Dravida Temple Architecture – Origin and Development : A Visual Journey

As an art and heritage lover, I have travelled to many historical sites in the country but Tamil Nadu seemed to have eluded me. With the three great living chola temples on my mind, I sat down with a map and planned a 10 day road trip through Tamil heartland. And was I not surprised and overwhelmed. This state is full of stories and here stones speak eloquently !

Though temples were on my mind, I made sure not to miss seeing the Pichchavaram mangroves that are a mere 20 minutes drive away from the Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram. Here I recall my journey not in the way I took it but how Dravida style of temple architecture has developed.

Post Sangam Age, Tamilakkam, which was more of a cultural identity than a geographical entity was the crucible of development of a fabulous style of temple architecture known as the Dravida.  Dravida style temples were first constructed by the Pallavas.

Tamilakkam of Sangam Age. Picture courtesy – Wikipedia

Pallavas were the great rulers of the northern part of today’s Tamil Nadu, and parts of Karnataka and Andhra until the 9th century. During their long reign, art and architecture of early Dravidian period bloomed and thrived. The rock cut as well as built architecture pioneered by them continued to be the inspiration and base for the architecture of peninsular India whose development continued for many centuries thereon. The journey of rock-cut architecture in Tamil Nadu started with King Mahendravarman I commissioning the construction of Laksitayana cave temple at Mandagapattu. It imitated the interior of a timber building akin to the Buddhist rock cut caves of Maharashtra. The cave and its pillars showed Chalukyan influence and have well defined mukha mandapa, ardha mandapa and three shrines. The Panchapandava caves at Pallavaram and Rudravaliswaram cave at Mamandur were amongst the series of rock cut caves that followed. His successor, Narsimhavarman Mamalla (630-668 CE) built a new port town called Mamallapuram and introduced unique temples that were carved out of a large boulder.

Mamallapuram is what we know today as Mahabalipuram – the place that I found as spectacular as Hampi is. Scattered with magnificent structures and ruins. Surely, Mamalla’s style led to the development of various stylistic attributes such as the Kudu (inspired from the Buddhist sun window), development of Sala and Kuta, a well defined adhisthana (basement), slender columns, crouching Vyalas and introduction of various decorations such as garlands, kalasa (vase), potika (corbels), padmabandha (lotus petals). Koneri Mandapa, Varaha mandapa, Mahishasuramardini caves, at Mamallapuram can be considered the earliest examples of this style.

From the book ‘A History of Fine Arts in India and the West’ by Edith Tomory
From the book ‘A History of Fine Arts in India and the West’ by Edith Tomory
Trimurti Cave, Mamallapuram (present day Mahabalipuram)

Narasimhavarman also introduced free-standing monolith rathas. These rathas carved out from hard granite and 9 in number, are important milestones in the development of Dravidian temple architecture as they show the development of multi-storey Vimanas. These storeys known as Tala are stacked onto each other with the upper tala necessarily being smaller than the lower one, making it appear like a stepped pyramid. Mamallapuram was the Pallavas laboratory of experimenting with various construction styles and sculptural details. Here you see rathas from a single storey (Draupadi ratha) to three storeyed (Dhramaraja ratha) structuring and with varying number of Talas. Pallavas also experimented on the roofing style of the rathas. Draupadi ratha, the smallest ratha, looks like a hut with its curved dome like roof, Arjuna and Yudhisthir ratha have pyramidal roofs while the Bhima ratha has wagon vaulted roof and, Nakul-Sahadeva ratha is a horse-shoe shaped building topped by a wagon vault with an apsidal end. The Dharmaraja and Arjun ratha here are the most important ones as they influenced the later form and development of Dravidian temple architecture. Similarly, various theories also suggest the possibility of the wagon vaulted Bhima and Ganesha rathas influencing the design of Gopurams – the most striking feature of south Indian temples.

View of the Pandava Rathas
Ganesha Ratha
Bhima Ratha

Successive Pallava kings – Rajasimha and Nandivarman continued the legacy of their predecessors and constructed beautiful structural temples. The famous shore temple at Mamallapuram consists of two Shiva shrines having vimanas, a third shrine dedicated to Seshashayi  (reclining) Vishnu having no superstructure, and a prakara wall enclosing the three. Unique feature of this temple is however its vimanas which don’t appear like stepped pyramids but rather tall slender tapering spires. 

Shore Temple

Kailashnathar temple built in the Pallava capital Kanchipuram has many unique features such as; the main shrine has smaller shrines attached to it on the middle of each side as well as its four corners. The exterior of this temple mainly features the pilasters with rearing Vyala at their base. A gopuram makes an appearance in this temple, while a prakara surrounds the entire temple, with a row of mini shrines running all along its inner face.

After the Pallavas came the mighty Cholas. The long period of wait from the fall of early Cholas till the resurrection of Cholas (hereafter referred to as medieval Cholas) is known as a dark period in Chola history. The great empire which once ruled Tamilakkam became extinct in its own land with the rise of Pallavas and Pandyas. According to Manimekalai, Princess Pilli Valai had a liaison with the Early Chola King Killivalavan. Out of this union was born Prince Tondai Eelam Thiraiyar, a supposed ancestor of Pallava Dynasty. Since no other source except Manimekalai mentions the name of King Vallivalayan, this myth remains a tale whose historic veracity is yet to be confirmed.

 The Cholas, under the suzerainty of the Pallavas and Pandyas, had held onto their ancient capital – Urayur near modern day Trichy and continued to have influence over areas around like Thanjavur, Trichy, Mayiladuthurai and Pudukkottai. Taking advantage of the continuous wars between the Pallavas and Pandyas, Chola king Vijayala captured Thanjavur and added large parts to his territory. Finally, in 897 CE, Pallava king Aparajitavarman was defeated by the Chola King Aditya I, ending the Pallava rule. With large parts of northern Tamil Nadu under their belt the Cholas went on to become a mighty power in the South and ruled the region for more than four centuries- a golden period of art and architecture.

Although the Chola architecture is considered to have reached its zenith during the reign of the father- son duo, Rajaraja and Rajendra I who built the Brihadeesvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram respectively, this giant leap in the development of temple architecture didn’t take place overnight. Cholas knew that after defeating the Pallavas they had a large gap to fill when it came to ruling over a territory that had seen glorious rule of Pallavas as well as their magnificent rock-cut architecture at Mamallapuram and the brilliant built architecture in and around the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram.

It was natural that the early medieval Chola architecture was greatly influenced by the architectural style of Pallavas. These examples of medieval Chola architecture though small in size and not many in number implies that these structures/ temples were built by local chieftains of the Cholas without any imperial involvement like the Moovar Koil that is built by an Irukku Velir Cheiftain and a Chola general; Boothi Vikrama Kesari. Most of the examples of above mentioned style were entirely built in stone and are found in the Pudukkottai district of Tamilnadu.

A fine example of early Cholan temples


Vijayalaya Choleesvaram – a temple in Narthamalai named after the first Chola king Vijayala was constructed in second half of the 9th century. This Shiva temple is famous for its unusual plan where the sanctum is circular (omkara garbhagriha) and its prakara is square. Of the four storeys of the Vimana here, three lower ones are square and the topmost is circular shape which then supports the dome like round kalasha above it. Another very interesting fact to note here is that, some of the ancient south Indian literary works such as Svayambhuvagama, karanagama, Marichi Samhita etc define hybrid ‘Vesara’ temple style as “the buildings which are round, apsidal and elliptical or may be square at the below but round from neck upwards”. This definition of Vesara exactly fits Vijayala Cholesvaram temple’s sanctum which is square at the base but round from Griva (neck) and above.

Moovar Koil- another milestone in the early medieval Chola architecture is located at Kodumbalur near from Pudukkottai and was constructed in the 10th century by a Chola general. Moovar koil meaning ‘temple of three (Gods)’ in Tamil, this temple complex had three temples only two of which survive today. At Moovar koil, one can observe a change in the sculptural form- from non- refined figures to the delicate figures showing Pallava influence. This change in temple form was attributed to the marital relationships of the Cholas with the Muttaraiyars who were the vassals of Pallavas.

Moovar Koil. Picture courtesy : By Kasiarunachalam (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Brihadeesvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are considered two of the greatest examples of Dravidian architecture. Both the temples are massive in scale and constructed out of large blocks of granite. Their tall Vimanas seem to be competing with the clouds with the one of Thanjavur Brihadeesvara reaching 66 meters. Both the temples stand on an ornate Adhisthana carved profusely with intricate designs and Tamil inscriptions. Massive monolithic Nandis sit in front of the temples in detached Nandi Mandapas. Their exterior mainly consists of pilasters, niches and decorative pillars called Kumbhapanjaram besides the common features of Salas and Kutas. The Thajavur temple is internally adorned with beautiful frescos and equally amazing sculptures on the exterior make it a heaven for the iconography enthusiasts. The relief sculptures inside the temple have been a great resource for documenting the history of classical dances such as Bharatanatyam as they showcase Nataraja, dancing Lord Shiva in various classical dance poses. Another overwhelming fact about this temple is that, its sixteen storeyed Vimana is topped by a massive octagonal monolithic Shikhara stone weighing 80,000 kilos. It is a mystery to this day how such a heavy stone was carried to such a great height. Some theories suggest it was taken to the top with the help of either a linear or spiral ramp being pushed by several elephants! Another interesting feature is the faces of a European man wearing a hat, a European girl, an Oriental man placed in kudus on the exterior of Vimanas. Although later additions, they confirm that Cholas had diplomatic as well as trade relations with far flung lands even thousand years ago!

Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram although smaller, is more intricate and has higher sculptural quality than the one at Thanjavur. Though the temples flummoxed me, being a marathi, I must admit that I found Thanjavur’s maratha connection quiet thrilling ! 

Another temple- Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram though much smaller in size than its predecessors surpasses both of them when it comes to an elaborate sculptural and architectural design. It is designed in such a way that it appears like a giant chariot pulled by elephants. Not surprisingly all the above mentioned three temples are a part of UNESCO world heritage sites together known as the ‘Great Living Chola Temples’.

Thus by the time the power of the Cholas started declining the Dravida style reached its maturity with distinct features. Very broadly, these features are:

          Pyramidal Vimana standing on a square base.

          Vimana towers formed by superimposing diminishing storeys on one another.

southern vimana
Picture courtesy : Wikipedia

          Hara (a horizontal row on each storey consisting of miniature shrines) consisting of Salas (intermediate mini shrines) and Kutas (miniature shrines in the corners).


          The main temple structure divided between Garbhagriha (Sanctum), Mahamandapa (closed hall) Mandapa (semi-closed hall), Ardha Mandapa (porch). Depending on the size of the temple, Mahamandapa and Mandapa often replaced each other. Natya Mandapa for dance performances was introduced in a lot of temples for performances of classical dances.

