Poda Poda Nrusingha Temple – A Wooden Heritage Treasure in Kandhamal

Odisha, unlike Gujarat, Kerala and Himachal, has not been known for wood carving heritage to the outside world.  However, it does not mean that the state has a shortage of wooden heritage. More than one-third of the state’s geography is densely covered with forest. Little wonder, Odisha’s state deity Lord Jagannath is made of wood.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, Odisha had reached its climax in the construction of wooden temples. The Biranchi Narayan Temple in Buguda of Ganjam District testifies the culmination of the skill of Odia woodcarvers. Dedicated to Lord Surya, the temple is often regarded as the Wooden Konark of Odisha. The temple of Biranchi Narayan Temple was patronized by the Bhanja rulers of Ghumsar, the present Bhanjanagar region.

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ILLUSTRATING RAMAYANA KATHA – BIRANCHI NARAYAN TEMPLE AT BUGUDA

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Biranchi Narayan Temple at Buguda

Apart from Biranchi Narayan Temple, in a large part of south coastal Odisha and around the holy town of Puri, one of the finest wood carving heritages of South Asia flourished depicting the rasa of Lord Krishna and Radha and episodes from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and Lord Jagannath. Some of these wooden wonders are now shown in various museums including the Odiarat Purvasa Museum at Chilika Lake.

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MONKS, MONASTERIES AND MURALS – A PHOTO STORY ON PURI’S TWO LEGENDARY MATHAS

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Wooden Carving of Lord Krishna and Gopis at Ganga Mata Matha in Puri

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Exhibit at Odiart Museum

For more than 800 years the Bhanjas of Ghumsar had ruled over Kandhamal region in highland central Odisha. Kandhamal is inhabited by various branches of Kondh tribes who speak in Kui language, a branch of Indo Dravidian language family. The Kondhs are known for their aboriginal beliefs and lifestyle resembling prehistoric ways of life. In the past, they were notoriously known for human sacrifices under the guidance of their Jani (the tribal priest) with a belief that planting human flesh and sprinkling blood would yield a good harvest. Today the human sacrifice is mostly replaced with buffalo sacrifice.

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KANDHAMAL – HERITAGE IN WOOD

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The Bhanja rulers of Ghumsar had largely patronized the Kandha beliefs and practices and incorporated many of their ritual elements in Hinduism to draw the hegemony of their tribal subjects. For instance, there are dedicated shrines of Kandhuni Devi and Maa Patakhanda in various villages in the erstwhile territory of Bhanjas. In these shrines, one finds an interesting blend of tribal beliefs and Hindu rituals.

Travel Tips

Poda Poda is located in between Baliguda and Phubani towns in Kandhamal District. Connected by excellent road, one can visit Poda Poda from Darigibadi and Mandasaru as well. For accommodation, the nearest town is Baliguda (30 km).

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Shrines of Kandhuni Devi

The Bhanjas also had built temples in Kandhamal in the same fashion and artistic style which they had erected in and around their capital. Today, however, most of these temples are lost over time except Poda Poda, a small village located on Phulbani – Baliguda Highway in Phiringia Block. Surrounded by enchanting hills and valleys, Poda Poda has preserved the remains of a wooden temple dedicated to Lord Nrusingha, one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

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Built as a rectangular structure the temple is a single building without having any porch. Its original roof is long gone and now replaced with asbestos sheets. The shrine of Nrusingha is shown as a bearded man sitting on a serpentine coil and protected by the cobra hood. Conventionally the display of the deity does not fit into the iconographic canons of mainstream Hinduism.

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As you approach the temple what draws your immediate attention is the wooden door jamb depicting a tantric ritual tale. The panel has a display of various forms of sex perhaps associated with fertility cult. Women are shown having sexual intercourse with multiple men in various actions. Above the lintel, there is a mastika panel displaying the popular Gaja Sihmha character of Hindu temples in Odisha. On its top, there is a display of yet another woman showing her virginal.

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The backside of the jamb has the depiction of beautiful geometrical patterns and a group of peacocks forming a circle.

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On tops of wooden posts, there are depictions of animals, such as bear, elephant, lion and tiger in different cardinal directions. There is also a depiction of birds like parrot and swan. These panels were painted with various shades of colours as one finds at Biranchi Narayan Temple in Buguda. However, only traces are left.

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In the interior part of the temple, there is yet another door jamb depicting the scene of Dasavatra (10 incarnations of Vishnu). On its mastika panel is a pair of fish displayed with intricate design as one sees in Ganjam. Fish symbolises peace in Odia culture.

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The wooden temple of Nrusingha at Poda Poda is truly a remarkable example of Odisha’s splendid wooden heritage now lost in time. It is difficult to believe that a tribal-dominated region like Kandhamal could possess such intricate heritage. However, if no immediate attention is paid we may lose this wonderful wooden structure forever.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

Papier Mache – The Story of Odia Mukha and its Master Artisan

Imagine Odisha or in that matter, rural India before the economy was made open in the 1990s and penetration of cheap Chinese goods in the rural market. Imagine rural Odisha before the flooding of television channels’ cheap entertainment shows such as Sas Bahu and the spread of much-hyped social media and free mobile phone entertainment.

Festivals and rituals thrived in Odisha’s rural landscape. Janmashtami, Dussehara, Ramleela and a score of other festivals were celebrated with great pomp and festivity along with folk operas and dramas illustrating mythological stories of Hinduism in general and of Odisha in particular.

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Folk performance in Rural Odisha

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Dola Jatra – The other Rath Yatra

A major attraction of these folk mythological dramas were the characters wearing papier-mache masks, Hanuman, Hiryana Kashyapa, Narasimha, Vishnu, Devi, Shiva and so on. Patronized by the feudal kings of Gadajat Odisha, papier mache artisans thrived in several rural pockets. But sadly as the globalization has taken a stroll the tradition has dwindled to a large extent. These days the folk drams are still a big hit among local communities, but the mukhas have been replaced by bright fluorescent coloured silk cloths and body painting.

No one knows when papier-mache made its way to Odisha, but for generations, the craft has been thriving as mukha chitra in the rural heartland.  Now the mukhas that have survived from past have made their ways to museums, both in India and overseas.

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Kalabhoomi Odisha Craft Museum, Bhubaneswar
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Kalabhoomi Odisha Craft Museum, Bhubaneswar
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Kalabhoomi Odisha Craft Museum, Bhubaneswar
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Kalabhoomi Odisha Craft Museum, Bhubaneswar
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Kalabhoomi Odisha Craft Museum, Bhubaneswar

And their miniature versions have found new patrons at Raghurajpur and Puri for home decorations.

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Also, Read Here:

Raghurajpur – An Open Air Museum

Papier mache according to Wikipedia is a composite material consisting of paper pieces of pulp, sometimes reinforced with textiles, bound with an adhesive, such as glue, starch or wallpaper paste. Literally, it is also referred to as craft of ‘chewed paper’, ‘pulped paper’ or ‘mashed paper’.

Though I have been acquainted and bought a few miniature mukhas from Raghurajpur in the past my understanding was limited until when I came across a splendid papier mache chariot depicting Lord Krishna as the charioteer carrying Arjuna to the battlefield of Kurukshetra at ODIART Museum in Lake Chilika. It was one of the highest standards of any craft I have come across. The chariot is designed in the Odia Ratha style and influenced by traditional patachitra art. I was simply floored and could sense a strong connection between the object and its creator through divinity and passion.  Later I came to know about Sri Purushottam Mahapatra, its creator who lives in Kapiliswara area of Old Bhubaneswar.

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Travel Tips

ODIART Purvasha Museum is located at Barkul on Lake Chilika at a distance 100 km from Bhubaneswar and 70 km from Berhampur, the largest city in Southern Odisha. The museum is strategically located in a major tourism hub on the National Highway that connects Kolkata with Chennai and closes to the rail route connecting Eastern India with the rest of Southern and Western India. The nearest airport is in Bhubaneswar, which is a 2-hour drive from the museum. 

The museum has limited accommodation facility at the moment (only 4 rooms) for visitors to stay, but the nearby Barkul has varying staying options in a property managed by Odisha Tourism Development Corporation. 

Besides the museum and a scenic boat ride in Lake Chilika, a traveller can also explore the rustic rural life of fisherfolk and farmers and the historic temple of Dakshya Prajapati at nearby Banapur. Chilika is also a heaven for seafood lovers. With prior intimation, the museum can arrange delicious ethnic lunch at its premises.

Contact Details

Odiart Centre, Barakul, Balugaon,
Khordha, Odisha-752030
Contact No-9439869009,  9853242244
Email : odiartchilika@gmail.com 

Purushottam Mahapatra lives in the address below at Bhubaneswar. 

Purushottam Mahapatra

Sassana Padia, Kapileswara

Old Town, Bhubaneswar 751002

Phone: +91 9937881342, +91 7008039025

Purushottam Ji is Odisha’s no one papier mache artist. But his journey has never been simple. In the film below he shares his journey during the formative period of his career.

Even though he is in the 60s he is strong and promising. With a simple phone call, he gave me time and introduced the process which is carried out by him; his wife and son, however, offer helping hands.

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What keeps him busy on a daily basis is creating a range of colourful birds, which are in high market demand and each sold for 250/300 INR. When you see them together you are almost drawn to a bird sanctuary where the chorus of birds has come to a sudden pause.

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Then he showed me an unfinished peacock of life-size. What a stunning beauty even though the painting was yet to be done.

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The next was an unfinished bowl depicting Krishna’s themes.

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His creations, however, had many more surprises; one such was a puppet, entirely his own visualization.

While being drawn time and again to his unique creations I also witnessed the process.

First, the desired object is created in clay, which is then kept for drying for a couple of days. Once dried thoroughly it becomes a solid core. The core is then wrapped and glued with a number of paper strips.  Then the core is removed. The glued paper pieces are now ready for the desired alternation. In cases of birds, wings and tails are added. Following it, the object in making is coated with a paste of chalk powder. The last step is painting and then your papier mache craft is ready.

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Apart from the Mahabharata chariot, Purushottam Ji has also created recently a life-size sculpture of Krishna’s Giri Govardhana lifting. Some of his masks are also displayed in Bhubaneswar’s International Airport.

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I spent nearly three hours at his studio. But one thing that disturbed me was the lack of zeal and passion among young generation artisans, who want quick monetary success with little effort. So it is difficult to predict about the future of papier-mache craft after Purushottam Ji. The production will be there but not sure about the standard and creativity.

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Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Celebrating Seasons through Pattachitra

From the dawn of civilization, our artists have drawn inspiration from changing seasons to paint, sculpt and write their dreams. Here is the story of Bijay Parida, a celebrated Pattachitra artist from Bhubaneswar and his visualisation depicting seasons of Odisha.

‘Once upon a time…an exiled Yaksha in a distant land

Pinning for his beloved…urges to carry a message to her’

A yaksha could change its form at will, take to the sky and fly where his fancy takes him, become invisible and indulge in a variety of supernatural capers. But the yaksha of Kalidasa’s Meghadootam had temporarily lost all these power. He had been banished for a year from Alkapuri, his divine abode beyond the sky touching peaks of the Himalayas by Kubera, the god of wealth.

Wandering southwards the yaksha had reached Ramagiri, south of Vindhyan-Satpura Hills. He was remembering of his young wife whom he had left behind in Alkapuri. They had been married just a few months. Standing on the top of Ramgiri, he looked up the overcast sky and envied the heavy, moisture-laden clouds that were slowly making their way northwards. He imagined they were going to his home in Alka, as they were moving in that direction. He wished he could join them, indeed race them, and fly home.

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A Yaksha Couple Illustrated in Cave 17 at Ajanta

More than 1500 years later the vivid imagination of poet Kalidasa on the celebration of love with monsoon has found a fresh perspective through the fancy of Chitrakara Shri Bijaya Parida, an internationally acclaimed patachitra and pothi chitra artist from Bhubaneswar.

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National Awardee Artist Bijaya Parida

Travel Tips

Bijaya Parida

Chhabighar

31//1936, Road No 2, Gangotree Nagar, Sisupalgarh

Bhubaneswar 751 002

Ph +91-9437132688 

Bhubaneswar is well connected by air, train and road. The city has a large number of hotels of various categories and restaurants. Widely celebrated as the temple city of India there are a number of options for a heritage enthusiast in Bhubaneswar, such as Ekamra Walks in the temple corridor, Monks, Caves Kings Walks at Khandagiri and Udayagiri Hills and Museum Walks at Kala Bhoomi on every weekend. Bijay Babu’s residence cum workshop is situated in the close vicinity of the temple corridors and near the ancient capital of Kalinga during Ashokan Era in 3rd century BCE, Sisupalgarh.

In 2015 when I visited Raghurajpur a few of the striking murals that fascinated me most was a large collage depicting 6 seasons (Greeshma, Varsha, Sharada, Hemanta, Sita, and Vasanta) and the divine Odia life that revolve around them in the land of Lord Jagannath.

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Greesma

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Varsha

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Sharada

The murals appeared stunning with minute perfection and detailing in a riot of colours. And what could have been the best central theme than illustrating Radha and Krishna’s epic love story that has been always eternal for billions of Hindus across the world?

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I did not know at that time about its creator and came to know recently when I met Bijaya Babu at his residence in Gangotri Nagar in Ekamra Kshetra, Bhubaneswar. Bijaya Babu is an artist par excellence. He has also been a great innovator of ideas both in patachitra and pothi chitra (palm leaf). In one of my recent posts, I had highlighted one of his unique creations, a talapatra pothi pankha (fan) exhibited at ODIART Purvasha Museum in Chilika.

Also, Read Here:

Etching Krishna and his Childhood

In the early 2000s, INTACH had assigned Shri Anupam Saha to illustrate the walls of all the traditional houses at Raghurajpur in patachitra style. Bijaya Babu’s help was sought as Saha also had wanted social themes which he found difficult among the local artists to visualize. Most of the murals illustrated were conventional religious themes of Odisha. Bijaya Babu earlier had seen Bundi paintings in Rajasthan and had appreciated the depiction of rain and monsoon in the backdrop while projecting Krishna and his leela in the front.  That triggered his mind to conceptualize six seasons in patachitra style using Radha and Krishna as the central characters.

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A Bundi Mural from Rajasthan

Once the idea got established Bijaya Babu started replicating it in tassar silk for his patrons.  I was fortunate to see and touch one. However, the colour scheme used here is a mix of black and faded brown –red distinctive from the conventional colours used in patachitra painting.  The painting had six equally divided units arranged in two rows, each unit depicting a season.

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The first unit is the summer season. Gopis are seen making turmeric and sandal paste which would be applied to Radha and Krishna to relive them from the scorching heat.  At the lower frame sakhies are seen bathing Krishna and also merrymaking in the cool water of Yamuna.

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The next frame depicts monsoon, the season of restlessness both for humans, and trees and animals. But monsoon is also the season of romance when couples often find excuses to ease off under floating dark sky and against trembling trees and gushing water.  Radha and Krishna are delighted to be in rain experiencing all the ongoing events silently surrounding them. There is yet another couple too, equally indulged seeking divine union.

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Sharada is the next season which has a clear sky. Sharad Purnima, the full moon night of Ashwina is celebrated as Kumar Purnima in Odisha. It is also the brightest full moon night of the year. While everyone seems to be in the celebration mood, Radha and Krishna are indulged in their private space under the moonlit sky.

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Hemanta follows Sharada, the season before winter. With pleasant weather and abundance of life, the coast of Odisha goes festive celebrating boita bandana as the reminder of past maritime heritage in the dawn of Kartik Purnima day. Krishna and Radha are depicted in a romantic mood, while Krishna offering a pan to his beloved.

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Winter follows the Hemanta season. With long nights and short days, while the folks are seen warming their bodies around a bonfire, Radha and Krishna are seen in their private space comforting each other in a cosy chamber against the intense cold outside.

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The last frame is the depiction of Vasanta, the king of all seasons. Here we see the celebration of Holi with colours and water. Krishna is seen playing Holi with his gopis and the target is his beloved Radha.

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The conceptualization of the theme is epic reflecting the true spirit of India where the life is being celebrated with great pomp and festivity in a divine spirit for thousands of years. Change in seasons brings us new meanings to life and fresh purposes to live with celebration.

Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Etching Krishna and his Childhood

Tall and short, the tree grows in abundance on the coast of Odisha, both in a cluster and in solitary.  It is one of the palm trees, in Odia called Tala Gachha. The tree may not have cultural or religious significance unlike the sacred banyan tree but its leaves are the most sought after material for creative experimentation to illustrate Hindu gods, goddesses and their leela.

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From childhood, I have been well acquainted with the art and also with talapatra pothis or palm leaf manuscripts as it is referred to in English. Talapatra pothis are traditionally used to write horoscopes and its history can be traced back to the beginning of Odisha’s history.

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Depiction of Horoscope Writing in a Patachitra

However, in historical records, we have only from the 17th century now mostly preserved in the State Museum at Bhubaneswar. This may be due to the humid tropical weather of Odisha we have lost the earlier ones.

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A historical Pothi Chitra from 18th/19th-century exhibit at Odisha State Museum, Bhubaneswar
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Specialized tools known as lekhani – Exhibit at Kalabhoomi, Bhubaneswar

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Among the contemporary talapatra pothi chitra one of the most stunning and richly illustrated that I have come across is a pankha (hand fan) exhibit at ODIART Purvasha Museum in Chilika. Narrating the story of Lord Krishna and his leela in a multitude of colours the talapathra pothi chitra pankha is a treat to eyes. The creator of the pankha is noted patachitra artist Bijaya Parida.

Travel Tips

ODIART Purvasha Museum is located at Barkul on Lake Chilika at a distance 100 km from Bhubaneswar and 70 km from Berhampur, the largest city in Southern Odisha. The museum is strategically located in a major tourism hub on the National Highway that connects Kolkata with Chennai and closes to the rail route connecting Eastern India with the rest of Southern and Western India. The nearest airport is in Bhubaneswar, which is a 2-hour drive from the museum.

The museum has limited accommodation facility at the moment (only 4 rooms) for visitors to stay, but the nearby Barkul has varying staying options in a property managed by Odisha Tourism Development Corporation.

Besides the museum and a scenic boat ride in Lake Chilika, a traveller can also explore the rustic rural life of fisherfolk and farmers and the historic temple of Dakshya Prajapati at nearby Banapur. Chilika is also a heaven for seafood lovers. With prior intimation, the museum can arrange delicious ethnic lunch at its premises.

Contact Details

Odiart Centre, Barakul, Balugaon,
Khordha, Odisha-752030
Contact No-9439869009,  9853242244
Email : odiartchilika@gmail.com

Also, Read Here:

Celebrating Seasons in Patachitra – a Tribute to an Artist’s Dream and Passion

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The pankha is a pinnacle of traditional Odia creation, but its process starts in nature.

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A tall Palm Tree
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Freshly cut leaves from a Palm Tree
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Dried leaves before they are processed for pothi chitra making

During my travel to Nayakapatna village near Raghurajpur in Puri District, I had got a chance how and who procure the leaves, process them before they appear in zigzag folds of yellow-green leaves. A special set of tools known as lekhani are used for etching the processed leaves. It is not an easy task. You need patience and perfection. First, it is drawn in a pencil and then in a lekhani. Colours are filled at the end. The style is influenced by patachitra painting.

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A stack of palm leaves
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A woman in the cutting and sizing process
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After the Cutting and Sizing with the help of various tools
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An artisan at work
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An artisan at etching work using a lekhani

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The pankha is made up four concentric circles out of which the outer three are filled in illustrations depicting Krishna’s all childhood episodes, mystical beasts, flora and fauna and geometrical patterns. Even the handle is not spared. The innermost circle has the depiction of patra-lata (vegetal motifs).

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It’s Process

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Looking closely at this masterpiece time and again I am reminded of how incredible Odia art has been for centuries. However, sadly with the penetration of foreign goods, especially the Chinese market the glory is fading away at a pace that was never thought up before. But there is hope as long as there is a support of museums like Purvasha and art connoisseurs. Fingers crossed!

Author- Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

Sri Surya Pahar: Riddles of an Unwritten Past

The very mention of Sri Surya Pahar generally evokes a sense of doubt and confusion. Most people are unaware of it and even those who know the name find it hard to locate it on a map. The fact that it is one of the oldest and largest archaeological sites providing a vital clue to Assam’s undocumented ancient past matters little when it is not even taught about in local schools. The location also doesn’t help. Goalpara is not a district that generally features on the tourist map of Assam, inspite of it being quiet close to Guwahati and not that hard to reach.

I don’t exactly remember the moment but I first heard about it during my school days although it took several years to make the first visit. Over the subsequent years, more trips to the place followed and with every trip, my fascination for the site deepened, along with my frustration at its obscurity.  I have never seen another tourist out here. The only visitors are local pilgrims, most of whom mistake the Buddhist stupas to be Shivlings.

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An Uncertain History

Like most other archaeological sites in Assam, Sri Surya Pahar has a very unclear history. It is located atop a group of small hillocks not very far from the Brahmaputra. Considering the convenient location, it is not hard to imagine a prosperous port-city in the ancient times around these hills. What we know for sure is that this site contains remains of Hindu, Buddhist, as well as Jain shrines, thus pointing towards an era that has not yet been properly studied or investigated. Buddhist sites are rare in Assam and Jain sites are practically unheard of. So, this makes Sri Surya Pahar a very unique proposition.

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ASI has been conducting excavations intermittently over the last few decades and while a lot has been dug out so far, a lot more is believed to be still under the ground. Looking at the diversity and expanse of the site, it can be guessed that constructions must have taken place over multiple centuries, and represent different eras. In the absence of any solid historical document from those times, one has to take the help of ancient scriptures and some apparent references to the site can be found in a few 9th and 10th century religious texts. Also, these austere votive stupas point to a period of Hinayana prominence. In comparison, Mahayana sects were known to build more elaborate structures but they rose to prominence much later. This inference has led historians to believe that the Buddhist remains here could be as old as 2000 years, thus making them older than the oldest known historical reference to Assam (Gupta Era, 4th-5th Century). While none of these can be verified with complete certainty, it can be concluded that this site had been developed over a significant period of time in the first millennium.

Scattered Ruins

Sri Surya is not just one monument but a cluster of scattered ruins. According to some local myths, the site had 99999 shivlings in its original form. It sounds somewhat similar to that of Unakoti in Tripura which is believed to have one less than 10 million statues. In reality though, some of these are actually stupas while rest of them are indeed shivlings. The largest stupas are located on the western side of the site. Stairs have been built by the authorities and it takes a bit of climbing to reach the more important portions. One must have the willingness to climb all these stairs under blazing sun and spend at least a three hours to fully explore the site. Apart from the stupas, there are also a few unexplained ruins like the remains of a square shaped basement of some structure, which is believed to be a Vihara. There is another square shaped remain on the south-eastern side of the hills which is even harder to explain or predict.

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As far as the Hindu ruins are concerned, they are easily identifiable. There is a devi sculpture with twelve hands on a large rock, which is the primary attraction for the devotees. Various statues and sculptures related to Shiva and Ganesha are all over the site. However, many visiting hermits tend to build temporary structures out there, blocking the view.  This primarily happens during the month of “Magh” (January-February), when a local fair is organized. I tried hard to trace the origin of this fair and as far as I could understand, it started some time during the early 20th century when an ascetic settled here and started the fair as a way of attracting pilgrims.

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So, this year we visited it in February when the colourful local fair was in full swing and in complete contrast with the rest of the ruins. Nowadays it attracts a large number of local visitors and it is a rare form of entertainment for many. This also offers an opportunity for many new age, commercialized holy men to set up their “shops” here for a few days. Some of them could be seen taking residence in some of the caves and consulting the locals on various matters.

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The most puzzling though are the Jain remains. Assam has never really had a serious Jain connection in the past and the only known Jain communities here are the mercantile communities that arrived from Rajasthan in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jain parts of Sri Surya are located on the South Eastern side of the site and it takes a bit of strenuous climbing through a flight of reasonably steep stairs to reach that part. The artefacts are not very elaborate in these parts. There are a few caves that were Jain meditation spots according to ASI signage. However, locals have a habit of planting flags and applying vermilion without much regard for its history.

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Also, as the name of the place suggests, sun worship should have been a primary aspect of Sri Surya Pahar. None of the major structures and artefacts point to that. It is in fact, hard to say how this place came to be called so. However, one of the excavations resulted in an artefact that to some extent looks like the sun. A small temple has been built to keep it protected but we were told that the original artefact has now been moved inside the museum situated nearby to protect it from damages and a replica is placed inside a newly built temple. But that has not deterred the visitors from gleefully offering prayers in front of the replica.

