The middle temple

From the car park at the edge of the town you do not see the pearl in the oyster: the temple of Omkareshwar. My host and I walked past a row of stalls selling material that pilgrims may need for their puja, including heaps of sindoor in many different shades. “This place can’t be too windy,” I said, but my companion did not answer. He was too busy fending off assorted priests who promised us quick access.

It was only while we were crossing the hanging bridge that I got my first glimpse of the peaked spire of the main temple (at the right of the photo above). The temple was high above the present level of the river, but would have been pretty far above the historical level as well. The hanging bridge made it possible to get there without any climbing at all. We’d shaken off the priests by the time we reached the place where we had to remove our shoes. From here it was a short walk to the entrance of the temple.

Interestingly, the linga, which is the main object of veneration, is located in a small alcove to one side of the temple. About ten people were enough to make it a tight fit. I began to understand the reason for the crowd control barriers I’d come through. On a day when a large number of people come here, there are genuine problems which could arise. But the fact that there was a female goddess in the main temple, under the shikhara, while the linga is off in a side chamber, made me wonder whether the function of the temple has changed in recent times. Was it originally a temple to one of Shiva’s powerful consorts?

In fact I could not find much historical information on the structure. There is a lot of material on the ritual and religious aspects of the temple and the island. The brackets around the tall pillars are beautifully carved representations of supernatural beings. They are made in a classic style, and my guess is that they were carved in the last millennium. Without the context of who the temple is dedicated to, it is hard to interpret the figures. The four-armed figure on the right holds a mace (gada) in one and a lotus in the other, and has two arms free. Is that an ayudhapurusha of a mace? If so, what is she doing in a Shaiva temple?

The figures belong to a different era in our history. The present management of the temple does not care for them much, as you can tell by the fact that there are electrical panels and cables threaded through them; and fans and lights haphazardly placed without consideration of the beauty of the carvings. I was short of time and could not explore more. I will have to read more and go back.

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Milkweed

You can see milkweed (genus Calotropis), called aak in Hindi, in most parts of India. There are supposed to be three species which grow in India: the giant milkweed or crown flower (Calotropis gigantea) which you see in the featured photo, the milkweed (Calotropis procera) which you see in the photo below, and a species called Calotropis acia which I’m not sure that I have seen. I recognize the giant milkweed flower by its well separated and pointed petals and the fact that it is odourless. The milky sap which oozes from broken stems of aak is poisonous when ingested. That poison is used by several butterfly species, notably the one called Common Tiger (Danaus genutia). Its caterpillar gorges on these leaves, and incorporates the poison into its body. As a result, the caterpillar, and the adult which emerges from it, become poisonous. I’ve also seen ants swarming over milkweed, and wondered whether they use the chemicals in some way.

The flowers of C. procera also have the fivefold symmetry, but the petals are not as long and well-separated as that of the C. gigantea. If the bushes are fully grown, then one can tell the two species apart from the fact that the C. gigantea can grow substantially taller than a man, whereas the C. procera is about the same height as a tall person. I’ve never dug up one of them to examine the roots. Since they grow in arid climates, I would guess that their roots are deep and far-ranging. Very often several bushes grow near each other. I wonder whether their roots are in communication.

The colours of the flowers are variable, although most of the time they are on the spectrum of purples: from blue to red. When I first saw the white or greenish white flowers I wondered whether they are another species. But apparently the colour of flowers is not a species marker amongst milkweed. I cannot quite identify the bush whose photo you see above, because the buds haven’t opened up, but from the size I guess it is more likely to be C. gigantea. There’s been a lot of laboratory work separating the toxins from milkweed and examining their action separately and in combination.

Of all the uses of the milkweed, I guess the most widespread is its use in religion: as an offering to Shiva. The iconography of Shiva sometimes shows him with the white variety bound into his hair, giving a possible etymology to the name crown flower. The photo that you see above was taken near the temple of Omkareshwar on the banks of the Narmada. There was a whole line of such stalls on the walkway leading to the temple. I asked the lady in front of the basket what the spiny pods were, and she told me they were fruits of aak, also used in devotions. The seed pods of C. procera and C. gigantea are not spiny. So I wonder whether I have finally seen something of the elusive C. acia.

Forgotten kings

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Ozymandian moment came as we walked through the mangrove forests of Bhitarkanika. We passed a shallow swamp with dead trees standing in them. Then we crossed a field where a monitor lizard was being harried by green bee eaters. The huge lizard crawled into bushes. We skirted the bushes, and as I looked at the little rise, I saw an abandoned building. It wasn’t too old, but disused and fallen into ruin. Bijaya said it belonged to the Rajah.

Who was this? He had no explanation, but it seemed that it was the local zamindar. The system of zamindars was abolished by the state of Odisha in 1952, so my guess is that the structure is about a hundred years old or less. As I walked around it, I saw a lotus pond where two bronze-winged Jacanas walked on the lily pads pecking at the water delicately. An Indian pond-heron sat apart from them on another lily pad, seemingly withdrawn into its inner landscape. From the pond one could see little slits along the walls of the structure. It was clearly a blind where the zamindars of old could sit and decimate birds which came to the pond. Much research was needed to excavate the names of the family. In sixty years the Kanika family which owned this forest once is almost forgotten.

We skirted the pond and walked into the next clearing. A small plaster Nandi shows that this is a Shiva temple A simple temple in the Odisha style stood under a mango tree (featured photo). Amar tried to bring down a couple of mangos, and was fairly satisfied by the unripe green fruits he got. The temple was not much older than the blind; the two structures used the same kind of mortar. But whereas the hunting blind was like Ozymandias’ statue, the small temple was kept alive by the traditions of neighbouring villages. I walked around it to see a little mortar Nandi facing the niche where a diya burnt in front of a tended shiva-linga inside a little locked screen door.

We walked on past these little remnants of a history now forgotten. The forest was alive with birds, and our hour’s walk was over too soon.

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.

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).

deer
pig
yogi1
travel
yogi2
groups
columns

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.