Brihadeesvara Temple, Thanjavur

          Gopurams (temple gateway towers)- probably the most striking feature of the Dravidian temples. Just like Vimanas, Gopurams too have their pyramidal tower divided into many diminishing storeys topped by a barrel vault having several small finials placed along the ridge of the vault.

Brihadeesvara Temple, Thanjavur

          Enclosure wall known as Prakara that encompassed the entire temple complex within. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, the number of concentric Prakaras varied. Vaikuntha Perumal temple, in Kanchi has a unique plan where the sanctum is encircled by four layers of concentric walls, the fourth being its prakara.


-A water tank near the temple for ritualistic purposes and to provide for the priests living in the temple.

Temple tank of Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram

-Huge Nandis with a mandapa of their own

Nandi at the Brihadeesvara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram

Pandyas came back to the power for a while in the Tamil region after the collapse of Cholas in the 13th century. However, Pandyas were not creative builders like Cholas and rather concentrated on building Gopurams to the existing temples. The main contribution of Pandyas is in the heightened focus on the temple gateways. The gateways of Jambukesvara temple and eastern gopuram of Thillai Nataraja temple are the prime examples of gateways built during this period.

Gopuram of the Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram

Vijayanagara Empire that came into being in 1336 CE, though concentrated on constructing new temples in and around their capital Hampi, also made significant additions to older existing Pallava and Chola temples by constructing sky soaring gopurams known as Raya Gopurams and Kalyana mandapas. The Kalyana mandapa at Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram has 96 pillars carved with either mythological figures or warriors on horses or Yalis except for the two pillars where the Goddess and God of Love in Hindu Mythology Rathi and Kamdev are carved on a parrot and a swan respectively. The entire hall is intricately carved with sculptures of stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, various dances, daily chores of people, amorous couples, Portuguese soldiers carrying guns, trick sculptures etc. However, fascinating stone rings that can move freely even though the entire chain is made of a single stone remains the most mindboggling feature of this era.

Monolith chain and Yali Pillars in the Kalyana Mandapa of Varadaraja Perumal Temple, Kanchipuram

The sky soaring gopuram of Ekambarnathar temple at Kanchi was erected in 1509 CE by King Krishnadeva Raya. Its pyramidal tower has eight diminishing storeys in plaster-covered brickwork and rises to 192 feet. Raya Gopurams at the Chidambaram (139 feet high) as well as the one at Annamalaiyar temple (217 feet high)are some of the other well known examples of the temple gateways built during this period. Another example of Vijayanagara era worth mentioning is the impressive hall of Thousand Pillars in Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam constructed during the years 1336–1565 CE. The pillars consist of sculptures of wildly rearing horses bearing riders on their backs and trampling with their hoofs upon the heads of rampant lions/ yalis.


Ekambarnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
Annamalaiyar Temple, Thiruvannamalai

The last phase of Dravidian temple architecture began with the collapse of Vijayanagara Empire and the declaration of independence of various Nayakas under them, such as the Thanjavur Nayakas, Gingee Nayakas and Madurai Nayakas. These Nayaka rulers continued the legacy of their previous masters and added various halls and gopurams to the existing temple complexes. Southern gopuram at the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai by far remains the most important contribution of the Nayakas as its here that the development of gopuram reached its zenith. With its slightly inward curvature and unbelievable projecting stucco statues, this is easily the most beautiful gopuram in all of south India.

Southern gopuram, Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai. Picture courtesy : Madhu Jagadeesan

The gopuram at Srivilliputhur is taller than the one at Madurai and has a larger number of stucco figures all over it. Very intricately carved Subrahmanya temple in Thajavur Brihadeesvara complex perfectly exhibits the ornate temple architecture style of the Nayakas. Features such as Pushpapotikas, Kumbhapanjara, double flexed cornice, mouldings of adisthana and various pillars add to its beauty by manifolds.


Subramanya Temple

It is astonishing how the Dravidian style did not change much as per the region unlike its northern counterpart, Nagara whose regional styles flowered to become distinct sub-styles in their own right.  Almost like the people who till today live very traditional lifestyles and retain fierce pride in their culture. 

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

All the pictures used in the post belong to the author unless stated otherwise. The illustrations are from the book “A History of Fine Arts in India and the West” by Edith Tomory

He can be reached at Onkaar7@gmail.com


In the Land of Mahabharath – Temples of Uttarakhand

Those sparkling snow peaks swirling diamond dust in the bluest of skies, those majestic and divine deodar trees preserving age old silence and those green blue ribbons of water, flowing down the mountain slopes with noise and gust, full of inner joy !


Himalayas as seen from Tunganath. Picture courtesy : Wikipedia


Himalayas, from ancient times have been revered as a sacred land of spirituality. Though it forms the northern boundary with China and central Asia, it was never a route of invasion and assault because of difficulty in access. The traditional protector of Indian landmass stood tall and wide exuding purity and silence.

Himalayas starts from  Kashmir valley and ends in the Meghalayan foothills, stopping just short of Bay of Bengal.  Spanning 2400 kilometres from North-West to South-East of Indian subcontinent, Himalayas have a very special and unique position both in geography and in people’s mind. Geographically it segregates India from rest of the North Asian landscape, culturally it is the sacred abode of Gods. For millions of Indians, Himalaya is known as Devatatma which literally means someone with a divine soul. True to meaning., there are several places of worship, several gods and goddesses, several forms of worships and not to forget several structures of worship adorning this huge mountain range.

Uttarakhand , the part of middle Himalaya, is nestled between Himachal Pradesh and Nepal with its foot hills touching the north Indian planes in Uttar Pradesh. The western part is Garhwal and eastern part is known as Kumaon.  In Uttarakhand, we find several places which have close association to the story of Mahabharata and people in the legend. For example, Lakhamandal is where the infamous sabotage of burning the Pandavas happened. Swargarohini is the peak from where Pandavas embarked on their heavenly journey. Not surprisingly a horizontal section of Himalayan ranges  is also  known as  Mahabharat range


lakhamandal 2
Lakhamandal. Picture courtesy : Aditi Mahajan


Our tradition tells us that Mahabharat is the fifth Veda and by itself an Itihas; the story as it happened. These villages, temples and rivers all take us to that era, just a little more closer to our ancestors.

The western part of Uttarakhand bordering Himachal is nourished by waters of Tons and Yamuna. Rupin and Supin rivers come together from lofty valleys to form the Tons or Tamsa. The Jaunsar-Bawar region of Uttarakhand and the villages of Netavar, Osla and Jakholi have interesting legends associated. As the people of this region believe, this is the land of Kaurava, the Kuru race from Mahabharat times. Mind you, Pandava brothers although technically Kauravas, are not celebrated here but it is their defeated cousins, the sons of Dhritarashtra who are worshipped in this land. One can find several temples dedicated to Duryodhana and a few to Karna !  The victorious Pandavas being ’other’ party are not treated as Gods, but it is their able opponent, the prince of Kuru kingdom, the eldest of the Kaurava, Duryodhana that is their object of prayers! Duryodhan temples are found at Jakholi, Osla, Gangar and some other places. Devra and Netawar in the same valley has a temple of Karna, Duryodhana’s best friend and eldest son of Kunti, also a celebrated Daan- Veer. There is a Karna temple at Karnaprayag too.


Duryodhan temple at Osla
Duryodhan Temple at Osla. Picture courtesy : Aditi Mahajan



Karna Temple at Devra
Karna Temple at Devra. Picture courtesy : Aditi Mahajan


It will be interesting to note that polyandry, famously followed by queen Draupadi in Mahabharat is somewhat common in this region. At times, the locals insist that these temples belong to Someshwar, a form of Shiv. However this is done to shield the real deity as it is against the popular belief.

The beautiful stone and wood Himalayan temples are breathtaking. These temples are generally built in multiple chambers placed in sequence. The temple pinnacles  are inverted metallic cones and sloping four sided roofs balanced on top of each other. The beautiful wooden carvings give a very ornate look to the entire structure.

For more details of architecture of Himalayan temples read :

Himalayan Temples – A Himachali Sojourn

Many of the villages in the region are away from roadways and can be reached only by foot. This difficulty in approach has worked in their favour as the cultural beliefs and legends have been preserved from strong influences. like, waters of Tons river are thought to be the tears of the residents when they mourned the loss of Kauravas in Mahabharat war.  As everywhere in India the legends and traditions have traversed across centuries and even today Tons river water is not used for drinking. Yamuna forms the eastern boundary of this land of Kaurava.


Picture courtesy : here

Central Garhwal is the spiritually important region of Char Dham Yatra.  Yamanotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath are the four places of utmost importance in Hindu pilgrimage.

Yamunotri is the temple site marking the origin of Yamuna River higher up in the mountains. This temple has been reconstructed several times because of the geological instability in the region. Gangotri  Temple is a 19th century addition by a Nepali commander. Ganga River originates farther up at Gaumukh which is the snout of a mighty glacier. The five holy confluences of Mountain Rivers with Alaknanda are also important landmarks of this divine region.  Needless to say there is a temple at each of the confluences either for the river or the divine destroyer Shiva !


lakahamandal 1
Lakhamandal. Picture courtesy : Aditi Mahajan


Kedareshwar, one of the 12 Jyotirlings is not a shivling but a conical round shaped stone jutting from earth. It is supposed to be the hump of the bull whose body has sunk in the ground. Lord Shankar took the form of a bull to run away from Pandav brothers who were seeking his blessings after the war. The other parts of the body appeared at 4 more places close by, namely Tunganath, Rudranath, Madh-Maheshwar and Kalpanath. These are the famous Panch Kedar in the Himalayas.

The Kedarnath temple has stood the test of time for last 1200 years. Built at the height of 3300 meters, overlooking the lush green Mandakini valley and being guarded by Kedar Mountains, the temple is the rugged example of Nagar style stone temple architecture. With minimalist ornamental carvings, the temple is an impressive ‘tri-rath’ black stone structure. The 2013 deluge of June washed away the entire Kedarnath town but the temple stood still.




Badrinath or Badri Vishal is the supreme place of Vishnu worship. The temple of Badrinath, with a boisterous flow of Alaknanda in the vicinity is a riot of colours.  Badrinath is also one of the Sapta Badri, seven places of Vishnu worship in the region, the other being Bhavishya Badri, Yoga Badri, Dhyan Badri, Narsimha Badri, Vriddha Badri and Adi Badri. All 4 major ‘Dhams’  literally close their doors for icy winters in Himalayas after Divali in the month of Kartik. The temples reopen at the start of spring mostly on Akshay Tritiya in the month of Vaishakh , sometime in May. The essence of the deity is carried to the lower hills at designated places during this hibernation. However it is not uncommon to find some holy monks still keeping company to Kedarnath , all surrounded in large mounds of snow during the ‘Shishir’ winter !

