City of shrines

City of shrines

Temple trail

City of shrines

Irecently spent eight enchanting days in Bhubaneswar, the growing capital city of Odisha, India’s east-coast state of grace and natural beauty. Yet, in comparison to the high-profile media presence of tourism-driven states like Kerala, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — Odisha seems like a shy bride.

Bhubaneswar (also known as Mandiramalini) is home to some 500-odd temples whose antiquity and art parallel the development of Odisha’s unique ethnicity as well as dance forms like Odissi. The city attracts a fair number of tourists, especially in well-known spots including the Lingeshwar, Konarak and Puri Jagannath temples. But places that really charmed me were the quieter, less-visited temples of this ancient-modern city, which has its beginnings in the 3rd century BC, when Ashoka fought his bloody war against the Kalinga empire and saw the Daya river turn blood-red.

Early Jainism, Buddhism, Tantric Shaktism, nature-worship by forest dwellers, Vaishnavism and Shaivaite influences — all contributed to the character of this sublime city, a bhuban (home) of Easwar (gods).

From the old to new
Bhubaneswar and Orissa’s earliest temples, the Shatrughneswar group — Laxmaneswar, Bharateswar and Shatrughneswar — occupy a green landscaped complex in the middle of the city’s busiest area. Dating back to 6th and 7th centuries AD, these temples emerged from the Sailodbhava dynasty that worshipped Lord Shiva. Laxmaneswar is in ruins and presently being redone, but Bharateswar and Shatrughneshwar have stood the test of time. In fact, these are living shrines where puja is still being performed.

These are west-facing single building deuls (conical shrine), with embellishments on the walls and a linga inside and little else otherwise. Basic, unassuming and functional, these early temples are devoted to Lord Ram’s brothers, and have a charm that’s different from the wildly riotous imagery of later temples. The calm and beatific atmosphere belies the honking horns close by.

Across this thoroughfare nestles the 9th century Rameshwar Temple. Devoid of the erotica found on many Kalingan temples, this shrine still manages to charm one with its symmetry, spacious greenery, a pond, plus a panda (priest) who is happy to share information. Apparently, during the festival of Ram Navami, Lord Lingaraj visits this temple and stays for four days at his mausi-maa temple.

The single unit shrines soon gave way to slightly more elaborate structures — like the 7th century Parasurameswar Temple, which houses a deula and jagamohana (a flat-roofed hall) for people to congregate. This small secluded temple, dating back to 650 AD, was restored in 1903, but still retains its original character. Resting at a lower level than the road, in the shade of an ancient looking tree, the temple’s jagamohana bears latticed windows and elaborate sculptures on its outer walls. An exquisite image of Kartikeya astride a peacock caught my eye, among other sculpted riches.

The Bhaskareswar Temple sits in isolated splendour amidst the green parkland. The speciality of this double storied temple is its massive linga that is said to be 9 feet tall and 12-and-a-half-feet in circumference. This temple dates back to the 7th century AD.
Another unique shrine is the 8th century Shakti Temple or Vaitul Deul, a modest looking affair that houses Goddess Chamundeswari (Durga in a fierce tantric avatar). This temple’s architecture is different from the regular Kalingan style.

Timeless structures
Other Shiva temples that I managed to visit included — the magnificent Mukteswara Temple dating back to the 10th century; its specialty being the unique archway; 11th century Rajarani Temple, an amazing piece of sheer Kalingan excellence with erotic carvings that hark back to Konarak. Then there is the 11th century Brahmeswara Temple complex set in a landscaped park, right in the middle of a housing colony. At 11 am, a lone lady was performing puja to an image of Chandi embedded on an outer wall of the main temple. And how could one forget Bhubaneswar’s biggest, the Lingaraj Temple, whose construction started in the 7th century AD, culminating to its final form in the 11th century. The temple is set in a complex that houses some 100 smaller shrines, with the 180-feet-tall main Harihara Temple dominating the Bhubaneswar skyline.

Bhubaneswar is also home to a few Vishnu temples, some new, but one definitely old and venerable. This is the Ananta Basudev Temple, on the banks of the Bindu Sarovar tank. The temple was built in 1,278 AD, by Rani Chandrika Devi, daughter of Anangabhima III. As the priest informs us, this is the Bhubaneswar version of the Puri Jagannath Temple. Unlike the Puri Temple with its renewable neem-wood idols, the three idols here are made of stone. Ananta (Balram), Subhadra and Lord Jagannath hold court here too.  But my most unique experience, however, was the 9th century Chausath Yogini Temple, just outside Bhubaneswar, in the village of Hirapur.

This is a small circular temple, 30 feet in diameter, open to the sky, and hosting on its inner walls niches bearing 64 yoginis, female forms reverberating with tantric energy. To reach this spot, one needs to cross fields and bad roads — but the experience is out of this world.

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