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      

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).

    640px-Triratha-Pancharatha-Saptaratha
    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

Vesara Temple Architecture – Origin and Evolution : A Photo Journey

Ereya was a small boy when his father Kirtivarman- II died and his uncle Mangalesa ascended the Chalukya throne as regent. As the boy came of age so did his uncle’s greed for power and he decided to declare his son as his heir apparent showing Ereya the door. The young prince sought shelter in Bana territory (present day Kolar) and formed his own small army that went on to defeat his uncle. Ereya ascended throne taking the name Pulakesin -II and the title Chalukya Parameshwara. Thus began the golden period of the Chalukyan dynasty.

Chalukyas are one of the first dynasties of the upper Dravida Desha and known as the real builders of Karnata / Kuntala desa (present day Karnataka) region. The scion of the dynasty launched his political career sometime in the 5th century CE from a small territory around the Bijapur town. This region lay north of Banavasi (of the Kadambas) and was a region that gave no sign of notable cultural activities until the advent of Chalukyas as rulers. The twin cities of Aihole (Ahivalli) and Badami (Vatapi) were the nerve centres from where the Chalukyas and their empire spread out to become one of the most powerful .

As the Chalukyan empire started growing rapidly, more and more neighbouring regions fell in the dominion of the dynasty. From these two cities, elements of art and culture travelled to the lands that the Chalukyas newly conquered and the first monuments bearing an authentic brand of the “art of Karnata” started taking shape. The role of first two Chalukya kings was largely insignificant as they were merely seen as the puppets of the previous dynasties that ruled here. The real glory began from the time of Pulakesin I who was an independent ruler and fortified Badami (Vatapi) in 543 CE. His successor Kirtivarman-II, then the next king Mangalesa, then Pulakesin II added to the legacy of Badami (Vatapi) by constructing Hindu, Jain & Buddhist caves as well as the Mahakuta group of temples.

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During the reign of Pulakesi II (CE 608-642), Chalukyas attained imperial status. He soon went on to capture Talakadu (of Gangas), Banavasi (of Kadambas), Aluvakheda (of Alupas). He shortly defeated Mauryas of Konkan and conquered large areas of today’s coastal Maharashtra rapidly moving towards North. His army went further north till river Narmada to check advance of his enemies by defeating them and restricting them beyond the river. The same was repeated on the eastern front along the Godavari river. He defeated the Vishnukundinas and added most of Vengi- one of the most fertile regions in the south; to his kingdom. The difficulty in keeping a check on the activities this far east from his capital in Badami might have seemed difficult to Pulakesi II. Very smartly, he stationed his brother Kubja Vishnuvardhana there as his viceroy. Within a decade, Vishnuvardhana declared independence and thus began the eastern branch of Chalukyas (Vengi Chalukyas) who went on to rule Vengi for many centuries outliving the Badami Chalukyas as a dynasty.

From being the Chalukya Parameshwara to defeating the mighty Harshavardhana and assuming the title of Dakshinapatheshvara (Lord of the South), Pulakeshin – II’s achievement on the battlefront have inspired both poets and chroniclers. Huein Tsang, Harshavardhana’s Protégé  could not hold himself from writing about his valour while the poet Ravikriti wrote verses in his praise. Etched in stone at the Meguti temple and known as the Aihole inscription, it still is a reference source of events of the times. But Pulakesin – II’s achievements were not limited to the battlefield alone. During his reign, he added the cave no 2, Sivalaya temples at Badami, Gaudargudi and Meguti temples at Aihole and Mahakuta temples near Badami. Vikramaditya I- one of the sons of Pulakesin II carried his father’s legacy after the latter’s mysterious disappearance.

Badami Agastya lake & Shivalaya templesBadami Shivalaya temples

Agatsya Lake and Sivalaya Temples, Badami

Chalukyans can be considered a pioneering dynasty as they did not patronize either Vaishnavism or Shaivism but followed both. This is amply clear in the construction of both the Shaivite temples (Badami cave 1 and Ravalaphadi cave at Aihole) and Vaishnavite temples (Badami cave 2 & 3, Badami Shivalaya temples). The dynasty further took keen interest in Jainism (Badami cave No.4) and Buddhism (unfinished cave at Badami as well as caves in Aihole).

 

The Chalukyas of Badami have left prolific monumental remains. The geographical placement of Chalukyas allowed their kingdom to be a unique cultural magnet- a fact reflected in their art. Political circumstances not only put Kuntal desa (today’s Karnataka) but also parts of rest of the Deccan (today’s Maharashtra & Telangana state), southern Kosala (part of today’s Chhattisgarh and western Odisha), Kalinga (today’s coastal Odisha and coastal Andhra) into their areas of influence. As a result, a number of art styles converged and emerged from Chalukya territory. In the nuclear Chalukya cities like Vatapi, Aryapura, Kisuvolal (Pattadakallu) and other sites in western Andhra desa- a curious variety of temple form and architectural and sculptural styles are encountered.

This is the Vesara style or the Chalukyan style of temple architecture. But of course, this style didn’t take birth all of a sudden. The extreme creative curiosity of Chalukyas created marvellous pieces of architecture by experimenting with different styles and forms. They seem to have chosen Aihole- on the banks of Malaprabha river for their architectural experiments. From the rock cut- Rawalaphadi caves, the apsidal Durga temple to the imitation of wooden architecture in Ladkhan temple and planting a Nagara (north Indian) shikhara on a large area otherwise covered by flat roofs at Chakra Gudi temple; they tried it all! It’s not for nothing that this otherwise underdeveloped village of Aihole is bestowed with the honour of being called ‘the cradle of Indian architecture’.

Aihole Ladkhan templeAihole Ladkhan temple- inside

Ladkhan Temple, Aihole

A point to note here is that, the brick and timber structures preceding the Chalukyas have totally disappeared. Nothing is left of the art and architecture of the Kadambas or Konkan Mauryas. Hence it is difficult to say whether the ‘hybrid’ architectural style that Chalukyas are often credited to have developed, was actually exclusively developed by them or was it an experiment in continuum.

Coming back to the style, most of this architectural experimentation of Chalukyas can roughly be categorised as follows:

1) Nirandhara Temples- small temples without a circumambulatory (Pradakshina Patha) eg. Surya  and Huchchappayya temples at Aihole.

2) Sandhara Temples- Bigger temples showing Garbhagriha and pillared hall with an occasional porch. These temples had a circumambulatory path. Eg. Huchhimalli Gudi and Meguti temples at Aihole and Sangameshwara temple at Pattadakal.

3) Temples showing Garbhagriha, pillared hall as well as a porch. However the Garbhagriha is pushed to the back wall of the temple leaving no space for pradakshina. Eg. Ladkhan and Kontigudi temples at Aihole.

4) Apsidal i.e. horseshoe shaped temples in plan. It has an apsidal Garbhagriha as well as apsidal ambulatory path. This type of temples are considered to have been inspired from Buddhist rock-cut chaitya halls which were apsidal in plan. Eg. Durga temple, Aihole.

5) Trikuta Temples- temples with 3 garbhagriha but a common hall and an open porch. Eg. Jambulinga temple, Badami.

In his book ‘Indian Temple Forms’, the author  Shri. Madhusudan Dhaky points out that, although the term Vesara means ‘Hybrid’, this particular hybrid style is assigned to the region between Vindhyas and Nasik (roughly today’s Madhya Pradesh) or to an extent till Krishna river. Umpteen examples of this style are found to the south of this region. As seen from the temples at Aihole & Pattadakal by the early Chalukyas one cannot deny the fact that a transitory phase between the Nagara and the Dravida styles of temple architecture did exist. The features of this ‘architectural phase’ but which may not always be a part of it, are as follows : 

1.      Subsidiary shrines around the main shrine (picked up from Nagara temples)

Pattadakal Group of monumentsPattadakal

2.      Diamond shaped stepped plan that slowly evolved into stellate plinths (picked up from Nagara temples)

Badami Bhutanatha templeBhutanatha Temple, Badami

3.      Presence of a vestibule between the mandapa and the garbhagriha (picked up from Nagara- Kalinga temples)

Pattadakal virupaksha templeVirupaksha Temple, Pattadakal

4.      Minimization of height of each storey (than that of the Vimana of Dravida temples) and arranging them in descending order of height from base to top.

PattadakalPattadakal

5.      Pillared mandapas with flat roof (a Dravida temple feature)

somnathapura3Chennakeshava Temple, Somnathapura. Picture courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

Another reason for the birth of Vesara style in this particular region could be the fact that it was not the first time, a ‘combination’ of two or more distinct features was carried out in the architecture of Karnata. Hari-Hara (the combination of Vishnu & Shiva), Ardhanari-Nateshwara (combination of Shiva & Parvati), Yali- the mythical animal (thought to be a combination of multiple animals like lion, bull, elephant, crocodile etc.) are just some of the most famous examples of the above. Given these examples, I think it was only natural that such a distinct hybrid architectural style was born in Karnata. Also, when this style was developed, the architectural features of Nagara and Dravida temples could have naturally mingled as unique features of these two styles were still developing. It took another couple of centuries for various Nagara sub-styles such as Khajuraho, Kalinga (Odisha), Osiyan and Gujarati to fully develop. If one has to chronologically trace various architectural styles, it was the Vesara style which came into being before the various Nagara styles were fully developed. For all we know, the lines between Nagara and Dravida styles were blurred which is what could have given birth to this unique combination and which may not have been regarded as a separate architectural style back then.

Pattadakal group of monuments 2Pattadakal group of monuments 3

Pattadakal group of monuments

Let’s go through various examples of this hybrid style right from its inception till the time it reached its zenith, to understand how this particular style evolved.

The 7th century Durga temple at Aihole may be regarded as one of the first and most prominent examples of this style of architecture. This Gajaprastha (resembling to elephant’s back) temple is dedicated to either Lord Shiva/ Vishnu or Surya is still under debate as there is no such deity in the sanctum. Although the temple shows predominantly Dravida features, it is topped with a Nagara Shikhara on its sanctum. Its apsidal plan takes inspiration from the Buddhist chaityas making it a truly ‘hybrid’ temple.

 

 

Aihole Durga temple ambulatory 1Aihole Durga ambulatory 2

The apsidal Ambulatory Path

Aihole Durga temple Durga sculpture

Sculpture of Durga at Durga Temple, Aihole. The deceptive name ’Durga’ here actually refers to Durg i.e. fortification of which it was a part of and not goddess Durga.

Galagnath temple dedicated to Shiva; not too far from here shows presence of Ganga and Yamuna sculptures- necessarily a Nagara feature till then along with chaitya windows.

Pattadakal Galagnath templeGalaganath Temple, Pattadakal

The 8th century Papanatha temple in Pattadakal is the only temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Pattadakal that has been designed using both north and south Indian architecture styles. It seems that the temple was initially supposed to be a Nagara style temple but there was a change of intention during the course of construction of this temple as is evident from its narrow circumambulatory path. The construction of rest of the temple was continued on the lines of Dravida architecture.

papanatha-pattadakalPapanatha Temple, Pattadakal. Picture courtesy – TeamGsquare

Chakra Gudi temple at Aihole built in 9th century CE shows a Rekha Nagara Shikhara (northern superstructure topped by an amalaka and a kalasa). It encompasses a large mandapa with flat roof and has a large temple tank beside it.