Yamuna is closely associated with Krishna’s childhood and  Krishna is one of the Vishnu’s Avatar. Ganga is closely linked with Kedar or Shiv as she descends on earth through his knotted hair. And Uttarakhand is blessed to be home to these symbols of traditions carried forward for thousands of years. Hence, fondly also called Devbhoomi.

Moving further to east, Kumaun region of Uttarakhand takes its name from Kurma – an incarnation of Vishnu; the turtle. The green landscape with rolling gentle slopes and sapphire lakes, the pretty valleys of Binsar or Ranmgarh, the chirping jungle lore of Pangot and marvellous locations of some of the most enchanting temples, Kumaun is soothing to eyes and senses.

Jageshwar is a tiny temple town. You travel through lovely green hills and through dense Pine forests, high and mighty, reaching for the sky, just right to form the most naturally majestic courtyard for the supreme deity Shiv, the divine destroyer, the sage of the sages, the creator of letters and god of performing arts.


Jageshwar group of temples


In ancient times, this was the starting point for pilgrims who would travel to Kailash, the ultimate abode of Shiva.  Crossing the high mountain pass, reaching to the land of Tibet and traversing the dry cold valleys of higher Himalaya to attain and see the majestic site of Holy Kailash mountain and touch the heavenly blue waters of Man Sarovar. What a journey!


Jageshwar group of temples


Dandeshwar temple is akin to the catchy opening chords of an enchanting melody. The temple stands erect without any rath formation on its outer walls. There are small shrines of Kuber and Varun in the same premises.  A little ahead is Jageshwar temple complex. Some texts treat it as part of 12 Jyotirlings and some don’t.  The crowded campus of Jageshwar have several small and large temples.  There are several open Shiv lings and ritualistic tanks within the premise.




Apart from Shiv and Vishnu, Uttarakhand is also home to an exquisite sun temple at Katarmal in Kumaon. The Kosi River flows nearby and this beautiful piece of architecture stands erect on the slope of a high mountain.

Katarmal Sun Temple – Interesting, Intriguing, Invisible

The goddesses have also left their mark in this land of pines. Kalimath, an important pilgrimage is home to Kali worship. Nanda Devi, the charming princess of the region has temples at Almora, Koti and many other places. Nanda Devi Jat Raj is an important pilgrimage for whole of Garhwal and Kumaon organized every 12 years. Nanda Devi peak in Kumaon stands tall blessing the valley and beyond. Naina Devi temple at Nainital is a Shakti Peeth, where Sati’s eyes fell down on earth  while Shiv fiercely danced to a Tandav, holding a dead Sati in his arms, in eternal agony and grief of losing her.

Apart from these mainstream deities and river goddesses, Uttarakhand has not forgotten its local and native divinities. Travelling though Kumaon , you come across a temple of Golu. The temple structures are simple , sometimes newly constructed and painted ugly cement creations too. But the vibe at these places is nothing short of divine. Garhwal region has a powerful local deity called Mahasu devata. Beautiful three chamber temple with Pagoda style roofs at Hanol signify the importance of Mahasu Devata in local mind.


Mahasu Temple
Mahasu Temple


Himalyan stone temples follow same style of architectural elements almost everywhere. Right from the three faced central carving on shikhar to a line of semi circular carvings on adjoining walls of shikhar, one can find similarities throughout. Almost all have compact niches on the outer walls of temple for sculptures.

Another important aspect of Himalayan temples is the cluster in which they appear. From Laxminarayan Temple complex in Chamba to Jageshwar in Kumaon, from Adibadri in Garhwal to Lakhamandal in Western Uttarakhand, all of them can be classified as temple clusters. There are a few bigger ones and then there are several small temples strewn all around the premises. Several deities give company to each other in these temple clusters.  However what we don’t see are imposing enclosures as seen in other temples in India.

Though populated with deities, if you ask me, the green meadows, the land locked sapphire pools of water, the tall peaks turning golden in setting sun, the fresh pine scented air and the silence of the woods giving solace to your mind is the real and ultimate place of worship …. Himalayas itself are a temple!


All the pictures used in the post belong to the author unless stated otherwise

Author – Manisha Chitale

She can be  contacted at manishachitale@hotmail.com




Himalayan Temples – A Himachali Sojourn

Growing up in Darjeeling and Kolkata, and being a regular visitor to the neighbouring state of Sikkim, as a child I invariably associated the Himalayas with gaily painted Buddhist monasteries or gompas, fluttering colourful flags that kept away evil spirits, and maroon robed monks. It was much later when I travelled to Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh that I realised these age-old mountains held many secrets amidst its high peaks. Some in the form of beautiful old temples carved in stone and wood.

My tryst with Himalayan temples started with a visit to Kedarnath, Badrinath, and Gangotri, during my school days. Despite the milling crowd, these places still

Kedarnath temple (approximately 8th c. CE), Uttarakhand

retain a charm of their own, and a darshan of the evening aarti at the Kedarnath temple is a magical experience. Makes you realise why “the land north of Ganga-dwar is known to the wise as Paradise Ground” (Kedarkhand Skanda Purana).

There is a belief among the mountain dwellers that in the Himalayas there are as many deities as there are hamlets. Nothing could be truer than this especially in Himachal Pradesh where every hamlet has its own local deota and possibly a kul deota of the head priest. They are worshipped in kathkuni styled pretty shrines built with wood and stone

Hatu Mata temple (newly constructed) dedicated to Mandodari, wife of Ravana, at Hatu Peak in Narkanda in Himachal Pradesh

. Besides the temples for the local deota that are often reconstructed or relatively new, there are also many early medieval (post classical era) stone temples with exquisite sculptural works on them. Most of these temples are functional, well maintained, and

Shikhara of an almost 1400 year old temple within the Chaurasi temple complex in Bharmour, Himachal Pradesh.

often under the purview of the ASI. Yet, they remain unknown to most tourists that travel to Himachal Pradesh. While speaking to the locals I realised that this anonymity is a conscious decision for keeping the temples away from unwanted attention. The locals prefer to preserve them the way they have always been … standing in isolation.

Interestingly, besides the stone and wood temples, often trekkers come across small piles of stones at a particularly precarious bend or at a cross-point, with a flag or cloth tied onto them. These are holy shrines dedicated to the hillside spirits or deotas gathered up as an appeasement to avoid accidents. A custom that is as ancient as human civilisation and continues unabated through time.

The Kullu Manali circuit


The Kullu Manali circuit, a tourist hub famous for its scenic landscape, is also renowned for its temples and often referred to as the Valley of Gods. The ancient name of Kullu was Kulut or Kulantapitha, and finds mention in old Vedic literature. The term Kulut is historically important as it denotes a place that was beyond the then dominant socio-political norms or kula- vyavastha. Around 6th c. CE, after defeating the imperial Guptas, Khashas became the dominant ruling class in this area (as recorded on the Salanu inscription from the Tirthan valley), and they established a Gana-rajya, a form of theocracy (Malana remains an extant example).  Few centuries later the Rajputs dispelled the Khashas and brought in the feudal system, forcing the Khashas to migrate to distant places. Interestingly, the Khashas, later came back as Rajputs and are still considered powerful in the outer and inner Seraj region of the Kullu valley.

A somewhat definitive history of the Kullu valley can be derived  from the genealogical records of the Rajas of Kullu known as Vanshavali. From this record it is believed that Vihangamani Pal after being displaced from his seat in Haridwar (then known as Mayapuri; though there are some speculations that Vihangamani Pal came from Prayag) came to establish his kingdom at Jagat Sukh, with the blessings of the Hadimba devi. Thus, started the Pal dynasty that ruled Kullu until 1450 CE. From Jagat Sukh, Raja Visudh Pal shifted his capital to Naggar, and later the capital was again moved to Sultanpur (Kullu) in 1660 under Raja Jagat Singh.

Inside the Naggar castle, the palace from where the Kullu kings ruled

The entire valley, covering Kullu to Manali that includes Mandi, is dotted with temples built predominantly in the Nagara style of temple architecture. The Nagara style, originated during the Gupta rule, shows the following basic characteristics: a cruciform base plan, a curvilinear/convex shikhara, a garbagriha and a mandap

  • The ground plan is square with gradual projections from the centre of each side giving it a cruciform shape. With a single projection from two sides, the temple would be a Triratha; two projections from two sides would make it a Pancharatha; three projections from two sides would be Saptharatha; and four projections  from two sides of the temple would make it a Navaratha. These projections often continue throughout the entire temple height and end at the skandha (shoulder course).

    photo from wiki
  • The temples have a tall spire known as Shikhara that gradually curves inwards, ending at the skandha, above which is the griva (circular necking).  On this is placed a ribbed circular stone slab known as Amalaka, often carrying a Kalasha on top
  • The dieties are housed in an inner chamber called the Garbhagriha (sanctum)
  • A covered entrance hall or porch leads to Garbhagriha called Mandap


From the book – Temples of India by Tarun Chopra


In Himachal Pradesh, owing to easy availability of wood from forests, another common form seen is the timber bonded style with a pent roof and a veranda. The other styles seen are:


  • The pagoda style (Hadimba temple in Manali)
  • The domed temples (Jwalamukhi temple in Kangra)
  • The flat roofed ones (Narbadeshwar temple at Hamirpur)
  • Satlej valley style (Bhimakali temple in Sarahan)


Bhimakali temple in Sarahan (Photo from wiki)


My article will focus on some of the temples in and around Naggar, which was once the capital of the Kullu kingdom.

Tripura Sundari temple


This is a huge pagoda style three-storeyed wooden temple, similar to the Hadimba Devi temple in Manali. According to folklore, the temple was in the shape of a spider web woven by the Devi herself after turning into a spider. The original temple was built during the reign of Raja Yashodha Pal, while the current prettily carved wooden structure is largely a reconstructed one.

While inside the temple complex, I noticed many stone murtis , evidently older than the wooden structure that we see now. Some were kept free standing, while some were embedded into the newly constructed walls. Being a functional temple all  murtis are under worship, evident from the flowers and leaves in front and the red tilak on their foreheads. The murtis include Anantashayana Vishnu, Ganesha, Shiva-Parvati, and Mahisasurmardini. Sharhi yatra, an annual fair is held here in the month of May to honour the Goddess.

Wooden carvings on the temple wall showing a mithuna couple and floral patterns

Peacocks, Dwarpalas, and Ganesha on a door panel (left) and a devotee or a donor on the temple wall



Stone murtis once part of the original temple (?) Lakshmi, Anantashayana Vishnu, and Ganesha (looks to be part of a broken panel, now cemented to the wall) kept together under a newly constructed shed


A rather mossy looking wooden simha pranala: there are four such pranalas placed at four corners of the pagoda styled shikhara


Footprints carved on stone, placed near the entry door to the temple


Mahisasurmardini murti kept near the temple doorway

Tripurasundari devi inside the garbhagriha


Gauri Shankar temple


This beautiful 11th-12th c. CE temple stone stands right beside a village, yet holds a serene atmosphere. It was raining when I had reached the temple and there was not a soul in sight. As I stood in front of the centuries old stone structure, then wet and glistening in the rain, the feeling was ethereal and of supreme tranquillity.

The Gauri Shankara temple is a perfect example of Nagara style, following the Gurjara Pratihara tradition that was once popular in the Kullu valley. It is considered the last temple to follow this particular architectural pattern in this area. It is tri-ratha in plan, has a square garbhagriha, with a vedibandha (the socle) showing kumbha and ardharatna motifs that include the mouldings of kalasa and kapotali . The jangha (temple wall) show bhadra niches on the three cardinal directions east, north, and south. The walls have square and rectangular recesses that depict dancers, musicians, warriors, deities, birds, purnakumbhas, and purnaratnas. The shikhara is curvilinear, with an amalaka at top, is decorated with chaitya motifs (chandrasalas), and the corners have bhumi amalakas marking the storeys. The mandapa is pillared with square bases and ghatapallava as capitals, while the sanctum entrance holds a Ganesha on the lalatabimba.

A beautiful stone nandi greets you as walk towards the temple doorway. Notice the little figure that is pulling its tail ( a closer look will reveal it’s  a little lady who dares to pull Nandi by his tail)  

The river devis, Ganga and Yamuna holding kalashas, along with dwarapalas, on two sides of door leading to the garbhagriha They wash away your sins and impure thoughts before you enter the sanctum

Left: A very happy looking Gauri Shankara light up the garbhagriha. Right: five receding panels on the door jamb show dancers, musicians, and geometrical and floral patterns

Carvings on the temple walls showing floral patterns, birds,  purnakalasha, and figures of deities

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Panels on the jangha showing a bird, a rishi (or devotee?) sitting with folded hands, purnakalasha, and a musician playing a dhol like instrument. Adjacent to it is the shikhara of a niche
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Jangha with the fluted pillared niche, and below it the Vedibandha with its ardharatna motifs and a pranala to let out the water from garbhagriha

A donor couple (or devotees) and a mithuna (an amorous) couple sculpted on the wall.


Trimukha Shiva from part of a broken panel is kept in one of the niches. The pillars here are of the fluted type. A panel commonly seen on the Shikhara of the Himalayan temples. After all, Himalayas are Shiva’s abode


Another broken panel of Shiva kept in a niche

Dashal temple

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This 11th c. CE temple sits amidst an enchanting setting, surrounded by thick forests and orchards. I came across it while walking aimlessly through the Dashal village lanes. The pretty roads take you around the farms, orchards, and you meet a gushing stream with a panichakki. After crossing the little wooden panichakki, you  take a turn and suddenly this temple is upon you. The rains had just stopped when I reached, and the clouds were slowly dispelling, when the sudden appearance of a temple from amidst the rising cloud cover made the entire setting seem almost unreal.

This pancharatha Shiva temple with a pillared mandapa is richly carved and figures of Vishnu, Brahma, and flying gandharvas are seen on the capitals. The door frame of the garbhagriha is richly carved with floral patterns and figures of dancers and musicians. Ganga and Yamuna with dwarapalas flank the doorway, while Ganesha sits on the lalatabimba. Above the lintel is a panel depicting the navagrahas.

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At the top we can see the three faced form of Shiva. Below, at the mandapa entrance can see figures of Vishnu on Garuda (left pillar head of the temple) and Brahma (right pillar head) on the pillar capitals
Ganesha on lalatabimba and navagrahas on a panel above him


Ganga and Yamuna with dwarapalas on pilasters flanking the doorway to the garbhagriha

the two figures one two sides of the wall as one enters the mandapa

a worn out murti of Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda is kept on the left side of the mandapa
Inside the garbhagriha




Other stone figures inside the garbhagriha include Mahisasurmardini, anantasayana Vishnu, Shiva. 

purnakalasha, floral patterns and mithuna couples on the temple wall panel


 Left: A pillared  niche on the temple wall: Right: Two bharavahaks doing their eternal duty of carrying heavy loads


Two beautiful Nandis, age-old and weather beaten, yet standing guard 

Erotica carved on temple walls have a deep underlying philosophy. During Vedic times, Purusharaths (human life goals) were propounded and one among them was Kama or physical pleasure. Mithuna couple sculptures on the walls of temples panders to ancient Hindu philosophy wherein yoga (spiritual exercise) and bhoga (physical pleasure) are the two paths that lead to moksha (final liberation), explains Tarun Chopra in his book ‘Temples of India’. Deep in the throes of passion they represent the transition from the physical to the spiritual plane of consciousness analogous to the walk from the mandap to the garbhagriha. One enters the sanctum leaving behind all worldly thoughts including the erotic represented by mithuna sculptures on the walls of the temple

Naggar and its adjoining areas areas are dotted with temples of various styles and times of construction. Among these, some temples and a unique custom that caught my eye are:

  1. A beautiful Shiva temple hidden amidst the surrounding houses, remains well maintained. I am especially fond of the mandapas of the Himachali temples with their little pillared entrances. Half way up on the plain shikhara, clearly visible are the three faces of Shiva, looking benevolently down at us





Some sculptures that I  saw lying outside. These are all worshipped, and the temple is  a functional one with a deity inside the garbhagriha. 

2. An old Chandi temple showing the the timber bonded style with a pent roof and a veranda. The small, solitary wooden structure in the second photograph, I was told, is a place where the neighbouring deities reside, when they come visiting.



3. A roadside “ancient” village temple dedicated to a devi. What interested me here were the offerings made to the goddess. The masks were eye catching too.

Noticed horns of animals as offering. My guide insisted this devi temple was an ancient one too, but now completely renovated and built over in a new style!

4. An interesting custom prevalent in the region is the worship of the local deotas that is distinct for every hamlet. While I missed the devta on his palanquin in this celebration in a village named Banjar, we met a couple of apdevtas roaming around in their broom stick gowns. We were duly blessed by them with dried floral twigs that was to be put behind our ears and kept for the day. A novelty to be blessed by the apdevta instead of devta!

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The apdevtas in their broomstick gowns
This is how you wear your blessings from the apdevta!
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The smiling face behind the mask of an apdevta.

As I keep taking the roads less travelled in order to explore the interiors of Himachal Pradesh, lately I find myself agreeing more and more with the locals when they tell me that these temples and certain remote high altitude places are better off when kept away from tourist radars. The feeling of awe, the overwhelming sense of magic and enchantment, the sensation of an unspoken power radiating from these old temples when I stand in front of them, would all disappear like thin mountain mist, if hordes of disinterested tourists carrying their plastic packets of chips and water bottles descended upon them. Some paths better be left less travelled, except for the ones who truly love and respect nature and heritage.


Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com

                                                                                or at

Moni Gatha

Kalpavriksha and Its Depiction in Art and Architecture – An Overview

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end

– Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

Ashwattha is synonymous with our country and its symbolism. The figs are the most commonly found trees in the country and also the ones that are worshipped the most. Ficus religiosa / Pipal / Ashwattha tree was considered sacred and worshipped from the times of Indus Valley Civilisation but it is the Ficus bengalensis / Banyan / Vata that gained more prominence later and ended up as our national tree. While the Buddhists reclaimed the Ashwattha as the Bodhi tree, the Hindus clung onto the Vata. Associated with Yama, the Banyan is considered the botanical equivalent of a hermit for it can provide shade but cannot support new life or provide food. It is timeless like the soul and so the great sages, even Shiva, chose its vast canopy to contemplate under. They are tree shrines as idols were consecrated below these trees and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama. Incidentally, the British named the Banyan tree so, as they noticed members of the trading community (Banias) gather under its shade for many a meetings.  The figs were the first among trees to be considered the Kalpavriksha – the wish fulfilling tree of the ancient scriptures that provided fruit and nourished the first people on the planet and the giver of immortality.

The concept of Kalpavriksha emerged from nature worship that has been an integral part of all ancient cultures of the world including India. The strong belief that trees, like us, possess a soul of their own has led to such reverence that if we look around we can still find groves that are held sacred. They are believed to be the abodes of departed souls and divinities that bring us good luck in the form of rain, sunshine, good harvest, increasing herds, and fertility blessings for women. While most tree spirits are considered amiable, there are some that are also seen as malevolent, the “evil spirits,” or the “ap-devta.” Such spirits cause harm, hence people avoid going near the trees that harbour them. One good impact that these beliefs had was protecting many trees from being mindlessly cut down for their wood.

My discussion here will revolve around the concept of kalpavriksha spanning a timeline of a few hundreds of years. How it started from the notions of nature worship, influenced religions, and still continues to be an integral part of our social, religious, and cultural heritage.

sacred sycamore

Let’s begin with some of the oldest civilisations of the world. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sycamore trees, which they thought were homes of the sacred spirits. The dense, lush trees are one among the oldest species of trees and are known for their longevity and hardiness.  Seen in the picture here is an Egyptian making a regular offering of food, such as, cucumbers, grapes, and figs, to the tree. Pic source


Image result for indus valley seals with trees  

Ficus religiosa on different Indus valley seals. The last seal shows a goddess standing inside a pipal tree and the priest is clearly wearing a headdress made from the branch of a peepal tree. These seals with their emphasis on the peepal tree and various animals show a distinct reverence for nature.   Source  Source  Source

In ancient Indian literature, Kalpavriksha is referred to as Ashwattha, or the seed of life that produces nectar (the water of life), which is our very own Pipal tree. The Vedas (Upanishad part) describes it as :

The roots upwards, the branches downwards, thus stands the eternal fig tree; The leaves of which are veda songs; Upwards and downward its branches are bending; Nobody on the earth is able to conceive of its form, either its end, or beginning, or duration.”

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties  (religiosa and bengalensis) that is both the Pipal and the Banyan. So next time you see a Vata or an Ashwattha in your neighbourhood, take some moments off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of our civilisation. A long journey that is still continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under the roadside ficus trees along the streets of our country.

The wish fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Kalpavriksha also known as kalpadruma or kalpataru is said to have appeared during samudramanthan along with Kamdhenu. The tree can bear all kinds of fruits, hence it is associated with different trees, varying according to  the local vegetation. Thus, mahua, champak, pipal, banyan, tulsi, shami, parijata, and even coconut trees are often said to be the earthly manifestation of the heavenly kalpadruma. Kalpavriksha (of five types)are said to be located in the gardens of Indraloka with the devas and asuras at perpetual war over the wish fulfilling trees. Kalidasa’s “Meghadutam” tells us that kalpatarus yielded garlands, clothes, and provided for all fineries for the women in Alaka, capital of Kubera’s Yaksha kingdom. Thus, while bestowing immortality, we find that kalpavriksha also provides for all our material desires.


Samudramanthan as depicted in a mural in Orchhha.  Notice the Kalpavriksha above the posse of animals. Picture courtesy: Jitu Mishra 


A 3rd century BCE pillar in the form of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) found in Besnagar, can be said to be the earliest representation of a kalpavriksha with the various symbolisms that we associate with it. The tree has a kalash or a pot full of coins, a sack tied with a string, a conch, and a lotus hanging from it, signifying the goddess of wealth or Lakshmi devi. Thus, we can say kalpavriksha is a giver that stands for growth, generosity, and prosperity.  It is therefore not surprising to find it as a common motif on the Gupta and Satavahana era coins. (Picture source).


The Bodhi tree is a sign of knowledge, as it is a well known fact that Buddha attained enlightenment under this tree. The above depiction of the Bodhi tree is seen in Sanchi. While we can say the Bodhi tree depicts knowledge, the kalpataru on the other hand denotes wealth and benevolence, along with spiritual guidance for those that seek it. Picture Courtesy: Jitu Mishra

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism we find that the kalpavriksha is not a deity by itself, but rather a way to reach God. A giver, it grants wishes pertaining to both material and spiritual types. While providing us with shade, fruits, nuts, wood, and the life giving oxygen that purifies air, kalpavriksha also helps human minds to focus on attaining spiritual enlightenment. Thus, by glorifying kalpavriksha, we are in reality deifying an aspect of nature, and celebrating its immense contribution to our daily lives and existence.


Kalpavriksha in  Adalaj stepwell, Ahmedabad. Here we find  a kalasha bearing the kalpavriskha that forms a beautiful creeper like pattern (very reminiscent of the alpona that we draw during our pujas back home in Calcutta). Photos credit: Jitu Mishra

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees. They are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how our ancestors acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.


Worshipping the chaitya vriksha, a jack-fruit tree,  as we see at Sanchi. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra

According to mythology, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma, was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter Related imageof Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc. Interestingly, from simple depiction of the Bodhi tree and Ashvatta, in the later part of Indian sculptures we see a more complex depiction of kalpavriksha that with their beautiful floral patterns make us wonder at their aesthetic beauty. On the other hand it has become increasingly difficult to rightly distinguish the tree it might be representing. In the picture – The deities Nara and Narayana sitting under a Badri tree, 5th c. CE Gupta period, Deogarh. Source

Thus we see Buddha meditating under a Bodhi tree, Shiva imparting knowledge under a Banyan tree, and Krishna standing under a Kadamba tree. Guru Adi Shankaracharya was also known to have meditated under a kalpavriksha, which is a mulberry tree located in Joshimath (Uttarakhand). Other trees that we find culturally significant are jackfruit, amalaka, haritaki, lemon, vilva or bel, neem, sandalwood, mango, and banana. All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in our daily lives. What better way to celebrate the benefits of nature, than to worship it.

In Jainism, we find the kalpavrikshas help in fulfilling wishes in the early stages of the cosmic cycle, and the 10 kalpavrikshas grant 10 different desires that include nourishing food, good music, ornaments, utensils, among others.

Artisitc representation of the Kalpavriksha in Jainism. A wall painting of a tree on red backdrop.

The wall painting of Kalpavriksha in Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidri, Karnataka. A Jain kalpavriksha.(Photo from Wiki by Vaikoovery)


Interestingly  forms of Kalpavrisha are also depicted beautifully in the mosques of Gujarat. Left: Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad and Right: Ceiling of the Jami Masjid, Champaner. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra


Kumbharia Jain Temple, Gujarat. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra. 

The Jain goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility is Ambika yakshi, who is always shown seated under a mango tree. Source  Source

The tree of life in Christianity and Islam

The concept of the Tree of life is a part of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of the creation of life, commonly termed as the Genesis.

Interestingly, the Islamic concept of tree of life that we see woven on silk carpets or sculpted on monuments, is likely to have been largely influenced and derived from the Sassanian and Assyrian art forms depicting the World Tree/ tree of life.


A mid 19th c. CE Islamic prayer rug from Iran/Persia showing the tree of life within a pointed niche, a mihrab (first on left). It appears distinctly inspired from the Assyrian Aserah (Mother Tree/God’s wife, a symbol of fertility) on the right  Source Source 


Various depictions of the tree of life on Islamic monuments of Gujarat. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra


In Islamic literature, the tree of life is termed as the Sidra or Tuba which grows in Paradise (seventh heaven, placed at the right side of God’s throne). Being sacred, we find it depicted in mihrabs on rugs and otherwise. The tree marks the limits of heaven, and angels cannot cross this boundary. The Sidra has its earthly manifestation in a deciduous shrub that grows in Arabia and India, known as Zizyphus jujuba (bears edible fruits known as the red date or Indian date).  While the Quran refers to it as only ‘the tree’, and forbades Adam and Eve to taste the fruits of this tree, it was Satan who referred to it as the tree of immortality/life.


Beautiful curled foliage with floral patterns arising from a thick central stem representing the Tree of life in the Sidi Sayyid Mosque in Ahmedabad. Here we can see that a palm tree is depicted at the top. Pictures credit: Jitu Mishra. 


fathepur copy
Mughal version of the gardens of heaven as seen in Fatehpur Sikri. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra


In Christianity, the Old Testament is likely to have drawn inspiration and derived frombanylonia the old Babylonian concept of the tree of life, known as the tree of Ea or Ukkanu that grew in Eridu, the Babylonian name for paradise.  A Babylonian seal which is now in the British museum (seen here on right: source) It shows two figures on two sides of the tree of life, stretching their hands ready to pluck the fruit, with the serpent (representing the cycle of life and death in Babylonian times) standing behind the woman. Another Babylonian cylinder, now kept in the Museum at the Hague, depicts a garden with a palm tree at the centre, surrounded by other trees and birds. There are two figures plucking the fruit, while a third figure is holding the fruit, looking as if speaking to the other two. It is quite likely that these symbols were later adopted in the Bible by the Christians and Jews, and later also in the Quran.


Left: Holy Mary with the Child on the tree of life by Nicholas Froment, 1476, (“the burning thorn bush”) in Aiz Cathedral, France. Here the bush is shown on a hilltop signifying the world mountain. Source Right: The tree of life in a Sweden church, 11th c. CE. Source    

Left: Tree of life on floor mosaic, 8th c. CE, Jericho. Right:Tree of life on an arched doorway. Both are likely Christian depictions.  Source Source

Sacred trees or the tree of life from different parts of the world


Left: A tree of life From a Mexican manuscript, (Goblet d’Alviella).  Right above: Sacred pine of Silvanus (Roman folklore). Right below: The Egyptian goddess Nu̔ît in her sacred sycamore bestowing the bread and water of the next world.  source


German Folk Art… details and color - stencil or screen print

Left: Yggdrasil—the Norse world-tree, 1847. Source Right: tree of life in a German folk art. Source

While we see that the tree of life is a universal symbol of worship and its depiction since time immemorial has changed form and figure, it is the most recognizable symbol in Indian art and architecture. Whether it is a temple, or a mosque, or a church or a chaitya or a jain derasar, the Kalpavrisha is somewhere there proclaiming how everything in the world is ultimately connected.

(The cover picture is the depiction of tree of life at Akbar’s Mausoleum in Sikandra. Picture courtesy: Self) 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Monidipa

Rejoinder – Katarmal Sun Temple

In one of our earlier posts on Katarmal Sun Temple, author Shubham Mansingka, after a visit to the Sun Temple in Katarmal village in Uttarakhand, wondered if ASI did anything more than put a few boards here and there. In response to his query, Mr Niraj Kumar Verma from ASI spoke to us thus :

What you see today at Katarmal is a painstakingly restored cluster of temples. Perched at 2100 mtrs working here was not easy and nor is subsequent maintenance. Add to it the fact that Katarmal village faces water problem (quiet surprising as the river Kosi flows nearby). When restoration was going on water was being bought all the way from Ranikhet road, a good 57 kms away. After installing benches, ASI also decided to build a toilet as the location of this temple is quiet obscure but it remains non-functional due to the lack of a proper pipeline. Except for one Naula (traditional water tanks prevalent in the region) the village has no other source of drinking water. This Naula is again located 2 to 3 kms away from the village. Harsh climate and a difficult terrain just adds to the problem of transporting materials as well as water to and from the site. The reason why there is no drinking water facility at the temple cluster. Few boards were placed approximately 12 years ago with the intention of increasing tourist flow to this rare Sun Temple which is otherwise hidden from plain sight. Yes, no work has been done post restoration and the site is not manned due to a host of reasons but this should not take away from the hard work done earlier by dedicated personnel.

Virasat-E-Hind applauds the wonderful work done by the ASI in restoring the Katarmal Sun temple cluster to its former glory in such difficult circumstances. We take this opportunity to request our readers and friends to not just visit this unexplored gem whenever they are next in Uttarakhand but also understand why this place is not manned by a guard or lacks in basic facilities and so behave responsibly there.

Below are few pictures of the temple complex and its various shrines before and after the restoration work done by ASI


All the pictures are courtesy Mr. Niraj Kumar Verma. He can be contacted at nirajverma1974@gmail.com

Zehra Chhapiwala

Team Virasat-E-Hind

I can be contacted at zchhapiwala@gmail.com

Pashupata Cult and the Ancient Temples of Bhubaneshwar

During 1980s, I visited Bhubaneswar regularly and as a child one thing that always fascinated me were its numerous Shiva temples. Richly adorned with sculptures of Hindu divinities, mythical beasts, foliage and ordinary men and women, the child in me wondered why there were so many temples dedicated to a single deity? As I grew older, one particular sculpture never failed to fascinate me and that was – Lakulisha, a Shaivite teacher who closely resembled Gautama Buddha.



Rajarani Temple

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Parasurameswar Temple, Rear View

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Parasurameswara Temple, Front View


Vaital Deala


Lingaraj Temple

7th century CE heralded an era that marked the beginning of temple building activity in Bhubaneshwar. It was an interesting time period in history as dynasties like the Mauryas and the Guptas were no longer extant and there was no pan Indian empire. But thanks to their contribution of bringing India together in the preceding centuries, there was a high degree of mobility among people from north to south and east to west. This led to the proliferation of cross-cultural ideas that would eventually lead to form the foundation of India.

Bhubaneshwar, situated at the heart of Kalinga kingdom, had become a melting pot of ideas with influences from north and south and east and west. The introduction of Lakulisha cult around this time is a testimony of such cultural interactions.

Lakulisha, literally meaning the club bearing deity, is shown in temples of Bhubaneswar as seated cross-legged in dharma-chakra-pravartana mudra with a lakuta (stick) held between one arm. He is either shown single or with his four disciples – Karushya, Garga, Mitra and Kushika.


