NEELKANTHESHWAR: A HIDDEN TREASURE
This week, i.e. from 19th of November to the 25th of November, has been designated to celebrate once history and heritage, world-over. It is earmarked as World Heritage Week by UNESCO, with a view to promoting awareness and protection of the rich cultural and historical heritage that is spread across the world.
MADHYA PRADESH & WORLD HERITAGE:
When people think of Madhya Pradesh and the places to visit here, I presume the first name coming into their minds is Sanchi. The second one perhaps Bhimbetka, both being on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Just the way visitors from abroad link India & Taj Mahal. Sanchi of course is a great piece of architecture, especially taking into account its presence here for more than 2,000 years. But just as India is replete with magnificent places of historical and cultural importance besides Taj Mahal, so is Madhya Pradesh. One of such magnificent places is the temple of Neelkantheshwar.
NEELKANTHESHWAR- HISTORY AND PRESERVATION:
As the name suggests, it is a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiv or Neelkanth. The temple is situated in the small town of Udaypur, District Ganj Basoda, Madhya Pradesh (M. P.), northwest of Bhopal.
The magnificent edifice, made from red sandstone, was built by Parmar King Udayaditya during his reign which is believed to be around c.1059-1086. He was a successor of the great Raja Bhoj. The temple was presumably given the name Udayeshwar but acquired its another more famous name Neelkantheshwar over time.
Raja Udayaditya like his predecessor Raja Bhoj had a fondness for art and literature and furthered his ancestor’s legacy. Neelkantheshwar could probably be considered the acme of it.
Exploration and Restoration:
The temple was protected and restored by the then Maharaj of Gwalior State Jiwaji Rao Scindia. The restoration work according to a stone engraving finished in 1929. The work of restoration of the temple was carried under the supervision of M. B. Garde, a renowned archaeologist.
M. B. Garde:
Mr. Garde born in 1888 in Sangli, Maharashtra was among the first batch of trainees of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), from 1911-1913. He got trained under the personal supervision of Sir John Marshall, the then Director of ASI. Mr. Garde was referred to Maharaj of Gwalior State (then Madho Rao Scindia, reign from 1886-1925) by Sir John Marshall in 1913 to organise the State’s newly formed Archaeology Department. Since then he worked for over 30 years here, acting first as the Superintendent and later Director of the Archaeology Department of Gwalior Sate. During that time, he explored and carried out the restoration works of many sites of historical and archaeological importance, especially in the Central Indian region. His life history can be traced in the Annual Reports of the Archaeological Department, (see pg. 11 in the link), submitted each year to Gwalior State. One such report gives information that the restoration of Neelkantheshwar began in 1923-24.
NEELKANTHESHWAR: THE TEMPLE:
It is not possible for me to describe this spectacular temple using proper words of architecture or archaeology. And many others have done so any way, and I could not even begin to differentiate the terms used. So, I will give it a try in my own words (along with inputs from my mother).
First of all, just look at it, how do you describe something like that. It’s simply beautiful.
Neelkantheshar is said to have been built in Bhumija style, a style of temple architecture special to Malwa region. Bhumija literally means “earth born” or “of the earth”. Perhaps that’s why this shrine appears as it came out of the earth suddenly with no platforms around it. Like my mother said, it seemed like something has been just put there, decorated and served on a platter.
The sides of the temple:
You saw the photo of the full temple above, now just take closer look at its various sides. Miniature replicas of the complete structure have been embellished on all the sides. The miniatures decline in number and size in a gradual fashion towards the top. This gives the structure a sleek and angular effect, like there are no plain walls. The carvings of all these miniatures is intricate, complex and symmetrical.
Mandap/ vestibule (whichever):
Frankly I do not know what this structure circulating at the back of the main vertical shrine is called. But look at the roof. The step-wise, gradual fashion of motifs with so much symmetry in all the designs.
Now this term I do know. The place where the deity is worshipped. As in all Shiva temples we have to bow before Nandi before reaching Bholenath.
It is said that the first rays of the Sun in the morning fall directly on the Shivling.
There is a pujari (priest) appointed for carrying out the daily worship of Lord Shiv. According to him the brass Shivling above is covered over the original one to protect it. The brass one is lifted up to reveal the original for worship only during the festival of Mahashivratri.
The flat roofed structure:
This structure has been described by Mr. Garde in his Annual Report as- “a peculiar flat roofed structure in front of the chief entrance to the temple known as vedi.”
According to his description it could either have been a sacrificial room or a room for reciting Veds. But look at it from inside and the two large benches on either side of this room. And the latticed walls/ windows (whichever), carved out of a single block of red sandstone. It does not look to me as having been built for sacrificial purposes. I hope it wasn’t.
I think may be the second alternative is correct or may be hopefully for performances. After all it is said that temples in earlier days used to be a place for such classical recitals (music and dance).
Other carvings and structures:
I am just going to give a few snaps of the temple. It is not possible for me to give a correct description of the figurines or designs on them. Suffice it to say that everything is just ornate and resplendent.
