Another gateway to the Deccan

Prof. Phillip Wagoner, who has worked on the interaction between Islamic cultures and Indic traditions made a presentation on historical sites of the Deccan recently

January 02, 2020 03:00 pm | Updated 03:00 pm IST

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As part of DHF’s lecture series, “City of a Single Stone, the Kakatiya Heritage of Warangal” by Prof. Phillip Wagoner, was held at NGMA recently, co-sponsored by IMAS. DHF also commissioned the book, an addition to its publications on Deccan historical sites. The title needs some clarification: the city was not built from a “single stone” [as was, for example, the monolithic Ellora temple]; rather it was built around a single massive outcrop of rock that rose prominently from the surrounding plains. The sobriquet is a direct translation of the Sanskrit Ekashila Nagara , as is its Telugu name, Orugallu , to which Warangal has reverted.

Wagoner’s 40-year association with India was due to a serendipitous accident that led him to study Telugu at the Andhra University. “I had already studied religion, anthropology, social sciences… and courses on India that were fascinating, exposing me to the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, the epics, Buddhist texts, Indian art... But it was only after that year in Waltair, being immersed in the culture of India, when I became so gung-ho about things Indian, that I knew I was going into this field, though I didn’t know which discipline. I travelled as much as I could: Sanchi, Udaigiri, Ajanta - Ellora, Elephanta …”

He returned for a year’s apprenticeship with stone sculptors in Mamallapuram. “A lot of them spoke Telugu so I was able to communicate with them, about shilpashastra, talamana … I'd start the morning with drawing, then memorized some slokas, went on to some chiselling techniques – it was great fun! I got an insight into very important facets of the subjects I was interested in, though I knew would never become a sculptor!” [Besides a small Ganesha as proof of his efforts, he also took home a scar on his cornea, caused by a stone fragment]. “I travelled quite a bit, visited some Early Western Chalukyan sites, and it was my first time in Hampi, a pivotal visit for me, as I then went on to do so much work on the Vijayanagara Research Project that is an interdisciplinary international one. But when it came to choosing a dissertation topic, I wanted to do something where I would be able to make new discoveries, and found that Kakatiya was little known. I did my dissertation on the temples of Telangana (1986) but it was not until 1999 I went back to hone in on the metropolitan site Warangal, as opposed to the provincial areas I'd covered before.”

His research focusses on the Deccan, studying the interaction between the Islamic cultures and the Indic traditions of local kingdoms that existed primarily between 1200-1600. His lecture was proof of his hard work and dedication, his enthusiasm for his subject evident. His first slide showed a well-preserved torana, an image that is synonymous with Warangal, and now emblem of Telangana. The torana is found not only in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sites in India but variations exist in Southeast Asia and even Japan. Torana is the etymological root for words such as “door” and the German “tor”, but the Warangal torana – which means “bird perch” – takes the word more literally, with two charming birds roosting on either end! The admirable state of its preservation is ascribed to the absence of religious imagery, which is probably why some other monuments in this region were also spared by Muslim invaders.

Wagoner was struck by the four toranas that were outside the wall of a sacred precinct, enclosing an area strewn with broken fragments such as plinths and brackets: surely the arched gateways suggested a welcome to some significant monument? With images by architectural photographer Surendra Kumar illustrating his detailed narrative, Wagoner pieced together for his audience how the scattered archaeological ruins pointed to the Svayambhusiva Temple that housed the Kakatiya’s deity though, instead of the usual east-facing entrance, it appeared open to all four cardinal points, based on the Sarvatobhadra plan, “auspicious on all sides.”

However, the few remains provided only a sketchy reconstruction of the temple and was not a wholly satisfactory explanation of the site. “We weren’t doing any excavations; only documentation, measurements, drawings, architectural reconstructions”. It was John Henry Rice, a collaborator in the Warangal project, who thought out of the box when he spotted what appeared to him to be elements of mosque architecture. It was fascinating how the team cut and pasted photographs and measured drawings of the disconnected remnants, a jigsaw puzzle that proved there had been an unfinished mosque.

“Interestingly, Ghulam Yazdani who was the Director of the Nizam’s Archaeological Department, excavated the site in 1933, expecting to find a temple, but gave up further inquiry when he found there was not enough information and material to go forward”. Wasn’t it strange that Yazdani didn't suspect a mosque might have existed there, given the strong Islamic influence in the area, particularly as it was so common for mosques to be built on sites of Hindu temples, just as Hindu temples were so often built on Buddhist and Jain ones? “Yes, but I guess Warangal is thought of so much as a Kakatiya site that we forget the strong Islamic influence that followed after the city was annexed by the Delhi Sultanate under Muhammad bin Tughluq.

“Yazdani was an amazing man, very energetic, an exemplary scholar. He is perhaps best known today for his monograph on Bidar, still regarded as one of the best. Yazdani called the Ramappa temple at Palampet ‘the brightest star in the galaxy of medieval Deccani temples’.” Wagoner included slides of this magnificent temple, which is in good condition and has been nominated for the World Heritage Site Programme.

The stunning bracket statues are in an unique style, Mannerist in their charmingly elongated figures, elegantly pared down compared to the more luscious figures in other temples: for example, the well-endowed Hoysala maidens.

The lecture included images of other monuments that few have heard of, leave alone visited, such as the superb the 14th century Khush Mahal, an audience hall built by the Delhi Sultans. Therefore it wasn’t surprising to hear a comment after the lecture: “See, it’s only foreigners who are teaching us about our own heritage. We Indians would be ignorant of our culture if not for their research …”. That is probably due to generous funds available to Western scholars, whose work often results in glossy books with colour illustrations, while paucity limits Indian publications to monochrome [though that is changing]. Wagoner qualifies: “Indian heritage research is not dominated by westerners or foreigners; there are plenty of intellectual contributions by Indian scholars, archaeologists etc.

Indian University people tend to publish more scholarly monographs, whereas the ASI and local or state departments of archaeology tend to bring out official reports on excavations etc., but they have also done tremendous investigative work. My project in Warangal in 1999-2000 was an ASI site and they were most helpful: giving us documents and records, indicating where things had been moved …”

Prof. Wagoner emphasised how important inputs are from fieldwork and from approaching problems from the perspectives of different disciplines. He summed up such collaborative efforts: “I've always thought of myself as a South Asian specialist, or a Deccan one, rather than a practitioner of any specific discipline such as art history, archaeology or whatever, so interdisciplinary activity is indispensable. My work has gone forward most noticeably when I have defined a question that demands a broad range of evidence – archival, archaeological, literary, epigraphic, numismatic – and integrates them all by addressing a single unifying problem” : and the audience certainly benefitted from the result of the Warangal teamwork.

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