Lakulisa – Parasurameswara Temple

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Lakulisa – Parasurameswara Temple

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Lakulisa – Vaital Deula


Lakulisa – Sisereswara Temple


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Lakulasa – Rajarani Temple

Lakulisa Images – Odisha State Museum, Bhubaneswar

Lakulisha, a Brahmin from Kayavarohan near Vadodara in Gujarat was the founder of Pashupata sect of Shaivism. The Pashupata sect finds mention in the Mahabharata. According to the Vayu Purana and the Linga Purana, Shiva revealed that he would make an appearance on earth during the age of Vishnu’s incarnation as Vasudeva (Krishna). Shiva indicated that he would enter the dead body of a Brahmana and incarnate himself as Lakulin (or Nakulin or Lakulisha, lakula meaning “club”).


Kayavarohan, Gujarat – Lakulisa Temple


Lakulisa Deity, Kayavarohan

Shaivism according to some historians and archaeologists is a pre-Aryan cult and its origin can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. However, with the spread of Vedic religion, early Shaivism had lost its importance. Considered the 28th incarnation of Shiva, Lakulisha revived and propagated the ancient cult of Pashupati worship. He bought the various Shaivite sects under the umbrella of Pashupata, meaning the followers of Pashupati, the Lord of Beasts. Lakulisha opposed Vedic religion, Jainism and more particularly Buddhism. He is also said to have restored the practice of Haatha Yoga and tantrism.

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Pasupati Shiva, Padri, An Indus Valley Site, Gujarat (?)

Soon after its establishment in the 1st century CE, the Pashupata cult spread all over North India with Mathura becoming a major centre. Pashupata Shaivism was an ascetic movement and its followers were required to liberate themselves from worldly affairs by practicing the Pashupatavrata. Their path was tough, a path of ruining the ego, annihilating the physical self for nourishing the spiritual self.

Their Sadhana (spiritual practice) usually begun with the deepening of an ethical code (yama and niyama), the accent being laid on Brahmacharya (abstinence, continence), Ahimsa (non-violence) and Tapas (austerity). The discipline was practiced in stages. In the first stage they would take various vows, and practice releasing techniques.These techniques included laughing, singing, and dancing.

In the next stage, they became a part of the society and lived incognito. Here, they would practice various shocking actions, with the purpose of attracting people’s disapproval and condemnation, gossiping, making strange sounds while in public, snoring, walking about as if they have been crippled, and so on. They would bathe their body three times a day in sand and lie in ashes while singing bhajans in praise of Lord Shiva.

The Pashupatas believe that when a person is firm in his or her virtue then that person is capable of taking any abuse or insult serenely and is well placed on the path of the ascetics. According to the Pashupata Sutra, a Pashupata Yogi must appear as a lunatic, beggar, with the body dirty, grown beard, long hair and nails, with no care shown whatsoever to the body. By such means, the devotee cuts off his or her access to fortunes and possessions of the physical world.

According to archaeologist, late Prof K.C Panigrahi, an expert on Bhubaneswar’s history, some of the earliest temples in the city have been named after the famous teachers of the Pashupata sect. For example, Parasurameshwar Temple, built in the 7th century CE, was earlier named as Parasavara after the Pashupata teacher Parasara. Kapileshwara is yet another temple named after a Pashupata teacher, Kapila who was one of the successors of Kushika, a disciple of Lakulisha. The temple of Mitreswara, which stands in the vicinity of Yameswara Temple, has been named after Mitra, who was one of the four principle disciples of Lakulisha. The naming of shrines after the names of dead teachers was an established custom in the Pashupata sect.

A lingam representing a dead teacher was planted and a temple was erected for the same. This may have been one of the reasons for the large number of Shiva lingams in Ekamra Kshetra, as was the holy city of Bhubaneshwar earlier called. According to Ekamra Purana, there were 10 million such Shiva lingams in Bhubaneswar. However, this can be taken as an exaggeration.

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Depiction of Shiva Lingas being established in various temples

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A Panel in Lingaraj Temple

A close observation of early images of Lakulisha in Bhubaneswar reveals an uncanny resemblance to the images of the Buddha. Odisha, during this period, was a major Buddhist establishment under the patronage of Bhaumakara rulers. Some of the early temples of Bhubaneshwar were deeply influenced by Buddhist art and architecture. The practice of erecting a stupa enshrining the relics of a dead may have influenced the Pashupatas to erect lingams for their dead teachers. In Ratnagiri, the largest among all Buddhist sites, excavations have unearthed a staggering number of votive stupas suggesting the magnitude of the practice.

Though it is still not established how this cult reached Bhubaneshwar, archaeological sources suggest that Ekamra Kshetra continued to attract the followers and teachers of the Pashupata cult for a very long period of time. Even today at Bharati Math, in the old city, miniature temples are being erected to enshrine fresh lingams and its courtyard is full of a large number of lingams representing generations of teachers beginning from 7th century CE.

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Bharati Math in Bhubaneswar

In the modern cosmopolitan city of Bhubaneshwar there are no followers of this ascetic cult. In fact the youth may find it hard to believe that once scores of Shaivite monks roamed its streets carrying out strange rituals such as bathing their bodies in ashes, singing loudly in praise of their lord, dancing in any manner, curling their tongue and roaring like bulls. The only traces of this ancient cult are now found in the sculptural panels and the medieval temples that populate the city.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Katarmal Sun Temple – Interesting, Intriguing, Invisible

passerby mentioned the name ‘Surya Mandir of Katarmal’ when I was whiling away my time in Kasar Devi near Almora in Uttarakhand. I had earlier thought that Konark was the only Sun Temple in India but over a period of time it was known that there are Sun Temples in Modhera, Gujarat, Martand, Kashmir and also in the small town of Osian in Rajasthan.

Katarmal is a small village that lies on the Ranikhet road in Kumaon and the temple can be accessed by a 20 minute walk from the main road. We set off on a Royal Enfield Motorcycle from Almora in the morning and were pretty famished by the time we reached the hamlet of Kosi. I was quite excited about the prospect of seeing this 12th Century wonder that was said to be left half built.


Legend says that ‘It was built by the Pandavas in one night and when the first rays of the morning lit the sky, the construction was halted and it has remained so ever since. This is the land of the lores of Pandavas. That and the fact that the terrain of this region has proved to be uninviting for the invaders. Except for an abortive attempt by a Rohilla chieftain and the Anglo-Tibet war, Kumaon has not witnessed any major battles. Though the region has always been engulfed by internal strife between the Kumaonis and the Garhwalis.

A dilapidated signboard by the ASI on the dirt track increased the sense of wonder and the first glimpse of the temple complex did not disappoint at all. It was a grand and colossal structure that oddly reminded me of the Parthenon in Greece!


There were 44 small temples surrounding the main shrine but none of them had any idols inside them. Some of them seemed to have been damaged in an attack but as I have mentioned there is no history pertaining to the same. Some of the smaller shrines seemed to be leaning, while one of them was only balanced on a single pillar. I wondered if the Archaeological Survey of India did anything other than just putting up 3-4 boards in and around the temple complex.

From 7th Century AD to 12th Century AD Kumaon witnessed a sustained period of great temples being built by various rulers. The Katyuri dynasty has been credited for most of them, and even this Sun temple was built by the Katyuri king Katarmalla. The main deity of the sun temple is Surya –  called Vraddha Aditya (Old Sun God) here.


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Vraddha Aditya or Surya, the main deity. Picture courtesy: Mr Niraj Kumar Verma


The temple is perched at a height of 2100 m on a small hillock with an endless view of the valley on the front side. It has been designed such that on few days especially during the equinoxes, the first rays of the sun fall on the deity inside the Garbhagriha. There’s a small hole punched in one of the temples from where the first light permeates through and casts its light on the idol making it a glorious sight.


An azure sky behind the main temple creates a perfect backdrop. The setting is quite spectacular with a cool breeze blowing even on an otherwise hot day in May.  Various temple pieces like the Amalakas are found scattered in the courtyard. There is a spectator too, a lone tree that continues to witness the glories and vagaries of time. 


The temples of Kumaon from this period used huge stones instead of bricks, some of them so humongous that only the Gods are believed to have carried them so far ! (Perhaps thats why the local legend of so many of these temples to have been built by the Pandavas). These stones were quarried from the nearby valley and hauled upto the site where they were cut and carved. This temple is said to be one of the biggest and tallest in the entire Kumaon region. The style of architecture of the temple is Nagara style.

 The temple had intricately carved wooden doors and pillars that were shifted to the National Museum in Delhi after the theft of a priceless 10th century idol from the temple premises.

 The wooden door and pillars of the Katarmal Sun Temple displayed at the National Museum in Delhi. Pictures courtesy: Mr Niraj Kumar Verma

What really surprised me is that inspite of being both a rare and renowned heritage site with close proximity to the very touristy Almora, we met no other visitor during the time that we were there. There was no restaurant or dhaba near the temple and it sure looked like a place that no one cared about.  As a nation, we really don’t seem to be quite proud or caring of its rich heritage and culture. The same tourists who go gaga on seeing monuments when in a western country are not even aware of the rich architectural heritage that lies in their vicinity. Although I must admit; the monuments in our country are rarely well maintained and even basic facilities sometimes don’t exist at heritage sites.

Author – Shubham Mansingka

The author is a travel blogger and can be reached here



Betwa – Flowing in the Heart of India

In the annals of Indian history, rivers occupy a special place. Revered as deities by Hindus, rivers mobilized resources, ideas and agricultural wealth. If there is something that strongly characterizes the idea of India, it is her endless river system. The very name ‘India’ or ‘Hind’ has been derived from the river Indus, first cited by Arab geographers. At the dawn of the Christian era, Ptolemy divided India as the lands of Ganges and beyond Ganges.


River Betwa in Orchha

Although most of India’s rivers played a prolific role in shaping her civilization, only a few are celebrated as Pan-Indian tirthas, such as Ganga, Godavari, Narmada and Cauvery. Betwa or Vetrawati is a historically vibrant river that flows through the heart of Central India in the modern states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Cutting through the Vindhya ridges, its banks are not fertile valleys and the population density is low. It has still retained its medieval charm as not too many industries and large cities dot its banks.

Betwa silently crafted a story that we identify as the story of India. In her catchment we find the earliest imprints of humankind in India, the earliest of Hindu temples and India’s most splendid Buddhist monasteries. On its banks ran the grand highway of Ancient India, the Dakshina Path, connecting the cities of Gangetic plain and Deccan. Both Jains and Buddhists lived and prosper in the region. They together with Hindus have left beautifully sculptured edifices along the Betwa.

The story of Betwa begins approximately 30,000 years when the rock shelters of Bhimbetka and its surrounding hills were transformed into one of the earliest habitats of modern humans in the Sub-continent. The unique position of hills with gradual slopes and surrounding valleys not only provided shelters to live but also supplied a wealth of food resources. Our Stone Age ancestors took the advantage of this nature’s gift and silently laid the foundation of the story of India. They painted on the walls of the caves scenes from their daily life and created the first visual language. Today the rock-shelters of Bhimbetka are a world heritage site and a repository of knowledge of an ancient way of life and living.


Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka

The Stone Age way of life continued for thousands of years until the process of earliest urbanization began in the middle of 1st millennium BCE. Vidisha became an important trade centre around this time and continued till the Gupta Empire took over in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE. Emperor Ashoka was the governor of Vidisha and his Buddhist wife Vidisha Devi was a native of this city. Today, among Vidisha’s oldest remains is the stone pillar that was erected in the 1st century BCE by Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador of Indo-Greek King Antialcidas. The pillar is surmounted by a sculpture of Garuda and dedicated to Vasudeva.


Heliodorus Pillar at Vidisha

Sanchi, another world heritage site is a jewel in the crown of Buddhism. Originally commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, the great stupa at Sanchi is an architectural landmark. It was here that Ashoka married Vidisha Devi, the daughter of a merchant from Vidisha. In the 1st century BCE, four elaborately carved toranas with beautiful sculptures depicting daily life in Ancient India, the Dhamma wheels, Jataka tales and the worshipping of the Buddha in symbolic form were added.

Sanchi Stupas

During the course of time a number of stupas, temples and monasteries were built in Sanchi, among which the Temple 17 is worth mentioning. It is one of the earliest temples of India built in the form of a small square sanctum and a portico with flat roofs. The portico has four pillars bearing four lions on top. This temple is a wonderful example of the fact that the concept of Shikhara did not exist earlier.

Sanchi 17 Temple, one of the earliest temples in India


A later Temple at Sanchi

Similar to Sanchi, a number of other hills around Betwa and its tributary Bes became established centres of Buddhism. One such centre is Satdhara. The main stupa at Satdhara is even bigger than the Sanchi Mahastupa and was built during the time of Ashoka. Overlooking Bes River, the strikingly simpler Satdhara stupas are spread over a sprawling plateau.

Satdhara Buddhist Complex

When the Guptas took over, they created a parallel centre of worship at Udayagiri Hill near Vidisha and introduced the idea of rock-cut Hindu monasteries in the region. It was perhaps to counteract the popularity of Buddhism in the region and spread Brahmanical faith. The gigantic rock-cut statues of Varaha and Anantaseshayi Vishnu at Udayagiri will leave any visitor spellbound. This was the beginning of Hindu iconography that later evolved into more complex forms profusely adorning the medieval temples of India and Southeast Asia.

The Udayagiri Cave Complex

Situated on the right bank of Betwa in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, Deogarh has one of the best known Gupta period temples, Dashavatara Vishnu Temple. It is also identified as the earliest known Panchayatana Temple in North India.

Nar Naryana Sculptures at Dashavatar Temple in Deogarh and Jain Sculptures at Parshavanath Temple in Deogarh (Source: Wikipedia)

Deogarh was also a major centre of Jainism. There are about 31 Jain Temples with 2000 sculptures built between 7th and 17th Centuries CE in Deogarh. According to UP Tourism website, Deograh has the largest collection of Jain sculptures found in one place. Most of these temples were built by Jain merchants who carried on trade both inland and overseas from Deogarh.

Calm flows the Betwa towards Budhi Chanderi, or the Old Chanderi, which is 20 km North of modern Chanderi and yet another major centre of Jainism.


A Jain Temple in Chanderi

The early seeds of architectural grandeur sown by the Guptas flowered during the period of Rashtrakutas and the best examples are found at the unfinished Shiva Temple at Bhojpur and ruins of the nearby Bhootnath Temple complex. The temple at Bhojpur was massive and the Shiva linga is the tallest in the medieval world.

Temple Ruins of Bhojpur and Bhootnath

The temple building activity continued in Vidisha and the sheer size of the unfinished temple of Bijamandal speaks eloquently of the skills and ambition of its builders.

Temple Ruins of Bijamandal at Vidisha

The next phase in Betwa story begins with the introduction of Islam. The political ambition of Sultanate rulers led their march to South and Betwa became the key passage. Victories of invaders pulled down the wealth of temples throwing life that revolved around sanatan belief into disarray. But this was not to last long. The faith in humanism saw new light through Sufi mysticism. Chanderi became a magnet of Sufi ideas with the preaching of the followers of Nizamuddin Auliya.

Chishtiyya is one of the four main streams of Sufi Islam. Though Chishtiyya had originated in Afghanistan in the 10th century CE, it was Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a revered Sufi Saint who had his abode at Ajmer in Rajasthan in the 12th century AD, who established the Chishti order in the Indian Subcontinent. The Chishti order of Sufism made a profound impact on the spread of Islam in India and stressed on values such as independence from rulers and states, rejection of money and land grants, generosity to others through sharing of food and wealth, and tolerance and respect to religious differences.

One of the eminent disciples of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti was Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. According to primary historical sources, in 13th and 14th centuries CE, Auliya’s influence on Muslims of Delhi was so much that a paradigm shift was effected in their outlook towards worldly matters. People began to incline towards mysticism and prayers and remained aloof from the world.

During the time of Nizamuddin Auliya, the Chishti Silsila spread all over the country owing to the moving out of a large number of his followers to different cities and provinces. According to Abdullah Shatteri, a noted historian of that time, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya had sent seven hundred well-trained disciples to various important cities in the country. These Khalifas, as theye were called, went on to become central figures in their respective regions. One such Khalifa was Hazrat Wajihuddin. During the reign of Allauddin Khilji, he was ordered by Hazrat Nizamuddin to go and settle in Chanderi and work for the people.

Sufi Shrines and Indo-Islamic Structures at Chanderi

Chanderi lies at the meeting point of Malwa Plateau and Bundelkhand. It is strategically located on the major trade routes of Central India towards Malwa, Mewar, coast of Gujarat and Deccan. Throughout history, Chanderi has attracted all major powers from Pratihars to Khilji, Lodhi, Mughals, Bundelas and finally the British.


A rock-cut Jain Sculpture at Chanderi

Hazrat Wajihuddin reached Chanderi in 1305 AD and established his Khanaqah. Soon he attracted thousands of visitors to Chanderi. These devotees not only came from Chanderi and surrounding areas but also from places as far as Bengal. Meer Khurd in his book Siyar-Ul-Auliya mentions many devotees especially from Lakhanuti, which is near Dhaka, who not only visited Hazrat Wajihuddin but decided to settle down in Chanderi. It was, most probably, this group of people that began the practice of weaving in Chanderi as Dhaka was a major centre of weaving in those times. Chanderi today is well-known for its silk and its patrons are from all religions, classes and faiths but most of us are unaware of its deep connection with Sufism, especially the Chisthiyya order of Sufism.


A Chanderi Weaver at Work

Mazar Khandan – e – Nizamuddin is a grave complex that was built in 1425 AD for the followers of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya during the rule of Hoshang Shah, the Sultan of Malwa. The complex has some of India’s most beautiful jali work on its walls and carving of motifs on black stone graves. According to KK Muhammad, a noted archaeologist and an expert on the subject, the jali work of these tombs are earliest, which eventually would develop into more intricate refined jali work at the Mausoleum of Muhammad Ghaus in Gwalior and the Dargah of Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. Many of these jalis and motifs have found their way into the design of Chanderi Sarees and fabrics.

Chanderi has also a deep connection with Hindustani music. Baiju Bawra, a contemporary of Tansen sang many of his dhrupads in the court of Chanderi in the 16th century CE.

In the final leg of Betwa story, we encounter the fusion of two great ideas, the Mughals and the Bundela Rajputs. Orchha, the capital of Bundelas is one of the most celebrated centres of art, architecture, music and dance. The imposing chhatris of Bundela Rajputs, the majestic Chaturbhuj Temple and Jehangir Mahal were amongst the last link of Betwa story that began at the remote corner of time in Bhimbetka, some 30,000 years back.

In the 13th Century CE, Bundelkhand region was embroiled in battles between Sultanate and the Rajput kings to acquire power and wealth and the region became important as it connected the Ganga – Yamuna doab in the North to the Malwa Plateau and Deccan in the South. Betwa’s fortune changed with the arrival of Akbar and Bundela Rajputs. Their peaceful coexistence turned Orchha into a magnet of creativity. The region witnessed cultural renaissance with several innovations in Hindustani music, dance, paintings and architecture.


The Bundela Cenotaphs across Betwa

The name Orchha has an interesting story. Once when, Raja Rudra Pratap was out on a hunting expedition, he came across a small Rama Temple in the middle of the forest. Being a devout follower of Rama, he sat in front of the temple to meditate unaware of a wolf that was hiding nearby. The smell of human sweat pulled him closer to the king. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a voice boomed ‘Orchha’, the chasing command given to dogs. The hunting dogs thus awakened chased the wolf finally killing it. According to the story the command was given by Lord Rama himself. The King immediately decided to establish his capital at this holy spot and named it Orchha.

Though Rudra Pratap founded Orchha, he did not survive to build his dream city. He died the same year saving a cow. His successor Madhukar Shah however took Orchha to new heights of prosperity. Orchha became a vassal kingdom under the Mughals during the reign of Emperor Akbar.

Vir Singh Deo was the next important ruler of Orchha. He was a vassal of Jahangir, the next Mughal Emperor after Akbar. It was during his rule that Orchha reached its zenith in terms of artistic and architectural proliferation. Vir Singh Deo built Jahangir Mahal, a jewel among the medieval palaces in India and the Laxmi Narayan Temple, where we see the best of Orchha murals. He had a dashing personality but his name was tainted as the murderer of Abul Fazal, the court historian and one of the nine jewels of Akbar’s court.

Splendours of Orchha

Jahangir Mahal was expressly built for a warm reception of Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor. A fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture, Jahangir Mahal is a three storied building in square shape. The entrance is flanked by two impressive stone elephants that look as if they have been standing guard forever. Another remarkable feature of this mansion is the stone lattice work on the windows.

Another major attraction of Orchha are its 14 massive cenotaphs of Bundela rulers that stand imposingly along the banks of the tranquil Betwa River. Most of the cenotaphs are three storied and the architecture of these cenotaphs is a synthesis of traditional Rajput, Indo-Saracenic and ornate Mughal architectural styles. Most of the cenotaphs are in a very good condition.


Chhatris of Bundela Rajputs at Orchha

Today, Bundelkhand through which the Betwa flows is a thirsty region.  In a recent clearance to one of the most controversial projects of river linking, Betwa with Ken, has posed a series of questions on Betwa’s tranquility that has remained untouched for centuries. The Ken region harbors tiger habitats and the river linking will submerge a part of it.


Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com



Sacred Tanks of Ekamra Kshetra

According to ancient scriptures, deities reside near a clean water body. A temple therefore should be built, where there is a pond on the left, or in the front, not otherwise. In Vedic Period, a water body was compared to a cow, the symbol of wealth, fertility and prosperity. It was believed that water goddesses had the ability to cleanse and purify the worshippers from moral sins and bestow long life, wealth and immortality. Ganga stands as the biggest example of this belief.

