Basheshar Mahadev Temple, Bajaura (Kullu)

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Bajaura is a small town in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. It is situated on the right bank of river Beas about 14 km south of Kullu town. Several temples and a large fort once existed in Bajaura indicating it was an important centre of social, cultural and economic activity in the past. The ruins of the fort itself were still visible towards the end of the nineteenth century. It stood majestically on the left bank of Ropari nala and had no less than seven watchtowers.

The site of this bygone fort is now owned by the Vaidya family, whose forefathers bought it from an Englishman named Robert Rennick in the 1920s. The man most likely used stones from the ruined fort to build his kothi and other structures during his time. At this property, a few small sculptures and dressed stones can still be found here and there.

Bajaura is located on an ancient trade route that connected the Punjab plains with Tibet and Central Asia. In a copper-plate grant dated 1559 A.D., it is referred to as Hāṭa, which means “market” (Vogel, 1912). Hat is still retained as its name by a nearby village.

One of the surviving relics of Bajaura’s past glory is the popular and well preserved Basheshar Mahadev temple. The magnificent Pratihāra style nāgara temple was built during the ninth century. It is among the earliest nāgara temples in the state and the largest stone monument of Kullu district. The temple is situated just about 200 m off the national highway (NH-3) towards the Beas river.

“The temple… was built in the ninth century A.D., under the patronage of the Gurjara-Pratiharas. Probably Nagabhatta II or Bhoja was its builder. Likely, after the fall of Yasovarman’s house the last artists of his court seem to have found employment with those Pratiharas with whom a new phase of medieval art sets in Northern India and certainly the Bāsheśar Mahādeva temple is one of its most impressive proof.”

Thakur, 1996, p. 56.

Mahadev Shiv is revered here as Basheshar, a corruption of OIA Viśveśvara, the ‘lord of the universe’. The primary object of worship at the temple is a yoni-lingam enshrined in the sanctum.

The earliest written account of the temple is found in the journal of William Moorcroft. The famous traveller passed through Kullu in August 1820 on his way to Ladakh and Bukhara. 

“Bajaura is a large square fort belonging to Kulu; it consists of square towers connected by a low curtain: the whole built of hewn stone strengthened with beams of fir. On the right bank of the Rupareri was a Hindu temple covered with sculptures in relief, in general well executed. A sort of chest with raised sides, and festooned with flowers, was an ornament frequently repeated, but the chief decoration was in the clustered pilasters at the doorways, tastefully entwined by richly-carved scrolls of creeping foliage.”

Moorcroft, 1841, Vol. 1, p. 169.
A distant view of the fort at Bajaura. (Photographed by Samuel Bourne in 1866)
Basheshar Mahadev temple in the early 1860s, photographed by R. G. Elwes. It is the earliest known photograph of the temple. (Vogel, 1914)

ARCHITECTURE OF THE TEMPLE

Basheshar Mahadev temple has a well-developed architectural layout, as well as stunning ornamental motifs and beautifully-carved statuary. According to Dr. Laxman Thakur the construction itself is in accordance with the instructions given in the Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa, a work written between 450 and 650 A.D. He furthermore adds that the temple embodies in its structural assemblage the concept of pancabrāhamaṇa, i.e., five forms of Reality or Shiv. (Thakur, 1985, p. 689)

Ground Plan

The temple follows a pseudo-sarvatobhadra plan. Its garbhagriha is a square with kapilī projections on all four sides. Only the eastern projection leads to the garbhagriha while the other three are false-doors each enclosing a bhadra sub-shrine in niche.

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Plan, Basheshar Mahadev temple. (Vogel, 1914)

Elevation

Bhiṭṭa & Vedībandha

The temple stands on two plain bhiṭṭas and the vedībandha comprises of khura-kumbha, kalaśa, and kapotapālī, the last being adorned with candraśālā motifs. On the kapilī projections kalaśa is replaced by a broad rectilinear fillet carved with mythical figures among swirling leafy scrollwork. Furthermore, the kapilī walls have a false niche, projecting from the face of the vedībandha, crowned by udgamas. This is also repeated above on the jaṅghā.

Elevation of the temple.
A view of the west kapilī wall.
Mythical figures on the kalaśa part of kapilī walls.
Jaṅghā

The jaṅghā walls starts with a basal ghatapallava motif above the kapotapālī of vedībandha. Upper parts of  the janghas are decorated with ardharatna, ardhapadma and ghaṭapallava motifs. Jaṅghās terminate all around at a rectilinear fillet embellished with ardhapadmas.

