The Dashavatara – One of the Earliest Indian Temples

Atop a picturesque forested ridge on the banks of the Vetravati (Betwa), in an obscure corner of Uttar Pradesh, is located a priceless gem surviving from the Gupta age. Seldom visited by tourists even as it marks one of the earliest phases of temple architecture in India, the artistic magnificence of the sculptures at the Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh is sure to transport the spellbound visitor into a flashback journey to those times which are often addressed as having been the Golden Age of Indian Culture. This temple had lied forgotten for centuries in the wilderness, and was first noticed by Captain Charles Strahan during the topographical survey in 1870-71. Cunningham, however, was the first to describe it in detail after his tour of 1874-77, and referred to it as the “Gupta Temple” since no other name was then found for this temple. It was subsequently renamed as Dashavatara Mandir  since several incarnations of Vishnu like Rama, Krishna, Balarama, Narsimha, Vamana etc., were found depicted in the various panels which originally may have contained representations of all 10 avatars, and also locally as Sagar Marh (meaning: the temple by the well).

Vishnu resting on Shesha Naga at Dashavatara Temple

Now an important part of the Silent Pages, my fascination for the ancient temples at Deogarh (near Lalitpur) and Bhitargaon (near Kanpur) in Uttar Pradesh, dates back to my school days when I was first introduced to them through the photographs and brief descriptions contained in the 8th Standard History chapter on the Gupta age. The images had lingered on in my mind since those early school days, and, I often used to wonder about those times when these temples would have been fully functional and famous. My quest for learning more about such neglected but historically important sites increased as I grew up and when I started travelling around, a visit to these temples was one of the first planned on my itinerary. It was thus in 2001, during the days just after the completion of my studies at IIT Kanpur, that I was fortunate to find an opportunity to visit the Bhitargaon Brick Temple.  However, a trip to Deogarh, even though always on the probable itinerary being not very far from Kanpur, still remained almost like a childhood wish. It could finally materialise only after several years on 10th January, 2015.

The Dashavatara Temple at Sunset time

Memories of a Visit to Bhitargaon in 2001

As I boarded the ‘Shatabdi Express’ from New Delhi early in the foggy January morning along with my wife and children to reach Lalitpur, my thoughts recalled the earlier Bhitargaon visit. I remembered those dear friends who though not seemingly keen enough, but upon having somehow been persuaded with passionate descriptions about the temple, had then accompanied me.  I had then needed company since I was not very sure about the exact routes and modes of travel and did not want to wander alone. The journey was a long one as the roads to Bhitargaon were in a pathetic state of disrepair, and the bus we took from Kanpur happened to be quite rickety. All along the jerky bus ride on the way to Bhitargaon, thoroughly resounding with folk musical numbers rendered aloud in the highest volume, my friends had been looking at me wondering as to what drove me into choosing such extraordinary adventures and peculiar liking for old ruined spots. As we reached the Temple with much effort, I was very excited to witness the past Glory of the Gupta Period and got engrossed in analyzing the details of the surviving terracotta panels on the sides of the ancient temple. After some time it was funny to notice some villagers who had gathered around from the vicinity and were glancing at us full of surprise since the site which appeared quite insignificant to them having been out of worship since long, was witnessing a visit by some unknown young tourists.

Bhitargaon Brick Temple in 2001

I would shortly be writing in full detail about the Bhitargaon Brick temple, located at about 45 kms from Kanpur. But, for readers who are totally unfamiliar with the otherwise non-descript village, I must mention a brief. Bhitargaon’s importance lies in that it houses one of the earliest instances of a significant brick temple structure covered throughout with terracotta sculptures of superb workmanship and with a shikhara. Having most likely been erected shortly after the reign of Kumaragupta II (d. 455 AD), it represents the initial stages of shift from stone as the building material to terracotta / brick, as within a century, a number of other brick temples are seen as having come up in the near vicinity, such as the elaborate temple complex at Bhitari, near Varanasi, in the reign of Skandagupta (d. 467 AD).

At the Bhitargaon Brick Temple in 2001

The temple, built on a square plan with double-recessed corners and facing east with a tall pyramidal spire over the garbhagriha, as it exists today is largely a reconstruction from the early years of Indian Archaeology under the British with many features reflecting the state of knowledge about Indian Architecture in the period (end 19th c). The walls are decorated with terracotta panels depicting mythological themes, Shiva and Vishnu etc. When Cunningham had first visited the site in 1877-78, the remains of the porch and of the ardhamandapa were still visible, which later collapsed in 1894 after a lightning strike, and was re-constructed. In a Photograph from 1878 by Joseph Beglar (British Museum), one can see the substantial entrance porch (ardha-mandapa), now simplified. There was serious disagreement about how the shikhara may have looked, due to which the top quarter of the temple remained untouched, with weeds growing freely between the bricks. The Arch of this Temple along with the one at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya are often considered as the earliest examples of the ‘Hindu Arch’.

