Early this year, the USA returned to India three antique sculptures, valued at a whopping 1.5 million dollars. One of the objects is a 170 kg sandstone sculpture stolen from an Indian temple in 2009, which was listed as one of world‘s top ten most wanted stolen works of art. Two of the three artefacts returned to India were reported in 2009 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), as sandstone sculptures robbed from a remote temple in Rajasthan. The 170kg ‘Vishnu and Lakshmi’ sandstone sculpture dates back to the 11th century and also stolen from the temple and deported was a 3000kg ‘Vishnu and Parvati’ sandstone sculpture, dating to the same period.
The third artefact is a black sandstone sculpture, depicting a benign Bodhisattva and is believed to be from early 12th century stolen from either Bihar or West Bengal as the origin is askew. The sculpture thieves had made the stealth operation through various countries before it finally reached the lucrative market in the USA. On 7 July, 2011, the Indian black stone Bodhisattva figure was discovered being smuggled into America at Newark Airport by US Customs.
Stolen artefacts are a very profitable business and India happens to be a major source for both petty thieves and sophisticated smugglers. Being an ancient civilisation, the fine art of stone-carving tradition in India is one of the richest in the world. Across the subcontinent there are thousands of ruins, small shrines and huge monuments that are either abandoned or not accounted for. These are easy to pick and run off with by unscrupulous elements looking for easy money.
The story of Indian art and sculpture dates back to the very beginning of Indian civilisation in the Indus valley of the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC. Organized groups of master masons and stone carvers have existed since primitive ages, using immense passion and pain to hone their talents. The skills were handed down as family tradition from father to son, each improving it further, a practise prevalent in some parts of the country even today. However, stone sculpting is a dying art with very few takers for this tough task of taming the stone with chisel and hammer.
All major temples of India – be it the methodically erected Sun temple of Konark in the east, monolithic Ellora temple in the west, kaleidoscopic Khajuraho in central India and scores of tempting temples at Lepakshi, Madurai, Hampi, etc. in the south, illustrate the opulent establishment of Indian stone carvings. But there are many more gems hidden in the vast Indian subcontinent that remain obscure and need immediate protection.
One such unique entity is Ramappa temple 67 km north-east of Warangal town and about 200 km north of Hyderabad. Built nearly 800 years ago, it is an attractive example of Kakatiya architecture. Its pillars are ornately carved in black basalt stone and its roof shelters fantastic statues of female forms. Each sensuous seductress is carved out on a single slab of stone and is alluring and articulates the importance given to women even in ancient times. All the dozen dancers frozen in stone with striking different poses are perfectly positioned in the canopies of the forty feet-tall temple. Each female depicted with her sensuous style and elaborate jewellery, not to mention her amazing physical expressions, is mesmerising.
The Ramappa temple is in the newly carved out state Telangana from Andhra Pradesh and is a must-see if you are in the vicinity of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.
Twenty five years ago as a college student, when I first visited this forlorn temple, I fell in love with the dancing damsels expressing their seductive postures. As an ardent follower of ancient Indian history and architecture, I was awestruck by the immense dedication of those bygone craftsmen. I had captured all the beautiful feminine figurines by clicking photographs and promptly wrote an article eulogizing the splendid stone architecture. This manuscript was immediately published in the Hyderabad edition of Indian Express newspaper as the temple was not famous then.
The shrine has numerous sculpted pillars, etchings and intricate carvings that line the walls and cover the ceilings. Starting from its base to its wall panels, pillars and ceiling are sculpted figures drawn from Indian mythology. While the enormous Nandi, or big bull, facing the shrine remains in good condition, many of the carvings have been mutilated by the marauding invaders of the medieval period. The built-up area of the temple complex sprawls on five acres and an additional twenty acres has been developed with greenery around the main temple. Today the temple campus has a protective wall with three other ancient temples in different states of dilapidation.
The entire Ramappa temple is intricately chiselled with small and big statues in stone which would have required many years of immense patience and perfect coordination with hundreds of workers hammering away without hiccups. Some black basalt has been polished with such dazzling dexterity and skill that it gleams even today.w One actually needs to see it in person to appreciate the fabulous chiselled curvatures of the dancing damsels coming alive. This medieval temple is named after the architect Ramappa and it is regarded as the only temple in the world named after its sculptor.History says that it took 40 long years to complete the edifice.
As per the tradition of Kakatiya rulers, a tank was excavated adjacent to the temple, which is called the Ramappa Lake. It is situated about a furlong away and has great scenic beauty, with its serene surroundings giving a spiritual air to the temple. The ancient Ramappa water body dating back to the period of Kakatiyas is a well-conceived earthen dam, about 2000 feet long, that connects a semi-circular chain of hills to form a lake. Its water, spread over in an area of 82 Kms, with lush foliage, provides a spectacular view, especially at sundown. M.S.Kulkarni, Vice-President of Birdwatchers Society of Andhra Pradesh, who accompanied me on the trip, says the vast lake harbours a multitude of migratory birds in winter. A paradise for birdwatchers, one can witness flocks of ducks and geese regale close to the ancient village.