Varaṇḍikā

The varaṇḍikā of Basheshar temple consists of a recessed band carved with perforated ratna motifs sandwiched between a pair of kapotapālīs. 

Śikhara

The temple has a typical Latina śikhara and rises above the varaṇḍikā in six levels (bhūmis), each marked by a thin karnāmalaka. It is crowned at the top by a fully developed āmalaka. The surface of the śikhara is embellished all over with jālaka of candraśālā motifs.

Śukanāsa

The kapilī projection on each side of the shrine-proper is surmounted by a magnificent śukanāsa addorsed to the face of śikhara. It has a base embellished with miniature śikharas. A sunken circular medallion (bhadramukha) showing trimukhi Shiv is shown on each śukanāsa.

Śukanāsa with bhadramukha over the north kapilī projection.

“Interestingly the temple is based on the concept of five forms of Śiva… Each pediment shows three faces of Śiva. The eastern one (from right to left) shows Aghora Bhairava, Sadyojāta Mahādeva… and Vāmadeva Ūma; the northern—Aghora Bhairava, Vāmadeva Ūma… and Tatpuruṣa Naṇdin; the western—Vāmadeva, Tatpuruṣa… and Aghora; and the southern one—Tatpuruṣa, Aghora… and Sadyojāta respectively. The fifth one Īśana is represented by the top of the temple… According to Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa these five names of Śiva: Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, Tatpuruṣa and Īśana symbolize earth, water, fire, air and space respectively.”

Thakur, 1996, p. 56.

The Entrance of Garbhagriha

The eastern kapilī projection leads to the only entrance of the garbhagriha. Its door consists of four śākhās. The lintel has a horizontal slab carved with tilakas on it. On the two inner śakhās to the right there is a Ṭākri inscription dated to 1673 A.D. recording a donation of land to lord Mahadev by Raja Shyam Sen of Mandi.

Ṭākri inscription on the doorjambs.

The outer doorframe of this eastern kapilī projection is more exquisite. Its second śākhā has scroll motifs carved on it and the lintel has replicas of candraśālās. On the inner sides of the doorframe there are two ornate pilasters with relief figures of the river goddesses—Ganga (left) and Yamuna (right).

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The entrance at the east.
The Statuary of Ganga and Yamuna

The two river goddesses on both sculptures stand out gracefully against a backdrop of lush flowers and foliage.

The river goddess Ganga is shown standing on a padmapīṭha supported by her vāhana makara, who emerges from a mass of scrollwork. She has two arms and raises a kumbha to the height of her shoulder with the palms of her left. Her right hand, which is resting on the crowned head of a diminutive attendant, is holding a long lotus stalk that rises in various stems, each carrying a flower or bud. A second attendant holds the long staff of a chatra (umbrella) that forms a canopy over the river goddess’s head amid overhanging palm-leaves.

Ganga, the river goddess. (36 × 80 cm)

The relief figure on right shows the river goddess Yamuna standing on her vāhana kurma. The goddess’s demeanour is similar to that of the Ganga image described above. However, she only has one female attendant who is holding the long staff of a fan over the divine figure’s head.

Yamuna, the river goddess. (36 × 80 cm)

Sculptures in the Bhadra Sub-shrines

The bhadra niches enshrine well-carved images of Ganeśa, Viśṇu (W) and Mahiśāsuramardinī (N). The doorframes of these three are similar to that of the garbhadvāra.

The image in the west niche depicts sthānaka Viśṇu in exquisite detail. Two attendants, one male and one female, stand on either side of him in dvibhaṅga-mudrā. They are each holding a fly-whisk (camara). The god is four-armed, with the wheel (chakra) and lotus-flower (padma) in his two right hands, and the mace (gadā) and conch-shell (śaṅkha) in his two left. He has a circular halo behind his head from which two flying gaṇas project carrying garland. He is adorned with a three-pointed diadem and long curly locks that cascade down both shoulders. He has the usual ornaments, including a yajñopavita and a vanamālā wrapped around his shoulders and hanging down below his knees.

