2500 years back, a prince from a royal palace of Ancient India left all his luxuries and pleasure of aristocratic life and renounced to seek nirvana. From Prince Siddhartha Goutma he transformed into the Buddha. A new religion was founded by him which had inquiries on the rejection and the exploitation of the lower caste Hindus by the Brahmins and the upper castes. Soon after its establishment, Buddhism became a profound crowd puller. Thousands and thousands of country people adopted Buddhism and contributed to its growth.
In the mid 19th century, yet another renouncer Mahima Gosain appeared in the Grand Road of Puri, the holy dham of Lord Jagannath with similar ideas. Before arriving in Puri he had lived in the Himalayas for years. There is no evidence of what he did in the Himalayas, but in Puri, he propagated the theory of Advaita – Bada which means God is One, there is no more than one God. He founded a new religion, called the Mahima Dharma or Alekha Dharma based on the principles of universal brotherhood, rejection of Hindu rituals and ceremonies and casteless of society.
Joranda on the foothills of Kapilash Mountains became the centre of all mahima activities. From here the religion was preached in the regions of Cuttack, Puri, Ganjam, Dhenkanal, Athagarh, Hindol, Sonepur, Boudh, Angul and Sambalpur. He established several centres of Mahima cult known as Mahima Ashram or Alekha Tungi.
The devotees of Mahima Dharma follow a strict code of conduct. During Brahma Sarana, the devotees dedicate their body and soul to Alekha Param Brahma in body, mind and word. They derive all action from him and remain ever devoted to him. Daily saran and darshan are practised in a pure state of mind during the Brahma Muhurta (the time roughly an hour before sunrise and soon after sunset) after taking bath and making oneself pure in all possible ways. They should shun sex, greed, alcohol and other passions. They should not thieves, should not indulge in sexual intercourse with others’ wives, should not use violence towards animals and they should live in a non-violent way.
Mahima philosophy is based on the worship of the supreme Brahma who is regarded as Sachitanand, Nirguna, Nirahankara and Niranjana. Brahma is described as invisible, indestructible, eternal and the supreme guardian of their universe. He is known as the Alekha (which cannot be written), Anadi (no beginning), Ananta (no end) and Anakara (no shape). The supreme Brahma of Mahima Cult is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He cannot be realized by the acts of ordinary souls.
Joranda is located at a distance of 30 km from Dhenkanal City and 90 km from Bhubaneswar, the nearest airport. Though you can meet the monks of Mahima cult throughout the day in their monasteries, however the time best time would be before the Sunset at Dhuni Temple where they perform the evening ahuti. The other nearby attraction from Joranda is Kapilash Hill and the Kapilash Forest, well-known for the elephants. The Chandrasekhar Temple at Kapilash is a well-known Shiva Temple in Odisha. There are no stay options at Joranda, however, one can stay at Hotel Surya (https://www.facebook.com/suryahoteldkl) in Dhenkanal for the Joranda and Kapilash experiences.
Mahima Cult has its own theory on the creation of the universe. According to Mahima Cult, Alekha Param Brahma emanates in everything of the universe without form. Alekha is himself Vishnu and from him moved Nirakara. When the later begins to appear the former disappears in emptiness. This philosophy further states: ‘Once the universe was residing in the womb of Alekha, who was incomprehensible. Nirakara, after springing from Alekha, created seven oceans and remained in the state of deep sleep. Jyoti (light) originated from the state of sleep of Nirakara. The seven oceans got agitated with the wind raised by Nirakara in his state of sleep. It produced tides and from the tides emerged Kala (time) which was often identified with Kamala (lotus). Greed, attachment, anger, lust and illusion were attributed to this Kala.
Brahma, springing from the lotus set on its thread. He was getting frustrated while attempting to trace his origin at the bottom of the stalk of the lotus. Then he heard a voice from emptiness. The voice ordered him to create the world. Thereafter Brahma created this universe in collaboration with Kala.
Once upon a time, King Indrabhuti of Odiyana had sat with his consorts and ministers on the terrace of his palace. He gazed up into the early morning sky and saw what appeared to be a great flock of scarlet cranes flying through the air.
Indrabhuti asked his ministers: “What are those birds? Where do they come from?”
“Your majesty, those are not birds at all, but Arhats in their red robes. They are the disciples of the Great Sage, the Buddha. By following the Buddha’s teachings, his followers find release from the bonds of clinging that tie others to this world. Thus they may fly north and south to spread his teachings.”
When Indrabhuti heard the name of the Buddha, his heart melted with longing. He sat unmoving wordlessly and silently.
Days later, the Arhats crossed the noon-day sky in a great migration that seemed like clouds at sunset. King Indrabhuti called out to them. He asked how they could be so unconstrained by the laws of nature; by near and far, by high and low. They circled above him but did not descend.
Later King Indrabhuti sat in his palace shrine hall. His mind was filled with longing. Calling out for the 500 Arhat attendants of the Buddha, he set out a vast array of offerings: pure water, flowers, incense, hundreds of lamps, perfume and food. He commanded his musicians to play and sing the most beautiful melodies known to them.
Soon, swirling downward through the sky, the Arhats descended there like an immense flock of red birds, and as they sat before him, the Great King asked them to show him the direct path to enlightenment.
The Arhats then replied:
“Turn your mind from this mirage which is nothing but a prison and a torture house gaily painted like a palace to the entrance and deceives. Renounce the world and find the path to the enlightenment which does not change.”
Indrabhuti considered this in silence for a long time. He shook his head and as if seeing his palace and all around him for the first time, sang this song.
“Monks, you are indeed heroes and noble sons.
But I am a king, not a renounce.
A great world surrounds me.
When the sun rises, I wake to see it.
When the moon rises and the stars shine,
I feel the tenderness of their cool breath.
When my people sing, a child cries, or my consort calls out in the night,
I hear them and my heart moves to them.
When I smell the lotus blooming on the lake
Or the smell of the smoke from the charnel ground, my mind is still.
When I am caressed, I am joyful,
And when I drink wine, I am filled with delight.
The Arhats were speechless. Again King Indrabhuti sat on his throne without moving for a long time. He surveyed the world of form as it arose from the mandala of the five lights. His senses expanded effortlessly. Opening through infinite space, free from the limits of emotional bias or conceptual structures, King Indrabhuti saw the limitless ocean of galaxies of realms.
King Indrabhuti sat before the Arhats on his throne, eating and drinking and smiling at his consorts, ministers, and generals, as at the same time he gazed on the infinity of realms and beings. Again the Great King asked the Arhats for the path to enlightenment which does not deny the realms of form. And again the Arhats answered:
“Oh Greatest of Kings, you must abandon all desire and craving. Cultivate morality, meditation and wisdom. Develop the Paramitas of generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and prajna.”
The King replied: “I wish to see the direct path of complete wakefulness which does not abandon the delights of the five senses and the bliss I share with my consorts.”
Then, King Indrabhuti reached out and took the hand of his consort. As the rays of the sun fill all the sky and illuminate all the earth, it seemed that King Indrabhuti embraced the entire world completely.
At that moment, some of King Indrabhuti’s attendants and ministers saw him as he sat before them as nothing other than a great cloud filled with light; others saw him in the form of Vajradhara.
Then, as he sat before all his court, King Indrabhuti clasped his consort tightly to him. His consorts, ministers, generals and all his courtiers saw him enter into the vast and pulsing flow of time. He appeared to them riding on the back of a golden garuda flying through the sky after sky, appearing in age after age, place after place, and form after form. He flashed through the swirling flow of cyclical illusions, sometimes entirely visible, sometimes in part, sometimes hidden and sometimes only glimpsed as a flicker, like a fish dancing in a golden stream.
In the time when he was first spoken of, Indrabhuti gathered all the tantras together in book form and instructed all the people of Uddiyana.
So it is said that at that time, King Indrabhuti together with all his consorts, all his attendants, every single one of his subjects including ghosts, animals, insects, fish and birds, attained the siddhi of a rainbow body.
