The 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD witnessed a tremendous resurgence of Hinduism when it became the official religion of the Gupta Empire. Consequently, this era was also marked by the emergence of innumerable images of popular Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Images of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, the Sun-God and goddess Durga evolved in this period. The Udaigiri caves in Madhya Pradesh house a colossal image of Vishnu. Here he is presented as the great savior who rescued 'mother earth' from the depths of the ocean, in his incarnation as a varha (boar). Other statues of this period found in various temples and museums are indicative of the various dimensions of early Hindu art and sculpture.

The link between dance, drama, literature and art became crucial to aesthetic expressionism in centuries to come. This new era in art and sculpture witnessed a unique fusion, a synthesis embodied in the caves at Ajanta and Ellora and the temples of central and South India.

Ajanta and Ellora
North-east of Bombay, near Aurangabad are two astonishing series of temples carved out of living rock over the course of fourteen centuries. During the 4th century AD. in a remote valley, work began on the Ajanta caves to create a complex of Buddhist monasteries and prayer halls. As centuries passed, numerous Buddhist monks and artisans excavated a set of twenty-nine caves, some cells, monasteries and Buddhist temples. All of these were carved from the rock cliff at Ajanta. These caves are adorned with elaborate sculptures and paintings which have withstood the ravages of time.

The sculptures are finely wrought images of animals, guards and deities while the paintings tell ancient tales of courtly life and depict hundreds of Buddhist legends. Amid the beautiful images and paintings are sculptures of Buddha, calm and serene in contemplation.

Work started on the Ellora caves in the seventh century AD where another set of caves were created from living rock. Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism inspired these sculptors to create these elaborate rock carvings. The Buddhist and Jain caves here are ornately carved yet seem quiet and meditative whereas the Hindu caves are filled with a divine energy and power.

The most impressive and majestic creation at Ellora is the Kailasa Temple, a full-sized freestanding temple flanked by elephants carved out of solid rock. Pillars, podiums, spires and towers combine to produce an awe-inspiring representation of Shiva's Himalayan abode.

The tranquil town of Khajuraho, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh boasts of the best medieval temples in India, known all over the world for their erotic sculptures. These glorious temples are the state's most famous attraction.

Amid green lawns and brilliant pink flowers is a complex of temples, glowing with the warmth of sandstone and ornamented with the sinuous curves of sculpture unparalleled in their beauty. Out of the 85 temples built originally, only 22 survive today. These temples were created by the Chandela rulers in the Indo-Aryan style. The site was forgotten for centuries before it was rediscovered in 1838. The temples were restored and attract visitors from all over the world.

The sculptures include statues of gods and goddesses, warriors, celestial dancers and animals, besides those of couples in erotic poses. The Hindu philosophy of Yoga and Bhoga (physical pleasure), the two paths leading to final liberation, seem to be the underlying theme of these sculptures. These temples celebrated a Hindu faith exuberant in its love for the divine. All life was seen as an expression of divinity, including human love. The union between man and woman was viewed as the culmination of devotion, symbolic of the union of the devotee with god and divinity. The other sculptures in these temples depict the daily lives of the people in the 10th and 11th centuries AD.

The famous temples at Khajuraho include the Lakshmana Temple and the Kandariya Mahadeva temple. The latter is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has a shikhara or spire that is 38 metres high. Here we see an attempt to reconstruct the image of Shiva's home in Mount Kailasha. Giant reliefs also portray various manifestations of Shiva, who is both a destroyer and a savior. Of the many statues found in this temple, the most fascinating is that of an ascetic performing the shirshasan (a yogic posture where the yogi balances himself on his head).

The temples of Khajuraho display a wealth of sculptural beauty, evoking the grandeur of the snow-capped Himalayas as well as the earthly pleasures of life.

Elephanta caves
The most profound aspect of the mighty Shiva is in evidence at the Shiva temple in the Elephanta caves. Situated near Bombay, these caves present an introduction to some most exquisitely carved temples. One can witness a symphony in stone in praise of Lord Shiva, created by India's expert stone carvers of the sixth century.

The central attraction here is a twenty-foot high bust of the deity in three-headed form. The Maheshamurti is built deep into a recess and looms up from the darkness to fill the full height of the cave. This image symbolizes the fierce, feminine and meditative aspects of the great ascetic and the three heads represent Shiva as Aghori, Ardhanarishvara and Mahayogi. Aghori is the terrible form of Shiva where he is intent on destruction. Ardhanarishvara depicts Shiva as half-man/half-woman signifying the essential unity of the sexes. The Mahayogi posture symbolises the meditative aspect of the God and here Shiva is shown in his most quiet and serene form. Other sculptures in these caves depict Shiva's cosmic dance of primordial creation and destruction and his marriage to Parvati and Shiva as half man/half-woman . The Elephanta sculptures meaningfully convey the oneness of the human and the divine and the images transcend the scope of human imagination to achieve a grandeur that remains undiminished by time.

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