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Exploring the temples of Bhubaneshwar

by Anil Mehta

Bindu Sagar with the pavilion in the middle

Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, is famous for its ornate temples. Most of these are in the older, southern part of the city, while the new town with its gleaming new buildings and wide tree-lined avenues is in the north. Bhubaneshwar is one of those places where the past co-exists with the present. A perfect blend of history with modern administrative buildings, IT companies, large convention facilities and shopping malls.

The city’s spiritual centre is around Bindu Sagar (lake). Between 7th and 13th centuries thousands of temples were believed to have been built around this sacred lake. Mughals destroyed many during the 16th century. Fifty or so remain which are dominated by the soaring tower of the great Lingaraja Temple. I will describe some which are of tourist interest.

Siddeshvara Temple provides a good example of the mature phase of Orissan temple architecture

Bhubaneshwar temples date from the 7th to 13th centuries illustrating the complete evolution of the Orissan temple style. In this period they became progressively grander and more elaborate. Most of them have some dinstictive features. The sancturay (rekha deul in the local terminology) has a tower (shikhara) with a square base, curving gently inwards as it reaches the top. The shikhara is crowned with a flattened ribbed sphere (amalaka), a pot (kalasha), the presiding deity’s emblem (Vishnu’s chakra or Shiva’s trident), and finally with the flag.

The sanctuary where the deity’s image is kept, is preceded by an assembly hall (jagamohan) where the congregation gathers. Some of the bigger temples such as the Lingaraja have one or more halls before the jagamohan; for dance performance (natamandapa), and food distribution (bhogamandapa). Typically all these halls are connected to each other in a line and have pyramidal roofs. The whole complex with any subsidiary shrines is usually enclosed in the walled enclosure.

A gem of a temple: Mukteshvara with the famous arch in the front

The Parashurameshvara Temple (7th century) is the best known and well-preserved of the city’s earliest temples. The sanctuary adjoins a rectangular jagamohan with a sloping roof. It has an exquisite carving on its external wall, but is more famous for its pierced stone windows. Within the sanctuary, there is a linga (Shiva’s symbol) on a circular pedestal.

Near to Parashurameshvara, and set by a small tank, is a beautiful, 10th century, Mukteshvara Temple. In front of the sanctuary is a square jagamohan with a pyramidal roof. Entrance to the temple is through a magnificent, richly decorated stone arch (gateway) that recalls the Buddhist influence in Orissa. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple is dubbed the gem of Orissan archtecture for its compact size and an exquisite sculpture.

Richly decorated shikhara of Mukteshvara Temple

Next door to the Mukteshavara is the early 11th century Siddheshvara Temple. Although smaller and less elegant (little decoration) than the Lingaraja, it’s a good example of the mature Orissan style of temple building.

Not far from Siddheshvara Temple is the Rajarani Temple, yet another (early 11th century) architectural gem standing in a large garden. The shikhara is elongated and consists of many miniature replicas of itself rising one upon the other as they do in Khajuraho or in the west (Rajasthan or Gujarat). The lower portion of the shikhara is adorned with graceful female figures. The jagamohan in the front is plain with a square body and a pyramidal roof. The temple is notable for the absence of any presiding deity.

Next to Bindu Sagar is the mighty Lingaraja Temple (late 11th century) which represents the mature and highly developed form of Orissan style. Its highly decorative shikhara dominates the city with its height (180ft) and size. It curves gently inwards with a large amalaka at the top. Small statues of lions standing on elephants project from the curved sides of the shikhara.

Shikhara of Rajarani Temple with miniature shikharas and female figures

Lingaraja consists of four connected structures in a line; the sanctuary, jagamohan, natamandapa, and bhogamandapa. The largest in Bhubaneshwar, the temple stands majestically in the midst of small shrines including that of Parvati, the consort of Shiva. The main deity is Shiva as Tribhubaneshwar (Lord of three worlds) from which the city takes its name.

Parashurameshvara Temple is a fine example of the city's earliest temples

Bhubaneshwar temples are India’s great architectural delights. With the style of their own, they continue to attract not only the lay tourists, but also the artists, architects, and historians from far and wide. It is true to say, they have to be seen to be appreciated fully. Entry is free except Rajarani Temple. Lingaraja is still used for worship and is accessible to Hindus only.

Dr. Mehta is a retired scientist (chemist) with a passion for writing history and heritage articles on India and Britain. A keen traveller, he lives in Leeds.

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