Thus was born Vajrayana Buddhism at Uddiyana. Scholars have tried to find out the modern location of Uddiyana at Swat Valley to the west of Kashmir. However, the recent excavations at Udayagiri in Odisha have led to confirm that the region was a major centre of Vajrayana Buddhism and perhaps had flourished at the heart of Indrabhuti’s Uddiyana Kshetra.
As you enter straight through the entrance of the monastic complex, after walking for nearly 300 m you reach to an excavated Vajrayana Stupa standing on a high platform. The 7 m high stupa is square in plan with four projected niches in four cardinal points, each enshrining a Dhayni Buddha of Vajrayana order.
On its back, the foothill forming the backdrop is the remains of Udayagirir’s largest monastery. The major attraction of the monastery is its splendid gateway made out of sandstone. The gateway is richly carved with a number of images of the Buddha and other Vajrayana deities.
Udayagiri Buddhist site is part of Odisha’s Diamond Triangle along with Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri. The site is located in Jajpur District at a distance of 90 km from the centre of Bhubaneswar. Surrounded by hills and rivers Udayagiri and the other two Buddhist sites can be covered in a day trip from Bhubaneswar. However, if someone has wished to stay can be also arranged at Ecotourism complex at Olasuni near Lalitgiri or at Tosali Resort at Ratnagiri.
You can also visit Langudi Hill and Mahavinayak Temple at Chandikhol.
At any given point of time, you are simply drawn into its pristine artistic treasures amidst the tranquillity of peace. You may not find yet another soul for hours. You will be simply charged to sit for meditation without being distracted by any form of disturbances.
After an engrossing experience you walk down the southern cluster which has maximum concentration of excavated ruins, including brick and stone made circular stupas, yet another large monastery with a life-size image of the Buddha sitting inside the shrine and numerous images of Buddhist pantheons, such as the Buddha, Tara, Manjushri, Avalokiteswara and Jatamukuta Lokeswara. Excavations have also brought into light the remains of large apsidal chaitagriha.
Another major attraction of Udayagiri is its rainwater harvesting system. A large drain was built from the monastery two located in a higher elevation and oriented on the slope connecting to a large rock-cut well on the plain. This drain tapped the rainwater flowing from the hills and stored for its use during summer.
The Udayagiri Buddhist monastic site is an archaeological wonder of 8th-10th century CE. Today there may not be any traces of King Indrabhuti’s legacy, but what remains in its air and surrounding land are sufficient to transport an onlooker’s mind to the heydays of Vajrayana Buddhism in Medieval Odisha.
Year 1995! I had just registered my PhD programme on Buddhist Archaeology at Pune’s Deccan College. I had come to Odisha for my initial fieldwork. On a fine late afternoon, I had stumbled upon Langudi Hill with my other companions Dr Pradip Mohanty and Dr Harish Prusty, both experts in Buddhist Archaeology.
Remains of Rock-Cut Stupa Ruins
The hill was not far from busy Kolkata – Chennai Highway, but at the same time it was far from the maddening crowd of the hustle bustle of city life and surrounded by vast rice fields and small and large villages. It was awe inspiring. The site had not gone through excavations. But the exposure in a horseshoe-shaped rock-cut panel had confirmed its potential.
A couple of years later Langudi was excavated by Odisha State Institute of Maritime and Southeast Asian Studies based in Bhubaneswar. A fresh journey began with a new perspective after its excavations.
Langudi Hill is located in Dharmasala Block near Jaraka Town in Odisha’s Jajpur District at a distance of 90 km from Bhubaneswar. The site is well connected by road and rail networks. When you are visiting Langudi also visit the nearby Kaima and Tarapur Hills for other Buddhist remains. You can also plan for a larger Buddhist trail around Langudi including Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri and the Shakti Peeth Viraja at Jajpur.
There are no accommodations at Langudi, however, Ratnagiri has a decent resort for the night stay. Alternatively, you can stay at Bhubaneswar and visit the Buddhist clusters during a day trip.
Today standing atop Langudi Hill among its splendid archaeological ruins I became a time flyer and reminded of Huen Tsang, the Chinese monk who had visited Langudi in the middle of 1st millennium CE.
Looking at the plains of Brahmani Delta, I recall Huen Tsang’s statement: ‘In the southwest of the country was the Pu-Sie-P’o-K’i-Li (Puspagiri) monastery in a mountain; the stone tope of the monastery exhibited supernatural lights and other miracles, sunshades placed by worshippers on it between the dome and amalaka remained their like needles held by a magnet. To the northeast of this tope in a hill monastery was another tope like the preceding in marvels. The miraculous power of these topes was due to the topes having been erected by supernatural beings’.
Several attempts had been made prior to Langudi’s excavation to identify Puspagiri University. But most of them had failed.
An inscription found at Langudi reveals its identification as Puspa Sabhara Mahagiriya (Puspagiri). Archaeological excavations have also brought to light a large number of Buddhist caves, dilapidated rock-cut stupas and ruined monasteries in and around Langudi Hill. The area was a prominent Buddhist seat of learning from the time of Ashoka until 11th Century CE. All the three branches of Buddhism, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana flourished here at different periods of its history.
As you enter the hill what draws your immediate attention is the remains of a large square stupa of burnt bricks and laterite stone built during the rule of Emperor Ashoka in remote 3rd Century BCE. Supposed to be the earliest in Odisha, the stupa testifies the presence of Buddhism in Odisha in the Mauryan Era. An inscription found here also carries Ashoka’s name.
Mauryan Period Buddhist Stupa – Earliest in Odisha
A passage in the rock edict XIII of Ashoka at Dhauli suggests that there were sramanas along with adherents of other sects in Kalinga at this time. It was during the rule of Ashoka thorough and systematic propaganda was carried out by protagonists of different schools, and Buddhism made considerable headway in Odisha. Ashoka’s brother Tissa had selected Kalinga for the place of retirement. Ashoka had constructed for him a monastery known as Bhojakagiri Vihara, which became the centre of activities of the Thera School. Dharmarahita, Tissa’s preceptor had come to Kalinga to spend his last days with Tissa and other monks in the monastery. Ashoka had also built 10 stupas in Odisha, the Langudi Stupa being one of them. During the time of his grandson, a wealthy Brahmin named Raghav from Odra had become a follower of Buddhism. Raghav had made arrangement of an assembly of eight thousand arahats in his house where they were entertained for three years.
To the further north of the Mauryan Period stupa, there are remains of 34 rock-cut stupas dated to 2nd-3rd centuries CE.
The central stupa or the maha stupa in the series is shown with lotus medallion and flying vidyadharas.
On its base are depictions of musicians and dancers, one of the earliest in Odisha showcasing ancient Odisha’s cultural life.
In the southern part of the hill, excavations have revealed rock-cut images of various female deities such as Tara with her two arms and Prajnaparamita, both Mahayana deities and sculptures of Dhani Buddhas testifying the presence of Vajrayana Cult in the hill towards the end (9th – 11th centuries CE).
The early Buddhism in Odisha or elsewhere in India was urban-based. The monasteries which were exclusively used as varsa vasa or rainy retreats were located in isolated hills for meditative pursuits, yet not far from their respective urban centres, which were the support base. Trade, both domestic and international thrived in this era.
Langudi Hill was not an exception. Close to the hill in its north is located Radhanagar, the ruins of an ancient city, which was part of my PhD topic in the 1990s. Excavations at Radhanagar have brought to light a large number of objects associated with aristocratic life and markers of domestic and international trade.
The site of Radhangar and Archaeological Finds
Close to Radhanagar is yet another hill, Kaima on the bank of Kelua River. On its foothills is found a rock-cut elephant, the second after Dhauli, symbolically representing Lord Buddha. There are also caves in all nearby areas including Tarapur, where excavations have brought out yet another circular stupa of Mauryan era.
Langudi and its surrounding hills are major Buddhist cluster yet to be explored by tourists. The views from these hills are breathtaking. You are simply taken back to the time of Ashoka and ponder to visualize how the bhiksus of Langudi had been responsible for the conversation of Chanda Ashoka to Dharma Ashoka or from Digvijaya to Dharmavijaya.
