magician.

Composite Tantric Yogic Figure of Mahakala and Mahakali – J P Singh Deo identifies this image with a composite form of Mahakala and Mahakali prominent in Tantric rituals. Shiva and Shakti are the casual Head as Shiva-Shakti Tattvas. The supreme lord is represented as Shiva and his power is represented as Shakti, his consort, which resides in Muladhara Chakra in our bodies. In Aghora path, the spiritual knowledge is more practical and literatures less. Therefore many images of these gods do not confine within some laid down rules. Deo gives many supporting evidences however I feel somehow all these facts are little bit farfetched.

He suggests that Ganga appears from the matted locks of Shiva and Makara is her mount. So the crocodiles forming the shoulders of the image represent Ganga’s mount and probably her descent. Peacocks forming ears represent Kartikeya, a son of Shiva. A pair of serpent hoods on either side of the main head represents kundalini shaktis of Shiva and Shakti. Urdhvamedhra (penis-erectus) symbolizes Vajroli mudra, the practice prevalent in Tantric Aghora path. It is mentioned that men should contract and draw back the penis into abdomen which is appropriately represented by the neck of a tortoise in this image.

There are total of seven human faces on this image, three soprting moustaches and four clean shaven. Deo suggests that the four clean faces represents the feminine form while three with moustaches depict masculine features. There are four methods to awaken Shakti and these four feminine faces represent these four methods. As the Shakti resides in Muladhara chakra hence these four faces are carved near the male genital region. While three masculine faces probably means the three cities of Tripur which were destroyed by Shiva.

Deo states that it may be regarded that this image is not a free expression or hypothesis of the sculptor artist, but he was guided by an advanced Aghora Tantric who was well versed in the Aghora path. Though we have not found any iconographical support for this however it seems a composite tantric yogic figure of Mahakala and Mahakali because of its complicated iconographic features.

My Opinion – In my opinion, one most important thing to be taken in account is the finding place of this statue. It was found outside the temple, very near to the entrance staircase. The size of the statue suggests that it could not have been moved from its original location. This suggests that this is not a statue of some main deity but either of some guardian or subsidiary deity. As the temple is dedicated to Shiva and we do find many icons related to Shaiva pantheon like Ganesha and Kartikeya, so the image may be of some icon of this pantheon.

However no such icon is described in any of the iconography texts, which make me think whether it is just an image of an icon with stature like that of a dvarpala. In this case I would like to go with Yaksha identification among all the above suggested identifications.

Sculpture Shed



How to Reach – Tala is about 30 km south from Bilaspur and 85 km from Raipur. Bilaspur is the nearest railway station and Raipur is the nearest airport. Public buses ply from Bilaspur on regular intervals. The approach road on the left turn over Bilapur-Raipur road towards Tala, of about 6 km was not tarred when I visited this place.

References –

  1. Cunningham, Alexander (1872). Report of a Tour in Bundelkhand and Malwa and in the Central Provinces (Vol VII). Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi.
  2. Mishra, S N (1992). Gupta Art and Architecture. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi.
  3. Nigam, L S (2000). Riddle of Indian Iconography. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8185616639


  1. Now that I’ve read it all, I’m amazed at your erudition and the amount of research you’ve done! It’s the most thorough analysis of the RudraPasupati [ or whatever He is] anywhere! You should be very proud! Other than strange images in the Nagpur Museum perhaps of the same dynasty, there is one other murthi I’ll send you from a little place in Raipur Dt. Now in that museum I think.

  2. That’s a very important fact Subramanian sir, I have a feeling that as Rahul sir suggested about Soma-siddhanta sect which was an orthodox practice and suppose if some other sect took over the Soma-siddhanta places in future then the first thing would be to remove all characters of the Soma-siddhanta sect. And if this image does belong to that sect then my assumption is that it should have been destroyed. But even though the other sects abhor this orthodox Soma partice but they were afraid to do any harm to their gods, probably. And this is why the icon was fairly buried rather than destroyed. Just a theory.

  3. Dear Mr GopalaKrishna, the temple which faces south is Jethani temple however the statue in question was found near Devrani temple which faces east. May you please elaborate on your point as I did not understand it clearly.

  4. the murthy you identify as Kubera may be another Varuna. Note the strange leaf-likeears and turtle & fish he’s sitting on. Varuna seems very important here. But then, how explain all the lion bear faces?

    • It could be Varuna due to the presence of Makaras however I think pot-bellied feature made scholars to identify him as Kubera. Also Kubera has been seen on door-jambs elsewhere as well. Let me have another look on this, will update here.
      Bear faces, I did a small survey and people are more inclined in identifying these to an animal from the cat family. It might be that people here are more familiar with lion features in comparison to that of bears.

  5. This place is really unique, sculpture wise.The Kirtimukha is formed by an arrangement of different kinds of leaves,the same theme is repeated in the statue but with animals.Also I haven’t seen Dwarpal with a ram’s head anywhere.Bharvahak is similar to yaksha figures you see everywhere but not quite like this.The floral patterns and the seer massive size of the statues are also peculiar.

    • the quality of the sculpture is unprecedented, I think, and yet seems to come out of nowhere. Hope someone will find more similar. Tala is my very favorite site in all India for sculpture. Perhaps another giant figure is buried somewhere there ? ? Have you seen the rat on the pillar, the snakes w & w/o rat inside? Unhappy bharavahakas? Wonderful things!

      • Yes, I saw that mouse and few snakes carved on the pillars in your album.Seems like they have cleaned up the sculptures since then.By the way I came across a Gana with ram’s head carved in one of the Shaiva sculptures at Ellora.

  6. Excellent article. I am an artist and would love to paint the Tala Icon. You have the best images. Is it possible to have a larger copy sent to my email address (which I think you have through this posting.)


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