Temple architecture has.an important place in the history of the subcontinental civilisation, as part of both its religious and aesthetic expressions. Whether Buddhist, Jain or Hindu, the architecture is extremely rich in ornamentation and infused with symbolism. One such feature, with origins in structural requirements but which later became elaborated upon, was the dvarasakha, the doorframe. The dvarasakha is the frame that holds the two leaves of the door — its jambs (sakha) embed the door (dvara) in the adjacent wall. The accompanying threshold and area above the lintel are also considered parts of the dvarasakha.
Ornamented doorframes are an integral feature of temple architecture, in all styles. The immense variety among the ubiquitous dvarasakha is bewildering, and it may well be impossible to find two identical frames anywhere. What lies beneath this apparent variety? Was it the result of some tradition, a response to prescriptions of the holy Silpa texts, or was there some underlying symbolic significance?
The frame at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (c 5 AD, see photo), taken as the earliest sample, shows the essentials: two vertical supports to hold the leaves of the door, with a horizontal lintel that extends into the adjacent walls. This extended lintel is clearly a continuation of timber frames, and gave the doorframes their characteristic ‘T’ shape.
The prevalent ‘vernacular’ housing style added another influence to the doorframe: a porch at the door was faithfully translated from wood and thatch into stone. One of the best-rendered porch types was flat-roofed, with curved, S-shaped sides. Cave no 19 at Ajanta in Maharashtra (see photo) is perhaps the best-preserved specimen of this kind. When the antarala and mandapa (the transitional area into the inner sanctuary and the columned porch area, respectively) were added to the temple structure, such a porch became redundant. It was not forgotten, however, but rather ‘compressed’ onto the doorframe. The Basesvar Mahadev temple at Kangra (in Himachal Pradesh) and Sisiresvar temple at Bhubanesvar (in Orissa) depict this ‘compressed porch’ (see photos).
The third peculiar influence on the evolution of the dvarasakha was that of the tradition of the torana, or entryway arch. A free-standing torana outside the Mukteshvar temple in Orissa is one of the best-preserved examples of this tradition (see photo). The wooden village gates of the Vedic settlements are the precursors of the earliest torana designs: a pair of high posts, crossed near the tops by one to three bars. An auspicious note was added to festive occasions by hanging a garland or festoon over the entrances to villages or homes, a practice that continues today.
And so it came to be that the mature dvarasakha was a complex representation of the porch, the torana, the gopuram and more often a combination of these features. Thus did the simple become the complex. The seemingly complicated dvarasakha at the Sas Bahu temples or the Osian and Jagat structures in Rajasthan, however, are but simple doorframes with ornate treatments of the space around the frames.
But why the multiple sakhas? The bas-reliefs that are taken as indicative of the Vedic settlements show no such presence, and even today, simple village dwellings do not sport sakhas. Even the early translations onto the cave temple entrances bear ample evidence of this absence. Simple bamboo structures were eventually replaced by mud-cement, dry masonry or stone constructions, materials that necessitated thick walls. The answer to the emergence of frames, then, could lie in the thickness of the walls of such structures. An abrupt cut in a wall has a much more jarring effect on the eye than does a gradual cut inwards, which makes the doorway welcoming rather than intimidating, not to mention more aesthetic.
When temple structures were made from quarried stone, the rolling, lateral rhythms of the cave wall were taken over by vertical and horizontal bands of stone. The imagery of the doorway was split into numerous units. The dvarasakhas ranged from single sakha to nine sakha depictions. The doorway of the Sun temple at Konarak in Orissa is an excellent piece of the Navasakha depiction (see photo).
A third plausible theory could lie in the ‘lintel-theatre’. It seems that at some stage in the evolution of the doorframe, the space above the lintel was the theatre and stage. This would have subsequently decided the thickness of the horizontal top and, in turn, necessitated the multiple frames — though more for the visual aspect than for their load-bearing characteristics.
Since time immemorial, artists have impregnated ordinary elements from nature with spiritual significance. In the dvarasakha, the search for that significance becomes imperative.