A story goes – On the way to heaven, the five Pandava brothers had rested on the veranda of a Brahmin’s house, where no woman was ever blessed with the birth of a child. Arjuna came forward to intervene. He erected a Kothi and a Chammundia (a temporary shelter) with the help of arrows. Through this act, Yama, the God of Death was barricaded out. At night a messenger of Yama appeared but had to leave unsuccessful. Consequently, an agreement was made with Yama – whoever observes Osa will bear sons, and all children will remain alive.
The news spread in no time throughout Avanti. Shriya Chandaluni (a woman sweeper named Shriya) heard it while she was sweeping the street near the palace. One of the queens expressed her displeasure because Shriya to whom she saw first in the morning was untouchable. Equally, Shriya also thought it was inauspicious to have seen the face of the queen because she was antakudi, a barren woman.
The queen wanted to take revenge and reported the matter to the king. The king took away the five sons of Shriya and had them killed in the forest. Shriya went to the forest in search of her sons. Seeing them dead, she cried aloud. At that time Shiva and Parvati were wandering in the wilderness. They heard Shriya’s cry. While comforting her they asked her to observe Osa by erecting a Chammundia, a temporary shelter. She replied that she could only do it when all her sons are alive. Shiva requested her to turn her head away. He sprinkled water on the dead bodies and her sons came back to life. They joined their mother and also started worshipping themselves. The king watched them performing the ritual and when performed Osakothi himself, each of his 99 queens bore sons.
According to yet another story, Kalidasa, the poet had once lived in Bauri Sahi (street of untouchables). There he had started a Kothisala. First, he made the appearance of Shiva Tandav, after that the image of Parvati, then Mahisamardhini Durga and Kali. Mangala followed them, then Ganesha and Kartikeya, and finally Panchu Pandava.
How did Kalidasa go to Bauri Sahi? There was a king, who had addicted to women. Because of this weakness, he could not give time to rule properly. Everyone suffered. Then all his subjects assembled together and proposed him to create a mural of his favourite queen and keep it near him. The king liked the idea and invited the court painter to draw the mural. He got it done. All appreciated the work but Kalidasa said ‘no’. The king sought the answer. In reply, Kalidasa said there was a kalajai, a black mole on the left thigh of the queen, which is not in the figure. The king got annoyed with the answer and started doubting about the secret relationship between Kalidasa and his wife. Immediately he removed the poet. With no other choice, the poet took refuge at Bauri Sahi where he started the Kothisala.
Both stories confirm us that the Osakothi tradition in Ganjam stems from the untouchable groups, the upper caste joining later.
For cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, Osakothi rituals are of great interest as one draws a series of parallels between the evolution of early belief systems against their social and cultural settings and their continuity till modern time. Keeping this in mind recently I had ventured into the heartland of Ganjam around Digapahandi to experience and document the Osakothi rituals.
Though Osakothi rituals are celebrated in most part of Ganjam we visited villages around Digapahandi and for this story, we had zeroed on Khallingi Village, about 15 km from Digapahandi via Patapur. The ritual is carried out during Durga Puja time every year. You can also visit villages around Dharkote, Purussotampur, Aska and Buguda towns to witness the festival. There is an excellent road network in the district and you will find villagers are very welcoming. However, for a comfortable stay, you can either chose Berhampur, the largest city in the region or Gopalpur-on-Sea. Taptapani Hotspring is the other nearby attraction which is also the gateway to the tribal heartland of Southern Odisha. For food, you have small restaurants on highways and towns.
Osakothi shrines are temporary structures but now have been made permanent. But one should not confuse them with temples. They have strange characters showing a fusion of tribal and folk beliefs. In middle ages, local zamindars and feudal kings appropriated the land and villages of aboriginal chiefs of Kondh and Saura tribes. To hegemonize their subjects, goddesses from tribal realms were accepted as Esta Devis, family goddesses of the royal households. Some of the local Thakuranis acquired great prominence and their shrines were equated with ancient Shakta temples of Hind pantheons.
Osakothi shrines are a link between the tribal deities and beliefs and mainstream Hinduism. The Thakurani (goddess) is represented as a ghata (pot) and depicted in the murals along with various other deities. The season mostly lasts for seven days around Dussehara (from Ashtami to Kumara Purnima). Traditionally an Osakothi shrine is a simple structure, but nowadays because of increased wealth, one finds permanent structures. The basic requirements are a wall for the murals with a vedi platform or a ledge for keeping the ritual objects, a canopy and an open space for the performances and gathering.
The murals of the osakothi shrines are meant to house tetiskoti devatas (thirty-three times of ten million deities). At least 10 to 20 images and a maximum of hundred gods, goddesses, heroes of epics and legends are depicted on walls as attendants of the relatives of the divinities. The murals thus represent a microcosm in a reduced scale. In an Osakothi mural, the entire family of the goddess does appear with sons, daughters and vehicles with a full entourage, regalia and pomp. The Thakurani is then considered to be Adimata, the creation mother. The wall on which murals are drawn is divided into components, symbolizing chambers and houses of various gods and goddesses forming the great family.
Mangala is often depicted in an Osakothi shrine as the dominating deity. She is seen sitting in cross-legged padmasana with four arms, her body is coloured yellow and she wears red or pink sari and a blouse. The goddess carries five pots, one on her head on top of her crown and four in her hands.
Shiva is the only male deity to appear in Osakothi paintings. He even occupies the central position. He is shown as Nataraj. However, Shiva is not invoked in osakothi ritual. There are stories that explain why Shiva is illustrated as a central figure in Osakothi murals. One such story is – there was a widow who would often get possessed by Thakurani. Once Shiva appeared in another form and beat the woman mercilessly saying that the goddess should return to her home and prepare dinner for her family instead of moving around. From then on Shiva is not invoked when the Thakurani appears.
In Osakothi paintings Durga appears with four or more arms, grasping a trident, sword and other weapons in her hands. She is generally represented as a beautiful and forceful woman. In osakothi, Kali is the central figure of the Shakti Cult. She is depicted as a black skinned naked goddess dancing violently on prostrate Shiva. Her powerful many armed images with swinging weapons of all shorts are the most prominent icon in Osakothi murals.
There are also icons of Chinnamasta, Parvati or Gauri, Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna and a number of Thakurani goddesses such as Khambeswari, Manikeswari, Bankeswari, Tara Tarini, Budhi Thakurani, Bhagawati, Urandawati, Hingula, Chamundi, Maharikala, and so on. There are also minor legendary characters such as Hadi Hadiani, Dhoba Dhobini, Gauda Gaudani, Kandha Kandhuni, Keula Keaulani, Barahalila, Batapanthei, Chhoti Neli and Tapoi.
The Osakothi rituals consist of erecting and painting a shrine (now days erecting is not practised), performing puja, offering prayers, taking out processions, dancing and entertainment. The aim of the ritual is to obtain a boy child. The participants are lower caste inhabitants of a village or local group. Women act as observers. Paintings are drawn by Dandasi Harijan artists. There is a strong belief that if they don’t follow Osakothi rituals, Thakurani may interfere destroying the life and property of people. An interesting story goes: in one of the villages the tradition was stopped for three consecutive years. Thakurani became angry. She said: ‘I will make the village Kala Khamba, black poled (i.e. she will burn houses). I will bring smallpox and phatua, a cow disease’. The Thakurani came to a village and demanded that she performs Osakothi. First, the villagers said: ‘We have no money’. The Thakurani replied: ‘Money is my problem. I shall go with you from village to village to collect money’.
