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: 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 6 untold treasures of vadodara

Friend: “You’re going to Vadodara. Wonderful idea! There is a lot to see in the city. After all, it is the cultural capital of Gujarat.”
Me: “Nice. So what do you suggest I visit and explore?”
Friend: “The Lukshmi Villas Palace is an absolute must!”
Me: “Ok, will do. What else?” [As I jotted it frantically in my notebook in anticipation of being hit by a barrage of to-do-things]
Friend: “The museum attached to the palace is another must do.”
Me: “Ok, got that down too. And?”
Friend: “Hmmm. Oh well. I don’t know. But there is a lot. Hey, it is the cultural capital. But I don’t know…”

Yes, that is it with Vadodara, earlier known as Baroda. Though it is publicly acknowledged as the cultural capital of Gujarat, its attractions are neither documented nor publicised. At least not enough and one cannot be blamed for wondering if they even exist. Continue reading

champaner—the muslim part of the champaner-pavagadh unesco world heritage site

Fairy tales often start like this, don’t they: Once upon a time there was a fearless, virtuous king who had dreams of conquering an invincible fortress perched on a hill. His father and grandfather had time and again attempted to defeat it too, but to no avail.

The tale I am writing about continues like this: The brave king was Sultan Abu’l Fath Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah I, ruler of the Gujarat Sultanate and great-grandson of Ahmed Shah I, founder of Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 1411. The invincible fortress belonged to the Kichchi Chauhan Rajputs on Pavagadh.

Calling himself “Sultan al-Barr, Sultan al-Bahr” meaning “Sultan of the Land, Sultan of the Sea,” history knows him as Mahmud Begada. The name “Begada” was derived from his winning two gadhs in his lifetime, namely Pavagadh and Junagadh. Continue reading

pavagadh—the hindu part of the champaner-pavagadh unesco world heritage site

I have a book titled Speaking Stones World Cultural Heritage Sites in India which I must confess is my most prized possession. Coming to terms these past few months with some harsh realities on death and the transience of life, I reached out to the hard bound volume on my bookshelf to see what I could add to a wish-list to make come true.

The pages opened, almost as if urged by some mysterious calling, on Champaner-Pavagadh. Truth be told, I had never heard of the place before. But it was nearby and seemed doable over a few days. A friend pointed out the weather was all wrong for the rendezvous: “No one travels for pleasure to Gujarat in May when temperatures are soaring at 43 degrees.” The little voice in me said, “Who cares about the heat. Remember life truths!” 🙂

And, thus, one fine early morning, I found myself boarding a train to Vadodara, my base for my explorations. What I learnt and saw and experienced in the ensuing days far outweighed my expectations. But I run ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. Continue reading

the mythological frescoes of nandalal bose in vadodara

In the heart of Baroda, now called Vadodara, within the royal Gaekwad family’s once sprawling grounds is the Kirti Mandir or Temple of Fame. The gigantic stone cenotaph was built in 1936 to ensure their ancestors’ posterity. A sun, moon, and a map of undivided India etched on a bronze globe are perched on top of its shikhara—a sovereign declaration of the spread and timelessness of Gaekwad rule.

But the cenotaph is weathered now and forgotten. It is visited on the rare occasion when a royal family member passes away and is brought to the adjacent cremation grounds to be burnt and then transposed into a plaster-of-paris bust placed in one of the rooms lining the passageways.

A lone 70-year-old guard, who has spent the last 60 years serving the royal family, with his one-year-old grandson’s arms wrapped around his neck unlocks the large doors should perchance a traveller land up at the temple’s doorstep. But this post is not about the royal family. I will write about them on another date. This one is about the art and artist whose mythological masterpieces decorate the walls inside Kirti Mandir. Continue reading