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Muktesvara Temple, Somavamshi, 10th c

Orissan Temples

The earliest temples in this region are in the city of Bhubaneswar where the basic north Indian style was adopted by the Shailodbhava dynasty in the 7th century. Under the succeeding dynasties (Bhauma Kara, Somavamshi, and Ganga) a unique and confident Orissan style evolved and Orissan craftsmen built structures that were monumental as well as intricate. The mature Orissan style has as many as three congregational halls in front of the sanctum each with its own pyramidal tower, ascending in height from the outermost hall to the soaring sanctum sikhara.

The city of Bhubaneswar alone has nearly 50 examples of this style, both great and small, built from the 7th to the 13th century. Many of these temples are concentrated around the Bindusagar, an ancient holy lake, including the Parasuramesvara temple which is one of the earliest, built around the 7th century. The walls of this temple are carved with finely modeled sculptures of dieties, but the interiors, as in almost all examples of the style, are left plain.

The nearby Muktesvara temple (10th century) is often considered the most finely finished example of the early Orissan style. Probably intended for royal rather than public worship this small temple has a square sanctum with a ridged curvilinear sikhara and an attached hall with a pyramidal roof. All surfaces both inside and out are richly carved including the low enclosing wall and the arched entrance or torana. Another noteworthy example is the Brahmesvara temple, dated to the mid-10th century.

Parasuramesvara, Sailodbhava, 7th c

The most magnificent building in Bhubaneswar, however, is the great Lingaraja temple (11th century), an achievement of Orissan architecture at its pinnacle. By this time Orissan craftsmen has acquired sufficient mastery over the architecture to be able to build them on a grand scale. The curvilinear spire of the Lingaraja soars to over 40 metres and the sanctum wall is divided into two horizontal rows, or registers, replete with statuary. The attached halls are also massive, yet exquisitely and minutely carved. This temple would soon be surpassed both in size and popularity by the Jagannatha temple built at Puri by in the 12th century by the rulers of the Ganga dynasty. The spire of this temple reaches a height of 65 metres and the vast complex is filled with scores of subsidiary shrines and surrounded by a fortified wall.

Still, the most famous example from this period of monumental Orissan architecture is the colossal building at Konarak, dedicated to Surya, the sun god, and built in the 13th century. The temple and its accompanying hall are conceived in the form of a great chariot drawn by horses. The sikhara over the main sanctum has entirely collapsed, and all that survives are the ruins of the sanctum and the main mandapa, or hall, and also a separate dancing hall. Of these, the main mandapa is now the most conspicuous, its gigantic phamsana sikhara rising in three stages and adorned with colossal figures of musicians and dancers. All surfaces of this massive granite structure are intricately carved, the best sculpture being preserved for sides of the high basement platform and the wheels of the chariot, but the quality of the work is inferior to the earlier temples.

Because the Orissan style usually favours a curvilinear sikhara over the sanctum, the composite spire of the Rajarani temple (11th century) at Bhuvanesvara is quite exceptional. Of particular interest as a late survival of early building traditions are the Sisiresvara and the Vaital Deul (8th century), also at Bhuvanesvara, the sanctum of which are rectangular in plan, the sikhara imitating a pointed barrel vault. Besides Bhuvanesvara, Puri, and Konarak, important groups of temples are to be found at Khiching and Mukhalingam.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha