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Temples of Orissa

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Jagannath Temple, Puri, Orissa

The Jagannath Temple, Puri

Under the ancient name of Kalinga, Orissa was the seat of great empires as far back as 300 B.C. In the course of its history innumerable kings founded great cities and built magnificent temples, some of which have been acclaimed by critics as the most remarkable examples of architectural achievement in all of Asia.

Although Orissa presents a fairly large variety of styles in temple building, it has nevertheless a characteristic architectural genius. Its temples have been described as one of the most compact and homogeneous architectural groups in India. In these the Indo-Aryan style of architecture may be seen at its best and purest. Another view, however, is that the sustained architectural activity, of which Orissa's temples are the culmination, originally approached this region from the neighborhood of Mukha-Lingam in the South, although in many ways this architectural movement was largely an independent growth.

The temple-building movement in Orissa, which reached its peak of excellence in the 10th and 11th centuries, stretches from roughly 650 A.D. to 1200 A.D. and illustrates more coherently than any other similar movement the growth and development of the Nagara style of architecture.

In general, all Orissan temples follow a common structural plan. A typical temple consists of two apartments. The deul, corresponding to the southern vimana, is the cubical inner apartment which enshrines the image, and is surmounted by a tower. In front of this is the antarala or porch called the jaganmohan which is usually square-shaped and has a pyramidal roof. Occasionally, one or two more mandapas, such as   the natmandir and the bhogmandir, can be found in front of the jaganmohan, but these, where they exist, are almost without exception were superimposed on top of   the original plan.

Bhubaneswar has the richest profusion of temples and is known as the temple town of Orissa, not only because of the large number of temples found there, but also because it is the home of the famous Lingaraja temple. The city of Bhubaneswar is believed to have been created by Yayati, founder of the Kesari dynasty of Orissa. The striking concentration of temples in Bhubaneswar is partly accounted for by the fact that the city was the seat of powerful religions. The sacred lake of Bhubaneswar was once encircled by 7,000 shrines, of which only 500 now survive in different stages of dilapidation.

The Lingaraja Temple

The great Lingaraja temple, believed to have been built around 1000 A.D., is a later product of this revivalist movement and has been acclaimed by many as the finest example of a Hindu temple in India. It stands in a cluster of sixty-five smaller shrines in a spacious compound meausring 520 feet by 465 feet and its mighty tower (the vimana, see also: parts of a temple) dominates the landscape for miles around. Constructed without mortar, this tower is 127 feet high and is divided into vertical sections. The angles of the recesses are filled in with miniature vimanas and on the top, are figures representing a lion crushing an elephant. The vimana is hollow and consists of several superimposed chambers accessible by a stairway built through the wall, which is seven feet thick. The temple as originally designed, consisted of the vimana, called Sri Mandir locally, where the image of Tribhubaneswar (the Lord of the three worlds) popularly called Lingaraja  is housed,  and the jagamohan or the entrance porch to the inner chamber. In the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum)  is enshrined the swayambhu linga, or self-established Linga, the symbol of Shiva. The natyamandir or dance hall, and the bhogmandir were probably added a century or so later, although they are in perfect harmony with the architectural scheme as a whole. The interiors of these halls are, generally speaking, devoid of all ornament, but -the outer walls of the building are lavishly carved and embellished with sculptures which are among the best specimens of Orissan decorative art. Although the pilaster decoration presents an effect of exuberance and luxury, particularly in the case of the human figures, there is little of the florid extravagance which characterizes some of the southern temples. Among the other notable temples in the neighborhood are those of Bhagavati, Parvati, Ananta, Basudeva, Brahmeshwar, Bhaskareswar, and Kedareswar.

