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The Vaital Temple


The Vaital Temple (c. AD 800) belongs to the Khakhara order (a subdivision of the Kalinga school of architecture) which was used for shrines devoted to tantric cults. The deul (tower) of the temple is the most striking difference. It is rectangular in shape, positioned at a right angle to the Jagmohana (porch). The roof vault is derived from earlier free-standing buildings made of wood and thatch. The horseshoe shape of the chaitya arch became an enduring motif, turning up not only in actual structures, such as the Vaital Temple but frequently in sculptural decoration. On the Vaital Temple, the outer surface of the vault is absolutely plain, in contrast with the heavy sculptural embellishment of every other existing Orissan temple tower.

The shape of the more common Temple form has not been ignored, however; it has been carefully inserted, in miniature form, on the four corners of the Vaital Temple’s Jagmohana (porch). A brief look at the Vaital Temple will show an extremely accomplished style of sculptural decoration. A slightly closer look will reveal some of the darker facets of the sculpture’s content, and the temple’s nature. Tantric worship, which combined elements from certain sects of both Buddhism and Hinduism, centered on the worship of shakti, the female life force. It developed elaborate rituals involving magic spells, secret rituals, and sacrificial offerings. The interior of the Vaital Temple’s inner sanctum is almost completely dark, in keeping with the esoteric rites believed to have been performed there.

The temple deity of Chamunda (a tantric form of the Hindu goddess Durga) is dimly visible behind her grille, portrayed with a garland of skulls around her neck, seated on a corpse, flanked by an owl and a jackal. Her emaciated body, sunken eyes, and shrunken belly are quite remarkable, and even the usually staid and unflappable Archaeological Survey of India, in their guide to Bhubaneswar, cannot help but remark that she displays the ‘most terrible aspect conceivable’.

The Vaital Temple

The 15 niches which adorn the interior wall around her are also filled with a series of singularly strange images. In front of the entrance to the sanctum is a ‘four-faced linga adorned with unusual carvings. Next to it is a post, to which sacrificial offerings were tied. The entire atmosphere is, in the words of one specialist, disquieting. The Archaeological Survey sums it up more directly: ‘weird’. On the outer, eastern face of the tower (back, thankfully, in the sunlight), there is an extremely fine image of the sun god, Surya, with a sensitive and beautiful face. He is flanked by Usha and Pratyusha, twin sisters of the dawn, while his chariot is driven by Aruna.

This is a motif that will be remembered and later developed fully in the Sun Temple at Konark. The first erotic sculptures known in Orissan art are found here, in a sunken transitional panel on the super-structure. It has been suggested that these images, which are a sort of catalog of positions, had real relevance to the tantric rituals of this particular temple. Once presented here, they acquired the force of convention, and temple builders in later centuries may have accepted them as a standard part of the temple decoration repertoire.

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