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Plants in Indian Temple Art (An Old Book)

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Item Code: NAL721
Publisher: B.R. Publishing Corporation
Author: Shakti M. Gupta
Language: English
Edition: 1996
ISBN: 8170188830
Pages: 255 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.0 inch x 8.5 inch
Weight 1.20 kg
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Book Description

Besides being an eminent Ethnobotanist, Dr. Shakti M. Gupta is an Indologist of international repute and author of serveral well-illustrated books dealing with the iconography of various Hindu gods like Shiva, Vishnu, Surya and Karttikeya, their symbolical significance, mythology and legends connected with them and their representation in visual arts, ritual and folk tradition. As a complement to this series, she has also authored an interesting book, From Daityas toDevatas in Hindu Mythology, the demons and gods in religion and art; demons the gods fought and vanquished. Her other well-known books are: Plant Myths and Traditions in India and Festivals, Fairs and Fasts of India, a sumptuously illustrated and most comprehensive work on the subject Dr. Gupta has thus already established her reputation as a raconteur and interpreter of the religious art and tradition of India.

Eventhough the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples of India are replete with depictions of animals, semi-divine beings, gods and goddesses, as well as plants, it is the first time that a comprehensive work has been done on the plants sculpted on Indian temples.

The present book of Dr. Shakti Gupta is a result of laborious field work involving study of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples of India and of Sculptures stored in the principal public museums in the country. Dr. Gupta has minutely observed the plants and foliage richly depicted in Indian Art, and used her scientific talents as a botanist to identify them and trace their history and antiquity. Her book also explores the literary references to various Indian plants, flowers and fruits and highlights the related myths and rich traditions, some of them still living Such a scientific and comprehensive work on Indian plants sculpted on temples and their symbology in art and tradition fulfills a great desideratum and will be read with avid interest by students of arts and of physical as well as Social Sciences both in India and abroad.



Indian temple art is conservative and new ideas are not easily assimilated. Temple rituals have remained the same from very early times, beliefs have remained the same, with the attendant folklore and legend, and naturally, therefore the scenes and motifs are based on those legends. The same goes for floral offerings and the depiction of floral motifs on temples. But this does not mean that temple architecture has become static and new ideas are not assimilated.

It was imperative that the changing scenario all around would have an impact on temple architecture and ornamentation also. The artisans who were earlier patronized by the nobility and belonged to a guild, did assimilate new ideas and evolved new forms and styles but basically they retained the norms of traditional art as mentioned in the Shilpa Shastras, the ancient treatise on architecture. And thus a continuous creative tradition was evolved with minor additions and subtractions. This is particularly noticeable in the case of plants depicted on temples which according to popular botanical belief are not indigenous to India. Since the temple priests are orthodox and conservative in their views, they would never accept a flower, fruit or even a leaf as offering unless it had been traditionally accepted.

One such flower is Naga Lingam, the beautiful flower which looks as if the multi-headed naga or serpent was worshipping the Siva-linga. It is a difficult flower to sculpt except stylistically (pl.7). For the Naga Lingam flower to be accepted as an offering, it must have been growing in India from a much earlier date than is popularly believed. The tree is indigenous to Mexico.

The Hindu temple symbolically represents the universe in which everything has a place, whether it is the world of deities, dancers, musicians, beautiful maidens, spirits or celestial beings. Even the proportions of the temple, the number of pillars and corridors it should have are all fixed according to a universal law as mentioned in ancient texts. The ancient texts give definite rules for the construction of each portion of the temple as well as the proportions and angles of the figures sculpted on them. The temple is considered as the house and the body of the Universal Spirits, the God.

The temple walls carved with human, animal and mythological characters as well as the floral motifs, all form a pattern which has a specific place in the scheme of temple architecture. These decorative motifs are not sculpted haphazardly but in a definite pattern and nothing is out of place in this scheme. Soundara Rajan writes, “The Indian temple is the most prominent and enduring of the symbols of Indian culture. It was the product of the genius of Indian craftsmen, their patrons, pontiffs and the devotees, in so far as the Silpa texts and the structural architecture go and have the relationship of sarira (body) and Atman (soul).”