Viśṇu, western bhadra sub-shrine. (80 × 160 cm)

The sculpture in the niche on the north side depicts the goddess Mahiṣāsuramardinī (Durga) in act of slaying the asura kings Śumbha, Niśumbha and Mahiṣa. The eight-armed goddess holds a trident (triśūla) in one of her right hands, which she has plunged into the body of a demon, whose tuft of hair she has seized with one of her left hands. The goddess’s remaining three right hands hold a half-broken thunderbolt (vajra), an arrow (bāṇa), and a sword (khaḍga). On the left side, the three remaining emblems are a bell (ghaṇṭa), a cup (pātra), and a bow (dhanuṣa). The goddess is adorned with a vanamālā, a double set of hāra, nūpura, ekāvalī, keyūra, mekhalā and a triple crown having jewels. Her head is encircled with a circular flaming halo of similar design to that of the Viśṇu sculpture.

Mahiśāsuramardinī, northern bhadra sub-shrine. (80 × 160 cm)

The southern niche has an image of Ganeśa seated on a padmapīṭha supported by two lions. The god is four-armed and holds in his right hands a paraśu and an indistinct object partly broken. In his upper left hand he has a padma and his second left clasps a vessel of laḍḍuka to which he applies his trunk. He wears a vanamālā hanging down below his knees and a yajñopavīta in the shape of a nāga. He also has the same circular halo behind his head as of the other two sculptures described above. A yakśa kneels between the two lions and holds in hands an indistinct object.

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Gaṇeśa, southern bhadra sub-shrine. (75 × 150 cm)

“the small head (save Gaṇeśa), long limbs, elongated body, floriated drapery to some extent betray the spirited expressiveness of the later Gupta period. These images differ from the early Chamba group of bronze images, particularly those of Lakṣaṇā, Śakti and Gaṇeśa. The iconography of Mahiṣāsuramardinī corresponds with the Hat Koti goddess. Since the bronze Mahiṣāsuramardinī from Hat Koti bears an inscription in Sidhamātrika script, which dates from the late years of the ninth or early of the tenth century A.D., the Bajaura sculptures must belong to the mid-ninth century A.D. These sculptures show mature Pratihara characteristics rather evolving ones.”

Thakur, 1996, p. 56.

Garbhagriha

A circular yoni-lingam on a circular pedestal is installed in the garbhagriha. All the four walls of it are plain. The vitāna (ceiling) is of lantern type, with two rotated squares and having a flat top slab decorated with padma motif in the centre.

ceiling of garbhagriha (sanctum) bajaura
The ceiling of the garbhagriha.
The yoni-lingam in the garbhagriha.

Other Sculptures at the Temple

Aside from the sculptures mentioned above, there are some sculptures related to Basheshar Mahadev temple that were not originally part of it. These were most likely recovered from the ruins of another nearby temple (or temples) that have since been lost to time.

The first among these is a standing image of Viśṇu in the Vaikuṇṭha-Viśvarūpa form carved in medium relief on a round topped slab. At present it is installed in the temple compound to the east. It has been dated to between late 9th and mid 10th century by T. S. Maxwell.

The next one is an image of Garuḍa carved in medium relief on a stone slab which is kept against one of the walls in the garbhagriha. The sculpture represents the deity as having four hands: the back two hold snakes, while the front two hold a pot of nectar. He wears a scarf floating down from the folded hands on both sides. A mekhala (girdle) supports the lower garment of the deity. The decorative ornaments consist of large earrings, a necklace, bracelets, and armlets. Deity’s head is adorned with a crown and at the back there is a prabhāchakra. The avian aspects of the deity are reflected by the talons and wings carved on the slab. Dr. Laxman Thakur calls this sculpture a composite image of Surya and Garuḍa whereas other scholars like Dr. V. C. Ohri simply calls it a Garuḍa image.

Two sculptures that once were kept in the compound of Basheshar Mahadev temple are now at the State Museum in Shimla. One of them is a life-size high relief image of Surya in samapāda-sthānaka mudra. It is dated to the 4th-5th century by Laxman Thakur (Thakur, 1986) and to the 6th century by V. C. Ohri. (Ohri, 1991) The image for its large size is said to have been a principal idol in a temple. So there is a possibility of a sun temple existing in Bajaura once upon a time. 

The other sculpture at Shimla Museum depicts two addorsed standing figures of Cakrapuruśa in the anjali mudra with a cakra (wheel) in between them. It is believed to be coeval with the Surya image and most likely formed the capital of a pillar. (Ohri, 1991)

Vaikuṇṭha-Viśvarūpa Viśṇu, 9th-10th century.
Garuda, the celestial bird, c. 8th-9th century.
Surya, c. 4th-5th or 6th century.
(State Museum Shimla)
Cakrapuruśa at the Bajaura Temple, 1968. Now at State Museum, Shimla.
(Source)
Cakrapuruśa from Bajaura at the State Museum, Shimla.

