On World Heritage Week, Live History India is proud to launch a new initiative driven by young college students across India. Here is an article by Priyanka Suryaneni from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. The idea behind this series of articles under our initiative ‘Backpacking through History’ is to help young Indians be part of our initiative to celebrate India’s rich heritage.
Palampet is a sleepy, unremarkable village in Telangana, yet it cradles an architectural wonder built by one of South India’s most powerful dynasties, the Kakatiyas. Still in pretty good shape but bearing definite signs of neglect, the Ramappa Temple is the star attraction of Palampet.
Located 77 km from Warangal and 157 km from Hyderabad, the 800-year-old shrine is on the banks of a lake of the same name, Ramappa Lake. It is the only surviving shore temple of the five, originally built by the Kakatiyas. Amazingly, it is still a living temple and continues to attract devotees.
The temple’s spectacular stone carvings and intricately sculpted pillars are an astonishing sight and the monument stands for everything the Kakatiyan empire is known for – fine arts, culture and civil administration. To get a better sense of this temple, let us delve into the history of the dynasty itself.
The Kakatiya family started as feudatories to the Western Chalukyas. Beta II was the first ruler of this lineage to have left some records about their life and times. From these accounts, we can trace two of his ancestors – Beta I and Prola I – and date their origins to the 11th century.
During the time of Prola II, the Chalukyan empire started to fall apart. Taking advantage of this, Prola declared independence and carved out a sovereign principality. Next in line was Rudra Deva, who executed the military ambitions of the regime and through many conquests kept expanding the borders of the empire.
But his interests went beyond warfare and it was during his reign that the tradition of building Shiva temples all over the empire started. Rudra Deva was merely following in the footsteps of the Chalukayas, who too had built many temple cities.
By the time Ganapathi Deva came to power, the Kakatiyas had consolidated their might and were ruling from the Warangal hinterland to the coastal regions of Andhra Pradesh. With their empire firmly established, they turned their attention to art and architecture, and this became the ‘Golden Age of Warangal’. It was a glorious time. Literature, poetry, music, dance and sculpture flourished and the Ramappa Temple is a splendid example of the Kakatiyas’ new vision.
According to G Yazdani, a scholar in Deccan history, it is “the brightest star in the galaxy of Deccan temples”. It is the product of such a rich imagination and great craftsmanship that the temple is named not after a deity but its principal architect – an uncommon occurrence in India.
But who exactly built the Ramappa Temple? An inscription on the shrine dates it to 1213 BCE and attributes its construction to Recharla Rudra, a general under Ganapathi Deva. The Recharla family had shared close relationship with the Kakatiya dynasty from the time of Beta I. In fact, Recharla Brahma, mentioned in an inscription of Beta II, was perhaps a forefather of Rudra. This demonstrates the strong ties that the Recharla family shared with their administrators.
Ramappa Temple is built in the Later Chalukyan style that the Kakatiyas inherited from their feudal roots. This style is prominently visible in all their architecture. The dynasty followed Shaivism and the presiding deity in the temple is Lord Shiva. The main structure is called Rudrasheswara temple, after King Rudra Deva, which was the practice at the time. This is the only surviving shrine in a cluster of three edifices in the temple complex. The remains of an adjacent Shivalaya with a Nandi or seated bull are still intact.
All Kakatiya temples were built in groups of three – the Trikuta style. But many books refer to this temple as Eka Kuta or ‘single shrine’, which is atypical of the Kakatiya style. However, it is not known whether neighboring temples were demolished in the centuries that followed or whether the Ramappa Temple was meant to be a single shrine.
The most striking feature of the temple is its jaw-dropping carvings. The shrine boasts massive pillars with elaborate carvings and life-size sculptures that capture movement with great elegance. The most common depictions are dancing figurines.
These sculptures may not have extraordinarily sculpted facial features or bodily symmetry but the artistic finesse with which the undulating motion has been captured is what makes them unique. The grace, the expressions, the perfect postures and mudras, elements considered very important in Indian classical dance, are recorded so well that Perini Shivatandavam, a lost dance drama that originated during the Kakatiya period, was revived by studying the dance poses here.
The Maha Mandapa or the main hall is supported by four enormous pillars carved with elaborate detailing that makes it an astonishing sight. But the most imposing facet of this hall is its roof, adorned with delicately engraved effigies from the Shiva Purana. An equally beautiful spectacle is the main entrance of the garbha griha or sanctum, which opens into the Maha Mandapa. It is heavily embellished with dancing couples, Maskaratorana (water beings), lotuses, animals and birds.
Unlike its archetypes, Ramappa is a star-shaped temple. It is covered with a Vimana or a pyramid-like structure on top of the garbha griha on one side, and entrances on the other three sides. The shape of the temple leaves sufficient circumambulatory space or a Pradyaksha Patha – an important ritual for Hindus visiting a temple to offer prayers.
The Sabha Mandapa or outer porch is supported all along by dwarf pillars. The life-size bracket figures are the highlight of this area. But for the three entrances, most depictions are of celestial animals. Every entrance has sculptures of dancing girls and illustrations of slender, youthful looking women, also referred to as Mandakinis. These are considered masterpieces of Kakatiyan art.
Much has been said about the rather lean appearance of these sculptures as most depictions of women in Indian art show fuller female representations, typically signifying fertility. But these Amazonian-like figures, with firm bosoms and svelte body types, stand for youth, elegance and agility. Other than the dancing girls, there are four distinctive illustrations, three of them portraying real-life scenes and the fourth a mythical Nagini with snakes.
Behind the temple is a roofless stone structure where Lord Shiva’s vahan or ‘vehicle’ – the seated Nandi (the bull) – is kept facing the Shiva Linga bedecked with bells and ornaments typically found in South Indian temples.
Ramappa Temple is enveloped by an air of serenity, aided perhaps by its location on the shores of Ramappa Lake. Clearly, the Kakatiyas were not only prodigious architects; they were genius engineers too. Proof of their engineering prowess is the lake itself, created through sheer ingenuity. They built the reservoir by excavating an area ringed by a semicircular chain of hills. Thus, they created a natural ‘earthen’ dam and a massive catchment area, which is still irrigating fields belonging to farmers in the region.
In the years after Ganapathi Deva (r. 1199-1262 CE), his successors, his daughter Rani Rudrama Devi (r.1262-1289) and Pratapa Rudra (r. 1289-1323), continued the tradition of building and maintaining public works projects. But these peaceful times did not last and war cries echoed from afar. It was during Rudrama’s time that the empire started to face Islamic invasions, which were successfully warded off.
However, Pratapa Rudra, her grandson, was not quite as lucky. He was a skilled military general but could not withstand the onslaught of Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296-1316) and later Ghiyas-ud-din-Tughluq (r. 1321-1325) . After several defensive skirmishes and some minor victories, the Kakatiya empire fell with the death of Pratapa Rudra.
During these conquests, many structures were plundered including the Ramappa Temple. However, the main structure and the lake have lived on, a testament to the splendour and glory of this erstwhile dynasty.