Sri Surya (14)

Sri Surya remains a mystery, a tantalizing one for the lovers of history and archaeology. Technically it is sort of a missing link that remains hidden in plain sight. It deserves better restoration as well as research because that can clear a lot of doubts and provide a clearer picture about life and times in ancient Assam.

Sri Surya (12)

How to Reach Sri Surya Pahar

It is 124 kms westwards from Guwahati. The nearest big towns are Goalpara and Dudhnoi. As the spot has not been developed as a tourist destination, you are unlikely to find any accommodation or public transport going directly to the point although buses do ply on that route. It is better to have a private vehicle and just follow the map.

Best time to visit Sri Surya

It can be visited anytime but better to go in the winter as the rocky hillocks heat up very easily on a clear day.

Where to stay near Sri Surya

Goalpara district does not have a very developed tourism infrastructure. There are a few small hotels in the nearby Goalpara town but a better idea will be to make a day trip from Guwahati and return by evening.

 

Author – Jitaditya Narzary

He can be reached here

 

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 !

 

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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

 

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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.

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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 !

 

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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.

 

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Kedarnath

 

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.

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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Dandeshwar

 

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

 

 

 

Mandapeshwar Caves – Isolated Remains Of A Tumultuous Past

4 kms in an hour. My bike can go faster but not the rush hour traffic and crowd of Swami Vivekanand Road in Borivali. Does not matter if its a sunday today for in Mumbai every waking hour is a rush hour. Exhausted but finally in front of Mandapeshwar caves. How I wish I could go back in time when the Buddhist monks used the Dahisar river to travel between Kanheri- a 5th century Buddhist university and Mandapeshwar- a Hindu rock cut cave complex that the monks had made their home.

Centuries have gone by and a lot has changed, including the course of Dahisar river that now flows at least 300 meters away to the east of the caves and is reduced to a dirty nullah. A far cry from a navigable river that was a nodal point of a wider trade route.

facade of Mandapeshwar cave

Nevertheless, I was very happy to see the caves being preserved and protected well with a compound wall and a large open breathing space in front of the caves contrary to Jogeshwari, Magathane and other such rock cut caves that are choked by illegal urban settlements mushrooming all around them.

Mandapeshwar is rather small for a cave complex and has just two caves, one much smaller than the other. The bigger cave, as is apparent was meant to be the main shrine for Lord Shiva while the other one- which is largely unfinished, plain and devoid of any sculptural traces was meant to be the living quarters.

Front pillars cave 1

The caves start capturing your imagination from the entrance itself where four completely worn out frontal pillars of the Mandapa flanked by two pilaster in a fairly good state at the extreme ends, greet you.

claws of an animal appearing like lions at the entrance of cave number 1

There are evidences of claws of an animal- most probably lion on both the sides of the entrance steps. As one enters the mandapa, we see more refined and fairly intact pillars. This cave has a total of five cells of which two are at the extreme ends and facing each other while the middle three cells are along the rear wall. It has a large Mandapa spread across five cells, most likely the reason why this cave shrine came to be known as Mandapeshwar- hall (Mandapa) of the lord (eeshwar).

L to R (nataraja cell, Pashupata cell, Sanctum, another cell, and the cell from where i have clicked this picture- a total of 5 cells)

cave interior

Entrance to the sanctum cell in cave 1

 

The central of the five cells is the sanctum sanctorum of the cave- the abode of lord Shiva. The entrance to the sanctum is flanked on both the sides with pilasters. These pillasters are designed in almost the same way as the rest of the pillars in this cave are, with an Amalaka as a capital. A quintessential feature of many rock cut caves of this period that are dedicated to lord Shiva, be it Mandapeshwar, Elephanta or as far as Badami in Karnataka.

Newly installed lingas in sanctum

 

a sculpture in one of the niches in sanctum of cave 1

The interior of the central shrine is largely plain except for a couple of niches carved in the walls housing remains of withered sculptures. The sanctum is occupied by two Shiva lingas that are clearly a later addition to the cave.

Nandis in front of sanctum

Just outside the entrance of the sanctum, sits the original sculpture of Nandi bull- the vahana (vehicle) of lord Shiva, split into half with just the rear half still in place. Alongside the old and injured Nandi sits a younger Nandi with his ears in place to listen to the devotees. It is a general custom to whisper one’s wishes in the ear of the Nandi so that it reaches Lord Shiva and the same is granted. Look out for the inscription on the door jamb –  done during the Maratha rule as is evident from the devanagari script

Inscriptions on door jamb of sanctum

Moving to the extreme left cell, we see what can be termed as a treasure – a Nataraja panel carved with great details. A massive six armed figure of Nataraja takes the centre stage here surrounded by various other figures. On the right are the figures of Goddess Parvati along with two of her attendants. While on the other side is an artist beating a drum. The upper left corner is occupied by the three headed Brahma while the upper right corner has Vishnu. Just below Brahma’s sculpture is the sculpture of Lord Ganesh. Celestial beings are present on both the sides of the head of Nataraja.  The panel seems like some sort of a celebration, Henry Salt in his ‘Account of the caves in Salsette’ published in Transaction of literary society in Bombay Vol.1 1819 A.D, describes this panel as that of Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. However few historians are of the opinion that the figure thought to be Parvati is just another attendant and the panel depicts the dance of Nataraja to the beats of a drum!

Nataraja panel cave 1

The story of the creation of Mandapeshwar caves between 5th and 6th centuries and the ensuing events that took place is a tale of how structures bear a testimony of the struggles of the time and encapsulate it. 90 percent of the rock cut caves in Maharashtra are of Buddhist origin including the nearby caves of Mahakali & Kanheri, but what makes Mandapeshwar fascinating is that the construction of this Shaiva cave is also attributed to the Buddhist monks. What made the Buddhist ‘missionaries’ hewn a Hindu cave? Could it be that Buddhism- a comparatively new religion then considered itself to be a faction of Hinduism? Is it possible that the Buddha was still considered more of a saint than God while the Hindu Gods continued to be worshipped?

Lets compare the time periods of the construction of Kanheri and Mandapeshwar caves. Kanheri caves, cut as early as 3rd century BCE, attained the status of a Buddhist university between 4th and 5th centuries. At its zenith, Kanheri had a total of more than 125 different types of caves and structures including Stupas, cemeteries, Chaityas (prayer halls) and Viharas (residential chambers for monks) carved out of a single rock hill. There is a possibility that during those years Kanheri’s infrastructure could not handle the increasing population and they were forced to look for accommodation options for its visiting monks. Various historical texts confirm that Mandapeshwar was indeed used as a residential quarter by the Buddhist monks. Kanheri was situated very close to the mouth of Dahisar river and Mandapeshwar was along its banks making it very easy for the monks to access it by the riverine route. Dahisar river was a part of a bigger trade route that existed between Konkan and Sopara (today’s Nala Sopara which was an established Buddhist center back then).

Pashupata panel cave 1

 

Another sculptural link that connects the dots, is the cell between the sanctum and the Nataraja panel cell. This cell is apparently thought to have had a large sculpture of Lakulisha (a Shaiva sect reformist and often considered the last avatar of lord Shiva himself) in the centre sitting on a lotus flower, stem of which is held by two nagas, while the central nonexistent sculpture is surrounded by other divinities and celestial beings. The style in which the lotus is carved, anyone with even a little knowledge about Buddhist sculptural art would not miss the connection between this sculpture and sculptures of Buddha represented in rock-cut art of the same period. Although, much is lost in this panel and the central Lakulisha figure is destroyed beyond recognition, we can only guess (logically) that the Pashupata cult that Lakulisha is often associated with, was dominant during this period.

Plain interior of cell next to Sanctum (if Pashupata cell is on left then this is on sanctum's right side)

Looking out from Pashupata cell

The cell on the other side of the sanctum however is plain with no sculptures except for few on the pillars and so is the lateral cell next to it

Cell 5 (its not called cell 5 .. im calling it cell 5 so you know which one is in the picture)

Sculpture on a pillar in cave 1

As you step outside the main cave and walk towards the second cave, you notice a misplaced symbol on the southern facade- a rock-cut Christian cross. This seemingly small cross however is the only remnant of Mandapeshwar’s tumultuous past. The Portuguese chipped off what was thought to be an idol of lord Shiva and flattened it to carve a cross out of it.

Southern external facade of the cave (right side is the Portuguese cross, and left side is the entrance to Cave 2)

Every event that soon followed has two drastically opposite theories, one from the Hindus trying to portray the Portuguese and the Christians in bad light and the other claimed by the Portuguese blaming Marathas for destruction of sculptural art here due to the usage of heavy explosives to uncover the Hindu sculptures from the plaster used by Portuguese to hide them.

Clicked from cave 2

It all goes back to the time when the Portuguese were ruling Mumbai with their main base in today’s Thane on extreme northern end of Sashti- the Marathi name for Salsette island on which the caves are located. Hearing about these wonderful rock cut caves, the Portuguese arrived here in mid- 16th century and chased away the Hindu yogis to set up their base in Mandapeshwar thinking of a larger role for it to be played in future. The Christian account of the same story however claims that the Portuguese arrived at Mandapeshwar wanting to meet the Hindu yogis but hearing of the news of arrival of the Portuguese, the Yogis got scared and ran away. However, both these accounts agree that a yogi known as Ratemnar was converted by the Portuguese priests and was given the village of Mandapeshwar.

Cave 2 & cave 1 and monastery on top of it

 

The Caves were soon converted into a shrine for Mary named as Nossa Sra De Piedade (roughly translating to Our Lady of Pity) with all its Hindu sculptures buried under a thick layer of smooth plaster and the Shiva shrine was hidden by a brick wall in front of it. Mandapeshwar was ripped off its identity and it came to be known as ‘Monapazer’ or ‘Mont Pesier’ by the Portuguese. As a part of expansion of the complex, a church and a monastery was constructed on top of the cave and was used to impart religious education to the recent converts and other Indian Christians. Another shrine was erected on the opposite hill and a graveyard in between the two.

