The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

The timeless temple of Ambarnath
Abhilash Gaur

The Ambarnath temple in its full glory
The Ambarnath temple in its full glory

CLOUDS gather, rumble, then flash and burst with loud reports... Streams swell, lakes breach their bounds... It's Tandava: Shiva's dance. Few of Man's creations can withstand it for long. Especially in the Konkan, where the skies pour June through September. But the Shiva temple at Ambarnath has withstood 943 monsoons without losing much of its grandeur.

Surely, the temple must be a favourite of its patron god to outlast not only the rain but also four centuries of Muslim rule and a forest breathing up its walls!

Where is Ambarnath?

Ambarnath is 52 km from Mumbai's Dadar station, on the Central line. The suburban train takes one hour and 13 rupees to get there. The temple is just a five minutes' auto ride from the Ambarnath station.

This exquisite temple was got built by Chittaraja—a king of the Silhara dynasty—in the late 11th century. An inscription above the north-facing door of the temple states Saka 982 (1060 AD) as the date of construction.

The Silharas started out as vassals of the Rashtrakutas. Govinda III, a Rashtrakuta king, had conferred the kingdom of North Konkan on Kapardin-I, founder of the Silhara dynasty, around 800 AD. The Silharas thereafter ruled North Konkan, comprising the modern Thana, Bombay and Colaba districts, till 1240 AD.


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The carved edges of the tower around the garbhagriha
The carved edges of the tower
around the garbhagriha

The temple was constructed at a time when the Silharas were facing political problems. Chittaraja had to accept the suzerainty of the Kadambas, another dynasty. Nonetheless, he could muster the means to erect a beautiful temple.

The Ambarnath temple is made of richly carved stone blocks. It is not very big, like some of the temples down south, but impresses no less.

The temple's sides are irregular and one view is that, its floor plan is based on a spread-out tiger skin-Shiva's mat. It has two main sections: A mandap or forecourt and the garbhagriha or sanctum. The mandap has a circular, step-cut roof. It has three doors, in the north, south and west. The main door is in the west and it has an idol of Nandi, Shiva's mount, under the porch. The north and south doors are in a line.

The mandap's concave ceiling has an ornate pattern carved into it. Its four supporting pillars are also carved top to bottom. Seen from the west, the mandap's three porches form a 'T'.

Floral offerings on a carved deity
Floral offerings on a carved deity

The garbha or sanctum is an uneven circle from the outside. Its roof was shaped as a spire, but it has partly collapsed. To enter the sanctum, one has to go up two steps and down twelve from the mandap. The prayer chamber is lit from a vent at the top. Its marble flooring, shivling and a Shiva bust modelled on Shivaji are unmistakably new. Its dark walls are also completely unadorned.

The carvings on the temple's outer walls are probably theme-based but even a novice can make out carvings of Shiva, Ganesha and Nandi. Though some of the carvings have been dulled by seeping water, most stand out sharply.

An Archaeological Survey of India board at the site states that the Ambarnath temple is "perhaps the oldest shrine dedicated to Shiva in the coastal parts of Maharashtra." However, continued worship at the temple is affecting its beauty. Devotees still burn incense in the alcoves and pour milk over the Nandi idol. Some restraint on their part might allow their great grandchildren also to see the temple in its full glory.