Secrets in Stone

Art historian cracks the code of an ancient temple
By Williesha Morris • Article photos and captions by Cathleen Cummings
View of India's Virupaksha Temple
Art historian cracks the code of an ancient temple
By Williesha Morris • Article photos and captions by Cathleen Cummings

For 13 centuries, the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal has been one of the most recognizable landmarks in Indian art—a towering layer cake of elaborate, hand-carved friezes populated by a bevy of Hindu deities and symbols.

Photo of Cathleen CummingsCathleen Cummings

Now Cathleen Cummings, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Art and Art History who specializes in Asian art history, has shown that these figures are more than just architectural decoration. “For a long time, there was an assumption that the sculptures on the outside of Hindu temples didn’t necessarily mean anything as a group,” she says. But “it seemed to me right away that there were certain, very conscious choices being made as to where deities and specific forms of deities were placed.”

More than a decade of work and 11 trips to India led to her recent book, Decoding a Hindu Temple: Royalty and Religion in the Iconographic Program of the Virupaksha Temple, Pattadakal (South Asian Studies Association: 2014). Her discoveries identify images that glorify the king by referencing his family, conquests, and accomplishments, as well as other sculptural elements that offer religious guidance. Cummings describes one series of sequential inscriptions that depicts taking refuge in a deity, showing faith and then salvation. "It seemed like a clear sequence for devotees to follow," she says. "It didn't seem to be random images. There was a particular message that they could take away from it."

Similar types of religious and royal imagery adorn centuries-old churches across the world, Cummings notes. “The idea of iconographic programs has been accepted in the context of Christian art for quite a long time.”

Sculpture of Queen Lokamahadevi from Virupaksha temple

Dynastic Detective Story

Cummings’s research on the temple also sheds new light on the important role that women played in ancient Indian politics and culture. Queen Lokamahadevi, the chief wife of the king, Vikramaditya II, led the construction of the temple to the Hindu god Shiva during the early Chalukya dynasty, around the year 733. The queen wanted a temple “dedicated to the king’s reign and victory in wars with three other dynasties,” Cummings explains. Though women were part of the king’s inner circle, Cummings found the queen’s prominent placement in the temple’s iconography intriguing. "Women have a very prominent role as temple patrons and probably also controlled resources much more than we tend to believe or know," Cummings says.

“The dynasty that built Virupaksha was among the earliest to participate in the tradition of building large temples in stone,” she says. “This particular temple is the best preserved and probably the most elaborate one that they built.”

The builders didn’t leave many clues for Cummings to follow, however. “Apart from a few, very terse inscriptions on this and other Early Chalukya monuments, historians have not recovered much primary source documentation for this dynasty,” she says. Consequently, Cummings followed a scientific path, developing a hypothesis and following her instincts to find evidence to make her case. She pored over the placement of statues, studied Sanskrit inscriptions and ancient court documents from contemporary South Indian dynasties, investigated the temple’s rituals, and traveled to other Indian holy sites to build upon her findings. Teasing out the meanings behind the iconography was like an unfolding detective story, says Cummings, who is pleased that her work “fleshes out the Chalukya dynasty a lot more.”

Sculpture of Trivikrama from Virupaksha Temple

Importance of Field Work

Cummings, whose interest in Indian and Asian art began during her own undergraduate years, is eager to continue her research and share her knowledge with UAB art history students, especially the detailed work that led to her findings. UAB’s $1-billion Campaign for UAB could potentially fund comprehensive research trips for her students, she says. “One of the things that nobody really teaches is how to do field work,” she notes. “I was able to reach my conclusions without having to physically chip away the temple.”

Sculpture of Shiva and Vishnu from Virupaksha Temple