Almost identically carved and painted using a similar colour scheme the two wood statues are part of temple imagery representing the subordinate deity forms – the awful temple guards believed to be highly auspicious and capable of protecting the temple and the entire ambience from every untoward influence. In their horrifying appearance the Indian, as also the Egyptian and Greek, architects of early temples, and even those of defense structures, sought the antidote of all destructive forces to include even decay and erosion. Though these sculptures seem to be largely influenced by Egyptian masks and African toys worn during various festivals, the tradition of such temple guards with an awful appearance is deeply influenced by the Indian doctrine of ‘rasas’ – the timeless theory of aesthetics, under which a creative endeavour, such as a play or stage performance, literary narrative or a sculpture or painting, moves the mind into eight kinds of dispositions. Three of such dispositions, vibhatsa – horrible, bhayanaka – terrible, and Adbhut – strange, that these temple guards statues most effectively activate, relate to such imagery. It is now well established that the entire classical art, to include temple architecture, followed the dictates of ‘shashtras’ of which the Natya-shashtra of sage Bharat, a fourth century treatise, was the ultimate. Obviously, the awful form of the two figures is as deeply rooted in early Indian aesthetics.
In early religious world culture, as becomes evident from the set of religious imagery in different civilizations, horror, awful, terrifying … was deified, rites and oblation offered and sometimes even shrines dedicated to them. Almost every early temple carried a symbolic image of horror on its face that looked straight into the face of every adversity heading temple-ward believing that it mitigated its adverse affect. The tradition still persists in popular mind. Any newly constructed house, or even a shrine – the God’s house, might be seen with an earthen pot hung on its face painted in black and carrying a horrifying figure – fearful flames emitting eyes, horrible fangs, terrifying moustaches, thick whiskers ... Such awe-inspiring pot is believed to ward off evil and protect the structure and its inmates from every ill. Unlike the inauspicious demonic imagery that represented destruction and horror the temple guards, though with a horrifying appearance, represented auspiciousness and protected from evil and from destruction and even decay.
As suggests the gesture of the forearms folded upwards from the knee-joints, that of the hands and the fingers in particular, the temple guards seem to summon the evil, almost challengingly but playfully as sometimes a Kabaddi-player summons his opponent, to come closer and face him, and the evil keeps away fearing that the boisterously laughing guard would not spare its life. Their rounded eyes, a rotary camera-like moving into all directions, are capable of detecting evil whichever way it comes and preventing it from doing any harm. Carefree they are laughing fully confident that no evil – whatever its face and ability to inflict destruction, is beyond them to contain. Astonishingly strange, while on one hand the artefacts are so different as a class art-imagery abounding in great auspiciousness these also are the psychiatric tool for defeating terror feelings of a child. The child that often interacts with these statues or others of this class would easily conquer fear.
The sculptures are brilliant examples of wood carvings used since generations in South Indian temples. Both statues have been sculpted out of fine Bangai wood, a regional variety of timber found around Karakorchi region near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Bangai has been in use for temple wood carving since generations. With its ability to yield finest details and strength to sustain in all kinds of climatic conditions Bangai imparts to a wood piece its rare distinction. A less fibrous texture Bangai, with its marble like fine surface, Bangai takes colours as takes a paper sheet, the desired tone retained and natural lustre maintained. As in a modern painting the wood carver has conceived the two figures with a strange anatomy, especially in sculpting the figures’ lower halves. Both figures have identical features but while the face of the figure on the right along its beard is a bit conical, that of the other is broadened; the number of teeth is also greater. Both figures are identically clad, a striped inner and an identical central pata, and an upper short coat looking like a leather jacket.
This description is by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet.