Between a temple & an art gallery, the wonder that is Narbadeshwar in Tira Sujanpur : The Tribune India

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Between a temple & an art gallery, the wonder that is Narbadeshwar in Tira Sujanpur

Between a temple & an art gallery, the wonder that is Narbadeshwar in Tira Sujanpur

Several themes adorn the temple’s arched corridors lining the garbhagriha. Photos by the writer



Siddharth Pandey

Whenever the epithet ‘Dev Bhoomi’ is used with reference to the religious landscape of Himachal Pradesh, it is usually a select list of temples that readily comes to mind. The official website of the Himachal Pradesh government, for instance, enlists 26 Hindu pilgrimage sites, from Chamba’s well-known Lakshmi Narayan Temple to Shimla’s celebrated Jakhu Mandir. But the state holds a number of other treasures as well, that deserve equal if not greater appreciation. One such edifice is the extraordinary 200-year-old temple of Narbadeshwar, that lies in a sleepy corner of Hamirpur district’s Tira Sujanpur town, overlooking the Beas river from a low perch.

It is perplexing as to why this structure, awash with some of the greatest wall paintings of India (and possibly of the world), eludes popular awareness, even within the state itself. Visitors travelling through that belt in the shadow of the colossal Dhauladhars are likely to pay obeisance to the deities at Brajeshwari, Baijnath, Baba Balaknath and Jwalamukhi, all spread within a few hundred kilometres of each other. They might even drive up to Sujanpur’s highest point crowned by its famous fort, that holds the shrine of Gauri Shankar. But the knowledge of Narbadeshwar as something more than a regular site of local worship remains conspicuous by its absence.

First and foremost, the temple complex strikes as both an architectural masterpiece and a venerable art gallery, that hosts among the rarest and finest specimens of Kangra art on its walls and ceilings.

Built in 1802 by Rani Prasani Devi, the wife of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra, Narbadeshwar resists classification as a prototypical North Indian temple from the outset. As visitors climb up the rural walkway from the main road to enter its premises, they are struck by a flat-roofed building at the centre of a large, stonewalled courtyard, that resembles more of a fort than a Hindu shrine. Devoid of a shikhara — that most prominent part of temple typology — Narbadeshwar bears the influence of both Rajasthani and Mughal building styles.

This structure, awash with some of the greatest wall paintings of India, eludes popular awareness, even within Himachal Pradesh itself.

Ostensibly dedicated to Lord Shiva and Parvati, whose wedding ceremony it depicts in enormous detail on the sanctum sanctorum’s front wall, the temple actually hosts a plethora of other subjects across its arched corridors lining the garbhagriha. Even a cursory glance stuns the viewer with the sheer abundance of religious, royal and natural motifs, that cover almost every inch of the walls, both inside and outside. Elegantly done floral chains, avian couples and intricate wreathes weave across the building, furnishing frames upon frames for all kinds of entities. In between, long panels depicting colourful mythological and quasi-historical sequences from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other records routinely punctuate the artistry. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect of this imagery is that while all of it qualifies as Kangra art, there are palpable stylistic differences among the illustrations themselves. This attests to the variety of artists deployed for the decoration, who brought their own imprints whilst being united under a singular painterly genre.

This structure, awash with some of the greatest wall paintings of India, eludes popular awareness, even within Himachal Pradesh itself.

Other distinctive features mesmerise as well. Sections depicting aristocracy and local kings (including Sansar Chand himself) share space with those of gods and goddesses, many of them draped in long, flowing Pahari costumes. Narbadeshwar is one of the few places where Krishna is not only detailed through his childhood legends, but also via his role as a king. And while inter-religious imagery doesn’t usually enter temple art of the region, one is truly moved by the inclusion of Sikh Gurus as well, confirming the influence of Sikhism in the area.

Even after spending hours together staring at its multifarious elements, this glorious temple retains the rare ability to reveal something new with every glance, much like an invaluable picture gallery. It is as if the structure actively ‘asks’ of its visitor to ‘attend’ properly to its details. And the artists who were at the helm of this project surely knew this. For, as the philosopher Simone Weil observes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Attending to art as graceful and as evocative as Narbadeshwar’s also amounts to another kind of worship, one that seamlessly blends the spiritual with the skilful.

— The writer is a historian, artist and cultural critic from Shimla

#Chamba


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