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

Image

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

a self-guided walk through lucknow’s historical precinct

Can one really argue the pleasures of sitting inside a monument, suspended in time, or a leisurely conversation with a local through whom the past lives on? Isn’t that how travel to places steeped in history should be like?

I am prone to believe there is only one unalloyed way to explore heritage precincts—on foot, on your own, and at your own pace. With no stringent “you have 15 minutes here” or the need to absorb a site amidst a non-stop rattle of facts and stories, some true, some crafted just to enchant you.

Last month, I also discovered no city deserves one’s space and slowed down pace more than Lucknow, where nothing much has changed inside its old city walls over the past 250 years. The mosques and imambaras are still functioning. Travellers from far and wide still gaze at its colossal monuments in wonder. Continue reading

lucknow, revolutions of 2 kinds: residency 1857 and ambedkar memorial 2008

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Revolution
rɛvəˈluːʃ(ə)n/ (noun)
1. a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.
2. a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.

Martin Luther King Jr’s above quote is one of my favourites. But not all revolutions are violent massacres aimed at toppling a system by a populace who have reached their limits. At times they are opulent statements made to put a point across. The purpose remains the same. Change. I saw both in Lucknow, in the course of one day. One from way back in 1857, and another from 2008. The disparity was striking. The commonality inspiring. Scroll through, and you will see what I mean. 🙂

The Residency, 1857

Continue reading

24 hours in incredible allahabad

Amitabh Bachchan’s hometown. If one is Indian, it is the first thing that in most probability comes to mind when one hears of Allahabad. This is by virtue of the superstar’s constant vocal affirmation, flaunted with much pride, of its role in his life. It is where he was born and spent his childhood and youth, before becoming the country’s biggest and brightest star, still shining at 75.

To those spiritually inclined, Allahabad is evocative of all that is sacred in Hinduism. The meeting point of Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati, the city is built on the site of the ancient Aryan town of Prayag—the place for offerings. And perhaps, thus, by pure logic, it is also the site, since time immemorial, of the largest Hindu gathering held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, or the confluence, in the form of the Maha Kumbh.

Rarely on most travellers’ circuit, Allahabad often gets side-lined in favour of its more popular neighbours on either side—Lucknow and Varanasi. But, like everything else in India, it too oozes of history, heritage, and stories galore, as I was quick to discover. Continue reading

photo essay: varanasi, stories told and untold

No, I did not fall in love with Varanasi at first sight as I had been led to believe would happen by the countless travel glossies and blogs I’d read which eulogised its charms. In fact, I hated it at first sight.

It was crowded, dirty, and noisy. Touts pulled me in desperate attempts in all directions to try and sell me boat rides and Banarasi sarees. Rickshaw drivers were ready to rip me off for a 10-minute canter. The sweetmeat shops had “unsanitary” written all over it in CAPS.

I was booked for three days in Varanasi—the land between the Varuna and Assi tributaries which join the River Ganga, or Ganges in English nomenclature, to form the north and south borders of the city. Its name was corrupted to Benaras during the British Raj.

My heart dreaded the stay as soon as I entered the precincts, pleading: “Let’s just cut the trip short and go back to the serenity and comfort of home.” A small voice in me whispered: “No. Varanasi does not happen every day. Live through it.” Continue reading