a 1,000-year-old royal couple’s expression of love and piety: modhera and patan

Do you like stories? I do. A lot. 🙂

Especially stories of those who live larger-than-life lives in spirit and feat.

This post is the tale of one such story—of a king called Bhimadeva I and his lovely, loving queen Udayamati, who lived a thousand years ago. And no, it is no myth. There are colossal monuments they left behind as testimony of their love and piety, as I discovered one sunny wintry day I travelled 75 kilometres north-west of Ahmedabad in Western India, in the state of Gujarat.

Come, let me tell you more.

Son of Agni, the fire-god’s, Sun Temple of Modhera

Bhimadeva I (1024 – 1066) was a Chalukya king, belonging to a dynasty which ruled Gujarat and Rajasthan between 942 and 1243 AD. Their capital city was Anhilwad, today’s Patan. Also known as the Solanki kings, the Chalukyas of Gujarat were Agnivanshi Rajputs and saw themselves as direct descendants of Agni, the Vedic god of fire.

As was the norm, all the Chalukya kings built numerous temples, monasteries, and large water reservoirs throughout their realm. But none was more majestic or beautiful, in detail or glory as the sun temple in the ancient township of Modhera that Bhimadeva I built in honour of the sun god—Surya—plonk on the Tropic of Cancer. Covered with intricate carvings on both its outer and inner walls, the yellow sandstone structure ruptures into a stunning conglomeration of gods and goddesses, leaves and flowers, birds and animals.

Four structures, all equally ornate, make up the complex. First in line is a terraced large water tank or kund, fed by sub-soil water of the nearby Pushmaavati river, dotted with 108 shrines dedicated to the Hindu pantheon. This leads to an ornamental gateway or toran which in turn opens into a dancing hall or ranga mandapa, once the site of congregation and sacred dancing and singing.

The east-west temple complex axis ends in its crowning glory, the main temple with the sanctum sanctorum. The latter, in its hey-day, used to house a golden effigy of Surya standing in a sea of gold coins which was lit up by the first rays of the sun on spring and autumn equinoxes. The effigy is long gone. And so are the coins. What remains are the silent ochre walls and a king’s devout offering. A small, undecorated ancient Shiva temple to the north of the main temple keeps the sanctity of the place alive.

Modhera is filled with those “Aah, this is why I love to travel moments.” Electric-coloured birds flit from one shrine to another, in stark contrast to the lazy turtles in the shallow waters of the kund. The golden sandstone blocks tell a million stories of myth and some erotic sex in perfect harmony and order. Nothing is random or unplanned. Each piece a perfect part of a perfect whole.

Look closely at the main temple and you will find sets of 12 Adityas [aspects of the sun god and thus identical to Surya], one for each month, and 12 Gauris [aspects of Gauri, another name for Shiva’s wife Parvati]. Interspersed amongst them are the 8 Dikpalas, the guardian gods which preside over the different directions. By the main entrance is the three-armed, three-legged Shiva as the Tripada Bhairava, one of his rarest iconographic forms. In the eastern edge of the kund, a reclining Vishnu, the creator, gazes out at his cosmos in calm.

Recent years has witnessed some debate on whether the temple is not solely for Surya, but for Shiva as well, seeing the number of sculptures dedicated to him and his consort.

Whatever be the case, though there may be no “pilgrims” to the elaborate ensemble now, no one has forgotten Bhimadeva I. His grand statement of his loyalty to his deities and subjects alike lives on, tangible in a patch of land under the appeased gods.

[Note: Click on an image to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]

A dowager queen’s act of piety for her beloved—Rani-ki-Vav in Patan

If Bhimadeva I’s legacy to Gujarat in particular, and India as a whole, was a sumptuous ode in stone to the sun-god Surya, his wife Udayamati on being widowed built one of the largest stepwells in the world in her husband’s memory.

What she was doing was nothing out of the ordinary. Inundated with scanty and erratic rainfall, Western India is also plagued with sandy soil leading to sinking water levels in the dry season. Building reservoirs, lakes, stepwells, and watering places in an otherwise arid land was considered an act of merit, especially when it was in memory of the dead. What was extraordinary was the size and scale of her endeavour. It is enough to make one gasp, no matter how jaded a traveller you may be.

Sixty-five metres long, 29 metres deep, seven storeys underground held up by four pavilions with 226 pillars [originally 292], and decorated with nearly 400 large sculptures and a multitude of smaller ones covering every conceivable surface. Even in its current partially ruined state, Rani-ki-Vav does not fail to take one’s breath away with its perfect symmetry and sensitive sculptural detailing.

An architectural form unique to India, the stepwell is literally a well with a series of steps going down to a subterranean water level or a collection point for rain-water. Whilst they started off as plain and pragmatic with a well and water reservoir [to collect surplus water], stepwells evolved into a highly decorative format, as elaborate in design and ornamentation as its architectural cousins overland. Rani-ki-Vav is the high point of this form. Never before or after, has a stepwell reached such a rare combination of artistic and utilitarian perfection.

Till a few decades ago, this gigantic structure on the banks of the River Saraswati in Patan [pronounced Paatan], the capital of the Chalukya dynasty 140 kilometres north-west of Ahmedabad was covered completely in silt. It is only in the last few decades that the sands have been cleared by the Archaeological Survey of India, and the stepwell revealed in all its splendour.

After one gets over the euphoria of the size and scale, be prepared to swoon at the unabashed glory of classical Indian sculpture generously swathing the walls of the inverted temple well, replete with its very own toran. Vishnu’s 24 forms, the eight Vasus, and the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, Ganesha, the regents of the directions, and Bhairava, all with their consorts are just some of the deities carved into the niches of the edifice which highlight the sanctitude of water.

Interspersed in-between are nagakanyas and apsaras, wrapped in snakes or engrossed putting on their makeup, mirrors and kohl intact. Some are erotic, some purely devotional. The parallel with the sculptures in the other masterpiece built by her husband in Modhera is acutely visible.

The most poignant sculptural theme, though, must be that of Parvati’s penance in which she’d stood on one leg in the Himalayas so that she may be reunited with her consort Shiva. It is evocative of Udayamati’s own penance to be reunited with her dead husband. For all its magnificence Rani-ki-Vav was still, first and foremost, the dowager queen’s act of merit aimed so she may again be with the love of her life, Bhimadeva I. Every sculpture, every detailing, the very scale, was all to add to her worthiness for the longed-for re-union.

[Note: Click on an image to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]

– – –

And that, dear reader, was the story of Bhimadeva I and his consort Udayamati. And by virtue of their legacy, the story of Modhera and Patan, 1,000 years later as well. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did travelling to the two sites and writing about them. ❤

Travel tips:

  • Modhera is 75 km and Patan is 140 km north-west of Ahmedabad. The roads in Gujarat are excellent and toll free. Car hire is easily available.
  • Both the sites can be clubbed together as a day trip. Stop at Modhera first.
  • The Archaeological Survey of India has published comprehensive guide books for both sites. These are available at the respective ticket counters. Guides are also available for a fee of Rs. 150 at the gates.
  • Tickets and timings: Rs. 15 for Indians, Rs. 200 for foreigners; open 7 days a week from sunrise to sunset; Photography allowed.
  • Patan was assigned UNESCO World Heritage Site status on 22 June, 2014.

global travel shot: an ethiopian soldier’s gift to ahmedabad

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Yin and yang. Negative and positive. Feminine and masculine. Dark and light. Two sides which together make a whole.

Sidi Saeed, an Ethiopian who found his way to the Gujarat Sultanate’s army via Yemen, way back in 1572, seemed to have some inkling of this. Armed with 45 sculptors, “the nobleman who helped the poor and had a large collection of books,” created a series of jalis or stone screens as part of the Sidi Saeed Mosque in the heart of Ahmedabad. The most exquisite was the “tree of life” with its swirling, leaf-lined, abloom branches, topped with a palm motif; its beauty heightened when seen from both the outside and inside. It was hard put to decide which side was a lovelier sight. Continue reading

the bundi-kotah school of miniature painting in kotah’s garh palace

Me: Kotah Palace jaanaa hai. [I want to go to Kotah Palace.]

Auto rickshaw driver: Palace hotel?

Me: Nahin. Sirf palace. Jahaan rajah maharajah rehtey they. [No. Just palace. Where the kings used to live.]

Auto rickshaw driver (confused): Par vahaan toh koi Indian nahin jaataa! Sirf gorey log jaatey hai! [But Indians don’t go there! Only white people do.]

Me: Haan, vahin jaana hai, jahaan gorey log jaatey hai. [My deep gratitude to Caucasians at this point for appreciating the treasures hidden in India’s midst.]

Auto rickshaw driver (laughing): Chalo, aaj yeh bhi dekh letey hai. [Sure, let me see this place too, today.]

It’s chaotic and crowded. I had just got off a rickety bus from Bundi. My train to Delhi, deep into the night, was a good few hours away. The plan was to spend the time in-between devouring the miniature painting frescoes of the Kotah Garh Palace. Continue reading

the painted palaces of bundi

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A woman looks brazenly across the room. Her perfect profile decorated with jewels is tilted in anticipation. On the wall opposite, a royal damsel is being dressed by her lady-in-waiting whilst a Rajput prince slyly peeps from behind the curtains in blatant lust. Two women on a side wall make erotic love to each other.

The gods and goddesses are no less immune to the dynamics of the room. A series of frescoes have Krishna dancing in gay abandon with Radha and her sakhis in the raas leela. In another, he is perched atop a tree with the stolen garments of the gopikas.

Painted using a palette of turquoise green, black, and white, the colonnaded open-sided hall with private rooms leading out of it, was once the maharaja’s pleasure room. It is befittingly called Chitrashala—chitra meaning picture, shala meaning house or abode. The abode of pictures.

What makes these paintings, and those in Bundi’s other royal palaces unparalleled, is they comprise some of the finest examples of the Bundi School of Miniature Painting. A style normally associated with paint on paper, the Bundi school found its way in its parent city to the walls of the ruling family’s private rooms to create visual extravaganzas of colour and storytelling tipped with gold. Continue reading

global travel shot: the prehistoric rock paintings of bundi

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The image above is that of an antelope in a forest, next to a trap waiting to catapult it to its death. Nope. This is not somewhere in the interiors of France or Spain, more commonly associated with prehistoric art, or even in Bhimbetka where India’s prized rock art collection lies.

It is instead on the insides of a cave lining a tributary of the river Chambal in Gararda, Rajasthan, 35 kilometres from Bundi, my base a fortnight ago.

Painted 15,000 years ago in mineral colours, very few people know of it. Just a handful come from the far corners of the world to marvel at its beauty, and timelessness.

And if it were not for a local sweetmeat-shop-owner-turned-archaeologist, we would not know of it either. He discovered the site in 1997 and has passionately been creating awareness of it ever since, unearthing 101 caves festooned with prehistoric art to-date. His name is Kukkiji. Continue reading

national museum, new delhi – 90 minutes at the museum

The National Museum, New Delhi makes the herculean task of experiencing India’s monumental heritage spanning 5,000 years—doable. You could always spend 3 minutes looking at each object in its 210,000 piece collection. But that would take 14.5 months with no sleep or meals inbetween. Or you could do an audio tour and spend a day exploring its glorious galleries through 64 masterpieces. And if you have just one and a half hours, then why not feast your eyes on its very best.

Earlier housed in the Rashtrapati Bhawan [President’s residence], the collection has its roots in 1947 when the Royal Academy, together with the governments of India and Britain, decided to hold an “Exhibition of Indian Art” in London. Selected artefacts from museums across India were collected for the showing.

Before returning the exhibits to their respective museums, it was decided to display the exhibition in Delhi as well. What a huge success it turned out to be! The overwhelming response led to the idea of a permanent National Museum being set up in the capital with its very own building by India Gate which it moved into in 1960.

The National Museum has it all. From the iconic Harappan Dancing Girl to elegant Gandharan Buddhas, from exquisite miniature Mughal paintings to luscious Tanjore compositions, from Chola bronzes to 20th Century decorative arts, from medieval sculptures of voluptuous Hindu deities to diamond and emerald regalia of its once-upon-a-time royalty. The Museum has all these, and much much more.

Here are my 15 favourite pieces collated after rambling through its collections and meditating over its audio tour. Doable in 90 minutes. 🙂 Continue reading