The friends who accompanied me during the visit to Bhitargaon probably did not find it interesting enough, and thus the next trip planned together for Deogarh did not realise even as it always remained high on my radar. On this trip to Deogarh in 2015, I was thus wondering if my wife now accompanying me would also have similar thoughts after the visit. But, fortunately the splendour of the Gupta age had her awestruck, spellbound and longing for another visit, unlike what had happened with my friends in 2001.

My Visit to Deogarh in January, 2015

About 123 km from Jhansi, located along the banks of the Betwa river flowing nearby and lying in the present district of Lalitpur, Deogarh is presently a small and remote town which however still retains its importance as a pilgrimage site for the Jain community. Though there are no suitable tourist amenities in the town, it can be easily visited by a small drive (about 30 kms) from Lalitpur which falls on the route of the New Delhi to Bhopal bound Shatabdi Express. The visit which had been in my mind for years was planned suddenly on a winter night when while being posted in Delhi, I realised that my days in Delhi were quite numbered and that I should not again miss the chance to visit Deogarh in the near vicinity. I discussed the plan with my wife and kids who also agreed to accompany me. Getting reservations in the Shatabdi express was not much of a problem as seats were still available when I booked tickets on the night of Thursday for the trip on Saturday. To make the tour more interesting for my family, I also planned a trip to Orchha after the Deogarh visit and charged the batteries of my camera for a photographic rendezvous.

The early morning of 10th January, 2015 was quite foggy till we reached Gwalior with the train moving quite slowly. Even as the fog disappeared after Gwalior station, due to some unknown reasons, the train still got further delayed between Gwalior to Jhansi, halting for a long time near Datia, where the Datia fort could be seen located majestically on a hill top and thus though scheduled to reach Lalitpur at 1120 hrs, we could finally make it only at about 1520 hrs. Disembarking at Lalitpur, as we checked into the Circuit House for a brief halt to freshen up after the long train journey with energetic kids who had been fighting with each other and screaming throughout, I was not sure if we could make it to the Deogarh Temple in the remaining moments of afternoon sunlight, which were to soon fade and make way for the cold night. However, fortunately enough, on that particular day Lalitpur was not as cold as Delhi, and there was no fog obstructing the horizon. The Sun was very pleasant as we left the circuit house and kept coming down as we moved to Deogarh from Lalitpur. After a drive of around 30-35 minutes, the forest approach road to the Deogarh Temple became visible.

As one enters towards Deogarh from the road, the forests on both sides of the road suddenly part to afford the glimpse of a small shrine on the right. A board put up by the Archaeological Survey of India marks the presence of the Dashavatara Temple, beautifully positioned amidst lush greenery and pristine natural surroundings along the right bank of the Betwa river, where the cliffs at the western end of the Lalitpur range of hills are seen as immediately overhanging and often rise to a height of 300 feet forming along a steep ridge of red sandstone. At this juncture which separates the quiet and obscure corner of Uttar Pradesh from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, the river takes a deep curve to the west and passes through the extremely picturesque country side. The deep green river waters also house a small island clad in rich verdure, located in the middle of the river, lending an added charm to the site which is sure to mesmerize any visitor entering this tranquil setting by the beauty and antiquity of what he witnesses.

In the Temple Compound

It was like a dream come true as I entered the precincts of the Dashavatara Temple in the pleasant cool weather where the sight of the setting Sun rays beautifully lighting up portions of the temple was almost divine. I got on the job with my camera adjusting the lenses and the exposure, trying to make the best of the opportunity provided by the rays of the setting Sun and could get about 40 minutes for relaxed photography, before it finally became dark.  My wife and children roamed around the temple ruins waiting very patiently for me to end my madness with the lens. A guide from the archaeological department turned up thinking that a very special visitor had made it to the temple on that cold January evening. He wanted to brief me about the temple and the sculptures, but seeing my activities with the lenses, he preferred to remain mum till the Sun had finally set. Then he began with his briefing and described the different features and sculptures of the temple, mesmerizing us as we moved clockwise and ended at the sculpture of Sheshashayi Vishnu, the most famous of all in the temple.