For all 8 nights in a row, the participants in the ritual congregate at the shrine to invoke various gods and goddesses. The ritual begins after the sunset. The Jani (priest) worships the ghata pots representing the goddess Mangala and the image in the murals. He lights a lamp and burns incense after offering ukhuda bhoga (fried parched rice mixed with molasses) to the deities. The dhana koila instrument is then played by the Bayani musician or the singer. The Gayani singer begins the first avahani (invocation song), the audience joins the chorus, called pali. Slowly everyone gets involved. Some of the participants become active personifications of the divine and semi-divine characters and called Devata. One such male Devata may suddenly move forward and backwards and fall in trance called Devata Lagiva. Usually, four or five me men enter into this state simultaneously. The Jani and his companions try to calm the Devata if his movements become too frenzied. They pour water from a lota into his mouth and touch his head with a Mandara (China Rose) flower was taken from Mangala pot.
The ritual ends with Koti Ujeiva on the evening of the Purnima (full moon) or the day following it. The pots are taken to the pond in a procession.
Today, however, Osakothi is in the declining state through the rituals are still on. In our exploration, we were also surprised to see the replacement of murals with flex prints depicting mythological stories in southern style. The beliefs are no more intense as the lower castes are more empowered now. Because of technology and information flow the superstitious beliefs are also fading. It is a million dollar question – for an anthropologist like me it is a loss but one has to accept that we all need to progress and develop scientific tempers and get away from such archaic practices. However, rituals like Osakothi also play as symbols of identity and community bonding at the grassroots of Indian society in the era of market force and globalization.
Within your roots are all sacred places of the world
And inside your stem live all the Gods and Goddess
Your leaves radiate every form of sacred fire
Let me take some of your leaves that I may be blessed
Oh Goddess Tulasi
You who are the most precious
Of the Lord Almighty (Vishnu)
Who live according to his divine laws
I beseech you to protect the lives of my family
And the spirit of those who have died
Here me, Oh Goddess!
In villages around Puri, dawn breaks with the humming of women as they sing folk songs praising Goddess Tulsi, kneeling before a planter shaped miniature temple. Locally known as Tulsi Chaura it is a splendid creation in terracotta adorned with sculptures and holding the Tulasi (basil) plant. Rising to their feet, they pour holy water from their small polished brass pots held in their cupped palms and sprinkle it upon the leaves of their bush. For these women, the Goddess that embodies the virtues of duty, dedication and love life in this Chaura whom they bow before to be blessed to lead a life as she did.
This is a 365 days affair, but it becomes more elaborate on the first day of the holiest Odia month, Kartika (October-November), a month particularly sacred to Vishnu and his goddess consort, Tulsi.
According to a legend in Odisha, Tulsi is the fourth incarnation of the Goddess who in Satya Yuga was known as Satyavati. In Ramayana, she was the Goddess Chandra who was abducted by Mahiravan (son of Ravan). He tried to rape her but then she was too strong-willed to let her character be tarnished. Luckily, Hanuman came to her rescue and slaughtered Mahiravan and later brought Chandra in front of Shri Ram. It was love at first sight for Chandra but Shri Ram was already married to Sita. He promised Chandra that they would be together in the next life and so she waited for him for millennia, alone and a virgin.
Chandra was reborn as Pripura, a beautiful milkmaid and was seduced by Lord Sri Krishna, the next incarnation of Vishnu. For Krishna, the God of Love, Pripura was one of his favourite consorts and together they had many amorous adventures.
In Kali Yuga, the Goddess was born as Tulasi (also known as Vrindavati). This time she became the wife of Jalandhara, an evil demon, son of the sea and lord of the underworld. He owed his strength and power to the purity and dedication of his wife towards him. Jalandhar was insatiably greedy and decided to become the lord of three worlds, earth, heaven and the underworld. After defeating Vishnu he took on Shiva and during the battle, heard tales of the unsurpassed beauty of Parvati and decided he had to have her. Jalandhara disguised himself as Shiva and slipped away to Mount Kailash. Parvati– thinking she saw her husband arriving, rushed out of her place to embrace him, but her beauty was so radiant that before they met, Jalandhara felt to the ground unconscious. Vishnu, when he heard this, assumed Jalandhara’s form and travelled to Jalandhara’s underworld palace to meet Tulasi. Upon seeing Vishnu in her husband’s garb, Tulasi assumed him as her husband and kissed him. With Tulasi’s unconditional dedication compromised, Jalandhara lost his immortality and was killed by Shiva. Tulasi overcame with shame and anger as she was a devout Vishnu worshipper and felt betrayed. Vishnu realizing his folly granted her a boon and transformed Tulasi into a Basil bush to be worshipped every day by men and women in their houses.
Having these stories in my mind and after seeing the display of traditional Odia Tulsi Chauras in the newly opened Kala Bhoomi – Odisha Crafts Museum in Bhubaneswar, I drove down to Balikandala Village near Konark to meet Dibakar Muduli.
Balikandala is a small village off Bhubaneswar – Konark Highway, 10 km before Konark. The village is situated at a distance of 2 km from the highway. Once at Balikandala ask for Dibakar Muduli’s house. The village is small and everyone knows each other. You can also meet other potters in the village and request for a small workshop. However, no one knows English here and only youngsters are familiar with Hindi. From Balikadala one can also visit Gangeswari Temple located on the highway after Gop (about 8 km).
For a gastronomy experience try Chenna (country cheese) Jhili, a sweet delicacy of Nimapara on your way back to Bhubaneswar.
The man behind the Tulsi Chaura exhibits at Kala Bhoomi is Dibakar Muduli from Balikandala Village, which is located at a distance of 55 km from Bhubaneswar on Konark Highway, just 10 km before the world heritage monument. Dibakar Muduli is one of the few surviving potters possessing the skill of making terracotta Tulsi Chauras, a tradition continued from the medieval time in the history of Odisha.
Dibakar Muduli in the right
Dibakar Muduli is in his mid-60s and one among the 72 families of potters in Balikondala, a village surrounded by lush green paddy fields and coconut groves in the heart of rural Odisha. Like the traditional houses of that village, Dibakar’s house is constructed of mud walls with a thatched roof. Outside the front wall of the house is a narrow veranda where family members frequently sit to gossip with neighbours. However, in recent years most of the traditional houses have been replaced with concrete structures, but the pattern followed remains the same. Inside the house is a central courtyard surrounded by living, kitchen and storage rooms. With an increased demand for his pots Dibakar also supplies earthen pots to Jagannath Temple at Puri for cooking and serving Abhada, the holy prasada to the devotees), Dibakar has now moved his workshop to a larger space, about 100 meters away.
In front of Dibakar’s house, across the road, is an old Tulsi Chaura from the time of his forefathers. There is another one in the village on the main road towards the highway and two in the neighbouring village Tini Tiara, all at least 5 generations old. All these Tulsi Chauras are elaborately sculpted standing in small cleared areas.
Once a year, in Margasira (November-December), the Muduli potters of Balikondala celebrate the five day festival of Kurula Panchami. Chaka Puja (worship of the wheels and all other tools used in pot making and sculpting) is the major focus of the festival. Prior to this festival, the women folk resurface the front walls of their houses with a thin layer of mud mixed with cow dung. With a rice paste then, they paint the walls with murals of lotuses, elephants, peacocks and trees. During this festival, the Muduli Kumbharas worship their ancestral deity Rudrapal, a form of Vishnu.
It takes Dibakar 5 days to prepare a traditional Tulasi Chaura and two weeks for drying. The process begins with mixing five parts of raw clay with two parts of fine sand and one part of cow manure. The clay is then kneaded with hands thoroughly, removing impurities and then kneaded again with feet.
Images Source – Kala Bhoomi
After kneading, a thin layer of fine dry sand is used for fencing the wet clay from contamination. A rope of clay of 2-inch thickness is placed upon the sand, connecting its ends together for the circular base of the Chaura. Subsequently, more rows of clay are placed one above another, gradually building the vessel wall by joining the coils with large pinches. As the wall’s height increases the potters shorten the length of each successive ring. Once complete, the shape represents a miniature temple which is then kept overnight for drying. On day 2, the pot wall is beaten using a mallet to smoothen, strengthen and give a proper shape to the Chaura. Then it is covered by a gunny sack to prevent cracking and again kept overnight to dry.
