My research focused on themes among various depictions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I compared the friezes of these two epics at the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora with depictions at other sites, created both before and after the ones at Ellora.
Depictions of Krishna from the Mahabharata frequently differ from their written text sources in that they overemphasize Krishna’s childhood in proportion to how much the texts are concerned with it. Comparisons of earlier and later depictions of Krishna’s childhood reveal a trend toward less ordered, less thematically linked depictions. At Kailasa, the images are arranged in horizontal bands, with deliberate placement of the panels so that panels are thematically linked with one either on top or below. In contrast, two tenth century pillars at Marai display no attempt to thematically link the scenes, and three tenth and eleventh century friezes at Sohagpur show a shift from displaying a compelling narrative to ignoring correct ordering of events altogether.
A prominent theme among Ramayana friezes is royal symbolism. I compared the frieze at Ellora to the Nageshvara temple at Kumbakonam and the Papanatha temple at Pattadakal. All three convey a message of divine kingship. Both the Nageshvara and the Kailasanatha temples have been interpreted as a double reference to Rama and to its royal patron. The arrangement of scenes from both the Ramayana and Mahabharata around the outside of the Papanatha temple transform the temple into a visual metaphor for divine kingship.
Having previously only seen the friezes in pictures, viewing them up close and in person was an amazing experience. Pictures do not do these pieces of work justice. They are, essentially, enormous storybooks carved in to the sides of the temple. Seeing them in the context of the temple, understanding their placement and observing their size all helped me grasp the idea of how important these epics must have been to Ellora’s patron.
For further reading, here are some sources I used in my research:
Hawley, John Stratton. “Scenes from the Childhood of Krsna on the Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora.” Archives of Asian Art 34 (1981): 74-90.
Sanford, David T. “Ramayana Portraits: The Nageshvara Temple at Kumbakonam.” In The Legend of Rama: Artistic Visions, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 43-60. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1994.
Stadtner, Donald M. “Medieval Narrative Sculpture and Three Krsna Panels,” Ars Orientalis 17(1987): 117-135.
Wechsler, Helen J. “Royal Legitimation: Ramayana Reliefs on the Papanatha Temple at Pattadakal.” In The Legend of Rama: Artistic Visions, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 27-42. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1994.