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Brahmeshwar Temple

According to a scripture, one who digs a well for people has (as a consequence of) half of his sins absolved when the waters begin to flow. One who dedicates a pond is forever happy (free from thirst) and attains the world of Varuna. Therefore, construction of ponds, wells and reservoirs is considered a sacred act deserving the highest merit.

As years went by, Kshetra and Tirtha became essential elements of Hindu pilgrimage and wisdom. According to traditional Hindu belief, life is nothing but a pilgrimage, which does not end with death as it does not bring the final release (Moksha).

For the blessed ones, Moksha from all conditions of existence is gained through Brahmavidya; the realization of the Supreme or the knowledge of the Absolute. Some attain it in life, others at death. For mere mortals who do not traverse the high plane of thought and contemplation, there are other paths prescribed by scriptures, such as embarking on a pilgrimage. Places of pilgrimage are distributed throughout the country and are called Kshetras or Tirthas.

Tirtha is a place of pilgrimage situated on the bank of a river, sea shore or lake. Water, the purifying and fertilizing element is the essence of a Tirtha and bathing in it reinforces inner realization. Hindu beliefs also say that, Tirthas are the pleasure gardens of gods where they are engaged in eternal play. Therefore, a temple is built near a water source and if there is none then a tank / pond is built near it.

This was our ancestor’s way of ensuring consistent supply of water that could be drawn upon in times of drought. Many water bodies in an area would mean increased water table and the tanks would also act as rain water harvesting structures. By declaring the waters sacred, it was ensured that they remained clean and potable. An ingenious way of managing water resources.

Bhubaneswar, the modern capital of Odisha was historically known as Ekamra Kshetra. The sacred Kshetra was 10 miles in circumference with the Lingaraj temple and the adjoining Bindu Sagar as its centre. According to Ekamra Purana, 7000 temples existed in the vicinity of Bindu Sagar, of which only 500 remain extant. Together they represent the evolution of Kalinga School of temple architecture between 7th and the 13th centuries CE.


Lingaraj Temple

Bindu Sagar is the largest holy tank in Bhubaneswar.  Rectangular in plan; measuring 450 m in length, 175 m in breadth and 7 m in depth. It was built between 7th – 8th century CE.


Bindu Sagar, the largest sacred tank in Bhubaneswar

At the centre of Bindu Sagar is a pidha shrine that is locally known as, Jagati. During Chandan Yatra, a festival associated with Lord Lingaraj held in the month of May, the Lord visits the shrine on a boat.


The central Pidha Temple in Bindu Sagar

According to a legend, Shiva and Parvati after their marriage settled down in Varanasi. With the passage of time, Varanasi became thickly populated. So they left Varanasi and arrived at Ekamra Kshetra. At that time, it was under the control of two demons Kirti and Vasa. Parvati killed the two demons by pressing them into the ground with her feet. The particular place where the demons were buried became famous as Devi Padahara. A large square tank located behind the market in front of the Lingaraj Temple is identified as the Devi Padahara Tank.


Devi Padahara Tank in front of Lingaraj Temple with 108 miniature Shiva Temples around it

After killing the demons, Parvati felt thirsty and to quench her thirst lord Shiva struck his trident from where a spring rushed forth. A masonry tank was built around the spring waters which was sanctified by mixing it with the waters of all rivers and streams of India. This tank is the Bindu Sagar.

Throughout the year, on the banks of Bindu Sagar, local residents carry out special rituals called ‘Tarpan’. Family members offer food and prayers in the belief that the departed souls will have a smooth transition to heaven. Pind are balls made of rice flour, wheat, sesame seeds, honey and milk. Seven pinds are made and offered to the departed souls during the Shraddha.

Apart from Bindu Sagar, Bhubaneshwar boasts of many other holy tanks that are attached to temples. One such tank is the Kedar Gouri kund located beside a temple of the same name. It is believed that a single sip of water from this tank frees oneself from the repeated cycles of birth and death. The waters of Marichi kunda, attached to the nearby Mukteswar Temple is said to bestow fertility. Barren women hoping to give birth to sons take a dip in this tank on the night before Ashokashtami that is celebrated during Chaitra Navratri.

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Marichi Kunda



Papanasini Tank

Another important tank of Ekamra Kshetra is the Manikarnika Tank. According to legend, Goddess Parvati lost her mani-kundala (earrings) while fighting with the demons Kirti and Vasa. The earrings were discovered when Lord Shiva struck his trident upon the earth near the Kapila-kunda. Parvati offered the rings to Lord Kapileswar. Hence another name of Kapileswar is Kapila muni (Sage Kapila) and the tank from where the earrings were recovered is known as Manikarneswara kunda (tank).

Kotitirtha is another tank that is revered among locals as a sacred place for cleansing their sins. The tank is used for various ritual practices like offering pind daan (funeral rituals) and is also a Panchatirtha (five holy places), the other four being Ganga-Yamuna, Bindusagar, Devi Padahara and Papanasini tanks.


Kotitirtha Tank

According to a legend, a Sage named Sajoti performed severe penance here abstaining from food and water. Pleased with his penance, Lord Shiva appeared before the Sage and granted him a wish. The sage requested Lord Shiva for a kunda (tank) that would cleanse the sins of human beings. Lord Shiva created this tank, which is aptly named Papanasini.

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Godavari Tank

Today, with rapid urbanization and commercialization, some of the sacred tanks of Ekamra Kshetra have lost their purity. What once used to be waterbodies of immense medicinal value are now filthy and polluted. Steps need to be taken urgently to revive and retain these tanks in their pristine condition. Ekamra Kshetra is now a Smart City but how smartly it manages its water resources remains to be seen.

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Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Madan Kamdev Temple – Obscure, Mysterious, Forgotten

During my school days in Guwahati, the topic of Madan Kamdev used to regularly come up once in a while. The few lucky ones who had managed to visit it would provide vivid descriptions of various artefacts and kindle the collective imagination of the rest. In a small, provincial town still coming to terms with liberalization and in a mostly conservative society still struggling with its Victorian ethos, the very existence of Madan Kamdev was solace to the adolescents even if they did not dare visit it themselves.

For the uninitiated, Madam Kamdev is a temple or rather a cluster of temple ruins not far from Guwahati. As the name suggests, it is dedicated to Kamdev, the Cupid of Hindu pantheon, thus prompting some to call it the Khajuraho of Assam. To be honest, it is much smaller in scale and scope compared to the temple complex at Khajuraho. But nevertheless, it is worth a visit if one is interested in the history of ancient Assam, the fabled Kamarupa Kingdom.

Map of Kamarupa Kingdom. Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

The history of the region has been documented in detail from 13th century by the Ahoms, who ruled most of Assam from 1228 CE till 1826 CE. But the history of the prior centuries is mostly obscure and we only know bits and pieces of it through secondary references like the accounts of the invaders. The temple complex is widely believed to have been built by the Pala Dynasty (Not to be confused with the contemporary Palas of Bengal) between 10th and 12th century. The Palas ruled the Kamarupa Kingdom from 900 CE to 1110 CE till the Gaurs came along. Unlike their Bengali counterparts who were Buddhists, Palas of Kamarupa were Hindus deriving their lineage from none other than Narakasura.

Kamarupa finds mention in Gupta era records and played a major part in various geopolitical conflicts during the time of King Harshavardhana. But the events prior to that are not clearly known to anybody although many mythological connections are regularly drawn. The history of post-Harsha era is also not very clear till the arrival of the Ahoms from the East and the Turkic invaders from the West in the 13th century. Therefore, the scattered ruins of the Madan Kamdev complex are extremely important as they are indicative of those times and can serve as a basis for wider understanding of the erstwhile Kamarupa Kingdom.

As mentioned already, although I lived in Guwahati for most of my adolescent years, I could never visit it and nor do I remember it being promoted as a major tourist destination. Even now, most of the visitors here are local devotees and youngsters from Guwahati seeking a moment of peace as the area is surrounded by dense forests.

So, one fine morning last year I decided to visit it with a friend on his bike. It is barely 40 kms from Guwahati on the northern side of the Brahmaputra. The nearest town on the highway is called Baihata Chariali, a small but busy town where several important roads converge. The temple is slightly outside the town and a gate indicating the same has been erected to guide the visitors. We crossed the gate, passed by several little villages and acres of paddy fields to finally reach the small hillock atop which the temple is situated.

The steps leading up to the top of the hillock were steep but well maintained. Rest of the hill was covered with those typical deciduous trees that are common in Assam. We climbed quickly and after passing by a few scattered ruins of what seemed to the foundations and the lower portions of 15 other shrines, we reached the main temple. It is a living temple and people still offer prayers here. So, it was disappointing to see that there was no real temple structure remaining out there. A tin shed has been erected under which the sculptures have been piled up in a heap without bothering too much about either aesthetics or authenticity.

What I could understand is that the primary deity worshipped by the people here is an embodiment of Lord Shiva. The erotic sculptures are less prominent than I had expected and they were used mainly to decorate the walls and pillars and it is hard to explain why it is named after Kamdev. The most probable reason could be that, according to mythology, Kamdev is believed to have regained his form here after being burnt to ashes by Shiva. So, the Kamdev connection is not hard to understand from that perspective although there are many missing pieces in these ruins rendering them puzzling.

Apart from the usual statues, I noticed two distinctive elements among these sculptures. One was a sun sculpture that I had not seen anywhere else although I cannot really claim to be an expert. The other was a series of lion sculptures spread all over the complex. The lions were surely the royal emblem and a symbol of power and so this site must have enjoyed a pivotal place during the heydays of the kingdom. I also noticed a somewhat strange and inexplicable, solitary pillar with a lotus-shaped top that somehow reminded me of the pillars of Dimapur that were built by the Dimasas a few centuries later.

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19th century records by the British mention at least 15 different temples though everything has been dumped in one place. This is because official conservation and excavation efforts began only in the 1970s and by that time much of the complex had been vandalised. ASI has unearthed fortifications and a few water tanks suggesting that this could have been the centre of an ancient city or a city in itself. I feel that this site probably deserves a bit more excavation and a lot more attention. The shoddy conservation efforts here reminded me of the meticulous restoration of the Bateshwar Temples in Morena by K K Muhammed. That is the difference between a passionate effort and just doing your job. The Madan Kamdev ruins need just that now, love and passion.

Reaching Madan Kamdev:

It is around 40 KM northwards from Guwahati. You have to cross the Saraighat Bridge over Brahmaputra and reach the town of Baihata Chariali. You should easily locate the gate indicating the diversion on the east side. Otherwise you can just ask around.

Author – Jitaditya Narzary

The author is a travel blogger and blogs at http://travellingslacker.com/  

Alterntively, he can also be contacted at thetravellingslacker@gmail.com