On the 3rd day, decoration begins on its outer surface by making 4 separate sections. Relief sculptures including various incarnations of Vishnu, associate deities, mythological creatures, local heroes, warriors, erotic couples, devotees, horses, sun, moon and stars, cows, flowers and lions are added step by step in respective sections. There are also two pairs of musicians, one devotional couple and one horseman added in a process that lasts 3 days.
On the last day, the bowl that forms the final tier of the planter, and that which will actually contain the roots of Tulasi bush, is thrown by the potter on his wheel. Later, it is kept for 15 days to dry in the shade. Improper drying can lead to the cracking of the structure.
When dried and done, the Chaura is handed over to its patron. Before its use, the women first decorate the ground surrounding the Chaura with designs done using rice paste. Then the plant is bathed, honoured with incense, camphor, lamps and given offerings of milk and fruit. Over a two hour installation period, devotees chant prayers praising the goddess and then recite the long history of her many incarnations.
Today, as modernisation is taking over, traditional Tulasi Chauras have become obsolete.
Thanks to the initiative of Kala Bhoomi for bringing it back into public consciousness and allow the appreciation of a tradition that has been integral to Odia culture for hundreds of years. This initiative will certainly help bring back the traditional terracotta Chauras back into urban hearts and houses reviving a lost art and livelihood.
While growing up I often heard recitations of the poem Bonolota Sen, written by Jibonananda Das in 1942. In this poem, the poet beautifully describes his muse, painting her with various attributes from ancient India. One of the most enigmatic poems that I have read, the words cut deep into the reader’s soul as he or she travels back in time to the glorious past. Few lines from the poem run as such:
“A thousand years I have walked these paths, From the harbour at Malacca in the dark of night To the straits of Ceylon at glimmer of dawn. Much have I travelled – The grey world of Ashoka-Bimbisara, Further yet, The dark city of Vidharbha; Around me life foams its stormy breath. Weary of soul, I found a moment’s respite in her presence – She: Banalata Sen of Natore.
Her hair the ancient darkness of Vidisha, Face an intricate sculpture from Shravasti. A sailor in distant oceans, rudderless, lost, When hoves into view Island of grass through fronds of cinnamon, A green relief So she felt to me….”
From treading the magical realms of this lyrical verse, when I finally walked into Shravasti on a bitterly cold and foggy morning, I found no intricate sculptures resembling the beauty of Bonolota Sen waiting for me. What was waiting was the magic of 2600 years, compressed and hidden amidst the ruins and paths of the once thriving site known as the Jetavana monastery.
Looking back at Shravasti:
The name Shravasti is a familiar one in Indian history from ancient times, and finds mention in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts. Shravasti was also often referred to as Champakpuri and Chandrikapuri, though Kalidasa called it as ‘Sravasti.’ According to the Mahabharata, the name Shravasti was derived from king Shravasta, while Buddhist folklore says the town was named as Savatthi after Savattha, a hermit who lived here. In Ramayana it is said that Lord Rama of the Surya dynasty divided his kingdom of Kosala (with capital at Ayodhya) into two parts. The elder son Kusa inherited Kushavati or Kushasthali, and Lava got Shravasti that was situated on the banks of the river Rapti (currently the Sehath-Mehath village site near Gonda and Baharinch). It is believed that Lava’s descendants ruled the area for a long time; however, during the time of Mahabharata both Kushasthali and Shravasti seem to have gone into oblivion, though we find mention of Ayodhya under control of king Bruhadbala I, who fought for the Kauravas. In Buddhist literature the name Shravasti carries great significance, as Lord Buddha spent many years of his monastic life in this city. During his life time Shravasti was considered one among the six largest cities in India. For the Jains, Sharvasti holds great religious significance, as the now ruined Sobhanath temple is considered to be the birthplace of the third Tirthankara, Sambhavanath.
Third Jain tirthankara Sambhanath was born in Shravasti to King Jitārī and Queen Susena (photo courtesy – Wikipedia)
When we look at archaeological evidences from the Gangetic basin, we find the presence of fine Black Red Ware or B-R-W that denotes the Chalcolithic era, thus establishing the fact that it was likely Chalcolithic people settled down in this area around the second millennium BCE. As the settlements of the BRW people expanded through first half of the 1st millennium, there was also a shift from copper to iron, possibly due to discovery of iron ore resources. This iron technology helped the Gangetic basin to expand and develop its unique cultural mosaic, and it is likely that Shravasti settlements started at this time (early half of 1st millennium BCE). Using these new iron tools, soon forests in the Gangetic basin were cleared, farmers started producing surplus crops, and people settled down permanently, forming cities like Shravasti.
In the later Vedic period we find that increasingly territorial identities started gaining importance over tribal ones, and by 600 BCE we find a shift from oligarchic republics to the formation of large states or kingdoms. From loyalty towards the jana (the tribe), the loyalty of the people now shifted to the janapadas (states). By subjugating other janapadas, more powerful mahajanapadas soon came into existence. According to Anguttara Nikaya (Buddhist text), during Buddha’s time 16 such mahajanapadas existed. Kosala was one of them with its capital at Shravasti (by Buddha’s time Ayodhya had been reduced to an unimportant city), and considered among the four great monarchies of that time that survived well after the 6th c. BCE.
Mahajanapadas during Buddha’s time (photo courtesy – wikipedia)
With the formation of these mahajanapadas, India saw an increase in material prosperity owing to trade with Central and West Asia and the Mediterranean region, leading to urbanization. From the strategic location on east-west route of Uttarapatha, which connected the Gangetic basin with the Himalayas, it is likely that Shravasti held great economic and political importance as a trading centre. Shravasti at that time was well connected with other important commercial hubs, such as, Taxila, Rajgir, Pataliputra, Pratisthana, Kaushambi and Varanasi
Dynasty that held Shravasti
According to the Ramayana and the Puranas, the Kosala mahajanpada was ruled by the Aikshvaka dynasty that originated from a king named Ikshvaku, and members of this dynasty held sway over Shravasti, Vaishali, Maithili, and Kushinara. The Puranas give a list of the rulers of the Aikshvaka dynasty from Ikshvaku to Prasenajita, the latter being a contemporary of Bimbisara of the Haryanka dynasty, and Lord Buddha. Prasenajita who was then the king of Shravasti or Savatthi, became one of the leading upasakas of the Buddha. As per the Buddhist scriptures, Bimbisara (who was also the brother in law of Prasenajita) met the Buddha prior to his enlightenment, and later he too became one of his leading upasakas.
Procession of Prasenajit of Kosala leaving Shravasti to meet the Buddha. Sanchi Stupa. (picture courtesy – wikipedia)
Burmese art showing King Bimbisara of Rajgir, who was the brother-in-law of Prasenajit of Kosala, offering his kingdom to the Buddha (Picture courtesy – wikipedia)
Seeing Shravasti as it is now:
Currently what remains of this ancient city are parts of the wall that once guarded
Shravasti, in the Maheth village site; and the Jetavana monastery ruins at Saheth. Besides the remains of religious complexes that contained Buddhist monastic cells with a central court, excavations at Shravasti have found many idols, inscription plaques, terracotta seals in Brahmi script, copper coins of the Ayodhya series, glass and etched agate beads, blue and green glass bangles, and copper ornaments, which are now placed in the Lucknow and Mathura museums. Ramayana plaques were unearthed from the site of Kachhi kuti in the Saheth site of Jetavana, which likely came from a Hindu temple. It is believed that King Ashoka visited Shravasti, and had built two pillars on the eastern gate of Jetavana. Both Fa-hien and Hiuen Tsang in their travel accounts mention Ashokan pillars with ox-capital that they saw at the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti. When Hiuen Tsang visited Shravasti in the 6th c. CE, he found the ancient city in ruins, but he recorded the monuments that he saw here.
