Konch : An Ancient Site with Interesting Dasavtara Sculpture of Vishnu

An ancient temple site with curious Vishnu dasavtara sculpture

Konch or ‘Koch’ is one of the few surviving ancient Hindu temples in Northern India. I had first seen a photograph taken of the temple by Peppe, while reading the ASI Reports of 1880-81.  Konch today is a small market place and a non-descript town in Gaya district of Bihar. Even today, it is one of the least known and visited sites. It is not popular as a tourist destination, even among the local population of Gaya district.  Recently, the area has been affected with Maoist activity, and a contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has been placed to assist the local police. That the place is home to an ancient temple which was visited and described by Buchanan and other surveyors is sure to surprise even the residents of Koch, who seem to be totally unaware of the existence of a heritage structure nearby. The remains of Konch were first noticed and described by Buchanan during his survey of Gaya district.

Side View

During my stay in Gaya in October, 2013, I happened to visit Konch. From my reading of Buchanan and Cunningham, I had an idea of the location and existence of the temple there, but was not sure of its exact location. The temple was visible from the marketplace, but looked quite modern to the naked eye from a distance, due to the recent coat of paint. I had the Journal of Buchanan as my travel guide. At the time Buchanan had visited the Nagarjuni caves near Barabar Hills in Gaya on the 21st of November, 1811, he had the following remarks to make, which surprisingly seem to ring bells for the visitor even today.

Front View

I however found at Nagarjuni a fine cave of which I perhaps might not have heard had I not gone to the place, for the people here are so stupid, and have so little curiosity, that you can scarcely find out any antiquity except by chance.”

As I approached the town of Konch, I kept thinking about the situation in the early 19th century which has led Buchanan to write the above words about the local populace, and also wondered whether any fundamental change had occurred even after two centuries. So busy we are in our daily chores of existence, that seldom one has the time or curioisity to gaze at the wonders left behind by our predecessors on the planet. I remembered the words of Robert Frost perhaps as the reason for the neglect of such sites by us who think of more valuable things to do than to admire the work left by our ancestors.

The Woods are lovely dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.”  

The one hour drive from Gaya to Konch was picturesque. Small hills were visible at a distance from the road, and the fields were interspersed by seasonal streams some of which contained flowing freshwater quite clear after the monsoons. Several old and impressive temples could be seen on the way from Gaya to Konch. Some of these looked quite ornate, and would need a separate description altogether. Some of them seemed to be at least 300 years old, and need to be preserved and documented properly.

As we reached Konch, we asked a few residents about the oldest temple nearby, which surely was the one that I was looking for. None of them could give a satisfactory answer and looked puzzled on being asked. Then I thought that it was better to visit the Police Station and seek details of the oldest temple of Koch. At the Police Station too, the information was not readily available, however I was informed and pointed towards a temple at a distance of a kilometer as may be the temple being looked for since it was recently taken over and repaired by the Archaeological Survey of India. Now I knew that the temple was not very far. Actually, from a distance the temple doesn’t look as ancient as it is. It has been painted red very recently, and is thus misleading from a distance.

Front of the Koch Temple

As we approached the temple, groups of village boys surrounded the temple boundary to have a look at us, as they were not used to seeing persons visiting the temple with a digital camera. It was just a local temple for them, seldom visited by outsiders and of no special interest. The onlookers gave a puzzled look as we started taking photographs of the ancient structure. They disappeared after some time.

As we entered the premises enclosed within a boundary wall, several stone pillars were seen lying in the garden. The garden was full of bushes and grass which had outgrown following the monsoons. As we looked around, some statues could be seen peeping out of the herbs. To photograph these one had to make a lot of effort, and actually had to uproot some herbs to expose the precious and timeless creations crafted by humans in remote ancient times. The sculptors in that age would not have imagined that their works of art would one day lie mutilated and neglected in this state.

Priceless Statue lying behind bushy growth in the debris
Ornamented Statue
Statues in the Temple Premises

It was on the 3rd December, 1811 that Buchanan had visited the temple town of Koch. He mentions :-

Koch is a very large village, mostly tiled as indeed is the case with a great many houses on the way. A few are neat, being smooth and painted, and a very little pains might make such houses very pretty, but in general they are very rough and slovenly. From entering the town I went about half a mile north to an old temple of Siva, which is a little beyond the town. The north end of the town stands on some large heaps of bricks and stones, usually said to be remains of the Kol. Beyond these heaps and a mud fort recently gone to ruin, is a tank, and on the west side of this is a large heap of bricks and granite, among which are some pillars of a curious structure but not exceeding four feet in length.

The whole of these ruins are supposed to have belonged to the temple of Siva, and the vulgar allege that they are work of the Kol, but the priest says that he knows nothing of the Kol, and that the temple was built by Raja Bairu Indra, but the priest knows nothing of what country he governed, where he dwelt, to what caste he belonged, nor when he lived. I am inclined to think that the temple is of very modern date, as so much of the plaster by which it was encrusted remains entire that it cannot well be above four or five centuries old. It further seems to me to have been built on the ruins of a former temple.”