Temple of Parashurameswar

The small temple of Parashurameswar, also at Bhubaneswar, is believed to be a good specimen of early Orissan architecture of the post-Buddhist period, as is seen from its rudimentary vimana. Although dating as far back as circa 750 A.D., it is still in a good state of preservation. It is notable for its intricate stone engraving of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati (Uma) and for the elaborately sculptured medallions on its front facade. The royal lion, Kesari's proud symbol, is conspicuous by its absence. In place of the bold, strapping animals depicted on the walls of other Orissan temples, those at Parashurameswar are almost invariably victims of the huntsman's spear.

Another example of the early phase is the Vaital Deul, although it differs fundamentally from the Parashurameswar temple in that it derives from quite another tradition. The tower of its inner sanctuary is reminiscent of the gopurams of the Dravidian temples, and many architectural features, such as its elongated vaulted roof in two stories, its ridged finials and its gable-ends, suggest that like those structures, it too developed from the Buddhist chaitya-hall. The Vaital Deul has four replicas of the main shrine in each angle of the jaganmohan, which is also of uncommon design, and is thus representative of a panchayatana, or five-shrined  temple in the earliest stages of its evolution.

The Raj-Rani temple

The Raj-Rani temple belongs to a much later period of Orissan architecture (1100-1250 A.D.) and in its pilaster decoration and certain other features, such as the deul suggests a strong kinship with the central Indian type of temple represented at Khajuraho. It is built of a yellowish sandstone, locally called Rajrania, which probably accounts for the somewhat unusual name.

The various parts of the temple are not in the same alignment, but follow a diagonal arrangement, which may have been the beginning of the use of the same principle in other regional styles. Small but elegant, the Mukteshwar temple probably dates back to about 975 A.D. and represents the middle period (approximately 900-1100 A.D.) of the Orissan style in its early prime. It has been called a miniature gem of architecture for its graceful proportions and beautiful finish. The arched gateway or torana is the "creation of an artist of superior vision and skill", as is the large figure design repeated on each side of the tower which is only 35 feet high.

The Jagannath temple, Puri

Another notable example of the middle period is the well-known temple of Jagannath at Puri (shown at the top of this page). This is a much larger and somewhat later structure than the Lingaraja temple, although both these great structures are built on more or less the same principle. Historical evidence suggests that this temple was originally built as tower of victory by Choda Ganga in 1030 A.D. when he conquered Kalinga, but that it was consecrated many decades later. There are earlier inscriptions which mention Purtishottam Kshetra of which Puri is an abbreviation. Adi Shankaracharya is believed to have visited this temple in the 9th century. It is not improbable that the temple occupies the site of some more ancient shrine.

The temple consists of four edifices in one alignment from east to west, the bhogmandir, the natmandir, the jaganmohan and the deul or the inner sanctuary, which is surmounted by a conical tower of immense proportions. The natmandir, with its ceiling of iron beams and the bhogmandir, however, are believed to have been added in the 14th or 15th century, long after the original structure had been completed. The former, with its 16 pillars, is the only real example of a hypostyle hall in Orissan architecture. A significant feature of the inner enclosure is that, as in the Lingaraja temple, it stands in a large courtyard measuring 440 feet by 350 feet and is surrounded by a high wall.

In the inner sanctuary are the three holy images of Jagannath, his brother Balbhadra, and his sister Subhadra. The entrance to the shrine is decorated with scenes from the life of Krishna, and the gates and walls are heavily ornamented with marble figures of lions and sentries. The profuse decoration on the walls of the nat and bhog-mandirs is, however, stylized and comparatively lifeless. This clearly indicates that when these structures were erected, the Orissan style of architecture had entered a period of decline.

To preserve the temple from the corroding effects of the sea breeze, parts of the stone masonry and the elaborate carvings have been covered with thick plaster. Crowned with Vishnu's flag and wheel, the tower, however, retains its commanding appearance in spite of the heavy cement overlay.

Distributed around the main building are some thirty to forty shrines of various dimensions and designs, as in the case of the Lingaraja temple, but here these secondary structures are on higher ground, thus adhering closely to the Buddhist stupa tradition.

See Also: Juggernaut of Puri

The Sun temple at Konark

Magnificent in its isolation, the temple of the Sun at Konark (a.k.a Konarak), about 20 miles northeast of Puri, has been hailed as the supreme achievement of the architectural genius of Orissa, coming as it did at the apex of continuous development for centuries. It was built during the reign of the eastern Ganga King Narasimha Deva I (1238-64 see also the Ganga kings), but is now in ruins, with the heap of masonry forming a landmark which the sailors call the black pagoda, to distinguish it   from the white temples of Puri.

The great tower of this temple has lost much of its height within living memory and the vimana, along with the shrine of the presiding deity has crumbled. However, enough remains to make a conjectural reconstruction possible and it is likely that the basic plan of the temple was not unlike that of the Jagannath and Lingaraja temples. Abul Fazl, Akbar's official historian, appears to have seen the temple before it became a heap of ruins, and   records in the Ain-i-Akbari, that he was amazed at the beauty of the spectacle. Although the temple was grandiose in conception, there is reason to believe that it was never quite completed, for the grandeur that the plan of the temple sought to achieve was too ambitious to be carried out in practice.

Wheel of the Sun Temple in Konark

Sculpted wheel of Konark temple

The Konark temple is dedicated to Surya, the Sun God, and is unique for its supremely imaginative character. The structure as a whole is conceived of as a Rath (temple on wheels) on twenty-four wheels, the winged chariot of time which the Sun God rides. The base of the temple is an immense terrace with twelve giant wheels on either side, each 10 feet high. On the raised platform thus created, the temple building was erected in two conjoined parts forming the deul and the jaganmohan. The natmandir and the bhogmandir were detached structures, all enclosed within a courtyard measuring 865 ft. by 540 ft.

The carriage of the Sun-God is drawn by seven splendidly carved horses straining their necks to pull the massive chariot. The extraordinary dynamism and mobility of these sculptured animal figures are striking to a degree. Today, this superb edifice lies in ruins, the jagamohan or assembly-hall being the only part which is still intact enough to testify to the past glory of the temple. Not all of the splendid fragments are in their original position. Much of the imposing appearance and vitality of the structure is to be attributed to the pyramidal roof with its three tiers and sculptured groups of figures. The sculpture which embellishes the immense outer surfaces of this architectural masterpiece is no less exquisite in its luxuriance and unrestricted invention than the vast structure itself. The exterior has been chiseled and molded either into abstract designs, or fantastic human and animal forms, and every motif and subject known to the Indian mind has been called into play. The sculptures executed in hard stone to ensure their preservation, display an exuberance of mood and appearance rarely encountered elsewhere. The technique also varies from designs carved with minute precision to vigorous groups modeled on a massive scale. Much of the relief work on the outer walls of the temple at Konark --as of certain other temples in Orissa --has an obviously erotic import. This is indicative of the emergence of a phase in Hinduism known as Tantrism, the mithuna ritual of which is depicted in the carvings of this temple as well as of the temples in Mathura and Khajuraho. According to Tantric thought, all human experience which by implication also includes experience connected with carnal desire has a value, for it is only through experience that man can attain the stage of self-immolation.

Of the minor temples of the Orissan type, the most important are to be found in various stages of preservation at Jajpur, Satyabadi, KendraPara and Khiching in the district of Mayurbhanj.

First published as Temples of North India, Dept. Information and Broadcasting, Government of India 1975. All rights reserved.

See Also:

  • History & Culture of Orissa -- Section on the history, arts, and culture of Orissa covers its famous temples, handicrafts, and people.
  • Temples of India -- Detailed discussion on the history, and stylistics of some of the great temples of India.

Important Temples of North IndiaTemples of North India: Bodh Gaya & Banares | Temples of Orissa | Khajuraho | Brindavan | Temples of Kashmir | Gujarat | Temples of Deccan | Map


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