Remains of the stupa of the merchant prince name Sudatta of Shravasti, who acquired the site of jeta-vana for Buddha, from prince Jeta (son of King Prasenajita of Kosala) at a huge price that equalled the total amount of gold pieces which would cover the entire surface of the plot (the total price amounted to 18 crores). Sudatta was titled as Anathapindika, which meant “giver of alms to the destitute.” This stupa is now better known as kacchi kuti, because a sadhu had made a temporary shrine made of kaccha bricks on top of the mound. This stupa represents structural remains dating from 2nd century CE to 12th c. CE, ranging from Kushana period to Gupta era structures and later period renovations.
Donation by Anathapindika, as shown on Bharhut stupa. Here we can see a cartload of coins being taken down, while the square pieces on the ground denote the gold pieces covering the site. The Brahmi text reads “jetavana ananthapindiko deti kotisanthatena keta.” (picture courtesy – wikipedia). Buddha first came to Shravasti on an invite from Anathapindika.
Remains of monastic complexes at the site of Jetavana monastery. It was also in Shravasti that Buddha attracted many women disciples, which led to his forming an Order of the Nuns, much against his wishes, and he had predicted that with this reform the Buddhist order will not last for long. The first disciple to join the Order of the Nuns by forcing Buddha’s consent was his own step-mother Mahaprajapati. One of his most well known women disciple was Visakha, the daughter of a business tycoon of those times from Saketa. She built Buddha another monastery at Shravasti and named it Purvarama, by selling her expensive head dress. Of the total 25 monsoon seasons that Buddha spent teaching in Shravasti, 19 were in Jetavana and 6 in Purvarama.
Stupa of Visakha, where her ashes were interred in Shravasti (picture courtesy – wikipedia)
Stupa 1 in Sanchi depicts the three preferred homes of the Buddha within the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti (picture courtesy – Wikipedia)
Remains of the brick made plinths, foundations, and walls of the different monastic cells in Jetavana. The ancient site of Shravasti was completely forgotten, until excavations were started under Alexander Cunningham in 1863, who followed the details given by Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang and found that Saheth was the site of Jetavana monastery and Maheth was Savatthi during the ancient times. Most of the excavated remains in Jetavana show the typical elevation and plan of early Buddhist architecture, and belong to the Kushana period, with a number of reconstructions and renovations done during the Gupta period, and some more from the later periods dating upto 11th- 12th century CE.
The Anandabodhi tree in Jetavana planted by Anathapindika, considered as the second most sacred tree among the Buddhists. A cell right behind the tree is supposed to have belonged to a goldsmith’s workshop, as derived from remains of a lump of pure gold in a clay crucible in the room and ash heaps around the building.
Gandhakuti, the hut where Buddha spent 19 monsoon seasons. Lord Buddha spent most his monastic life in Shravasti, preaching 871 suttas from the four nikayas, of which 844 were preached from this very spot in Jetavana. According to a description given by Fa-hien, the Gandhakuti originally had seven sections, that held different kinds of offerings, decorated insignia, marquees, and the place was lit with lamps that burned all the time. A rat supposedly set the entire vihara on fire destroying it completely, and when it was rebuilt it only had two sections.
Thin gold foil offerings to Buddha is seen on Gandhakuti and other monastic cell wall remains in Jetavana. This practice of offering gold foil is common among south east Asian devotees, especially from Myanmar.
The stupa of the notorious robber known as Ahimsaka or Angulimala, who killed those travelling through the forests in Kosala. He killed people by dragging them out of their homes in nearby villages. To keep count of his victims he strung their fingers around his neck like a garland, which gave him the name Angulimala. While looking for his thousandth victim Buddha intercepted him and made him his disciple. Despite becoming a monk, Angulimala while out begging for alms often faced the wrath of the people whose loved ones he had once killed; but Buddha told him to endure it as a penance for his former misdeeds or Karma.
Angulimala chasing Buddha in their first meeting. Painting in the Sri Lanka Buddhist temple at Shravasti.
Shravasti is also an important religious place for the Jains. The Jain temple seen here is situated a little away from the Jetavana monastery, and is supposedly the birth place of the third Tirthankara Sambhavnath, whose symbol is a horse. Born toKing Jitārī and Queen Susena, he ascended the throne at an early age of 20, and ruled ably for thirty four years, ushering in many changes during his reign. However, one day after seeing a vanishing dark cloud, he realised the transient nature of life, renounced his throne, and chose a monastic life. The remains of the structure show a basic rectangular plan with different strata, and many later additions, extensions, and superimposition. The domed roof structure built of lakhori bricks is a much later medieval Islamic imposition. The interior face of the structure had several niches that housed Jain deities and many such deities have been recovered from the site.
Remains of small room like structures within the Jain temple. Just outside the temple are two more mounds of ruins, likely to hold remains of ancient monastic structures.
The Shravasti Miracle
The Twin Miracle performed by Buddha atShravasti, seven years after gaining enlightenment, is considered as his best miracle. The miracle was in response to a challenge thrown to Buddha by the heretics, wherein he had predicted that he would perform a miracle while seated under a mango tree (as stated in most of the Pali texts, such as Dhammapadathakatha and Jataka tales). Hearing this the heretics destroyed all mango trees in the area; however their plans were thwarted when Buddha planted a mango seed that immediately grew into a full grown tree with fruits, thus allowing Buddha to perform his miracle, known as the Yamaka-pātihāriya or the Twin Miracle. This miraculous phenomena paired two opposite natural elements: flames that came out from the upper body, while water streamed down from his lower body, and the two were alternated. At the same time, water and fire also emitted alternatively from the left and right sides of his body.
The twin miracle by Buddha at Shravasti (photo courtesy – wiki pediaby Ddalbiez)
Another important text Divyavadana written in Sanskrit talks of another Great Miracle performed in Shravasti, which was a miracle of multiplication, where Buddha created multiple images of his self in front, back, and the two sides, thus forming a group of Buddhas that reached up to the Heaven.
The miracle of ‘Many Buddhas’ in Shravasti (photo courtesy – Wikipedia)
Downfall of the high and mighty
Shravasti, the once powerful city and capital of the mighty Kosala mahajanapada, a centre of economic, socio-cultural, and political activities, saw a sudden decline from 3rd-4th c. CE. The decline started a little earlier than the other important north Indian cities of the time, from the later part of the Kushana period, when for some reason (could be economic, political, or cultural) people suddenly started moving out of this urban centre. The decline can be attributed to economic stagnation, owing to the Hun invasion and the diminishing Indo-Roman trade in the later half of the Gupta period. Thus, an economic decline led to the complete disintegration of political unity, and breakdown of the socio-cultural fabric that had been held together for many centuries.
Author – Monidipa Dey
She can be reached at email@example.com or at MoniGatha
As an art and heritage lover, I have travelled to many historical sites in the country but Tamil Nadu seemed to have eluded me. With the three great living chola temples on my mind, I sat down with a map and planned a 10 day road trip through Tamil heartland. And was I not surprised and overwhelmed. This state is full of stories and here stones speak eloquently !
Though temples were on my mind, I made sure not to miss seeing the Pichchavaram mangroves that are a mere 20 minutes drive away from the Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram. Here I recall my journey not in the way I took it but how Dravida style of temple architecture has developed.
Post Sangam Age, Tamilakkam, which was more of a cultural identity than a geographical entity was the crucible of development of a fabulous style of temple architecture known as the Dravida.Dravida style temples were first constructed by the Pallavas.
Pallavas were the great rulers of the northern part of today’s Tamil Nadu, and parts of Karnataka and Andhra until the 9th century. During their long reign, art and architecture of early Dravidian period bloomed and thrived. The rock cut as well as built architecture pioneered by them continued to be the inspiration and base for the architecture of peninsular India whose development continued for many centuries thereon. The journey of rock-cut architecture in Tamil Nadu started with King Mahendravarman I commissioning the construction of Laksitayana cave temple at Mandagapattu. It imitated the interior of a timber building akin to the Buddhist rock cut caves of Maharashtra. The cave and its pillars showed Chalukyan influence and have well defined mukha mandapa, ardha mandapa and three shrines. The Panchapandava caves at Pallavaram and Rudravaliswaram cave at Mamandur were amongst the series of rock cut caves that followed. His successor, Narsimhavarman Mamalla (630-668 CE) built a new port town called Mamallapuram and introduced unique temples that were carved out of a large boulder.