Since religious art in India is based to a great extent on the mythology and the beliefs of its people, it becomes essential to study ancient religious literature of India for an understanding of the decorative motifs, whether animal or plant. In ancient India, trees were considered and worshipped as the abode of deities, tree spirits and of yakshas. The cult of tree worship is very old and till today, temples in villages, and wayside shrines are built under trees or as sometimes, a crude stone covered with vermillion is placed under a tree and worshipped. Trees are important because they provide shade and are a natural resting place for people. Cattle are tied under trees and even the local Panchayat of village elders may meet in the shade of a tree. It is expected, therefore, that plant motifs would be considered important for ornamentation of the temple and naturally, therefore, the legends associated with plants and worship of plants would also be depicted. But a large number of trees are also worshipped without necessarily a religious belief attached to them.

The earlier temples were merely trees or a seat of a deity under a tree (pl.101,102). In the words of Coomaraswamy: “It was just such an altar beneath a sacred tree that served as the Bodhisattava’s seat on the night of the Great Enlightenment, Sujata’s maid servant, indeed, mistakes the Bodhisattva for the tree- spirit itself (Nidanakatha). It is very evident that the sacred tree and altar represents a combination taken over by Buddhism from older cults and in the case of Bodhi tree we see the transference actually in process.”

The belief in the presence of Vanadevatas or the tree spirits is very old. A reference to the Vanadevatas is made in Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala where the Vanadevatas bless Shakuntala as she leaves for her husband’s home. This belief in the presence of tree spirits in the presence of tree spirits is not only prevalent among the Hindus but is also a very strong Buddhist and Jain belief. The Buddhist Jatakas are full of stories relating to the presence of tree spirits. A sculpture from Bodh Gaya shows two human arms extended from the tree, one holding a plate full of food and the other containing a vessel with a drink, towards a man who is ready to receive them (pl.227). Plate 204 shows the Parinirvana, the death of Buddha with a tree spirit guarding the body of the Buddha. According to the legend, the tree should be the Sala tree.

Folk deities and yakshas are believed to inhabit trees and that is why trees in the ancient Indian tradition were forbidden to be cut. When it became imperative to cut down a tree, as for instance for making images for worship or for building a house, an alternative residence was first offered to the tree spirit before the tree was felled. Very elaborate rituals were laid down which in itself would have deterred people from felling a tree. The sculptor had to perform certain rites such as marking off on its trunk the various sections of the image to be made. Next he had to propitiate the tree with various offerings and to worship at night the gods, manes, rakshasas, nagas, asuras, ganas and Vinayaka. In the morning, after sprinkling water on the tree and smearing the blade of his axe with honey and clarified butter, he would cut round the tree rightwards, beginning from the north-east corner. In Tamil Nadu, shrines were erected in places where certain trees were regarded as the abode of the deity and worshipped as such. These were regarded as Sthalavrikshas. Mango tree, for example, is the Sthalavriksha of Ekambareshwar temple, Kanchipuram; the jambu tree of Jambukeshwar temple, Tiruchirapalli, and the Tillai tree of Nataraja temple, Chidambaran.

To prevent ruthless felling of trees, superstitions were encouraged such as, one who wantonly cuts down a tree would go to Asipatravana hell where the leaves of trees are like swords.

Coomaraswamy writes: “… It is quite certain that the word caitya sometimes means no more than a sacred tree, or a tree with an altar under it; such are designated caityasvrksas in the Epics… and should not be injured in as much as they are resorts of Devas, Yaksas, Rakshasas etc. Even when it so often happens in Bhuddhist literature, the Buddha is represented as halting or resting at the Bhavanam of some Yakka, it does not follow that a building is meant; the bhavanam may have been only a tree sacred to a yaksa, and such sacred trees are natural resting and meeting places in any village, as at the present date.

Trees worshipped as the abode of tree spirits are usually sculpted with a stone platform under it and floral offering sculpted on the platform. Floral garlands offered by worshippers are also shown hanging from such trees. Men, women,children, celestial beings and animals are seen worshipping these trees. Such temples which are open to the sky with no roof over the object of worship are called Hyperthereal. These Hyperthereal temples are mostly seen in sculptures from Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, basically all Buddhist shrines. The trees sculptures are Nyagrodha, Ashvattha, Badari, Kadamba, Kathal, Sirisha, Vanni, Bilva, Udumbara, Ashoka, Sala, Naga- Kesar, Amra, etc.

