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Orissa: Land of temples

Mukteswara Temple

The small and elegant Mukteswara temple (c. AD 950) is often referred to as the 'miniature gem of Odishan architecture'. The frequency with which the term 'gem' is employed will be immediately appreciated with the very first glimpse of this delicate, refined little structure.

In addition to its beauty, the Mukteswara is important as a transition point between the early and later phases of the Kalinga school of temple architecture. The builder has successfully combined many elements of the old with new designs and conceptions. Many of the innovations took root, and became essential features of all later temples. Because of this, one scholar has described the Mukteswara as 'harbinger of the new culture'.

The relationship with older structures can be immediately seen in the small size of the temple - 35 feet (11 meters) high at the pinnacle of the tower. At this stage, Odishan builders had not yet attempted the later colossal structures. The latticed windows of the 'Jagmohana' (porch) were probably modelled on those of the Parsurameswara temple, and the octagonal compound wall seems to have been patterned on an earlier structure which now exists only in fragmentary form. A 'torana' (arched gateway) which was excavated in a field near Bhubaneswar in fragments is now in the Odisha State Museum. It would seem that Mukteswara's own stunningly beautiful gateway was strongly based on this earlier example.

The innovations are even more interesting to note. The Jagmohana building has here become a structure in its own right, and has begun to show the later shape of a terraced pyramid (although the internal shape has not yet become a real square). Both buildings are now on platforms, and their component parts have become more fully accentuated. Over the doorway to the inner sanctum, the ninth planet (Ketu, identified by the canopied, three hooded snake) has been introduced. On the other hand, haloes, which in earlier temples delineate the human from the divine, have been removed from the cult images. In general, comparing this temple to the earlier Parsurameswara, you will notice an overall lightening of effect. The developing pyramid of the Jagmohana roof as well as stylistic innovations on the exterior of the tower lend a new impression of movement towards the sky, an impression which will become more and more pronounced in succeeding centuries. This is echoed in an increasing sense of elongation in sculptural decoration as well.

There are a number of depictions of skeletal ascetics among the sculptural images, most of them shown in teaching or meditation poses. Some scholars have suggested that this relates to the role of the temple as a center for Tantric initiation. The name Mukteswara ('the Lord who bestows freedom through Yoga') might support this view. Almost all of the sculptures on the temple are wonderful. Around the windows of the Jagmohana are monkeys engaged in a variety of humorous and lively scenes depicting popular stories from Panchatantra (Indian ancient tales). The image of a mythical lion head with open jaws, flanked by attendants, over an elaborate horseshoe shaped 'chaitya' arch (found on the southern exterior projecting wall of the tower) is one that is common on Tantric shrines, and that is found on many later Odishan temples. This is the first appearance of the image, and it is also the finest.

On the outer face of the compound wall are niches containing a variety of divinities. These include Saraswati (sitting on a lotus with two female attendants by her side), Ganesa (with his attendant mouse), and Lakulisha (the fifth century founder of the Pashupata sect of tantric Shaivism), who is portrayed sitting cross-legged, with two miniature ascetic figures in the triangular side panels. The fact that these wall niches include Buddhist and Jain images as well as Shaivite (Hindu) ones attests once again to the synthesis which was so much a part of Odishan religious life.

Rajarani Temple

The Rajarani temple, dating back to the eleventh century, is set in open paddy fields, and the entire structure exudes grace and elegance. The name of the temple has been the subject of much debate. The most likely explanation is that the name is related to the lovely red-and- gold sandstone used in its construction, a stone which is known locally as rajarani. The debate is complicated by the fact that the names of all the Hindu temples in Bhubaneswar dedicated to the God Shiva end in the suffix eswar (for example Parasurameswara, Mukteswara, etc.), while those of the non-Shaivite temples are derived from their presiding deities (e.g. Parvati temple).One major scholar has argued that the name Rajarani was only applied to the temple at a later date (because of the sandstone), and that originally this is the Shiva shrine referred to in early texts as Indreswara. This seems the most likely conclusion.

The jagmohana (porch) is extremely plain, and was evidently repaired in 1903 after having fallen down in ruins. The deul (tower), on the other hand, is spectacularly ornate, and is famous for the aesthetic concept of miniature temple spires clustered around the main tower. The sculptural images of the temple are elegant and lively, especially the beautiful female figures which can be seen in amorous dalliance, as well as engaged in such activities as holding children, looking in mirrors, and playing with pet birds. On the lower register of the deul, on the corner projections, are found the famous 'Guardians of the Eight Directions', watching over (and radiating the temple's power to) the eight cardinal points.


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