Mamallapuram is what we know today as Mahabalipuram – the place that I found as spectacular as Hampi is. Scattered with magnificent structures and ruins. Surely, Mamalla’s style led to the development of various stylistic attributes such as the Kudu (inspired from the Buddhist sun window), development of Sala and Kuta, a well defined adhisthana (basement), slender columns, crouching Vyalas and introduction of various decorations such as garlands, kalasa (vase), potika (corbels), padmabandha (lotus petals). Koneri Mandapa, Varaha mandapa, Mahishasuramardini caves, at Mamallapuram can be considered the earliest examples of this style.
Narasimhavarman also introduced free-standing monolith rathas. These rathas carved out from hard granite and 9 in number, are important milestones in the development of Dravidian temple architecture as they show the development of multi-storey Vimanas. These storeys known as Tala are stacked onto each other with the upper tala necessarily being smaller than the lower one, making it appear like a stepped pyramid. Mamallapuram was the Pallavas laboratory of experimenting with various construction styles and sculptural details. Here you see rathas from a single storey (Draupadi ratha) to three storeyed (Dhramaraja ratha) structuring and with varying number of Talas. Pallavas also experimented on the roofing style of the rathas. Draupadi ratha, the smallest ratha, looks like a hut with its curved dome like roof, Arjuna and Yudhisthir ratha have pyramidal roofs while the Bhima ratha has wagon vaulted roof and, Nakul-Sahadeva ratha is a horse-shoe shaped building topped by a wagon vault with an apsidal end. The Dharmaraja and Arjun ratha here are the most important ones as they influenced the later form and development of Dravidian temple architecture. Similarly, various theories also suggest the possibility of the wagon vaulted Bhima and Ganesha rathas influencing the design of Gopurams – the most striking feature of south Indian temples.
Successive Pallava kings – Rajasimha and Nandivarman continued the legacy of their predecessors and constructed beautiful structural temples. The famous shore temple at Mamallapuram consists of two Shiva shrines having vimanas, a third shrine dedicated to Seshashayi (reclining) Vishnu having no superstructure, and a prakara wall enclosing the three. Unique feature of this temple is however its vimanas which don’t appear like stepped pyramids but rather tall slender tapering spires.
Kailashnathar temple built in the Pallava capital Kanchipuram has many unique features such as; the main shrine has smaller shrines attached to it on the middle of each side as well as its four corners. The exterior of this temple mainly features the pilasters with rearing Vyala at their base. A gopuram makes an appearance in this temple, while a prakara surrounds the entire temple, with a row of mini shrines running all along its inner face.
After the Pallavas came the mighty Cholas. The long period of wait from the fall of early Cholas till the resurrection of Cholas (hereafter referred to as medieval Cholas) is known as a dark period in Chola history. The great empire which once ruled Tamilakkam became extinct in its own land with the rise of Pallavas and Pandyas. According to Manimekalai, Princess Pilli Valai had a liaison with the Early Chola King Killivalavan. Out of this union was born Prince Tondai Eelam Thiraiyar, a supposed ancestor of Pallava Dynasty. Since no other source except Manimekalai mentions the name of King Vallivalayan, this myth remains a tale whose historic veracity is yet to be confirmed.
The Cholas, under the suzerainty of the Pallavas and Pandyas, had held onto their ancient capital – Urayur near modern day Trichy and continued to have influence over areas around like Thanjavur, Trichy, Mayiladuthurai and Pudukkottai. Taking advantage of the continuous wars between the Pallavas and Pandyas, Chola king Vijayala captured Thanjavur and added large parts to his territory. Finally, in 897 CE, Pallava king Aparajitavarman was defeated by the Chola King Aditya I, ending the Pallava rule. With large parts of northern Tamil Nadu under their belt the Cholas went on to become a mighty power in the South and ruled the region for more than four centuries- a golden period of art and architecture.
Although the Chola architecture is considered to have reached its zenith during the reign of the father- son duo, Rajaraja and Rajendra I who built the Brihadeesvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram respectively, this giant leap in the development of temple architecture didn’t take place overnight. Cholas knew that after defeating the Pallavas they had a large gap to fill when it came to ruling over a territory that had seen glorious rule of Pallavas as well as their magnificent rock-cut architecture at Mamallapuram and the brilliant built architecture in and around the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram.
It was natural that the early medieval Chola architecture was greatly influenced by the architectural style of Pallavas. These examples of medieval Chola architecture though small in size and not many in number implies that these structures/ temples were built by local chieftains of the Cholas without any imperial involvement like the Moovar Koil that is built by an Irukku Velir Cheiftain and a Chola general; Boothi Vikrama Kesari. Most of the examples of above mentioned style were entirely built in stone and are found in the Pudukkottai district of Tamilnadu.
Vijayalaya Choleesvaram – a temple in Narthamalai named after the first Chola king Vijayala was constructed in second half of the 9th century. This Shiva temple is famous for its unusual plan where the sanctum is circular (omkara garbhagriha) and its prakara is square. Of the four storeys of the Vimana here, three lower ones are square and the topmost is circular shape which then supports the dome like round kalasha above it. Another very interesting fact to note here is that, some of the ancient south Indian literary works such as Svayambhuvagama, karanagama, Marichi Samhita etc define hybrid ‘Vesara’ temple style as “the buildings which are round, apsidal and elliptical or may be square at the below but round from neck upwards”. This definition of Vesara exactly fits Vijayala Cholesvaram temple’s sanctum which is square at the base but round from Griva (neck) and above.
Moovar Koil- another milestone in the early medieval Chola architecture is located at Kodumbalur near from Pudukkottai and was constructed in the 10th century by a Chola general. Moovar koil meaning ‘temple of three (Gods)’ in Tamil, this temple complex had three temples only two of which survive today. At Moovar koil, one can observe a change in the sculptural form- from non- refined figures to the delicate figures showing Pallava influence. This change in temple form was attributed to the marital relationships of the Cholas with the Muttaraiyars who were the vassals of Pallavas.
Brihadeesvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are considered two of the greatest examples of Dravidian architecture. Both the temples are massive in scale and constructed out of large blocks of granite. Their tall Vimanas seem to be competing with the clouds with the one of Thanjavur Brihadeesvara reaching 66 meters. Both the temples stand on an ornate Adhisthana carved profusely with intricate designs and Tamil inscriptions. Massive monolithic Nandis sit in front of the temples in detached Nandi Mandapas. Their exterior mainly consists of pilasters, niches and decorative pillars called Kumbhapanjaram besides the common features of Salas and Kutas. The Thajavur temple is internally adorned with beautiful frescos and equally amazing sculptures on the exterior make it a heaven for the iconography enthusiasts. The relief sculptures inside the temple have been a great resource for documenting the history of classical dances such as Bharatanatyam as they showcase Nataraja, dancing Lord Shiva in various classical dance poses. Another overwhelming fact about this temple is that, its sixteen storeyed Vimana is topped by a massive octagonal monolithic Shikhara stone weighing 80,000 kilos. It is a mystery to this day how such a heavy stone was carried to such a great height. Some theories suggest it was taken to the top with the help of either a linear or spiral ramp being pushed by several elephants! Another interesting feature is the faces of a European man wearing a hat, a European girl, an Oriental man placed in kudus on the exterior of Vimanas. Although later additions, they confirm that Cholas had diplomatic as well as trade relations with far flung lands even thousand years ago!
Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram although smaller, is more intricate and has higher sculptural quality than the one at Thanjavur. Though the temples flummoxed me, being a marathi, I must admit that I found Thanjavur’s maratha connection quiet thrilling !