There are many legends pertaining to gods and goddesses and a large number of these are associated with specific plants. If the temple is dedicated to a particular deity, only the legends connected with that deity are likely to be carved on it which automatically means the depiction of certain plants on these temples. One exception to the rule is the depiction, stylized or realistic of the Kadamba tree (pl.14) in the Krishna vastraharana scene, i.e., Krishna stealing the clothes of the gopis while they were bathing in the river, or, the depiction of the Kadamba tree in the Kaliyadamana episode. The vastraharana episode is carved irrespective of thedenomination of the temple, shaiva or vaishnava. It is sculpted, at the Jambukeshwar temple, Tiruchirapalli and Brihadishwara temple, Thanjavur, both of which are shaiva temples temples whereas the legend is vaishnava(pl.15).

Temples dedicated to Shiva have plant motifs of the Arka, Bilva, Nyagrodha trees whereas the vaishnava temples invariably have scenes from the Ramayana which include the saptatala legend; or young Krishna jumping from the Kadamba tree into the river Yamuna to kill Kaliya naga of Krishna taking away the cloths of the gopis onto the Kadamba tree while they were bathing in the river, or Krishna as a child uprooting the Arjuna trees, the killing of the ass demon, Dhenuka, in the forest of Tala trees etc.

With the exception of floral motifs sculpted at Bharhut, Sanchi and Kushan period sculptures found in and near Mathura, the best depictions are in relation to religious beliefs and legends. Motifs such as Jackfruits, Custard apple, mango, magnolia flowers, palms and many other plants seen on Bharhut and Sanchi stupas do not necessarily have any religious significance. They must have been commonly found in the vicinity of the temples and stupas though at present they are rare and only found in the evergreen forests or cultivated in orchards and grown in private gardens. The most frequent depiction is of the lotus flower which can be seen on the railing pillars of Bharhut and Bodh Gaya, and on the gateways of Sanchi. Lotus and other water lilies are frequently found growing in ponds near villages all over India. The largest congregation of plant motifs is varied, unlike floral motifs on any other temple. A whole panorama of trees, water plants, cows, elephants and men are sculpted on a small panel giving the scene a pastrol effect and a suggestion as if life abounds in every nook and corner of the universe.

Apart from floral motifs on Buddist monuments, the temples of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Ajanta and Ellora caves of Mharashtra also have many types of vegetation sculpted on them as compared to temples in the rest of India. In most temples, plants associated with deities, rishis or mythological characters mentioned in the ancient texts are depicted. An important observation that has come out of this study is that the shaiva temples including temples dedicated to Devi, Ganesha, Surya or Kartkeya have more plant motifs as compared to the temples dedicated to Vishnu. In Shaiva temples plants commonly sculpted are the Nyagrodha with Shiva sitting under it in his Dakshinamurti aspect (pls. 84,85); Bilva tree with invariably a Sivalinga present under it (pls. 1,2,3); sugarcane as a bow in the hands of Kamadeva, Rati or Devi (pls.183,184,185,186): and the Arka plant associated with Shiva(pl.51).

Vishnu temples have the lotus flower depicted in various forms, such as Brahma sitting on a lotus which is called the nabhi-kamala arising from the navel of Vishnu (pl.151); Sri Lakshmi sitting or standing on a lotus (pl.155); Surya images with full blown lotus flowers in their hands(pl.154); lotus flower substituting the head of a deity (pl.150); or the lotus as purely decorative (pls.146,163); and the Kadamba tree associated with legends of Krishna’s exploits and miracles.

The association of the tree with a deity goes back into antiquity as is seen from the ancient indramaha festival where a tree was stripped of its leaves and branches and the stambha, i.e., the tree trunk called the Indradhavjya or the banner of Indra was worshipped and adored as God Indra himself. It was not only identified with him by name but also marked on the trunk. Bosch writes about the stem as a deity, “When the tree is transformed into a human being, or inversely, the stambha ceases to be an intermediary. Both are directly compared and identified with each other, change into each other or manifest their identify in some other way…. Ashvattha is the manifestation of Vishnu, Plasa (Butea monosperma ) of Brahma, Nyagrodha of shiva, Udumbara (Ficus glomerata) of yama Mbh, xiii, 1,49,101: Vishnu who is the evergrowing and tall Banyan that overtops all other trees. He who is the scared Fig. tree”




  Acknowledgements vii
  Photo Credits viii
  Lunar Months ix
  Abbreviations x
  List of Plants Sculpted on Temples xi
  Foreword xiv
  Introduction 1
  Description of the Plants Depicted on the Temples 9
  Conclusion 187
  Reference 190
  Description of plates 197
  Bibliography 217
  Glossary 222
  Index 234
Sample Pages


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