One of the earliest Hindu temples that is still surviving today, Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is built in the late Gupta period. This 1500-year-old temple is built with Gupta style of architecture, a style that was used as a method for decoration during the time and a style that can be seen all around India. Dashavatara means “ten incarnations”, which symbolizes the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu.
Dashavatara Temple is identical to the Sarvatobhadra Temple of Vishnudharmottara Purana
During the early days of temple construction, each temple is dedicated to single Hindu god or goddess. This temple is a prime example of that. However, there are images and symbols of other Hindu gods here too, which allows people to harmonize with their devotion to God by worshipping. The temple is built out of stone and brick, with a single cubical sanctum that shelters the images within. Vishnu is carved in both the interior and external walls of the temple. The affiliation with Vishnu can be seen primarily with the statuary of the deity seated on a coiled serpent seat that decorates the carved doorway into the temple. But it’s not just that, other sculpted panels also show myths and tales connected with Vishnu.
The temple also served as a prototype for Sarvatobhadra temple as described in Vishnudharmottara Purana, according to Dakog Otin.
The History of Dashavatara Temple
Captain Charles Strahan is said to have discovered the temple, and archaeologist Cunningham gave the name. Archaeologists also claim that it is the earliest known Panchayatana temple in North India. The temple is also known as Sagar Marh, which means the temple by the well.
The Architecture of Dashavatara Temple
The temple is the first North Indian temple with a tower, although the shikhara is curtailed and part of it has disappeared. There are a basement porch and a high plinth. Though the condition is poor Currently, the temple still has a compelling presence.
The treatise of Vishnudharmottara Purana talks about a Sarvatobhadra temple, which the archaeologists and Indologists compare with this temple or the Gupta Mandir of Deogarh. The study shows that the style and architecture are ideally similar to the one mentioned in the Vishnudharmottara Purana. Factors like plan, size, iconography and several other norms were accounted for. The estimated date of construction is around 425-525. The temple was a primary place of veneration till the seventh century from its construction.
Dashavatara Temple faces west, with a slight inclination towards the south. This enables the sun rays to fall on the main idol of the temple. The plinth of the temple is 55.5ft, about 9ft from the moonstone, the bottom step. Outside the temple is a platform that provides access to the temple.
However, the two small shrines and the central shrine that is seen today is similar to the layout of the temple of typical Panchayatana style of the temple of North India, as per the excavation details. Based on isometric projections, the total height of the shrine in the temple is 45feet. Some suggest that porticoes existed even in the Vishnu temple, with analogous comparison made with the Varaha temple (the boar incarnation).
The existing evidence does not fully support the claim that the Gupta temple was of shikhara style, with a straight edged pyramid shape. But it does suggest features of copings and Amalakas (a bulbous stone finial), which in turn suggests a theory that the shikhara existed. Percy Brown, a famous archaeologist, says:
“When complete, this building was unquestionably one of rare merit in the correct ordering of its parts, all alike serving the purpose of practical utility, yet imbued with supreme artistic feeling. Few monuments can show such a high level of workmanship, combined with a ripeness and rich refinement in its sculptural effect as the Gupta temple at Deogarh.”
The original reconstruction had been proposed by Cunningham himself, by starting with the four columns on each side supporting a portico and a Shikara topped by Amalaka. But Vats and Imig proposed to start with the Panchayatana style of Temple by comparing with other temples in the region of similar period. He even concluded that Garbhagriha cell was surrounded by a wall forming an ambulatory.
The Sculptures in Dashavatara Temple
On the terraced basement, sculpted panels can be seen. It consists of carved figurines of river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna flanking the doorway to the sanctum sanctorum. On the other side, mythology related to Gajendra moksha, Nara Narayana Tapasya, and the Sheshashayi Vishnu are carved on panels. After the discovery, a protective wall of stone was built around the temple. However, the main idol of the temple is still missing and is believed to have been relocated somewhere else.
The Sheshashayi Vishnu shows reclining Vishnu on the serpent Shesha, with four-arms lying down on the spiral of the serpent with seven hoods, forming a shade over his crowned head. At his feet are Lakshmi and other two attendants. It also shows other gods looking at that picture, and another panel shows two demons Madhu and Kaitabha about to attack. But they are shown to be repulsed with the four personified weapons of Ayudhapurushas of Vishnu. Some interpretations claim that the lower panel might be that of five Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi.
The relief on the temple shows Vishnu on Shesha, with Lakshmi sitting down and caressing his feet, flanked by two incarnations of Vishnu Narasimha and Vamana.
Other carved panels at the side and back of walls show Vishnu’s life. There is a Gajendra Moksha carved on a panel in the northern wall, which represents Vishnu arriving to rescue the elephant Gajendra. Nara-Narayana is depicted on a panel on the eastern side wall, while on the southern wall, Vishnu is shown to be reclining on the serpent in relaxing or sleeping mode. These show the four facets of Vishnu:
the entrance represents Vasudeva; the Gajendramoksha side is referred as Samkarshana, the destructive aspect of Vishnu; the Nara-Narayana side is known as Pradyumna, the preserving aspect of Vishnu; and the Anantashayana side is known as Aniruddha.
There is another sculpture that shows the legend of Krishna where Devaki hands Krishna to her husband Vasudeva. It is considered to be the best of Gupta form of art, based on sensuous and graceful depictions of the figures, and yet, still different form of clothing as if it were an exclusive fashion. This is now housed at the National Museum in New Delhi.