Waiting for my madness with the Lens to end

 The Temple

This ancient masterpiece in stone-craft which survives as a gem of Gupta architecture once had intricately detailed panels adorning almost all parts from the basal platform up to the shikhara. While many of the panels which once adorned the plinth were either damaged or lost in the ensuing centuries before being rediscovered, one is sure to notice two sculpted panels to the right of the stairs leading to the main doorway of the Temple. One of these depicts Nanda and Yashoda with children, while the other represents the Vamana avatar of Vishnu. Original panels have fortunately survived in the front entrance doorway and the three side niches which retain their beautiful artistic sculptures in different moods varying from contemplation to affection that captivate the visitor. These depictions on the four walls (including entrance) of the temple are believed to represent four facets of Vishnu with the entrance as representing Vasudeva; and as one would move clockwise along the main sanctum, one would come across dramatic representations of Vishnu’s various forms based on themes of Gajendra-moksha representing  Samkarshana, the destructive aspect of Vishnu; Nar-Narayana representing Pradyumna, the preserving aspect of Vishnu; and Sheshashayi representing Aniruddha, within three deeply recessed niches on the three external sides of this temple which are enclosed within crafted pilasters supporting overhanging lintels.

Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh

Sculptures on the Main Doorway : The front entrance and the main doorway is richly ornamented and serves as an early example of evolving temple architecture in North India. Getting a feel of the dresses and jewellery of the times, one is sure to prominently notice Vishnu seated on Sheshanag (the serpent), with Lakshmi sitting down and caressing his feet, flanked by two incarnations of Narasimha (the man-lion form) on the right in reverence with Anjali posture, and Vamana (the dwarf form) on the left, all carved on the doorway (Lalatabhimba in Sanskrit), which is built with four receding bands. The two extreme-most bands on either side are resting on a figure of a lady, who from her clothing and jewellery seems to be of some high gentry, who is accompanied with a pot-bellied gana (dwarf) holding a pot which resembles characteristic pot-and-foliage Gupta style. Above this pot rises the first band with carved dhatura foliage along with its fruits, the top part of which is cut-off with the sculptures of Ganga mounted on makara on the left and Yamuna mounted on a tortoise on the right. These figures mark the vertical end of this band, which from here continues horizontally over the lintel of the door. The presence of Ganga and Yamuna on top of the door-jambs is usually seen in early Gupta temples, while later temples generally display them at the basement.

Vishnu at the Lalitabhimba

The next band, carved on two sides, starts above the figure of the lady described above with it’s both sides having two countersunk panels each in form of niches of a temple, the shikhara’s of which give clues about the form of the shikhara which once may have adorned the shrine. The lower panel has a male figure on west and a lady on south who are shown holding garlands or flowers, while the top panel has a dancer on west and a musician on south. The shaft above these panels become octagonal and later turns to sixteen-faceted topped with pot-and-foliage capital where an overhanging lintel rests above. The lintel has three large and two small chaitya shikharas in alternate fashion of which the small chaityas have a figure inside, of which one seems to be a human and another an animal, probably a lion. In between the lintel of dhatura-foliage band and the current band, a window pattern frieze is provided with embossed and countersunk panels in alternate fashion. The embossed panels have heads of lions and human while countersunk panels are empty.

The next two inner bands have a figure of male and female at their bases, probably representing the dvarapala of the shrine with his wife. A halo behind the male figure probably suggests his high ranking. The third band which has six rectangular panels, three small depicting figures of dwarfs and three big depicting amorous couples in alternate fashion, rises above the head of the lady. A kirtimukha adorns the top of the jambs where the horizontal frieze over lintel depicts flying ganas converging towards the central figure. The fourth and the innermost band emerges above the head of the dvarapala, of which the left side is formed with a vertical line of circular rosettes while the right consists of a foliage which emerges from the navel of a gana. In between the foliage which continues over the lintel, few human figures are depicted plucking flowers. The overall impact of the various carvings is superb.

The Side Panels

The panels on the three sides have their own stories to narrate, which have been beautifully effected as full of emotions using dimensions and innovative sculpting techniques.

