The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 12, 2014


What do I know of Orissa? Very little, as it turns out. Other than Konarak and Kalinga, I don't recall any coverage at all of this eastern state of India in all my years of education. History and geography, science and mathematics, all have ignored it. In my posts on various aspects of Indian history, too, I have paid it little attention. Time for a small remedy.

In the 1800s, the previously open-minded interactions between the British in India and the Indians were beginning to harden into disdain towards the latter's culture, art, traditions and behaviours. Indian religions were considered primitive, Indian learning was dismissed, and where there once were meetings of the mind, now there was British superciliousness and arrogance.

Shiva and Parvati. Oriyan temple sculpture. (13th century AD).
In such a clime, there were a few British men who would try to educate their countrymen about the wonders of the subcontinent. One of them was Charles Stuart, also known as Hindoo Stuart, an East India Company officer who amassed a large collection of Indian art, which is today found in the British Museum. In Stuart's house in Calcutta, he created a gallery which was one of the earliest systematic displays of Indian art aimed at the public. (To be sure, English public - I'm not sure if many Indians attended, despite Stuart's deep fondness for the natives.)

Five hundred years earlier, Orissa was ruled by a Hindu raja. Orissa was a Shaivite state - the God Shiva was supposed to be its lord, and the kingdom was dotted with grandly ornamented Shiva temples. One particularly magnificent sculpture - of Shiva and Parvati - likely stood at the entrance to one of the great temples. It found its way to Stuart and thence to the British Museum.

This was a life-size sculpture, and originally would have been brightly painted. Shiva would have been white, signifying the ash with which the ascetic God adorned himself, with a blue throat, from the poison he swallowed during the churning of the ocean for amrit. Observe the tenderness and devotion between him and his consort - this was no impersonal deity thundering abstinence and damnation upon his followers. Ganesha, their son, appears at the bottom, while figures representing the donor of the sculpture and his wife appear to the left and right of the Gods.
Mithuna, Eastern Ganga dynasty, Orissa. (13th century AD).
Another sculpture of love and devotion can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This too dates to the 13th century Orissa. It shows a loving couple (mithuna) and is also of stone, and was part of an Oriyan temple decoration. The kings of the time belonged to the Eastern Ganga dynasty, who had established the superb Sun temple at Konarak. They were allied by descent and marriage to the Cholas of the south and the Chalukyas of the west. By the time these sculptures were created, their kingdom was already in decline. Faced with aggression from the Muslim rulers of Bengal and Delhi, the Gangas slowly fragmented; a defeat by the Vijayanagar empire reduced their importance further. In 1425, a minister usurped power from the last 'mad' king, and the Eastern Gangas came to an end.


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