There is a legend that during a sojourn at Kashi (a holy town on the banks of the river Ganges) with all the other gods and goddesses, Shiva the ascetic sought serenity and solitude. Narad, the heavenly minstrel, suggested a verdant region on the eastern coast.

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Shiva turned to Vishnu, the Lord of Lords, for permission. And Vishnu said, why, if he liked it, Shiva could stay there forever. So it is not surprising that once upon a time there were 1,500 temples dedicated to Bhuvaneshwar, or “Lord of the Universe” (Shiva), for his permanent abode there.

Bhuvaneshwar, known today as Bhubaneswar, is the capital of Orissa, adjoining the Bay of Bengal. We landed there on a balmy mid-October morning on our way to the famous pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple at Puri. (If you look at a map of Orissa, Bhubaneswar stands on the national highway between Kolkata and Chennai, slightly west of Puri.) Since our bookings at the Panthaniwas, Puri—reputed to be the best accommodation there—were already confirmed, the best way to enjoy the area seemed to be to get off the train at Bhubaneswar and to complete the remaining 60 kms (37 miles) by road. The arrangements were made obligingly by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation.

To our amazement, Bhubaneswar was like a vast open air museum. Magnificent red, cream, brown, and gray temples, rising like sentinels up to 100 feet or more, emerged silently upon the skyline amidst fields, parks and coconut palms as we trundled along on a rickety rickshaw—the only mode of transport available at that time of the day. Time and again, the rickshaw-puller would get down for a heave-ho on the potholed stretches, then climb up again to resume the wobbly ride.

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In the peaceful atmosphere, it was difficult to believe that this was the backdrop of one of the fiercest battles in history—the Battle of Kalinga circa 264 BC, that left over 100,000 military and civilian dead, turning the waters of the nearby Daya river a bloody red. Emperor Ashoka, the initiator of this carnage, was driven to irrevocable remorse. He bid a permanent farewell to arms and instead embraced Buddhism—a religion of non-violence and compassion—with complete sincerity. Ashoka’s stone inscriptions, spreading his message kindness and compassion, formed the basis of a harmonious confluence of Jain, Buddhist, and Shaivite cultures from then on.

What we were witnessing now at Bhubaneswar was a chronological record of the Kalinga (original name of Orissa) School of Architecture, spanning some 2,000 years from inception to perfection. Of the 1,500 temples that had been built in this area in this period, the ravages of time have left only 500 extant. 429 of these temples have been declared protected monuments by the Archeological Survey of India, while the remaining structures are believed to be too dilapidated and unsafe to merit attention. Frankly, we had not expected Bhubaneswar to be such a treasure trove of temples. But the guide provided by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) seemed to have done his homework well, and served to us just the icing on the cake. Our tour of the town began with a minor temple complex consisting of the well-preserved 7th centuryParsurameswar temple juxtaposed with the exquisite 10th century Mukteswar temple. (It must be remembered here that all names ending with “eswar” refer to Shiva as the presiding deity.) Parsurameswar is derelict, clean, serene, and cool. Just the type of place one would like to settle down with a book, if possible. And we did come across a young boy sitting with his books, preparing for his exams. The outer walls of this temple are embellished with finely carved floral and animal motifs, along with sculptures of Vishnu, Yama, Surya, and the Mother Goddess, amongst other deities.

Mukteshwar seems to be a masterpiece created by the hands of jewelers and lace-makers rather than sculptors and masons. The arched toran (lintel) at the entrance marks a confluence of Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist art. The walls are made up of delicately intricate filigree work alongside ornately crafted tales from the Panchtantra.

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Another 10th century temple not too far away,Brahmeswar, has the distinction of being a live temple. In other words, the flame burning here is over a thousand years old. Shiva’strishul (trident) and his vehicle, the Chamundi bull, guard the entrance to his sanctum. Brahmeswar is believed to be the first temple to make structural use of iron beams inside and to portray dancers and musicians on its outer walls.

Our next destination, the elaborate and overwhelming Lingaraj temple (which had taken two generations of a royal dynasty nearly a century to build), somehow turned out to be a sad disappointment. With its teeming devotees and disconcerting conmen, it failed to emanate the deep peace one looks for in a place of worship. We got to taste a few of the 56 varieties of delicacies (consisting of several types of pulses, rice, sweets and chuteys) offered daily to Lord Jagannath at Lingaraj, but the fact that they were up for sale, rather than distributed free amongst the poor in this flood- and cyclone-battered state, was disturbing. So was the fact that the whole passage, leading from the kitchen to the main area of the temple, happened to be lined with bats hanging menacingly from the ceiling overhead.

After that rather unnerving experience we were glad that there was something better in store for us. The 11th century Rajarani temple is the most controversial and perhaps the most magnificent temple we visited that day. The temple possesses no deity and there is no clear record whether this was a Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva (Indreswar?) temple. The name Rajarani was attributed to the dual-coloured pink and grey stone known as rajraniya in the local language. Rajarani is spectacular, stupefying, superb; there are scarcely sufficient words that can describe this soul-stirring feast for our eyes! Reputed to be one of the finest specimens of the Kalinga school, it consists of a few steps leading to a many-tiered pyramid-shaped prayer hall in front, connected by a ventilated corridor to a shikhara or pinnacle-shaped garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) at the far end. The unusually beautiful tower here soars above several smaller beautifully carved summits encircling it in steps. At the entrance to the prayer hall are Nagaraja and Nagarani (King and Queen of serpents), their serpent-shaped bodies entwining the supporting pillars and overlooking the formidable dwarapalas (guards), Chanda and Prachanda, who are meant to drive away evil spirits. Every stone on the outer walls of the temple has a story to tell: the ecstasy of union, the agony of separation, a celebration of the beauty that is life. Interspersed with gods and goddesses in graceful postures at eye-level are finely carved sculptures of day-to-day activities: a woman dancing, a woman holding a baby, a woman admiring herself in a mirror, writing a letter, or talking to a pet parrot.

The temples of Bhubaneswar are dance, drama, music, poetry, romance, religion, philosophy and literature—all the highest creative aspirations of mankind—sculpted into stone. All the world’s alphabets and all the words invented by men can scarcely describe their ineffable beauty. We had to come back to Bhubaneswar for more!

Fact File: Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, is connected by air, rail and all-weather motorable roads to the rest of the country.Besides the government accommodation at Panthanivas, dharamsalas (charitable lodging), guest houses, and private hotels are available to suit all pockets and tastes. Log on tohttp://www.orissa-tourism.com 

The above is an excerpt from Temple Tales of India, available in the United States for $79 on amazon.com. Kumud Mohan can be reached atkumudmohan@gmail.com

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