The Tribune - Spectrum


, March 3, 2002

The past comes alive in temples of Orissa
Usha Bande

Lingaraja Temple at Bhubaneshwar
Lingaraja Temple at Bhubaneshwar

SAY Orissa, and one thinks of Odissi dance, Chilka Lake and the Sun Temple, Konark! But, wait! Orissa is that and a lot more. It is a symbol of our great cultural past, our ancient history, art, sculpture and scenic grandeur. Orissa vibrates with a cultural heritage that has blended harmoniously with the march of time. It has, as a blurb on a tourist pamphlet asserts, "subliminal integration of exotic past with contemporary strength". Buddhist monasteries, Jain caves, rock edicts, and wonderful temples make Orissa a veritable haven for the lovers of past mysteries.

On reaching Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, a tourist comes across references to The Golden Triangle and soon finds out that it means the Bhubaneshwar-Puri-Konark triangle which makes an excellent base for starting off on your dream trip. It is the temple city Bhubaneshwar that calls for attention, dotted as it is with temples — big, small, ancient and in clusters. As the city bustles with modern life, the skyline awakens curiosity with its sky-kissing spires of the Lingaraja Temple, the white-domed Peace Pagoda on Dhauli hill and the pink hue of Mahavira Jina on the Khandagiri. The three epitomise the advent of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism during different periods of Orissa history.

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The Lingaraja Temple has architectural beauty and religious sanctity. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple was built in the 11th century. However, the present temple is an elaborate version of a smaller one built in the 7th century. The temple has Nata Mandir (the hall of dance), the Bhog Mandap (the hall of offering), and the Jagamohan (the porch). It has a beautifully carved tower-like dome, about 55 metres high. There are over 150 smaller shrines dedicated to a number of deities around the temple. The Lingaraja Temple and the Mukteshwar Temple show strong resemblance with the architecture of Konark Sun Temple.

Sculptures at Konark

Mukteshwar, a 10th century temple, is known for its glorious architecture. Its significance lies in the synthesis of the old and the new styles of architecture of the Kalinga school. Its ornate carvings and rendering of the Panchatantra stories are immaculate. The arched gateway displays an excellent combination of Hindu, Buddhist andJain motifs. No wonder then that this temple is called the "Gem of Orissa architecture".

An offshoot of Kalinga School of Architecture is the Khakara School. The Vaital Temple, dedicated to Goddess Chamunda, is built in the Khakara style with a rectangular shape and an embellished external surface. This is an 8th century temple in which one gets a glimpse of the erotic in Orissan sculpture. Vaital Temple is said to have been the centre of the Tantric worship. Another temple worth a visit is the Raja-Rani temple, an example of the great finesse in temple art.

From Bhubaneshwar, one can drive to Konark where one is awe-struck by the sheer excellence of music in stone. The Sun Temple is in the shape of a rath, a chariot with 24 wheels carved all around the structure, denoting the 24 hours of the day. It is conceived as a chariot pulled by the legendary seven horses. The four poses of the Sun God depict his moods during morning, day-time, afternoon, and evening. The base of the chariot-shaped has erotic designs and stands as a rival in beauty and execution to the carvings of Khajuraho, and the Ellora cave. At the entrance stand two massive lions, and in the open area around the temple there are several sculpted pieces partially broken. The open air auditorium, amid the casuarinas grove is the venue of the enchanting Konark dance festival. The pleasant evenings, the fragrance wafting from the nearly grove, the Sun Temple in the background and the rhythmic movement of the dancers leave one entranced.

The Sun Temple is in partial ruins but is still has a dignity it can be proud of. When I visited the temple in January 2000, it was being repaired and a major part of it was unapproachable. The UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage site.

As you drive from Konark towards Puri, you suddenly become aware of the sea on your left. You realise then that the Sun Temple is anchored to the sands at Konark Beach. The seashore runs along the road for a couple of miles but is only partially visible through dense groves. Cashewnut trees make the drive lively and fragrant. If it is winter the wafting fragrance of cashew flora compete with the fragrance of mango trees.

Jain caves
Jain caves

Buddhist relics at Ratnagiri
Buddhist relics at Ratnagiri

Jagannath Puri, one of the four dhams, is the most revered of our places of pilgrimage. Countless devotees throng to the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, also called Jagannath, along with Subhadra his sister and Balbhadra his brother. This 12th-century temple is colourfully decorated. A 65-metre conical dome rises high up in the sky. There is an exquisite pillar at the entrance which has been brought from Konark. The temple attracts millions of devotees from all over India throughout the year but the rush increases during the Car festival (rath yatra).

Another distinguishing feature of Orissa is the harmonious synthesis of various religious influences of which the monasteries, the Jain caves and the Hindu temples speak. The site of the famous Kalinga war, which led to Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, Orissa has been the cradle of Buddhist art and architecture. The shrines and the Jain caves at Udayagiri and Khandagiri date back to 1st century BC. These caves hewn out of the rocks were used by Jain monks to live in. There are about 15 caves at Khandagiri and 18 apartments at Udayagiri. The Elephant Cave has inscriptions dating back to the reign of King Kharavela. Here the Queen’s cave is worth a visit. It is elaborately decorated with sculptural friezes and carvings of historical scenes. This cave stands a witness of King Kharavela’s and his queen’s love for the arts. The various achievements recorded on stone documents the history of the 1st century B.C. Orissa.

The grandeur of Orissa temple is to be seen to be believed.One confronts so many of them — Hindu, Buddhist, Jain — that one may well call it a temple state. In Bhubaneshwar alone, it is said, there were 7,000 temples around Bindu Sagar, of which only 500 remains today. The mysterious monasteries, the deep caves, the ornate temple architecture and the enchanting experience of walking through music frozen in stone all have a magnetic pull that compels one to come back. The shrines, the monasteries and the Buddha sculptures are reminders of a great past. The Dhauli rock edicts 13 in number highlight the salient points of Ashoka’s life after his conversion to Buddhism. The rock-cut edicts, topped by a sculpted elephant are an object of admiration. They symbolise the cult of peace and justice. Further up the hill there stands the Peace Pagoda built in the 1970s by the Japan Buddha Sangh and the Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangh. Dhauli is 8 km from Bhubaneshwar, while Jaugada, another site of a set of edicts is 35 km from Behrampur.

More Buddhist relics are at Lalitagiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. These are in Cuttack and Jaipur districts. Excavations in this area have revealed some facts which are of great interest to both religious scholars and archaeologists. It is believed that this area was once the site of a university complex. A number of brick pagodas, prayer halls and Buddhist images have been found at Ratnagiri. Scholars assert that Ratnagiri was a great centre for Tantric Buddhism.

Photos by the writer