Another temple- Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram though much smaller in size than its predecessors surpasses both of them when it comes to an elaborate sculptural and architectural design. It is designed in such a way that it appears like a giant chariot pulled by elephants. Not surprisingly all the above mentioned three temples are a part of UNESCO world heritage sites together known as the ‘Great Living Chola Temples’.
Thus by the time the power of the Cholas started declining the Dravida style reached its maturity with distinct features. Very broadly, these features are:
–Pyramidal Vimana standing on a square base.
–Vimana towers formed by superimposing diminishing storeys on one another.
–Hara (a horizontal row on each storey consisting of miniature shrines) consisting of Salas (intermediate mini shrines) and Kutas (miniature shrines in the corners).
–The main temple structure divided between Garbhagriha (Sanctum), Mahamandapa (closed hall) Mandapa (semi-closed hall), Ardha Mandapa (porch). Depending on the size of the temple, Mahamandapa and Mandapa often replaced each other. Natya Mandapa for dance performances was introduced in a lot of temples for performances of classical dances.
–Gopurams (temple gateway towers)- probably the most striking feature of the Dravidian temples. Just like Vimanas, Gopurams too have their pyramidal tower divided into many diminishing storeys topped by a barrel vault having several small finials placed along the ridge of the vault.
–Enclosure wall known as Prakara that encompassed the entire temple complex within. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, the number of concentric Prakaras varied. Vaikuntha Perumal temple, in Kanchi has a unique plan where the sanctum is encircled by four layers of concentric walls, the fourth being its prakara.
-A water tank near the temple for ritualistic purposes and to provide for the priests living in the temple.
-Huge Nandis with a mandapa of their own
Pandyas came back to the power for a while in the Tamil region after the collapse of Cholas in the 13th century. However, Pandyas were not creative builders like Cholas and rather concentrated on building Gopurams to the existing temples. The main contribution of Pandyas is in the heightened focus on the temple gateways. The gateways of Jambukesvara temple and eastern gopuram of Thillai Nataraja temple are the prime examples of gateways built during this period.
Vijayanagara Empire that came into being in 1336 CE, though concentrated on constructing new temples in and around their capital Hampi, also made significant additions to older existing Pallava and Chola temples by constructing sky soaring gopurams known as Raya Gopurams and Kalyana mandapas. The Kalyana mandapa at Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram has96 pillars carved with either mythological figures or warriors on horses or Yalis except for the two pillars where the Goddess and God of Love in Hindu Mythology Rathi and Kamdev are carved on a parrot and a swan respectively. The entire hall is intricately carved with sculptures of stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, various dances, daily chores of people, amorous couples, Portuguese soldiers carrying guns, trick sculptures etc. However, fascinating stone rings that can move freely even though the entire chain is made of a single stone remains the most mindboggling feature of this era.
The sky soaring gopuram of Ekambarnathar temple at Kanchi was erected in 1509 CE by King Krishnadeva Raya. Its pyramidal tower has eight diminishing storeys in plaster-covered brickwork and rises to 192 feet. Raya Gopurams at the Chidambaram (139 feet high) as well as the one at Annamalaiyar temple (217 feet high)are some of the other well known examples of the temple gateways built during this period. Another example of Vijayanagara era worth mentioning is the impressive hall of Thousand Pillars in Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam constructed during the years 1336–1565 CE. The pillars consist of sculptures of wildly rearing horses bearing riders on their backs and trampling with their hoofs upon the heads of rampant lions/ yalis.
The last phase of Dravidian temple architecture began with the collapse of Vijayanagara Empire and the declaration of independence of various Nayakas under them, such as the Thanjavur Nayakas, Gingee Nayakas and Madurai Nayakas. These Nayaka rulers continued the legacy of their previous masters and added various halls and gopurams to the existing temple complexes. Southern gopuram at the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai by far remains the most important contribution of the Nayakas as its here that the development of gopuram reached its zenith. With its slightly inward curvature and unbelievable projecting stucco statues, this is easily the most beautiful gopuram in all of south India.
The gopuram at Srivilliputhur is taller than the one at Madurai and has a larger number of stucco figures all over it. Very intricately carved Subrahmanya temple in Thajavur Brihadeesvara complex perfectly exhibits the ornate temple architecture style of the Nayakas. Features such as Pushpapotikas, Kumbhapanjara, double flexed cornice, mouldings of adisthana and various pillars add to its beauty by manifolds.
It is astonishing how the Dravidian style did not change much as per the region unlike its northern counterpart, Nagara whose regional styles flowered to become distinct sub-styles in their own right. Almost like the people who till today live very traditional lifestyles and retain fierce pride in their culture.
Author – Onkar Tendulkar
All the pictures used in the post belong to the author unless stated otherwise. The illustrations are from the book “A History of Fine Arts in India and the West” by Edith Tomory
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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!
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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”!
“Bharde jholi meri Ya Mohammad, laut kar main na jaunga khaali”
Who can forget the hesitant Bajrangi Bhaijaan going to a dargah as a last resort with a lament that is voiced soulfully by Adnan Sami in the form of the above qawwali. His request is heeded and things fall into place. This is the stirring power that faith has and faith, as I have known and believe, does not see religion.
It is faith, that brings people in hordes to Dargah E Hakimi in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh. Faith in the powers of the 17th-century Bohra saint Syedi Abdul Qader Hakimuddin who was known for his piety, humility and scholarship. A sanskrit scholar and a Hafiz-e-Koran (he could recite the entire Koran from memory), his recitation of the Koran could mesmerise any living being. It is faith, that a tiger on hearing the saint reciting the Koran obediently sits down in front of him and later walks away silently.
When Syedi Hakimudin died in 1730 CE, his detractors exhumed his body after 22 days and found a fresh and fragrant body much to their utter disbelief. Over the years, people’s faith in Syedi Hakimuddin’s miraculous powers have grown manifold. The word Hakim denotes a healer and thousands of Bohras flock to his shrine, taking a mannat (vow) for shifa (cure) from disease and seeking restoration of the health of both the body and the soul only to return back again and again.
The Dargah that looks more like a resort than a mausoleum has lush environs with water fountains, well laid gardens and lawns along with living facilities that can be compared to a starred hotel and for those who cannot be accommodated in the rooms there is a dormitory too replete with all the facilities. All of this at a pittance for the maximum you pay for a room is Rs. 1000/- only ! Food is not charged and the first thing you hear as soon as you enter the Dargah is “jamvanu nu izzan che” (you are invited for food).
Hosting an average of upto 1000 pilgrims everyday, this Dargah is impeccably clean and very well managed. The food is always there despite the fact that there is no prior registration and people just walk in at any time. None of the staff is trained in hospitality or management but the systematic way in which this huge property spread over 125 acres runs reminds you that here, faith is at work. If one day someone sponsors the dessert, than another day a group pays for the entire feast, someone takes care of the appetizer than another day someone sponsors the piping hot tea and breakfast. The grains that reach the Dargah (125 kgs of rice, 80 kgs of flour and pulses daily) are many a times sent by ‘Hakimuddin’, anonymous donors who give in the name of the saint.
Last year approximately 121,356 people came seeking the serenity that this dargah offers making the Madhya Pradesh government honour it with the ‘Most Tourist Friendly Pilgrimage Centre’ award. The accolades and initiatives don’t stop there, the Dargah has now taken up organic farming producing wheat on the surplus land. It is utilized by the kitchen of the Dargah. All the bio waste is collected and composted that enriches the soil making it a green haven. Bee keeping is also practiced and the honey is given to the pilgrims during breakfast. Plans are afoot to expand these initiatives further.
Astounded, puzzled or just in awe ? At Dargah E Hakimi, the standard answer to every puzzled question is a smile and a finger that points towards the dome of the tomb of Syedi Hakimuddin.
It befits our brethren, may Allah give them strength, to not despise any field of knowledge, or shun a particular book, or bear prejudice towards a certain faith. Indeed our philosophy and our faith encompass all faiths and all knowledge.
Rasaa’il Ikhwan al-Safaa
Author – Zehra Chhapiwala
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
All the pictures used in the post are courtesy Jitu Mishra