 

Mount Poinsur church Graveyard

After about 180 years of functioning as a Christian shrine, Mandapeshwar returned to its original ‘faith’ and again became a Shaiva shrine when Maratha prime minister Bajirao Peshwa 1 defeated the Portuguese in 1737 in the battle of Bassein (Vasai). But Mandapeshwar soon exchanged hands when the Sashti island went to the British in 1774 under the treaty of Salbai with the Marathas. The caves again became a Christian place of worship. The Portuguese church, however couldn’t survive and what remains today are beautiful ruins evocative of a distant past. 

Ruins of the Portuguese monastery Pic 2

Ruins of the portuguese monastery

The second cave at Mandapeshwar is very different than the main cave in many ways. There are no sculptures, no carved pillars, no idols, no niches but just a large plain hall. The only traces of carvings are found on the entrance pillars which form the southern facade of the main cave.

Narrow rock cut path to cave 2

Cave 2

Cave 2 interior shot

Mandapeshwar caves remained a Christian place of worship till 1920’s and was possibly abandoned later. Around 1960’s the caves were declared a protected monument by the Archeological Survey of India and continues to be a popular Shaiva shrine. Life seems to have truly come a full circle for Mandapeshwar!

a small devotee

A walk today in this area better known as ‘Mount Poinsur’ (a disambiguation of Mandapeshwar) of Borivali is a living reminder of its past. The residential area along the Laxman Mhatre Road and Swami Vivekananda Road are largely Hindu whereas to the rear side of the caves is IC colony; named after the Portuguese Immaculate Conception Church, a residential colony that has highest concentration of Christians in entire Mumbai. As a popular quote by journalist Edurado Galeano goes “History never really says good bye. History says, see you later”!

Author – Onkar Tendulkar 

He can be contacted at onkaar7@gmail.com      

Chikal Kalo – A Photo Story

“Jai Hari Vitthal” chant a hundred mouths in unison. The oil smeared participants and the audience are ready and so is the ground; slushy from incessant rains. Perfect for a hearty roll in the muck. You read that right ! This is exactly how the people of Goa celebrate Lord Krishna and his childhood games played during the monsoon

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On Ekadashi (11th day) of the hindu month of Aashad, villagers flock to the ground of Devki Krishna temple in the village of Marcel in Ponda taluka. This is the only temple in the country dedicated to Devki, mother of Krishna. After a sampak (continuous prayers / Jagrata) of 2 days, the celebration commences by invoking the local deity, Dad Sakhal whose shrine is opposite the scene of action, the Devki Krishna Temple. The participants, mostly men, in their shorts slather their bodies with oil to prevent infection or allergy from the slush.

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After oiling their bodies, all the participants enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and dance in a circle while chanting “Jai Hari Vitthal” to the tune of cymbals. The pace quickens and the chanting gets louder till it reaches a crescendo. Then they symbolically smear the oil from the lamp, burning in front of the idol of Devki holding the baby Krishna, on their bodies. A signal for the games to begin

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Everybody troops out of the temple and Chikal Kalo begins by throwing each other into the mud. Chikal Kalo literally translates to play in the mud

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Why should the kids remain behind. In fact, they have the maximum fun

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Girls join in the fun too along with the boys

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Traditional games such as running catching, blind man’s bluff, frog and the mountain, passing the parcel etc are played; all in a slushy muddy amphitheater

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What.. stop .. for food … naaaaa we are not going home … today we eat sweets and savouries  lovingly made for us by the villagers. The participants of Chikal Kalo have the honour of first tasting the sweetmeats made for the day before the others in the village.

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And then again roll in mud ! Today we are Balakrishnas

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Whether young or old, rich or poor, today everybody is equal and we just want to have fun with our friends like Krishna had with his friends during monsoon. The sense of camaraderie and joi de vivre is infectious

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After an entire day of revelry, Chikal Kalo ends with the symbolic breaking of the dahi handi (pot of butter) by the participants.

Chikal Kalo is a unique festival celebrated only in Goa and a must see and experience if you are around this side during the famed monsoon of the land (check the hindu calendar for Ekadashi dates or just google). The mud festival begins in the morning by 10 am and finishes around 5 pm in the evening. If you are planning to shoot, do not forget to get protection for your camera lenses and if you wish to participate then just jump in the muddy slush and roll ! Goa has much more to it than beautiful palm fringed beaches and stunning sunsets.

Text – Zehra Chhhapiwala

She can be contacted at zchhapiwala@gmail.com

The pictures have been clicked by a young street photographer Rohanyuri Fernandes.

He can be contacted raulabrez@gmail.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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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).

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    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

 

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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

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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

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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

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

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

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Mahisasurmardini murti kept near the temple doorway

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Tripurasundari devi inside the garbhagriha

 

Gauri Shankar temple

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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.

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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

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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
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Ganesha on lalatabimba and navagrahas on a panel above him

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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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 

 

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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.

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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. 

 

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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