Aihole Chakra gudi templeAihole chakra gudi kund

By 9th century, the western Chalukyas i.e. Kalyani Chalukyas had taken over large parts of Karnata and continued experimenting with the temple architecture. The term western Chalukyas  however refers to a distantly related dynasty- a fraction of Rashtrakuta dynasty that broke off from the Rashtrakutas, defeated them and made Kalyani- in northeastern Karnataka their capital. The western Chalukyas came into the picture much later than the Badami Chalukyas i.e. in 10th century. They built so many exquisite temples in and around today’s Gadag town. Trikuteshwara, Someshwara, Veera Narayana temples at Gadag, Kashi Vishweshwara and Mahavira Jain temples at Lakkundi, Dodabasappa temple at Dambala, Amriteswara temple at Annigeri are some of the best temples built in improved Vesara style by the Kalyani Chalukyan kings. Architectural articulation like the recess chajjas, is the most striking feature that Vesara seems to have picked up from the Nagara style. Most of the above mentioned temples show stepped projections in odd numbers making it appear like stepped or a diamond pattern in plan. Although the later Chalukyans retained features from both Nagara and Dravida styles, surprisingly, they inclined more towards the Nagara style and built smaller shrines around the main shrine as is evident from the presence of smaller shrines. They also seemed fascinated by decorative miniature towers along the Shikhara of the main shrine just like in Shekhari and Bhumija Shikharas with miniature spires horizontally and vertically filling up the quadrants of the four faces of the central projection right upto the top.

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Trikuteshwara Temple, Gadag. Pictures courtesy – TeamGsquare

LakkundiKashivishweshwara Temple, Lakkundi. Picture courtesy – TeamGsquare

DambalDoddabasappa Temple, Dambal. Picture courtesy – TeamGsquare

The Hoysalas picked up from where the Western Chalukyas left. Naturally so, as the initial builders employed by the Hoysalas came from the centres of medieval Chalukyan art. Hoysalas kept the basic architectural form of the Western Chalukyas but built much more detailed temples with intricate sculptures at Belur, Halebidu, Somanathpura and in the vicinity of southern Karnata region.

belur1belur2Chennakeshava Temple, Belur. Pictures courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

halebid1halebid2Hoysaleshwara Temple, Halebid. Pictures courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

 

Chennakeshava Temple, Somnathapura. Pictures courtesy – Anupam Mazumdar

It is very interesting to see how the Vesara style which in its initial phase of development restricted itself only to the Shikhara/ Vimana part, slowly over the centuries looked beyond the superstructure of the sanctum and absorbed more from both the major temple architecture styles in more ways than one – be it plan, features, sculptures, structural members or decorative elements. The outcome of these centuries of experimentation have paid off and we have some unique temples as a standing testimony.  If Pulakeshin II and his Badami Chalukyan successors could come back and see how stunning their hybrid temple style has transformed into by the end of 11th century, the dynasty of art connoisseurs would erupt in joy and do a happy dance. Well, they can or cannot but we surely can !

 

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

He can be contacted at onkaar7@gmail.com

Chandragiri Fort Museum – A Photo Story

Chandragiri on the Tirupati – Bangalore highway has an unusual address for an ASI Museum- Raja Mahal; a Nayaka palace located inside the Chandragiri Fort. The fort It is located in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Unusual because down South, fort palaces are hardly converted into museums, yet it is the perfect setting for displaying the excavated remains from the archaeological sites of Yaganti and Chandragiri and also of the bronzes and stone sculptures that are remnants of the artistic splendor of the Vijayanagara period (1336-1565 CE ). The empire at its zenith ruled most of South India and was considered its rule was marked with artistic and cultural advances among many others.

The address was once the palace of Chandragiri Nayakas, those very Nayakas who came to the rescue of Vijayanagar Rayas after the battle at Talikota. Chandragiri became  the capital of the Rayas. The fort has been attributed to Shivappa Naik of Yadava Naik dynasty and is more than a 1000 years old. Its most glorious period was under the Vijayanagara rule when it was made the capital of the mighty empire.

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The Raja Mahal is architecturally akin to the Lotus Mahal at Hampi. It is a three storied palace crowned with towers in Hindu architectural tradition. Arches are used to bring in a feel of space and lightness. It is constructed with stone, brick, lime and mortar devoid of timber. The floors are supported by massive pillars. The central tower that covers the durbar hall rises through the two floors. The floors are supported by massive pillars while the walls bear fine plaster and stucco decorations. The six tiered pastel hued Raja Mahal, built in Indo – Sarcenic style, set amidst manicured  lawns and surrounded by the Chandragiri mountains  is  an inspired setting to showcase  the rich legacy of Vijayanagara art and architecture.

ASI at Chandragiri is a modern day avatar  of the Nayakas. It  is restoring the glory of regional architecture much like it did of the Vijayanagar empire!

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The museum houses rich artefacts found in Andhra Pradesh. The findings displayed  are from Gandikota, Yaganti, Chandragiri, Guddimallam, Cuddapah district and Kurnool district. The idea is to showcase the rich regional and material heritage of the area whose history goes back to thousands of years. Although most of the exhibits belong to the 16th and the 17th centuries and are in the artistic Vijayanagara style , yet the subtle local influences are discernible. Walking down the corridors, reading the tags , barely  familiar with the sites the mind is suitably challenged and pleased at the same time.

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The arched corridors along which the regally robed Rayas once strolled , discussing war strategies with their commanders, now house stone sculptures discovered in the region . Who can tell what secrets these mute stones have heard and hold , sealed , within themselves !

 

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Pic credit – Jay Shankar

A single file of lovely stone icons salvaged from Gandikota and Renigunta is headed , auspiciously,  by a Ganesha from Renigunta

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Vishnu in lalitasana. Notice the fine details chiseled with perfection in stone. Pic credit – Jay Shankar

 

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Pic credit – Jay Shankar

Above : Soma Skanda and Parvati; Below : Details of the upper body and clothes of Parvati. The Vijayanagara rule saw a gradual transition from Chloritic Schist to Granite for sculptures. Though soapstone was still preferred but granite was being increasingly used leading to sublime pieces like the above one. Pics credit – Jay Shankar

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The Alwar saints sitting in calm repose.

The highlight of this floor is the Navagraha collection retrieved from the Uma Maheshwara temple at Yaganti

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One of the Navagraha to help you understand the depth of sculptural beauty of this region.

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Who else but Chandra, the  Lord of Chandragiri

The scene stealer of the ground floor or rather of the museum is the Bronze gallery. The Vijayanagara bronzes follow the tradition set by the Chola bronzes. These are panch kula or five metal icons; Copper, tin, zinc, lead and traces of gold and silver were used in casting these icons with most of them being Utsav moortis that were cast using the lost wax process.

The bronzes displayed at the Chandragiri museum belong to the later Vijayanagar period. These are classified as lesser Vijayanagar and closer to later provincial Chola bronzes.  Experts feel that these are more stylized, less natural and heavily cold worked as seen in the hatched designs.

But to the  untrained, uncritical eyes all look sublime, sensuous and supreme!

 

Vishnu in his many forms. Pics credit – Jay ShankarIMG_6140 (2)

Lakshmi Narasimha

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Bal Gopala

Although the Rayas patronized Vaishnavism, the local Nayakas were Shaivas. At Chandragiri we see this icono-eclecticism

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Soma Skanda and Parvati. Pic credit – Jay Shankar

_DSC6851 correctedPoet King Krishna Deva Raya with his consorts. Pic credit – Jay Shankar

The reservoir at the base of the hillock collected rain water and made the fort self – sufficient. Today, it is used for pedal boating. There is a light and sound show in the evening that gives a general overview about the history and cultural significance of this place. For both history buffs and art connoisseurs, the corridors and halls of the palace are no less enthralling as they are enlightening and educative.IMG_6306

One long lingering look as you walk out of the palace thanking the ASI DG Mr. Tiwari who gave the timely permission to take photographs and the Senior Conservationist Mr G. Srinivasulu who made the visit memorable.

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This  too is a teertha, a place of pilgrimage, albeit of a different kind.

 

All the pictures used in the post belong to the author unless stated otherwise. Cover pic credit – Jay Shankar

Author – Aparna Pande Misra

She can be contacted at aparna.anusha.28@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanskriti Kendra – Delhi’s Hidden Gem

Growing up in a family where visiting a museum was akin to visiting a religious shrine, it was but natural that when I shifted to Delhi, the first places on my to-visit list were the museums here. The national capital offers many museums, the most well known of which is the National Museum, a great favourite place of mine, as it allows photography with no holds barred. Besides this great storehouse of ancient and medieval relics, there is the National Rail Museum that holds old trains, the National Gallery of Modern Art, and the National Museum of Natural history, which unfortunately is now burnt to cinders taking away with it some of the priceless stuffed animals that were on display there. Then there is the Nehru Memorial Museum, the National Philatelic Museum, the Indian Air Force Museum, the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, Museums at the Red fort and Salimgarh (rarely visited by people) and many more. Among these, quietly tucked away on the Gurgaon-Mehrauli Road (known as the MG Road) is the Anandagram, which houses the Sanskriti Kendra.

Founded by Mr. O. P. Jain in 1990 under the umbrella of Sanskriti Foundation, the museum complex is spread over a large campus with pretty buildings and lovely lawns. The Sanskriti Kendra rarely sees many footfalls, except perhaps on weekends, exhibitions, or during workshops. Yet it houses three well stocked museums: the Museum of Everyday Art, Museum of Indian Terracotta, and the Museum of Textiles that integrate the modern with the traditional, by preserving and displaying our indigenous culture, art, workmanship, different cultural practices, and their functionalities in our daily lives. Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed inside the two museums (a rule that I heartily deplore). There are many old and modern artefacts placed artfully across the campus, and one can easily spend a pleasurable afternoon strolling across the extensive lawns and brightly coloured buildings. Along with the museums, the campus also houses a library, an Amphitheatre, art galleries and studios which run in-house art programs teaching folk art forms to both kids and adults alike.

The gaily coloured buildings of the Sanskriti Museum. It reminds me of Tagore’s Santiniketan which has similar rustic buildings giving a feel of space and freedom.

 

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A modern sculpture of the head of Buddha placed in the lawns

 

 

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A beautiful  old dresser

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A lovely Jharokha with vertical lattice screen panels in red sandstone and old wooden windows

 

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Old elephant head pieces in wood used as the base for a wooden pillar that in turn supports a large modern birdhouse

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Large birdhouse with a peacock as the wind vane

 

 

 

 

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An old wooden piece (probably a part of some larger furniture)

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A rather looking happy looking crocodile ready to enter the water

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Warli art on the houses inside the campus

 

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Another old wooden artefact on display

 

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The Museum of Indian Textiles

It has 6 galleries. The first one has samples of indigo, madder, cotton and silk, the four basic ingredients of Indian textiles. Indigo and madder are considered among the world’s oldest dyes with a history going back to the time of Indus valley civilisation. The display cards also talk of folklores associated with textiles like silk. Legends say that silk was discovered by accident in China when a cocoon fell into the tea cup of a Chinese empress and the strands separated in the warm water of the tea, leading to the discovery of silk threads. The Chinese fiercely guarded the secret of the making of silk threads and thus reigned supreme in the silk trade for a long time, until the secret was revealed to some non-Chinese traders, some say by a Chinese princess. The other galleries in this museum contain beautiful 18th– 19th c. CE pigmented textiles, phulkari embroidery, kantha work, and kashmiri stitches on pashmina wool. Here the museum gives a very interesting anecdote on pashmina wool. The word pashmina is derived from the Persian pashm (meaning wool). This superior quality wool wasn’t produced in Kashmir, and was actually taken from the Ladakhi goat known as capra hircus langier.  All of Ladakh’s wool production was monopolised by Kashmir hence the pashmina was taken to be of kashmiri origin. Besides these, there are some beautiful 18th and 19th c. Jain tapestries in both silk and cotton from Jain temples made mostly by nuns. The Gujarat and Rajasthan chain stitch and bandhej collections are beautiful, followed by interesting ikats from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Gujarat.  The last gallery holds brocades from Benaras, South India, and Gujarat, along with baluchari and jamdani from Bengal. It is indeed a textile lover’s paradise, and strolling through the galleries one wonders at the uniqueness of Indian textiles that are each a labour of love.

An ornate brass panel on the lintel, intricate woodwork on the pillars and a wrought iron bracket decorate the entrance to the Museum of Textiles

 

The Museum of Everyday Art

It houses interesting items from daily use like nutcrackers, shrines, spoons, cups, plates, knives, etc, and all of these items that are for basic functional use, have been turned into works of art by the hands of different craftsmen.

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The entrance to the Museum of Everyday Art that houses old utensils, old musical instruments and various other items used in daily lives

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An old wooden bracket placed tastefully at the entrance of the Museum of Everyday Art

 

The Museum of Indian Terracotta

It  displays almost 1,500 artefacts from various tribal communities of India, in its open gallery

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Terracotta horses from various regions in the country

 

Address : Sanskriti Kendra, Anandagram, Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road, Delhi

The nearest metro station is Arjan Garh on the Yellow line

Time to Visit : 10 AM to 5 PM on all days except Mondays and Public Holidays.

 

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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Image result for indus valley seals with trees  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

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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

Katarmal Sun Temple – Interesting, Intriguing, Invisible

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Author – Shubham Mansingka

The author is a travel blogger and can be reached here

 

 

Traversing the Ganges, from Old Times to New – Part I

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A lifeline that has defined human civilisation. A river that holds a cosmos in itself,  a fascinating  world of flora and fauna, unseen from above, yet pulsating below, under tranquil waters.

(Pic – Yamuna in Agra. Yamuna is the largest tributary of the river Ganges)

In a land where infrequent monsoons are held as the main season, water is as priceless as a flawless jewel, and rivers are considered sacred. From ancient times when man learned to settle down in what is termed as “civilisation,” water has reigned supreme over man’s life, living, thoughts, writings, paintings, culture, religion, and even wars. Rivers are ancient, and their waters have been flowing persistently even before human beings came into existence. Theirs is a separate universe, a little world of their own, which has sired many tales (mythological and folk), history, religion, philosophy, politics, and also in the modern era, technological incursions. The flowing waters of these mighty rivers have witnessed the creation of some of the earliest cities in the world and have seen their destruction too; they have seen the shaping of some the world’s earliest literature and religious texts and the brilliant minds that shaped those; and now the same waters are witnessing their relentless defiling by the very people that had once started their journey of civilisation on those muddy river plains.

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Map of the Ganges valley Source

What’s in a name?

In North India flows a river with many names. Its name is Ganga, rechristened the Ganges by the British, this river is a sacred entity, a focal point of constant reference that entwines life and death for billions of Hindus living in this country since the ancient times.

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The blue pristine waters of the Ganga at Haridwar)

Defying what Shakespeare said about a name not being significant, there are some names that certainly spell magic. They create a reverberation in the mind, leaving an impact like an echo. One such name is Ganga.

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The name Ganga evokes a vision of evening lamps, temple bells, smell of burning camphor, and the chants of Ganga stotram. 

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The Bhagirathi peaks from  Gangotri. Photo courtesy: Jay Shankar

One may wonder how the name that is so intermingled with the lives of billions, came to be known to the world? Let’s take a quick look back. Studies show that it was during the late Harappan period (2000 to 1000 BCE) that the node of Indian civilisation shifted from the River Indus to the areas adjacent to the upper Ganges basin, a land termed as ‘Cemetery H’ (reference).

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The map here shows the names of the rivers, including the Ganges, around which the new settlements grew up, the names of which are found in the Rigveda. Source

The early Rigveda, composed roughly between 1500 to 900 BCE, mentions Jhanavi (Jhanavi is another name for Ganga). However, Ganga gains greater prominence in the later three Vedas. As historian Romila Thapar aptly sums it, “In the Ṛig Veda the geographical focus was the sapta-sindhu (the Indus valley and the Punjab) with Sarasvatī as the sacred river, but within a few centuries ārya-varta is located in the Gaṅgā-Yamūnā Doāb with the Ganges becoming the sacred river.” (reference P. 415).