Gajendra Moksha Panel : The North side niche has a depiction of Gajendra-moksha, a devotional story mentioned in Puranas and other ancient texts, which describes the rescue of an elephant whose leg was trapped by a crocodile in a water body. In immense pain after having struggled with the crocodile but unable to set himself free, the elephant prayed to Lord Vishnu for help who appeared on the scene as a deliverer and rescued. In the depiction here however, we find a Naga with his wife instead of a crocodile. Vishnu is depicted as seated over Garuda in flight with his wings as the Naga and his wife are seen in apologetic mode with folded hands asking for forgiveness from Vishnu. Above the panel are seen flying couples, one on either side with the males holding a crown, probably to honor Vishnu for this act of deliverance. The skilled Gupta artist has beautifully succeeded in bringing to life various emotions connected with the story in the panel. Even in the absence of modern pictography, the flying images beautifully well depicted as if being in real flight.

Gajendra Moksha panel at Deogarh

Nara-Narayan Panel : One of their rarest depictions to be found in any ancient or medieval Hindu temple, the niche on east side artistically well depicts the Nara and Narayana wearing deer skin and seated in deep meditation near the Badri tree at Badrikashrama (Badrinath) in their Himalayan abode. The importance of Nar and Narayan is well brought out in the Bhagavat Purana, which mentions them as incarnation of Vishnu, and in the Mahabharat, where they believed to be personified as Krishna and Arjuna are so highly revered that every parva (chapter) starts with an invocation to them in addition to containing other stories of their spiritual strength and prominence. The epic also describes the Badrikashrama with the famous ‘Badri’ tree in the Himalayan forest full of Deers and lions, as their ancient abode for meditation, which was also visited by the Pandavas during exile, which the sculptor has tried to depict in a lively manner.

The rare Nar-Narayan panel at Deogarh

The sculptor has succeeded in depicting the peace and serenity of meditation as the panel here depicts four-handed Narayana seated in Lalitasana posture and carrying akshamala (rosary), a lotus stalk, and probably a flower stalk in one of the upper hand while Nara is shown seated with one of his hands carrying akshamala and another in a posture similar to bhumi-sparsha mudra as seen in Buddha images. Near the top of these trees are flying couples at the ends and a female figure identified as Urvashi who is supposed to have emerged from the thighs of Narayana, in between the trees. Two ascetics are shown standing behind the figures of Nara and Narayana in the panel of which the uppermost part depicts Brahma, seated on a lotus, in the center and accompanied by two flying figures of couples, one on either side. Cunningham had earlier confused the four-armed figure of Narayan as Shiva and thus could not identify any image other than Brahma, the correct identification of which later was based upon the iconographic descriptions given in Vishnudharmottara Sutra.

Sheshashayi Vishnu: The image which struck me at the first glance and perhaps the most magnificent piece of art at Deogarh is the south wall niche which contains a unique and large sculpture of Chaturbhuj (four-handed) Vishnu, depicted as reclining on the serpent Shesha Naga with seven hoods forming a shade over his crowned head, with his head raised above on support of one of his hands. An image which leaves one mesmerized especially during the hours of Sunset when light falls upon the head of Vishnu is rare since it is without any attributes, generally seen in most Vishnu sculptures. Lakshmi (Vishnu’s consort), along with her two attendants, are depicted at Vishnu’s feet while beside him is depicted Garuda as a male figure holding a snake around his neck. Another lady figure is shown standing behind the former female figure. Brahma is depicted as emerging from somewhere behind Vishnu while other gods including Kartikeya and Indra on their respective mounts, Shiva with Parvati on Nandi accompanied with a gana and celestials are seen watching this display.

Vishnu relaxing on Shesha Nag at Deogarh

In another panel below this are shown five males and a female who have been understood to represent the two demons, Madhu and Kaitabha, getting ready to attack but being repulsed by the four ayudhapurushas (anthropomorphic forms of weapons) of Vishnu which from proper right represent Kaumaudki gada (club) in female form and Sudarshana Chakra (discus), Sarnga dhanush (bow) and Nandaka (sword), all in male forms. According to another interpretation, the lower panel depicts the five Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi positioned in the corner, with Yudhisthira being in the centre with Bhima and Arjuna on his left, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva on his right. This interpretation of the sculpture may also hold merit keeping in view that the epic Mahabharat may have influenced the sculptor’s theme as the temple also depicts the rare Nara and Narayana sculpture so important in the epic. The same is mentioned in the board put up by the ASI at the temple site.

Sanctum Sanctorum : Surprising it sounds, but sadly, the idol in the inner sanctum is missing and one can only imagine its beauty on the basis of the sculptures on the outer walls. There is a sort of shivalinga-peetha inside the sanctum which probably made Percy Brown to suggest that this was originally a Shiva temple. However the presence of a Vishnu image in the centre of the door lintel clearly holds the Vaishnava character of the temple which is also unanimously agreed upon by Cunningham, Mukerji, Vats and others.

The Present Structure inside the Temple

Sculpted panels found during excavations : Remains of several sculpted panels which were originally used to decorate the faces of the plinth and numbered about 80 as mentioned by Cunningham, were found during the excavation carried out under Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni in 1917-18. It included a unique sculpture, now housed at the National Museum in New Delhi, depicting Devaki handing over her new-born son Krishna to her husband Vasudeva, which is said to be one of the best depictions of Gupta period art, based on the sensuous and graceful modelling of the figurines. Panels were found to depict Vishnu stories from the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharat including those of Ahalya’s redemption, Rama going to exile with Sita and Lakshmana, their visit to Atri’s hermitage, Lakshmana mutilating Suparnakha, Ravana abducting Sita etc are seen over ten such Ramayana panels found here. Krishna’s birth, Nanda and Yashoda fondling their kids, Krishna hurling a cart, Krishna holding hair of Kamsa are few stories seen related to Krishna in eight panels, and others. At present, there is no such panel in situ except the two pieces on the left of the stairway leading to the main doorway, and most of the excavated panels are now exhibited in the National Museum at New Delhi or the local site museum.

Panel on plinth at Deogarh

Importance and History of the Deogarh Temple

The ruined Dashavatara Temple remains the chief attraction of Deogarh. Even though located in a very remote spot, it is one of India’s most magnificent, but least visited temples. Built in the Gupta Period (320 to c. 600 AD), it is the earliest known surviving Hindu temple built from stone with a straight edged pyramid shaped “shikhara (tower)”, the existence of which is supported by the existing features of copings and amalakas (a bulbous stone finial) and serves as a good resource for examining Gupta style sculptures and art. The style and plan of this shikhara indicates it’s being quite an evolved version even as it probably remains the earliest known surviving temple which has a shikhara. The temple which faces west with slight deviation to the south enabling the setting sun’s rays to fall upon the main idol, is also the earliest known surviving Panchayatana (where a central shrine is surrounded by four corner shrines) temple in North India as fragments of corner shrines were revealed during the excavation carried out by Daya Ram Sahni. Another major importance of Deogarh temple lies in it’s depiction of stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharat, being probably the first such surviving depiction in any temple.

The Panchayatana, Dashavatara Temple

Now generally dated to about 500 A.D., the probable date of the temple’s construction has been estimated to lie between 450 and 650 A.D by various scholars. Cunningham suggested that the temple could not be placed earlier than 600 CE and later than 700 CE since it contained a Shikhara as opposed to other flat roofed temples from the Gupta period like those at Sanchi or Eran. During excavations in 1917-18, Sahni discovered an inscription in Gupta shell characters on one of the detached pillars consisting of three lines, one in shell characters and two in Gupta script of which the shell characters’ line read “Sri Govinda” and the Gupta script lines read “Kesavapura-svami-padiya-bhagvata- and Govindasy-edam nama” (This is the name of the illustrious Bhagvata Govinda, votary of the Lord of Kesavapura). As per Sahni, the inscription is in the early Gupta characters and thus the temple should be of the early Gupta period. Banerji, though aware of the Gupta inscription found by Daya Ram Sahni, also dated the temple to 575 CE since his theory of shikhara evolution lay in the later part of the sixth century. Percy Brown assigned the temple to 500 CE, and this dating is agreed by Sahni and Vats.

Plan of the Original Temple

The original plan of the temple perplexed several scholars who proposed different schemes of reconstruction till M S Vats proposed a design based upon archaeological evidence and upon the prototypes of contemporary temples as depicted in the sculpted panels found on the main doorway of the shrine. During the visit of Strahan and Cunningham, the temple structure was in ruins with the plinth mostly covered with debris. Even as the presence of a partially surviving shikhara was visible, the remains did not give any indication of the original temple design. Due to the pillars that Cunningham had found in situ within the debris contained on the temple plinth, he assessed them as having been designed to support roofed porticoes in the four sides of the temple as approached from the stairways. However, the concept was later disputed by several archaeologists and Indologists who revealed that design of the Vishnu temple of Deogarh was to be traced from the ideal temple design as described in the Vishnudharmottara Purana. A conjectural restoration of the Shikhara by Pandit M S Vats suggests that the tower was a straight-edged pyramid built in receding tiers, three in number. On center of each, a deeply recessed niche in form of a chaitya arch is carried upward till the spire. The arch was topped with pointed triangular medallion in center. Amalakas were placed on the corners and the top of the uppermost tier. On these grounds, this temple shikhara aligns more with the Dravidian style rather than with the Nagara style prevalent in Northern India.

