Until I visited Bhubaneshwar, I used to think Kanchipuram was the temple capital of India.
The difference is that Kanchipuram temples are of Dravidian architecture, while Bhubaneshwar has temples of Nagari architecture.
Puri gets the fervent devotees and Konarak gets the UNESCO tag and global acclaim, but Bhubaneshwar has so many marvellous temples that it is a crying shame they are not far more famous.
Orissa (now Odisha) history too, gets subsumed under the larger Indian narrative — Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga is all we ever hear. But Orissa has a long and amazing history. The Bhaumakaras, Shailodbhavas, Somavamshis, Chodagangas, Gajapatis and other dynasties that ruled Orissa developed and continued a distinct line of Nagari architecture called Kalinga.
The Mukteshvara Temple has no inscriptions but art historians say it was built in the Somavamshi era, most likely by king Yayati I.
The largest and grandest temple of Bhubaneshwar is Lingaraja in the heart of the old city. But the most beautiful, enchanting and captivating temple must surely be Mukteshvara. Oddly, very few locals seem to know about it, perhaps because it is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Kedara Gowri temple, equally ancient, just across the street, is far more famous.
A priest in Lingaraja temple told me that the city has one less than one lakh Shiva temples — if one more temple had been built, the city would have equalled Kashi in sanctity. So, at Shiva’s own request, it wasn’t built.
Mukteshvara and Siddheshvara are twin temples in the same complex facing west and east respectively. Siddheshvara temple is taller, but plainer, with far fewer decorative features.
They both have a garbagraha and jaganmohana (or jagmohana — called sabha mandapa in most Nagari temples).
The larger Kalinga temples like Lingaraja and Puri also have two more mandapas called nata mandira and bhoga mandira. There are also several small shrines, many of them with lingas scattered all over the complex.
The stone used is a distinct reddish Orissa sandstone — locally called rajaraniya.
In fact, about a mile away is a larger temple called Rajarani, named not after some royal, but after the stone. It is softer than granite, but not perhaps as soft as soapstone, so yields itself to very intricate sculptures. Here and there one sees damage, but a lot of it marvellously well preserved.
Mukteshvara has two unique features — a torana entrance and a short surrounding wall. There is also a well to its south called Marici kunda and a beautiful spring-fed pond to its east.
The entrance torana is a beautiful arch, which has suffered some damage but has been restored so masterfully that it is not at all obvious.
Slender beautiful women languidly grace both sides of the arch — which is one sculpture, not a series of blocks. The two ends of the arch rest on amalakas, which top the dressed pillars. The central portion of these pillars are 16 sided, topped by kirtimukhas having pearl garlands (muktamaala) coming out of their mouths.
The short decorative compound wall around Mukteshvara is not seen anywhere else in Bhubaneshwar. Lingaraja has a huge compound wall around it, but most other temples are located on open grounds.
Even the Siddheshvara temple in the same campus doesn’t have such a wall. The compound wall parallels the several zig-zag cuts and patterns of the temple itself.
Its lower part is decorated with a series of panels with patterns — the corner panels have intricate miniature sculptures on them. Even smaller sculptures decorate the upper level.
There are five different types of vimana or shikhara in Nagari architecture.
In Kalinga temples, usually the garbhagruha or deula (devaalaya in Odiya language) is of rekha type and the jaganmohana of phamsana type (called pidha in Orissa).
The rekha type is the most common among Nagari temples in general and in Kalinga temples in particular.
The shikhara can be very plain or very elaborately carved. Older temples in Bhubaneshwar like Lakshmaneshvara, Bharateshvara and some smaller temples like Uttareshvara are limited in decoration — as is Siddheshvara. But Mukteshvara itself is suffused with decoration and sculpture, unparalleled for a temple of its size.
The most elaborate feature of such decoration is gavakshaas — small circles and semicircles in several intricate, repeating patterns. These are found in Nagari temples like Kashi Vishveshvara in Pattadakkal, but for sheer beauty in patterns and the overall pleasing effect, Mukteshvara is among the best.
