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.]

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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.]

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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: alamgir aurangzeb’s mosque in varanasi

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Varanasi. The very name rings of sacred Hindu scriptures, stories of Lord Shiva and Ganga, and Hindu beliefs on life and afterlife. The oldest living city in the world, it is the accepted embodiment of Hinduism.

Yet, perched atop Panchganga Ghat by the holy River Ganges, where five streams are said to join, is a lovely functioning mosque—Alamgir Mosque. It is also the largest structure on the ghats. Standing over the ruins of a Krishna temple [the lower walls of the mosque belong to the original Hindu temple], the Hindu deities lie in a nearby edifice. Continue reading

in search of buddha’s sarnath: the traveller’s guide

Oftentimes what we are consciously searching for is not what we are subconsciously looking for. Sounds confusing? 🙂

A few weeks ago, I took a train and bus trip from Delhi in search of Varanasi [Benaras], the Kashi of yore. I found Sarnath in Kashi’s place instead. Perhaps this occurred because there is more of the Buddhist in me than the Hindu. Whatever be the case, Sarnath touched a place deep within my core.

May I state from the outset you do not need a guided tour for Sarnath, and that is not what this post aims at being. Sarnath needs to be experienced and understood at a personal level, in one’s own space and rhythm. What I want to share here are my personal travel learnings to help you make the most of your Sarnath experience, and perhaps allow Sarnath to speak to the Buddhist in you too. ❤ Continue reading

pune heritage walk: lal mahal and shaniwar wada

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Aah, those wondrous figures who live on in the dusty worn out pages of time—the larger than life legends who changed the course of history! I am talking about Chhattrapati [Sovereign] Shivaji Maharaj [top left image] and Peshwa Bajirao I [top right image] of the Maratha Empire.

Though India’s Mughal-centric history has pushed the Maratha Empire to its periphery, it lives on, passionately and firmly embedded in Maharashtra, its founder’s state, and in Pune, the empire’s political seat. Continue reading

secrets of south bombay’s parel queensway

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The stories and secrets Bombay holds in its folds behind its crumbling Victorian edifices and chaotic traffic spans centuries. Of all the streets which cover the city in a tangled web, Queensway, a road that leads through Parel in South Bombay, is perhaps the richest in terms of history and also the least to have divulged its mysteries.

A two and a half kilometre stretch, the wide boulevard lined with towering trees contains 19th Century temple courtyards, odes to the Indian Independence Movement, stories of magnanimous philanthropy, and an open air museum of Indian sculpture traversing 1,600 years. And if you did not know, you would not even come close to guessing they exist. Continue reading

global travel shot: the unknown 5th century shiva saptamurti in parel

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You may well say, Aah, I have seen this sculpture before. That is, if you are a museum buff. Wrong.

Allow me to make a confession. I often find myself torn between awe at the cultural treasures with which India bursts at its seams with, and angry at the apathy, neglect and state of degradation in which many lie. I know I am not alone in this conflict.

Exactly a year ago I visited the sculpture gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. Like very many others, I fell in love with one piece. Continue reading