A PROTECTED MONUMENT

The temple of Basheshar Mahadev is a well-preserved and notable example of the Gurjara-Pratihara architecture. Because of its architectural, sculptural, and iconographic significance, the temple has been designated a national monument and is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

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Ruins of a nāgara temple in Bajaura, as photographed by Gustav Oppert in 1893.

Glossary

āmalaka: “myrobolan fruit”; crowning member of Latina temples.

ardhapadma: half-lotus (decorative motif)

ardharatna: half-diamond (decorative motif)

bhadra: central offset (wall-division)

bhiṭṭa: a plinth course

bhūmi: literally “earth”; level, storey

candraśālā: dormer-windo (decorative pattern); open pavilion on upper storey.

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chādya: eave

garbhagriha: womb-house; sanctum

garbhadvāra: entrance door of the garbhagriha

ghatapallava: vase-and-foliage

jaṅghā: wall-frieze

jālaka: mesh design; grille

kalaśa: torus moulding; pitcher-finial

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kapilī: walls enclosing a vestibule in front of the sanctum, sometimes connecting the prāsāda to a portico or mandapa.

śukanāsa: antefix above roof of kapilī.

kapota: roll-cornice; also overhanging cornice

kapota-chādya: roll-cornice awning

kapotapālī: cyma-eave cornice

karna: angle; plain fillet (moulding); corner wall-division

karnāmalaka: corner āmalaka

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khura: basal moulding of vedībandha

khura-kumbha: complex of khura and kumbha mouldings

kumbha: “pot”; high basal moulding with curved shoulder pillar base

Latina: North Indian curvilinear superstructure

mithuna: auspicious couple

Nāgara: generic name for temple-type with North Indian spire

pīṭha: moulded base

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Sarvatobhadra: temple type with four openings

śākhā: decorative door-band; door-jamb

śikhara: spire

śukanāsa: antefix above the roof of kapilī

tilaka: minor niche with Saṁvaraṇā roof

udgama: pediment of interconnected caitya-dormers (candraśālās)

varaṇḍikā: moulded parapet, elevational member separating wall frieze from the superstructure

vedībandha: basal wall-mouldings, consisting primarily of khura, kumbha, kalaśa, sometimes antarapata, and kapotapālī


Sources

Punjab District Gazetteers, Vol. XXX A. Kangra District: Pt. II Kulu and Sarāj; Pt. III Lahul; Pt. IV Spiti, 1917.

Chetwode, Penelope (1968). “Temple Architecture in Kulu.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 116, no. 5147, pp. 924–46,

Goetz, H. (1955). The Early Wooden Temples of Chamba.

Maxwell, T. S. (2000). Archaeological Reports. The Viśvarūpa (Visvarupa) Iconographic Tradition: North Indian Images of Viśvarūpa Viṣṇu (5th – 13th Centuries CE). [Link]

Meister, M. W., Dhaky, M. A., Deva, Krishna (1991) Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, Vol. II, Part 2.

Moorcroft, William (1841). Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab; in Ladakh and kashmir; in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz, and Bokhara.

Ohri, Vishwa Chandra (1991). Sculpture of the Western Himalayas: History and Stylistic Development.

— (1975). Arts of Himachal.

Oppert, Gustav (1897). “Reise nach Kulu im Himalaya.” Globus, Vol. LXXI.

Postel, M., Neven, A., Mankodi, K. (1985). Antiquities of Himachal.

Thakur, Laxman S. (1985). “The Temple of Bashesar Mahadeva at Bajaura: Application of the ‘Vishnudharmottara Purana’”. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 46, pp. 679-691.

— (1986). “Sun-worship in Himachal Pradesh: A Study Based on Temples and Sculptures”. Journal of Ganganath Jha Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, Vol. 42, pp. 155-70.

— (1990). “Application of Vāstupuraṣamaṇḍala in the Indian Temple Architecture: An Analysis of the Nāgara Temple Plans of Himachal Pradesh.” Artibus Asiae 50 (3/4), pp. 263–84.

— (1996). The Architectural Heritage of Himachal Pradesh: Origin and Development of Temple Styles.

Vogel, J. Ph. (1914). ‘The Temple of Mahadeva at Bajaura, Kulu’. Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1909-1910, pp. 17-24.

— (1906). ‘The Copper-plate Grant of Bahadur Singh of Kulu’. Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1903-04, p. 26 ff.

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