The rectilinear look of the rekha temples is most distinct. A series of flat layers, slightly receding from their respective lower layers, seem to curve towards the amalaka at the top. The levels or talas are less visible in rekha devalayas compared to Dravida temples. These levels are called bhumi and each is marked by a small amalaka called bhumi amalaka.
The vertical partitions of rekha devaalaya called rathas are much more starkly visible. A temple may have three, five or seven rathas — the central one is projecting and the others are often recessed or alternate between recession and projection when more than three.
Mukteshvara is pancha ratha temple. The corner rathas are shared among the adjacent faces of the temple. The earlier Bhaumakara kings built tri-ratha temples and the Chodagangas, who succeeded the Somavamshis, built sapta-ratha temples.
A sculpture in a gavakshaa features in every slab except the bhumi amalakas in the corner rathas.
The anurathas between the centre ratha and corner rathas are completely covered in intricate gavakshaas all the way to the top.
The central ratha has a large panel on each side called chandrashaala, which has a circular centre, ganas on either side, and a kirtimukha pouring out pearls from the top. Slightly above these are images of Nataraja on each side. The front and central portions have an important keystone featuring a seated lion — a common feature in all Kalinga temples.
The Kalinga equivalents of the adishtaana and paada are called paabhaaga and jangha. These together are called bada and form the lower part of the temple. These are often plain but even these are extensively decorated in Mukteshvara.
Shaalabhanjikas adorn the pilasters, some are quite damaged though. Mithuna couples, vyaala viralas (riders on lions like in the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple), kapaata kanyas, gaja simhas (lions riding on elephants) can be seen here and there in recessed niches.
A lion-faced pranala brings out water from the garbhagriha.
The jaganmohana is shorter, squatter, and its shikhara is a series of plain and parallel slabs. But the lower half is just stunning in its complexity and elegance.
There are windows in the centre of the northern and southern walls, surrounded by a series of sculptures of frolicking monkeys in a creeper (lathaa), flanked by two elaborate pilasters. The walls on both sides of these pilasters have two pilasters that are in the shape of temples, and a highly segmented corner pilaster with two cylindrical stambhas in between, around which a naga is shown climbing.
Above the window are two sculptures of kapaata kanyas (women opening or modestly standing behind doors) — these are also repeated on the rekha deula as are the naga stambhas. (Read: Seven Thousand Wonders Of India: Architecture — 'Prajaanaam Ishta Siddhyartham')
The twelfth century Tamil epic Kalingathu Barani, narrating the conquest of Kalinga by the king Kulottunga Chola, has an entire chapter, in every stanza of which, women are asked to open the door to welcome victorious soldiers. One wonders whether the poet Jayamkondar actually visited Orissa saw these sculptures and was inspired to include this concept in his poem.
The interior of the jaganmohana is just as splendid, especially the ceiling, though it is difficult to photograph in the darkness. A series of beams arranged as octagons and rectangles, alternating, leads to a circular lotus design at the very centre.
Remarkably, this internal pattern is not even remotely discernible from the external pattern on the roof. The central lotus has saptamatrika sculptures in its various petals.
The alternating design creates interesting patterns in the corners, and the sthapathis have run riot with their imagination, richly endowing it with various sculptures of dancers and musicians, as bracket figures. Kartikeya and a dancing Ganesha flank the central square.
The lintel over the entrance to the sanctum features navagrahas in a row. Above them is a Gajalakshmi panel in the centre.
The miniature sculptures in small square panels topped by single gavakshaas in triangles are the standout sculptures of Mukteshvara.
Some of these are in excellent condition — others damaged to varying degrees. Lakulisa, unknown munis by themselves or with disciples, yoginis, dancers, musicians, composite sculptures — the variety is breathtaking. Perhaps, the most charming are images of Surya, Kartikeya and Sarasvati.
A tricky sculpture featuring four bodies of women in gymnastic posture but sharing only two heads is quite similar to such sculptures in every kind of temple in every region in India, from Ajanta to Tirunelveli.
Unlike most Dravidian temples, the dvarapalakas aren’t huge and threatening. One barely notices them, carrying a bow and arrow or a trishula as we enter the temple.
Voluptuous women embracing tree branches, smiling nagas and naginis bearing garlands, shy women holding half-open doors — these are the most memorable aspects of Mukteshvara.
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