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Ode to the Gods - The unique temples of Odisha

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Ode to the Gods – The unique temples of Odisha

Explore the unique temples of Odisha and uncover a myriad stories etched in stone—from the caves of Udaygiri to the ancient pilgrim town of Puri.

Odisha, an aesthetic and sublime experience, is one of India’s best kept cultural secrets nestled between the shimmering waters of the Bay of Bengal and the densely forested hills of the Eastern Ghats. Known the world over for its architectural wonders, its ancient temples, some of the finest examples of Indo-Aryan Nagara temple architecture, resonate with the spiritual energy that permeates the very fabric of everyday life among its people. Most of the shrines, built between the seventh and 13th centuries, are unique in both plan elevation and decorative details.

The vimana or deula or sanctum enshrining the main deity, the jaganmohana or porch for the congregation of devotees, a nata mandir or dancing hall and or a bhog mandir hall of offerings are the essential features of most temples of Odisha. While the sanctum rests on a square base marked by a curvilinear tower, the temple porches are built upon a rectangular horizontal platform arranged successively in a receding formation to resemble a pyramid.

Bhubaneswar, the city of temples, is dotted with shrines around the vast Bindu Sagar lake, the Lingaraja Temple being the largest of them all. Built of red sandstone by King Jajati Keshari of the Somvanshi dynasty, the 11th-century Lingaraja Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and depicts the rich legacy of Indian culture and traditions.

It lies sprawled on a 250,000-sq-ft courtyard, skirted by a fortified wall. Bhubaneswar’s oldest and largest shrine, its 180-foot-tall spire dominates the city’s skyline. Enter the temple complex through the Simha Dwar or the ‘Lion’s Gate,’ where lions flank the sides, crushing elephants under their feet, and come upon the massive walls of the temple, embellished with a profusion of sculptures. A unique aspect of the temple is the self-manifested granite linga which is worshipped as HariHara, a combination of Vishnu and Shiva. Over 64 smaller shrines adorned with sculptures of the pantheon of Hindu deities, royals, hunting episodes, musicians and dancers, dot the sprawling temple complex as well. The 11th-century east-facing Rajarani Temple in Bhubaneswar, though bereft of any deity in its sanctum sanctorum, is one of the most beautiful temples representing a unique facet of Odisha’s architecture. It rises to a height of 18 metres. The temple is remarkable for its sculptural excellence, profuse ornamentation, exuberant architectural features and multiple scrollwork. The clusters of smaller carved spires on its main spire are another striking aspect of the temple. The shrine derives its name from the very fine-grained yellowish sandstone called Rajarania in common parlance with which the entire edifice has been built. The temple, set amidst well-manicured green lawns, resembles the Kandariya Mahadev Temple of Khajuraho with its erotic life-size sculptures. The sculpted dikpalas or guardians of the eight directions, attired in diaphanous drapery, standing aloft on lotuses, are particularly impressive. The three-day Rajarani Music Festival held annually in January is part of the mega Ekamra Utsav, celebrated against the backdrop of the temple.

Standing 34 feet tall, the Mukteshwar Temple, constructed in the 10th century, is one of the smallest and most compact temples in Bhubaneswar. Its most noteworthy feature is the exquisite stone archway and ceiling with an eight-petal lotus inside its porch. The sculpted images of the lion head motif and of ascetics in various meditative poses, and characters from Hindu mythology, and folk tales from the Panchatantra add to the artistry and aesthetics of the shrine. The temple is also the venue for the annual Mukteshwar Dance Festival held in January.

One of the earliest groups of Buddhist and Jain rock-cut shelters, the caves of Udayagiri (Hill of Sunrise) and Khandagiri (Broken Hills), 200 metres apart, enjoy historical, religious, artistic and architectural significance. The retreats of Jain monks, the twin hillocks rise abruptly from the coastal plain, about seven kilometres from Bhubaneswar.

Udayagiri is home to 18 caves, accessed by a flight of steps. The double-storeyed Rani Gumpha is the most attractive of the caves with fine wall friezes and sculptures. The Hathi Gumpha or Elephant Cave is most noted for its facade that exhibits a masterly carving of six vigorous elephants flanking its entrance. The Alakapuri Gumpha displays sculptures of a lion holding prey in its mouth, and pillars topped by pairs of winged animals, some human and some bird-headed. The Jaya Vijaya Gumpha is double-storeyed with a bodhi tree sculpted in its central chamber. Another prominent cave is the Ganesh Gumpha that takes its name from the figure of Ganesh carved on the back of its right cell.

Khandagiri is home to 15 caves, of which the most prominent are the Tatowa Gumpha or Parrot Caves, containing figures of parrots carved on the arches of their doorways. The Ananta Gumpha or Snake Cave derives its name from the two sculpted serpents on the door arches. It is one of the most important caves on the Khandagiri hill on account of its unique motifs. It has bas-reliefs portraying boys chasing lions and bulls, geese with their wings spread, lotus flower and stalks, royal elephants, a female figure driving a chariot drawn by four horses and Goddess Lakshmi emerging from a lotus pool, bathed with water from pitchers held by two elephants.

The ninth-century Chausath Yogini Temples at Hirapur on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, and Ranipur-Jharial in Bolangir are only two of four shrines in India dedicated to the esoteric cult of Tantra. The small circular temple is designed like a hypaethral, or roofless edifice open to the sky. These unique temples contain 64 niches in their inner, two-metre-high walls, each one containing an image of a Yogini goddess.

Puri, the ancient pilgrimage centre is home to the colossal Jagannath Temple known as the White Pagoda which enshrines Krishna, Subhadra and Balarama. One of the Char Dhams, and Odisha’s largest temple, it was built in the 11th century and designed in the shape of a pyramid. The 214-foot tall main tower of the temple rises above the inner sanctum. The temple complex has thirty different smaller temples surrounding the main temple and is enclosed by two rectangular walls that run along its periphery. The four gates of the temple—Singhadwara, Ashwadwara, Hathidwara and Vyaghradwara—are so named for the lion, horse, elephant and tiger. An interesting feature of the temple is the 11-foot-eight-inch Nila chakra or blue wheel on its top, made of ashta-dhaatu, an alloy of eight metals. Every day, a different flag is tied to a mast attached to the nila chakra.

A profusion of art will hold you spellbound at the Black Pagoda, popularly known as the Konark Sun Temple. A dozen pairs of intricately carved giant wheels hold aloft a mammoth chariot driven by seven galloping horses, carrying the sun god, Surya, across the heavens.

The 13th-century edifice which stands majestically in the midst of a lush lawn is a veritable masterpiece and is the culmination of the state’s unique temple architecture. Described by poets with “here the language of stone surpasses the language of man,” the grandeur of Konark is beyond compare.

The temple, the construction of which was initiated during the reign of King Narasimhadeva of the Ganga dynasty, took 12 years and the effort of 1,200 architects and artisans, to complete. It was conceptualised keeping in mind the cosmic significance of the sun’s movement. The seven horses represent the days of the week and the 24 wheels are symbolic of the fortnights of the year and the churning of time, while their eight spokes indicate the ancient division of the day and night into eight equal segments. The temple is perfectly proportioned and is equally embellished by rich ornamentation with carvings that display minute details etched to perfection. It is believed that the structure was constructed in such a manner that the first rays of the morning sun would light up the interior of the main hall. The temple, constructed of chlorite, laterite and khondalite rocks boasts ornamented wheels sculpted against the sides of the platform. Though the main tower of the temple has now collapsed, and the sanctum has its idol missing, Konark’s rich imagery still inspires awe in visitors.

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