Short accounts of the ruins were given by Kittoe in 1847 and by Peppe in 1865, when he had taken photographs of the main temple. Later Beglar and Cunningham have furnished very detailed accounts of the ruins. The main object of interest at Konch is the Shaiva temple of Koncheshwar Mahadeva, which, it appears, was in good condition in the time of Buchanan. From its photograph taken by Peppe in 1865 and published by Cunningham (ASI Report XVI) it appears to have suffered some damage before 1865 and, as stated by the Bengal List, it was already partly dilapidated around 1896, though it was still then, in worship.

The temple consists of the sanctum sanctorum only in plan, but it is likely that formerly there existed a pillared hall since several granite pillars and pilasters can be seen lying outside in the debris. The sanctum is 28’ square externally and 11.25’ internally, with the Lingam inside still being worshipped. The walls inside have niches for holding lamps. The roof inside is in the form of a tunnel vault, consisting of arcs meeting at crown in a ridge and built of cut to shape bricks, in a rather ingenious device, wherein the bricks are placed edge to edge to form an arch. Above the vaulted roof is an upper chamber, inside the tower, having its entrance in front, in the form of a rectangle, headed by a triangle, formed by overlapping of bricks, a characteristic quite peculiar with the temples also at Deo and Umga in Aurangabad district nearby. Externally the tower is curvilinear, each wall being divided into seven faces by deeply recessed upright lines, the carved ornamentation being limited to brick mouldings and indentations, covered by a later coat of plaster.

Pillars lying in front of Temple

Some entrance hall must have existed in front of the main sanctum, as indicated by the numerous granite pillars and pilasters now lying in front must have supported the roof. Cunningham adds that a similar portico of two rows was added to the main temple at Nalanda, and another of a single row to the front of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. Cunningham says that the existing pillared hall was added later to the main sanctum. This can be seen from the large thickness of the front wall, clearly composed of two walls touching each other, the outer wall of 18” thickness having been added to support the roof of the front hall. The pillars and capitals of this hall lying in the debris are profusely carved; but the workmanship is rough and coarse. Each shaft has a large lotus flower at top, where it joins a similar half flower carved on the face of a two armed bracket.

Several statues are kept preserved in the front hall of the temple which is enclosed by a grill door that we had to personally open to get access inside. The lingam within the garbha griha or sanctum sanctorum is called as Koncheshwar Mahadev. It is regularly worshipped as could be seen from the wet floors and offerings nearby. The statues lying on the floor outside the garbha griha are very beautiful and include a very rare one of the avatars of Vishnu in which the sequence of the avatars is altered by design. This is the most interesting statue of the temple which is lying neglected. The security of these priceless statues was seen to be negligible, and these may be lost forever if not properly attended to.

The Interesting Vishnu Dasavtara sculpture of Konch

The famous and curious Dasavatara Sculpture
This is the most interesting of sculptures in the temple. This has been                         described to be the most curious of sculptures by Buchanan and Cunningham.   About the statues in the front hall, Buchanan has mentioned

Before it are lying many images carved in relieve on hornblende. These were probably among the ornaments of the former temple. Among them are many of Surja, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesa, Hurgauri, Krishna and Rada, etc.; and two remarkable groups, one representing the avatars of Vishnu, among which the Budh is omitted and Rada put in to supply his place. The other I have nowhere else observed. It represented eight females sitting in a row on an equal number of animals, but it is called Naugraha so that one figure has probably been broken away.”

The representations of the figures as they occur in the interesting piece of sculpture are as described below, and are compared with the traditional sequence expected in any sculpture of Das Avatar.

S.

No.

Sequence in Sculpture at Koch (Described in words of Cunningham) Identification by Cunningham Usual Expected Sequence of Avatars in any Sculpture
1 Fish standing on its tail Matsya Matsya
2 Churing of the Ocean Kurma Kurma
3 The usual boar-headed incarnation Varaha Varaha
4 The usual lion-headed incarnation Narsimha Narsimha
5 Short figure carrying an umbrella as the symbol of universal dominion. Buddha Vaman
6 Dwarf with leg raised 3 heads above the foot, and horse below Vaman Parasu Rama
7 Figure with Club Identified as Balarama to represent the Krishna avatar by Cunningham Rama Chandra
8 Figure with Axe Parasu Rama Krishna
9 Figure with arrows Rama Chandra Buddha
10 Male and Female figures with horse. Kalki Kalki

It can be seen that the figures from S.No. 5 to 9 as tabulated above and seen in the photograph, are differing from the usual placing of the avatars. Buchanan had earlier observed that the place of Buddha is replaced by Radha, while Beglar had described it as filled by “a standing figure holding a staff diagonally across”. Cunningham has identified Figure No. 5 to be the Buddha and mentioned that he thought that the unusual placement of the avatars was not by accident but by design. He mentions that the sculptor may have been specially forbidden to introduce the figure of Buddha, and to make up the number, he brought in Balarama with his club, and changed the usual order of the avatars, so as to place either Krishna or Buddha in a position which would escape observation. Balarama is representative of his brother Krishna, while the unidentified figure with the umbrella remains as the representative of the Buddha. It certainly is different from the usual representations of the Buddha avatar; but as Sakya Sinha was aprince, the umbrella may have been introduced to symbolize his royalty.

Cunningham has numbered 19 statues in the hall as follows, which is worthwhile to be checked with existing ones, to see whether they still exist after such a long gap. The following sculptures have been noted by Cunningham as lying in the front hall. They can be seen by the visitor and counted to confirm as in the photographs.

       

  1. The Das Avatar, 4 feet 1.5 inches by 1 foot 6 inches.
  2. Standing figure of Siva with 8 arms.
  3. Standing figure of Vishnu between 3 to 3.5 feet in height.
  4. Standing figure of Vishnu between 3 to 3.5 feet in height.
  5. Standing figure of Vishnu between 3 to 3.5 feet in height.
  6. Standing figure of Vishnu between 3 to 3.5 feet in height.
  7. Standing figure with 2 arms, 2 flying figure above.
  8. Standing figure with 2 arms, boots on feet, probably Surya.
  9. Vishnu, 4 armed.
  10. Vishnu, 4 armed
  11. Ganesa with elephant head.
  12. Siva, 4 armed as usual.
  13. Surya, 2 armed, standing, 7 horses on pedestal.
  14. Vishnu, 4 armed.
  15. Kama Deva with bows and arrows, 2 feet, 7.5 inches.
  16. Lakshmi, seated, being anointed by 2 elephants.
  17. Boar- headed female, with child sitting on bull, trishul in hand (Varahi ?)
  18. Siva and Parbati, 2 feet 10 inches, both figures standing. Siva is holding Parbati’s right hand. Above are the heavenly musicians, and below is the God Brahma, between the feet of Siva and Parbati.
  19. Raja on horse-back, broken.

Above : Details of the Sculptures in the Pillared Front Hall

A few Buddhist sculptures were also seen by Buchanan in the ruins, two of them containing inscriptions of the usual Buddhist type. Buchanan mentions

“Among the others were two of Buddh, the only ones which contain inscriptions. They were broken, and the head of one and legs of the other have been lost, but the whole figure may be made out from the two. Their hands are in a posture different from the common, but over the head of one is placed a smaller Bouddh in the usual posture. I could hear of no other inscription at the place.

Buddhist Images in Debris
Buddha

The sculptures are primarily hindu; but how they are associated with the present temple is not still fully clear; for they certainly did not belong to the sanctum or to the mandap (tower) which has no provision to accommodate these images. Beglar quotes Kittoe for a local tradition that the temple was originally dedicated to the Surya; but Cunningham mentions that since the present Lingam appears to be in situ, it appears, there existed some other temple or temples in the locality, from which some of the sculptures may have been collected. It is also not unlikely that a Buddhist temple also existed in the vicinity.

There have been several views about the age of the temple. Buchanan did not consider it to be of high antiquity and he was told that it was built by a certain Raja Bhairavendra of whose history little was known at that time. Beglar compared the structure of this temple with that of the famous Mahabodhi Temple and dated it to the 6th century. Cunningham has mentioned having heard in 1862 about the existence of an inscribed slab at the temple, which was taken away by some gentleman about 30 years back then, and is thus lost. According to Cunningham it resembled the Deo Barunarak temple and was thus dated to 8th century. The front opening formed by overlapping bricks has been described as resembling the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. Because of the close similarity with the temples at Deo and Umga, the latter having an inscription of King Bhairavendra of about 1450 A.D., Bloch assigned the construction to the 15th century A.D., a view which closely agrees with that of Buchanan. The board put up by the ASI in the front of the temple conclusively mentions the temple to belong to the 8th century A.D.

Board of ASI dating temple to the 8th century

Externally the Konch Temple differs from the two great temples at Nalanda and Bodh Gaya, in having its sides curved instead of being straight lines from top to bottom. It differs also in the style of ornamentation, as there are no niches and consequently no enshrined images.

Just outside the temple, there is an old pond which is surrounded on all sides by an elevated mud platform. The sides on excavation may yield remains of earlier constructions as bricks could be seen peeping as I walked along the corners of the pond. The pond may in earlier times have been surrounded by temples of which only one has stood the test of time. Boys were seen playing cricket on the banks of the pond, which would have been a witness to rituals of men in ancient times and would have seen young children playing and swimming in it for ages. It lies today as nature would have left it.

Pond in front of the Main Temple at Konch
Statues in Front Hall at Temple
View of Temple at Konch

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