Archaeological Guide, Deogarh

The temple is constructed on high-raised plinth, measuring 55.5 feet (16.9 m) square and about 9 feet (2.7 m) above the bottom step (called the moon stone) of the shrine, and virtually divided into nine equal size squares with the main shrine built in the central square of 18.5 feet square with the sanctum being 9.75 feet square from onside. The four corner shrines, placed on each corner, measure about 11 feet square and the total height of the shrine based on isometric projections is about 45 feet (14 m). Access to the platform is provided from all the four sides through staircases in the middle. Cunningham, unaware of the Panchayatana structure found later upon excavation, had found two pillars, 9.5 feet high, of the Gupta order lying over the plinth and had thought that these pillars would have been used for supporting a portico as seen in other Gupta temple. Also having found portions of architraves, 3 to 4 feet long, coming out from the top of the side walls, at the height of 13.5 feet, he had then proposed that the pillars along with base and capital would have reached 13.5 feet height and thus supported a canopy with flat roof on each side of this temple. However as no base and capital was found at the site and since against sixteen pillars according to his plan, only four such pillars were found, the latest study by M S Vats proposes the existence of a shade, 5 feet wide, probably built to protect the niches and supported by jutting cantilever beams seen surviving on the eastern side, on all four sides. The slabs forming this canopy were tapered outward. M D Vats does not go with Cunningham or Brown as he states that there was no portico supported on pillars. His reasoning is based upon lack of findings of such pillars at the site. He then suggests that the architraves jutting out of the walls were used to support flat stone roof to provide a shade on all four sides. This stone roof was tapered at the outside and no support was provided from the pillars as the architraves were adequate enough to support this roof.

Perspective

Temple Architecture in India and the Importance of the Deogarh Temple

A student of temple architecture in India is often bewildered to understand that even as the origin of Indian civilisation dates back to almost 5000 years, the history of Hindu temples is perhaps not that ancient. Not much is still authoritatively known about temple building activities during the Indus-Sarasvati culture, though fire altars have been found in abundance at several sites probably indicating the presence of Vedic sacrifices in the civilisation.  Going through ancient scriptures, one also learns that temple building may not have been in vogue during the Vedic age and were gradually conceived as one does find references to Temples as Abode of Gods i.e. “devayatan” in the Mahabharat and subsequent literature. Still, it emerges that at the time when Greece and Rome had started building temples for their Gods,  the Buddhists in India had started with the erection of Stupas and other religious structures, while the majority of then Hindus of India were probably still either practising fire worship or worshipping in temples constructed out of wooden or mud-brick materials which have not survived. Idol worship in India was majorly introduced as a result of the Buddhist traditions of the Mahayana school which started making physical images of the Buddha to convey a sense of devotion in the mind of the worshipper.

It is interesting to trace the development of temple architecture in Ancient India as early Indians perhaps may have used temple shrines constructed out of wood or other materials which perhaps have not survived till the day making it difficult to study any other modes of worship that may have been prevalent. Buddhist iconography however has very distinct archaeological evidence dating from the days of the Buddha himself. There is evidence to show the burials in stupas in the Buddha’s age itself, which received a further filip and became very organised during the Mauryan rule of Asoka. Apart from the chaityas and stupas, several caves were also excavated for mendicants, which are represented by the caves of Rajagriha including the Sone Bhandar and the Saptaparni caves. The Hindus who were probably faced with a new challenge due to the attraction of the masses by the Buddhist places of worship and pilgrimage, perhaps reacted in a competitive manner and started building shrines to honor and worship the gods and mythological themes in order to instill a sense of devotion among the common folk, who were being easily lured by Buddhists and Jains, who were extensively using shrines to propagate their faith.

Hindu faith of the time had traversed a long journey from the early Rig Vedic age, when people still lived an agrarian life and offered sacrifices in colonies, which often had to struggle from invasions. Time had led to a synthesis of various thoughts all of which had led to the formation of an accommodative way of life which would gradually emerge as what we know today as Hinduism. The rise of the Gupta rulers towards the 4th century marked a dominant revival of Hinduism, after almost 700 years of struggle with the challenging alternatives of Buddhism, Jainism and others. There had been a brief interregnum when the heart of the country in the Gangetic belt was being ruled by foreign rulers under the Kushanas, who had later embraced and vigorously promoted Buddhism. Although some elements of this new revivalist Hindu religion were still in common with the early Vedic religion, there were some major fundamental differences in way of rituals and worshipped deities. In particular, the primary sacrificial deities such as Indra and Agni were replaced by two main deities, Shiva and Vishnu each of whom had a multitude of forms or incarnations as well as consorts. This change probably allowed several local deities and cults to be appropriated into the Hindu pantheon. The preferred method of worship also changed from open-air sacrificial altars to viewing the physical representation of the deity (darshana) in a confined sanctum.

Their survival is undoubtedly due to their relative isolation being south to the main invasion routes, and also due to their being built of stone which was not destroyed as easily as the ones made of brick in Madhyadesha. The earliest free-standing religious building has been identified by A L Basham as one small round hall at Bairat near Jaipur dating from the 3rd century B.C., which probably originally contained a Buddhist Stupa and was made of brick and wood. The next landmark was the temple at Jandial, excavated from one of the mounds of Takshashila (Taxila, now in NWFP, Pakistan), which was probably Zoroastrian and contained a square inner sanctuary, a meeting hall and a courtyard with its outer and inner entrances flanked by two large pillars of orthodox Ionian pattern. There are no remains of free-standing Hindu temples erected before the Gupta period, though by this time they must have been built in wood, clay and brick. The Gazetteer of India mentions about the excavation of several deva-grhas (houses of gods) of pre-Christian centuries in extremely fragmentary state and perhaps dating back to the 2nd century B.C., built out of perishable materials. J.C. Harle mentions that the first Hindu icons were made during the Kusana period in Mathura, where their appearance coincides with the emergence of the two great theistic systems of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. Usually small in size, only insignificant numbers have survived in comparison to the Buddhist and Jain images. Examples of an apsidal-ended shrine surrounded by a peristyle are known to exist in those times from a relief also testified by the excavated remains of earliest surviving Naga Shrine at Sonkh, Mathura. It is among the hilly wooded tracts of Madhya Pradesh, on the southern fringes of the Gupta empire, that the majority of the earliest free-standing shrines are to be found belonging to the later Gupta period.

Early Temples of India from the Gupta age

The earliest phase of architectural activity of the Guptas, who patronized and sponsored temples to Vishnu and Shiva from the beginning of the 4th century AD, can be seen in the rock-cut chambers at Udayagiri, which can definitely be dated to the reign of Chandragupta II on the basis of inscriptional evidence. Hewn out of a sandstone cliff, their significance of the nine rock-cut chambers is that they contain an appropriate shrine chamber with a pillared portico in front which augurs the initial development of a Hindu temple. It was soon followed by free standing temples which marked the beginning of a new Hindu architecture that drew on earlier Buddhist sculptural techniques, but initiated a new movement, ultimately leading to the great and elaborate Hindu temples from the 8th century onwards. There were five main types of temple built in the Gupta period of which the first consisted of a square sanctuary with a flat-roof and shallow pillared porch in front. Representative types of this early temple include the Temple No 17 at Sanchi, Kankali Devi shrine at Tigawa, and Vishnu and Varaha temples at Eran, all in Madhya Pradesh. Each of them consists of a simple square sanctum cella with an open pillared porch in front. The richly carved door-frame projects a little beyond the line of the front wall, while the other three walls are kept severely plain. Elaborations of this basic form were soon to emerge as the second type of temples were built with a flat-roofed square sanctum with a square ambulatory around it and preceded by a pillared porch, sometimes with a second storey above as represented by the surviving structures like the Parvati Devi temple at Nachna Kuthara, the Shiva temple at Bhumara (both in Madhya Pradesh) and the Lad Khan at Aihole.

The third type was designed as a square temple with a low and squat pyramidal shikhara (tower) above as best represented by the  Brick temple at Bhitargaon and the Vishnu temple at Deogarh built entirely of stone, which though with the same simplicity of design as the previous two groups, does show certain developments in having a high platform as base and a tower as the superstructure adding much to the elevation. Instead of plain bare walls, the Deogarh temple has sculpture on the three faces enclosed within pilasters while the Bhitargaon temple has the effect further emphasised by a rectangular offset projection in the middle of each side which results in a cruciform ground-plan. The 2nd and 3rd designs of the initial Gupta temples contain the basic formula which proved highly successful and was to be replicated and adapted thereby crystallising into distinctive temple styles respectively in the North and South throughout the subcontinent for many of the following centuries. The Deogarh temple also represents the arrangement known as the panchayatana, which became popular throughout the subcontinent, even up to the 18th century.