The first foreign traveller to mention Ganga was Megasthenes (350 – 290 c BCE), in his book Indika, where he spoke of the mighty river and its tributaries, the canal system that helped in irrigation of the Gangetic pain, and its extensive run that ended at Gangaridai (the ancient name for area near the Ganges delta), which he refers to as the land of large elephants (reference).

Ganga also finds mention in Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several Puranas. In Mahabharata she is the consort of  King Shantanu and the mother of Bhisma; in Skandapurana she is the consort of Shiva and the mother of Skanda or Kartikeya, also known as Kumara, the son of Ganga. In Bhagavad Purana, Ganga is shown to have emanated from the lotus feet of Vishnu, following which she acquired a beautiful pink shade. With Brahma, she is always seen accompanying him in his kamandalu, as the sacred water. According to a passage in the Ramayana, Ganga is also the daughter of Himavat and Mena, chief of the mountains and his wife, which makes her the sister of Uma/Parvati (reference).

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How ancient settlements were centred around the river Ganges and its chief tributary Yamuna  Source

The Legend, Mythological representations, and Iconography

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The descent of Ganga Source 

In Hinduism, Ganga is personified as Devi Ganga, and is in her own self a teertha, a link between heaven and earth. Such is her importance that it is believed that by bathing or taking a dip in her holy waters one is absolved of sins, while immersing the ashes in her waters brings the soul of the dead person closer to moksha. Hence she is often referred to as: Patita Pavani or the liberator of all sins.

In the Indian subcontinent, sometimes other rivers are also referred to as Ganga. This gives the rivers a sacred sanctity that shines through the name Ganga. Its name is also invoked in any ritual where water is used, therefore sanctifying all holy waters used for religious purposes.

Referring to other sacred rivers as Ganga has its own disadvantages too, as is seen in the misconception about the geographical origin of the river. For a long time it was thought Ganga originated in Manas Sarovar near Kailash. While there are no clear theories on how Ganga came to be related to mount Kailash, but one line of thought says that it might have started from an ancient Tibetan text Kailash Purana. A small flowing stream which connects the two lakes, Manas Sarovar and Rakshas tal, is mentioned in the Kailash Purana as Ganga chu (in Tibetan the word chu means river). Could this name have led to the notion that Ganga came from Manas Sarovar? One can only wonder and speculate. However, in 1808 while mapping and tracing the route and origin of the Ganges by Webb and Hearsay, it was specifically proven the river did not originate from Manas Sarovar near Kailash .

The birth of Ganga is beautifully depicted in the Bhagavad Purana, which says that Vishnu in his Vaman avtaar pierced a hole with his left foot at the end of the universe. It was through this hole, the pure Brahm Water came into the universe, in the form of the Ganga River. Since it washed the feet of Vishnu while flowing in, it is also known as Vishnupadi, or the one that emanates from the lotus feet of God. Ganga originally remained in Brahmaloka, until Bhagirath brought her down to the earth in order to release his forefathers from a curse, in what is termed as Ganga avtaran. With Ganga threatening to wash away the earth with her force as she descended, it was Shiva who broke her fall by holding her in his locks and taming her raging waters. There are other legends that give varying versions but this one remains the most popular. Since Bhagirath brought her down, Ganga in the Himalayas is also known as Bhagirathi. From the heaven (swarg or Brahma lok) she descends to the earth or prithvi (via Gaumukh glacier), and finally enters the patal (netherworld) in Ganga Sagar.

As Ganga came down to earth from heaven, she is also seen as the means of moving from earth to heaven.  The  Triloka-patha-gamini, or the one who traverses the three worlds (swarg , prithvi , and patal), she is herself a teertha, or the crossing point of existence (that includes all living and dead).

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Ganga avtaran by Raja Ravi Verma. Shiva readies himself to meet the raging waters of Ganga, while Parvati comfortably leans on Nandi watching the avtaran, and Bhagirath looks on with folded palms.  

Ardhanarishwar. Ganga flowing out of Lord Shiva’s matted locks Painting circa 1800 Source

Bhagirath leading Ganga down to Ganga Sagar to release his forefathers who were suffering in patal, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE. It is believed that Bhagirath led the devi on until Bihar, and when he reached Bengal he wasn’t sure which route to follow that would take him to his forefathers in patal (the netherworld). It was then he requested the devi to take her own route, after which Ganga  decided to branch out in streams (in Bengal there are indeed two major streams, Hooghly and Padma, besides other smaller ones). That created the delta formation in Bengal and Bangladesh.  Finally one such stream led to a point, now known as Ganga Sagar, which took Ganga to patal, and she released Bhagirath’s forefathers from their sufferings.  

In ancient India, Ganga was seen as symbol of fertility, as it provided the daily bread for those that lived on its banks. She is first seen in the Cave V, on a relief in the Udaygiri caves (400 CE), carrying  a pot that symbolises fertility ( a womb), as well as the Brahma’s pot from where both she and Saraswati were born. Ganga is accompanied by a gana who symbolises development and attainment. Her vahana is a makara, a mythical figure with the head of a terrestrial animal (such as an elephant) and the lower body of an aquatic animal (generally a fish, sometimes with floral tail like a peacock). Makara symbolises both the underwater life, and the fear of the unknown, the fear of destruction caused by her uncontrolled waters.

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By the end of the 5th c. CE, Ganga was seen as a devi in her own right, symbolising all rivers in India, and her iconography turned more complex. All Hindu temples had the goddess carved at the door, symbolising ablution in the sacred waters of the river, as one enters the garbhagriha (the inner sanctum). Ganga on the temple door frame with her vahana, attendants, and the dwarpala ~ at Teli ka mandir, Gwalior fort, 850 c. CE

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Ganga in terracotta, 5th century CE. (Gupta Period), Ahichchhatra, Uttar Pradesh. Source

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A red sandstone relief, Madhya Pradesh, 8th/9th century. Very finely carved Ganga in a graceful tribhanga at right, adorned with an elaborate knotted belt, standing on a lotus blossom over a rearing makara, along with a retinue of attendants. Source

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Makarvahini Ganga, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE

How the course runs:

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Some of the important cities beside the river Ganges as it travels through the northern plains of India and empties itself in the Bay of Bengal near Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). It provides water to an area of 8,61,452 Sq.km that is equivalent to almost 26% of the total geographical area in India.  Source

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Geographically speaking, the Ganga basin is spread over four countries that include India, Tibet, Nepal, and Bangladesh, covering an area of 10,86,000 sq.km. The extensive area of the Ganga basin Source

Casting aside the nitty-gritty of geographical data, let’s peek into towns and cities that line the course of this mighty river.

Gomukh:

At a height f 13,200 ft amidst the snow clad mountains of Uttaranchal, lies of the snout of a glacier from which the waters of the Bhagirathi rush out with great force. Gomukh literally means the mouth of a cow, and finds mention in the Puranas. It is said that the snout of the glacier from which Bhagirathi emerges looked exactly like the mouth of a cow. However, owing to environmental changes, and the glacier changing its position, the shape of Gomukh opening now remains largely left to one’s imagination. Gomukh, which is a two day’s hard trek from Gangotri, is a Hindu pilgrimage site, and it is not surprising to see sadhus and other devotees bathing or taking a dip in the icy cold waters of the Bhagirathi at its point of emergence.

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 Gomukh, the point of emergence of Bhagirathi at the base of Mt. Shivling. The Gangotri glacier is a receding one, and is moving back at an alarming rate, much to the concern of climate experts. The topography here is rather wild, with hard ice, patches of snow, and large and small boulders scattered everywhere. Picture credit: Saket Kumar

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The glacier spout from which Bhagirathi rushes outPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Base of Mt. ShivlingPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Tapovan at the base of Mt. Shivling, the beautiful meadow through which the Bhagirathi flows after emerging from the Gomukh. Picture credit: Saket Kumar.

Gangotri:

It is a small town at 10, 200 ft, popular among the pilgrims that has a temple dedicated to Ganga devi, which was originally built in the early 19th c. CE by  the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. Many sadhus have small kutis here where they stay for most part of the year, pray, and meditate by the riverside. The beautiful, calm surroundings and the sound of the gushing waters of Bhagirathi make it a perfect place for mediation and prayers.

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The evening light on Bhagirathi peaks. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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The Ganga temple at Gangotri. The evening arti performed under the open skies beside the river in front of this temple creates an ethreal aura that one has to experience to believe. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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Forceful waters of the Bhagirathi gushing down at Gangotri. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The Suryakund waterfall in Gangotri located very near to the temple. Here the Bhagirathi falls from a cliff with immense force, making it an unforgettable sight. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The tranquil waters of Bhagirathi by the side of the Ganga Mandir at Mukhba village (near Harshil), which is the winter residence of the Devi when the temple at Gangotri is shut down on Bhai Ditiya, owing to the heavy snowfall that cuts off the place from the lower reaches during winter. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

Rishikesh and Haridwar:

Bhagirathi from Gangotri flows down the valley passing many picturesque locations such as Gangnani, Harshil, to reach Uttarkashi, which as the name suggests, is another important pilgrimage centre with a Vishwanath temple. Harshil is a Maha Prayag, a confluence of nine rivers, with a Vishnu temple located at the confluence of Jalandhari, Vishnu Ganga, and Bhagirathi. Dharali is another place on the banks of Bhagirathi, where the rivers Bhim Ganga and Hatya Harini meet her. It is believed that by bathing at the confluence of these rivers one is absolved of the sins of even Brahm Hatya (killing of human).

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Bhagirathi at Uttarkashi. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

The next important point is Devprayag where Bhagirathi meets Alaknanda, and here the river Ganges is formed. The Ganga which is formed at this confluence contains waters of six rivers, brought in mainly by the Alaknanda that flows in from base of Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers, near Badrinath. The waters of Alaknanada contain the rivers Nandakini, Dhauliganga, Mandakini, and Pindar. There are five important Prayags or confluence points on the side of Alaknanda. The five prayags are Vishnuprayag, Nandprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag.

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The beautiful green waters of Alaknanda (left) merge with the dark waters of Mandakini (right) at Rudraprayag.  Mandakini that comes from Chorabari glacier near Kedarnath is an important tributary of the Ganga. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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Devprayag, the birth place of Ganga. On the left is the tranquil Alaknanda, and on the right is the turbulent Bhagirathi . It is here where the  Vedic rituals for Shraddh ceremonies and pinda pradaan take place. Source

From Devprayag, the river now known as Ganga, moves down to reach Rishikesh. Here the river leaves the mountains behind and enters the north Indian plains. There are many temples (both old and new), and learning centres for religious education in this town.

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This place finds mention in Skandapurana (Kedarkhand), while it is also believed that Rama did penance here in Rishikesh for killing Ravana

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The RamJhula in Rishikesh, is a newly built suspension bridge over the Ganges. A little ahead is the more famous Lakshman jhula, where it is said Lakshman had crossed the river using a bridge made of jute ropes. A jute bridge was supposed to have existed in this spot until the late 19th c. CE, as mentioned in his travel records by a famous Bengali travel writer Jaladhar Sen. In 1889, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta sponsored the building of an iron suspension bridge to prevent any further deaths, which was later renovated in 1924 after a major flood.

The next important town beside the Ganga is Haridwar. Here a dam diverts some of the water from the main river to a canal, the waters of which are used for irrigation in the Doab area. The river changes its course from south-west to south east in Haridwar.

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Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places in Hindu pilgrimage. The evening aarti at Haridwar by the banks of the Ganga is a site worth seeing despite the crowd that gathers there everyday

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Har ki Pauri. It is believed that during samudra manthan,  one drop of amrit (elixir) fell on Haridwar in the Brahma Kund, located at Har ki pauri. It is for this reason Haridwar celebrates the Kumbha mela every 12 years, kumbha signifying the pot carried by Garuda, which contained the amrit.

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The murti of Devi Ganga  at Haridwar. This is the original murti, which has been shifted and kept in a side temple beside the ghat, while the main Ganga mata mandir now holds a murti of the Devi with Bhagirath.

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Haridwar as seen and painted by  Sitaram in 1814, while travelling with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta to Punjab. From a recent record, it has been said that most of the buildings seen here in the picture still exist, however they are covered by ugly advertisement boards and so cannot be seen from the river anymore. The main river seen here has thinned down now owing to the dam built to divert water for irrigation. 

Prayag or Allahabad:

From Haridwar the Ganga passes the cities of Kanauj and Kanpur to reach Allahabad, where it meets its chief tributary the Yamuna at Triveni Sangam. Here it is said the Saraswati river was also a part of the confluence. The city was known as Prayag in the ancient times and finds a mention in the Vedas, the Puranas and in Ramayana. Later known as Kausambi, the city according to archaeological finds dates back to 700 BCE. It has seen the coming and going of many empires that include Mauryans, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Marathas, and lastly the British. During Mughal rule, Akbar renamed the city as Illahabad, and built a fort on the banks of the Sangam. The British later changed the name to Allahabad.

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A bridge of boats on the Ganges in Kanpur (then Cawnpore), with two elephants crossing it. A bungalow, few temples, and Sarsaiya ghat are seen on the right side of the bridge on the banks of Ganga. The picture was painted by Sitaram in 1814, while travelling upstream on the Ganga in a bajra with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta.

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The Ganga at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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The Yamuna at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh mela. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh.  Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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The Allahabad fort built by Akbar at the Sangam. On the left is Yamuna and on the right is Ganga. Far left in the picture, partly seen is a white building which is most likely the Akbari masjid. The magnificent white octagonal structure in the fort seen here from the river, was known as Chalees Satun, and it was destroyed by the East India Company who took over in  1798.  The picture was painted by Sitaram.

Chunar Fort:

After Allahabad the next important city beside the Ganga is Varanasi or Kashi. Between Prayag and Kashi lies the important fort of Chunar on the banks of the Ganga. The fort has been linked to king Bali, Vikramaditya of Ujjain, and Prithviraj Chauhan. While archaeological finds place the fort settlement date at around 56 BC, recorded history starts from the time of Babar. It was taken over from the Mughal subedars by Sher Shah, who married into the subedar family. The fort was won over from him by Humayun, only to be again taken back by Sher Shah. Akbar won it back in 1574, and it remained with the Mughals until the East India company conquered it in 1722.

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Chunar fort. After East India Company took over the fort in 1722, they faced stiff resistance from Raja Chait Singh of Benaras in 1781. In 1791 the fort was made into a sanatorium for the sick and dying European soldiers. The picture was painted by Sitaram

Varanasi/Benaras or Kashi:

The name Varanasi rises from the two tributaries of the Ganga that bind the old city, rivers Varuna and Assi. Rigveda mentions the city as Kasi, which in Sanskrit means the city of light. Regarded as one of the holiest cities, Kashi or Varanasi was supposedly built by Shiva, and it is here that the Pandavas came to search for Shiva in order to atone for their killings during the Kurukshetra war. Buddha also started his preaching from Sarnath, a place very near to Varanasi, which was the capital of the Kashi kingdom during his time. Archaeological findings place the start of settlement in this city at around 2000 BCE (reference). The city is also well known from the ancient times for its religious learning centres, textiles (Benarasi weave on silk is famous), sculptures, ivory, and perfumes.

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Such is the religious significance of this city that it is believed that if one is fortunate enough to die in Kashi, that person will attain moksha. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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Ganga aarti on a ghat in Benaras. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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The riverfront at Benaras with Panchganga ghat at the centre, and Aurangzeb’s mosque rising above it. The mosque minarets were later removed because of of their instability. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Dasasvamedha ghat in Benaras. The building seen here is the  rest house built by Rani Ahalya Bai. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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The palace of the Raja of Benaras that was constructed in 1750 by Raja Balwant Singh. He was the governor of Benaras under the Nawab of Oudh. The Nawab transferred the sovereignty of the city to the East India Company in 1755. Seen above is the State Boat of the Raja of Benaras. Painting by Sitaram. 

From Varanasi, Ganga travels further on, crossing the states of Bihar and Bengal. This part of the journey however, will be told another day. Kumbh13-26 (1)For now, I will leave you at Kashidham with Ganga, where the Devi makes a lovely arc and turns uttarvahini.

 

 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Moni Gatha

(All pictures used in the post are clicked by the author unless mentioned otherwise. Sita Rams’s paintings and pictorial details are from J.P. Losty’s Picturesque views of India: SitaRam)