Walking past Odisha’s oldest temple

On every trip that I make there are things really worth seeing that I miss. But perhaps nothing could be as bad as walking past the oldest temple in Odisha, noticing that it is different from the rest and beautiful, and not stopping for a close look. This was the Parasurameshwara temple. There seems to be a consensus that it was built in the late 7th century CE, although variant opinions place it as early as the early 6th century or the middle of the 8th century.

I walked past this temple to take photos of the Mukteshwara temple in the last golden light of the day. I saw that the temple had the two parts of most Odisha temples: the outer room for people to gather in, called the jagamohan, and the spire of the main temple, called the deul. The jagamohan was low, and seemed flat-topped to my quick glance, without the usual pyramidal roof. The latticed window caught my eye first. The carvings that I saw on the southern outer wall of the jagamohan (see the featured photo) were beautiful and different. Later, I realized that the sculptures of figures seated in meditation were of an aspect of Shiva, but modelled after the iconography of the Buddha. If I’d paused to think, this would have told me that the temple must be ancient. The wall also had representations of what seemed to be Shakti, the goddess of power.

The colour was fading from the sky, and the golden light was beginning to bleach out of the air. East-facing walls were already looking grey. I took a record shot of an empty niche (photo here) and hurried on without examining the sculptures in detail. Now, looking at the form just above the niche I realize that it shows Shakti in one of her aspects. She is two-armed, and rides a fierce tiger. Could it be an early representation of Parvati? Probably, since the figure just above seems to be of her consort, Shiva. The temple is eclectic: named after an aspect of Vishnu, with sculptures depicting aspects of Shiva and the Shaktis in the exterior. I made a mental note to come back, and I did. But then it was quite dark, and I did not walk around the 1400 years old temple. I will just have to leave this for another trip.

Palm leaves and cloth

In front of the Kedar Gauri temple we found a stand-alone shop with a painter at work on the porch. He was painting on cloth with poster paint and a fine brush. He pointed out work by him and his wife. He said she was away for a month’s training in a school run by the government. Those who go to such a school every now and then are paid ten thousand rupees for the month. Those who do not eventually lose their licence as a traditional artist.

Paper and canvas are historical imports to Odisha. Traditional surfaces for painting were cloth (called pata), palm leaf, and wood. These surfaces were prepared using chalk and vegetable glue. The colour palette was limited to red, yellow, white and black: all made from natural colours. Today the surface and colours are more varied: vibrant blues and greens appear. My grandmother bought a pata in vivid black, red and blue on white long before I was born. It hangs on our wall now, and inoculates me from the passing charms of mediocre patas.

This man was intent on showing us his work. The Family took a look, and politely waved away offers to show us more. We walked away, convinced that the government is doing its job the best it can, by training large numbers of people. After that the market will take care of winnowing the good.

The Lions of Orissa

East of India every temple is guarded by fearsome giants carrying terrifying weapons. In Odisha, just two lions are enough. As you can see in the featured photo, these are no ordinary lions. They have a awesome black mustache in addition to the mane that you can see on any other lion. The bottle of water between their legs backs up the statement that the mustache makes. The dwarpala which you see above stands outside the Kedar Gauri temple in Bhubaneshwar. There’s a matched lion on the other side of the entrance gate, but at the time I took this photo, it wasn’t backed by a wise Brahmin who could give you the opportunity to earn merit.

Guardians of a roadside shrine near Rajnagar, Odisha

Driving through Odisha you see pairs of lions every now and then. In the photo above you see a pair of ferocious lions bristling at those who pass by the sacred spot between them. I saw this pair far to the east, near a small town called Rajnagar on the banks of the Brahman river. They lack the mustache that you see in the Bhubaneshwar-Cuttack-Puri region; maybe that is a regional speciality. I also saw horses and elephants guarding entrances to temples in this region, so the nature of dwarpalas changes across Odisha. I need to travel more widely in the state to find out how temple guardians change from place to place.

The god of freedom

mukteshwarI visited two temples during my dash to Bhubaneshwar. One was the Rajarani temple. The other is the historically important Mukteshwar temple, built in the 10th century. The next millennium in Odisha would see elaborations of the new style this temple created: a free standing gate (torana), followed by a square outer chamber (jagamohan) topped by a pyramidal roof, and then the inner sanctum (garbagriha) with a spire (deul) over it, everything put on a raised plinth. The succeeding centuries would strip away the low wall around the temple. If the photo above looks so familiar now, it is because this style won acceptance over a thousand years.

toranaThe temple faces west, has a pool at the back, and is still in use. The priest made sure I removed my shoes at a respectable distance, and then stood next to the torana as I took a photo. As you can see from the scale he sets, the temple is small; the deul is perhaps 10 to 11 meters high. He would have taken charge of my visit if I’d not insisted on walking around first. He was fine with that. The arch of the torana is topped by two beautiful reclining female figures, a pair of monkeys and storks. The sandstone used in this temple must have been easy to sculpt, but the friable stone has begun to lose detail.

yakshaThere were nagas wrapped around exterior
pillars, but to me it seemed that these figures were more exquisitely done in the Rajarani temple. One difference was the repeated figures of yakshas hemmed into boxes. They strain to lift the roof and step out of their confinement.pancatantra Their faces are distorted with the effort, their already large bellies swelling as they strain.

Animals and people going about their daily lives share space on the external walls of the temple. I found an illustration of the story of the monkey and the crocodile from the Panchatantra in one column (see the photo on the right). I’d forgotten the story, but the sculptures brought back the memory. I guess that is what they are meant to do: reinforce what is already learnt.

I found two beautiful nature studies: a deer sitting under a tree, and a boar. There were several reliefs of ascetics instructing people. Interspersed with these was a group of figures showing someone walking with others bringing baggage behind him: perhaps a rich man out on travel with his servants. In other parts of the deul were a profusion of the usual standing female figures engrossed in various activities: looking at mirrors, carrying rice, and so on. There was a very nice miniature Nataraja (above the seated woman, in the top right photo in the collage below).


When I’d examined the outside and started to cross the torana and go inside, the priest put away his cigarette and followed me. He pointed out various things so that I could take photos. The quadrangular jagamohan has latticed windows, but the light is provided by compact fluorescent lamps hanging in various places. The inside is also fully carved, but most of the carvings are religious. The ceiling is worth studying in detail: the center is taken up by a beautiful lotus. The south-east corner shows a dance in progress with musicians at the diagonally opposite corner.musicians You can see drums, cymbals, and the flute, all being played by women. In such a performance today, the musicians would mostly be male, and the dancers could also be of either sex. The other two corners show the audience: Shiva in one and Durga at the other. The elephant headed Ganesh and Kartik with his peacock are also in evidence. Above the lintel of the door to the garbagriha is a small Gajalakshmi. The lintel has a relief of the nava graha: the traditional nine planets. These are the sun and the moon, the five true planets visible with the naked eye, and Rahu and Ketu, mathematical constructs used to predict eclipses.

The inner chamber only has the shiva linga. The priest made a small offering for me and asked for a donation. I quickly put down what I thought was appropriate before he could make an outrageous suggestion. He was open to a small conversation. I found he has been the priest at the temple for thirty-one years. He followed his father and grandfather and expects that his son will follow him as the priest. He says his family have been priests at this temple for more than a thousand years. The donations to the temple constitute his only income.

There was a little garden outside and two pairs of lovers were sitting there, both engrossed in each other. I sat in the shade of a large tree and put on my shoes. The complex has several outlying temples which are no longer in use, but the hot and humid Shiva temple had rivers of sweat running down my body. My shirt was soaked, my jeans were wet and heavy with sweat. I had no energy to explore the other temples. Moreover, I was due at the airport soon.

I retreated. The Family wants to go there sometime; Odisha has always been a wonderful experience for us. I looked up the origin of the name Mukteshwar, the god of freedom. It should perhaps be interpreted as the god who gives freedom through yoga: Shiva is the great ascetic.

A temple like a jewel box

rajarani I had to make a trip to Bhubaneshwar on work. I’ve been there before, but never stopped for tourism in the “Town of Temples”. This time I took two hours to visit two beautiful small temples. One of them was the Rajarani temple. It was built in the 11th century, and is no longer in use. As a result, it is looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. The name rajarani does not refer to a king (raja) and a queen (rani), but, as I learnt from an ASI info-board, to the local name of the sandstone used.

nagaIn the view above you can see that the temple faces east, and has a gate (torana), leading to an outer chamber (jagamohan) with a pyramidal roof, which in turn leads to an inner chamber with a spire (deul). The entrance door is about 2 meters in height, which would make the spire about 9 meters tall; small as these things go. The remarkable thing about this temple are the outer sculptures. You can see in the general view that the sculpture of nagas, women in the shape of snakes, are wrapped around the pillars of the torana. This theme recurs. On the right is a photo of a different column bearing beautiful naga figures.

nagafaceThe faces are beautiful even by today’s standards. Has our notion of beauty really changed so little in a thousand years? This close up of the face of one of the nagas shows the damage done to it. The hoods of the cobras surrounding the head are all damaged, and the woman’s nose is missing. Going by other figures on the facade, it would have been an aquiline nose, unlike that of most people in this region. Either the face is an idealization which came from some other part of the country, or the model was chosen for being exotic.

varunaOne of the most stunning sculptures is this one of Varuna, the dikpala (guardian) of the west. As you can see in the photo on the right, here he is shown in the medieval iconography holding the noose of judgement (pasa) in his left hand. This is one of the most beautiful depictions of Varuna which I remember seeing. The stone used in this sculpture is not the same as the red rajarani used in most of the temple. I wonder whether the stone was specially chosen to give him the canonical white (sphatika) complexion.

yamaThis badly damaged statue, shown at the left, is that of Kubera, the god of wealth, and the dikpala of the north. He should be holding a pot of wealth, but both hands are damaged, so you don’t know what the figure had in its hand. I base my identification on the fact that the statue faces north. Also, the statue resembles the usual medieval depictions of Kubera with the large belly, somewhat ungainly shape, lots of jewelry, and facial hair. The figure stands above an animal which could be a goat.

I spent almost an hour circumnavigating this temple. It is full of other worldly sculptures: women looking at themselves in mirrors, holding branches of trees, men and women in conversation. The incredibly detailed external sculptures are a contrast with the completely bare interior. The nagas and the other figures over the torana indicate that the temple would have been dedicated to Shiva. Otherwise, it would have been hard to say who was the deity when this jewel box of a temple was in use.