Dashavatara Vishnu panel, Deogarh

Fourth type was a rectangular temple with an apsidal back and a barrel-vaulted roof above as represented by a temple at Ter (Sholapur district) and the Kapoteshwara Temple at Cezarla (Krishna district). The fifth type was a circular temple with shallow rectangular projections at the four cardinal faces as represented by the solitary monument known as Maniyar Math (shrine of Mani Nag) at Rajgir, Bihar, now in a fragmentary condition. The 4th and 5th temple designs which appear as adaptations of the earlier forms, do not however, seem to have had any marked effect on the subsequent developments. The great Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya, commemorating the spot where the Buddha gained enlightenment is also essentially a temple of this period but so burdened with later restorations that it is hardly recognizable as a Gupta-period temple. It has a particularly majestic sikhara, decorated with ornamental niches and arches rising over a square sanctum to a great height. The Pawaya Brick Temple ruins indicate the remnants of one of the largest temples of the period, of which nothing but the platform has remained. Many of these early Hindu stone temples were dedicated to a single Hindu deity.

Deogarh and it’s History

The town of Deogarh is of great antiquarian, epigraphical and archaeological importance and has figured in the history of the Guptas, the Gurjara – Pratiharas, the Gondas, the Muslim rulers of Delhi, of Kalpi, the Marathas and the British. In the Mahabharat description, this region could have lied on the southern borders of Panchala, but more research is required before reaching conclusions. Deogarh, which seems to have been an ancient name, however, was not the original name of the town as it has been referred as Lauchcchagira in a ninth century inscription of the King Bhoja. A fort was constructed here and the village thereafter is named as Karnali-ka-kila (the fort of Karnali). However who was this Karnali and when this name change happened is still unknown. The town witnessed another name change when the Chandellas won over this region from the Paramaras of Kanauj in 1097 CE. An inscription of the Chandella king Kirtiverma engraved by his minister, Vats-raj, informs that the Chandellas emerged victorious in this war and the place is referred as Kirti-giri-durg, probably on the name of the Chandella king. The present name, Deogarh, is probably due to a local Dev dynasty which flourished in the 19th century. This region in Uttar Pradesh was ruled by a succession of dynasties, the most noted being the Chandella kings who ruled from the 9th to the 12th centuries as the majority of the Hindu and Jain temples that remain date to this period.

Antiquities at Deogarh

New discoveries of antiquities are a continuous process in Deogarh, as I learnt during my visit when a Buddhist cave was discovered just days back along the riverside ridge. The town also hosts a multitude of Jaina temples and caves devoted to Hindu and Buddhist deities. The forested grounds opposite the Dashavatara rises abruptly into a hill which covered in vegetation, directly overlooks the Betwa on three sides. The fort atop the hill was built at this spot with a view to cement a line of defence on the river, from any attackers coming from the south or west. While the fort is largely ruined, conservation efforts within have seen a set of Jain temples being preserved. The ASI lists as many as 31 Jain temples here, dated into two broad periods of temple-building with about 2000 sculptures at one place, which is probably the only collection of its kind in the world. In what is a virtual museum of Jain art, the place has manasthamba votive pillars standing in the courtyard of temples; sahastrakuta pillars each depicting a thousand gods as well as panels showcasing mythological events such as the penance of the various tirthankaras. Both the quality of the rock cuts and the sheer numbers amaze a visitor.

Apart from the Jain antiquities, much of Deogarh still remains to be fully explored as new discoveries are regularly being reported. Going down the steep steps at Naharghati at the east end of the Deogarh fort to the Betwa river is a memorable experience in itself. Amidst the dense undergrowth that surrounds the Jain complex, human hands have cut through a walking path which allows visitors to reach further treasures around. In one corner is a ruined Varaha shrine. In three separate spots, steps are cut into the cliffs overlooking the river from ghats. Alongside most of these are Hindu rock cut carvings which predate the Jain temples at the top of the hill. There are few rock-cut carvings as well in the valley of the river. The amazing rock cut caves at Siddha-ki-Gufa date back to 6th century. The important Kuraiya Bir Temple is also located inside the forest area near Devgarh. A visit to Deogarh is highly recommended for all interested in learning more about the early stages of Hinduism as we know it today. As time proceeds, Deogarh may add further to our understanding.

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