A view of the ceiling
Above and below- Taken 7 years back
And now comes the best part. That is the part we were most fascinated by – the lonely man.
CURIOUS CASE OF THE LONELY MAN:
The most intriguing and unexplained feature of this temple is him:
This lone figure perched on top of the fabulous structure, on the shikar, just below the kalash, Look how the figure just protrudes out. He is the first thing you will notice while entering the gate of the temple, his back towards it:
The craftsmanship is simply splendid- the arch of the back, the positioning and crossing of legs, the arms, the detailing of ornaments. The feta (head scarf) and the cloth around his waist, seem like they are flowing in the air. So detailed and that too for a lone figure far above the ground.
But why for a lone figure high above the ground? Especially since it does not seem to ever have had a companion.
So, who is he and what’s he doing up there? Like he just climbed up the temple and sat there to get a long panoramic view of the scenery from atop. And found it so fascinating that he never came down.
The pujari says it is the dhwaj-wahak (flag-bearer). But I don’t remember having seen or heard anything like that before in any of the other temples I visited. So why a dhwaj-wahak only here.
There simply seems to be no explanation for him, absolutely anywhere. Because you see the human figures depicted on temples are usually gods, goddesses, yakshas etc. This one felt like an ordinary guy and therefore deserves some story. Was he cursed? But he doesn’t look cursed. He looks so serene and happy gazing from up there. Did he ask for and was granted a boon for being there- perhaps by Bholenath himself.
Some story, any story, a tale, a legend, a folklore. Folklore make a place so much more interesting and intriguing.
This is where I felt the need for a local guide. Apart from knowledge inputs (which may or may not be historically correct) a guide is important for his unique way of story- telling. There is a certain entertaining manner in their narrations of a story or anecdote. At least I feel so. And in support of my view I will tell you about one such guide at Sanchi.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A GUIDE:
That very day while returning from Neelkantheshwar we stopped at Sanchi. There was a group of students visiting Sanchi and a guide was explaining to them the designs and carvings on the Toran Dwars (there are four such dwars or gates to the main Stupa depicting various Jataka tales).
One such Toran Dwar apparently has a carving of the life of Amrapali and her conversion to Buddhism. So, the guide asks the students: “Ye dekh rahen hain, jante hain is hair cut ko kya kahte hai? Nahin. Ye laser cut hai. Toh laser cut naya nahin hai, 2,000 saal purana hai.”
The guide further elaborated: “Amrapali ne jitna fashion us zamane me kiya tha utna koi doosri ladki ne kabhi nahin kiya aur na hi kabhi kar sakti hai.”
How enlightening was that. That’s what I missed about the curious onlooker at the Neelkantheshwar temple.
SANCHI, UDAYGIRI AND HELIODORUS PILLAR:
Since I mentioned Sanchi and this is the World Heritage Week, let me share a few pictures of the site. You will find several descriptions of the monument on the net and it is huge enough to deserve a separate article, so just a few snaps.
The Udaygiri rock-cut caves are located near Vidisha, a little ahead of Sanchi. These caves are approximately about 1,500 to 1,600 years old. The carvings made out of the rocks depict various images of Lord Vishnu, Shiv and Shakti. A few snaps of the most notable carvings with descriptions:
Called Khamba Baba locally, the Heliodorus Pillar is over 2,000 years old and located near Vidisha. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, it was erected by Heliodorus, a Greek who became a devotee of Lord Vishnu. He was the ambassador from King Antialcidas to King Bhagbhadra. Few pictures:
NEELKANTHESHWAR & TOURISM:
The historic temple is preserved by ASI. Though it is fairly known, yet a lot needs to be done to make it more popular and preserve it in good condition. In his account of the restoration work carried out, Mr. Garde mentions that- Neelkantheshwar was perhaps the most important monument taken up for conservation. We also find a mention that the temples compound was littered and covered with vegetation. And people of the village had encroached the temple’s compound with houses. The compound is huge but the village and shops still come up to the foot of the temple. Much more efforts are therefore required to protect the monument and at the same time put it on the state’s tourism map.
BEFORE FINISHING- SOME TRAVEL TIPS:
We first visited Neelkantheshwar about 7 years ago. Back then our travel route consisted of Sanchi, Udaygiri caves, Heliodorus Pillar and lastly Neelkantheshwar. This time when we went again with some relatives, we went to the temple before and came afterwards to Sanchi. As such and perhaps because our taxi driver was not aware of the route to Neelkantheshwar we wasted about half of the day. Thus, afterwards we could not show Udaygiri and Heliodorus Pillar to our guests. So, in case you want to plan a visit here, I am giving a few tips so that all the four of them can be finished in a day’s travel, with the reference point of Bhopal.
First Sanchi- Last Neelkantheshwar:
This is a tourism map from the MP Tourism Department to get a general idea of these places.
Start early on and take the road to Sanchi. Not much trouble there. The place is open from sunrise to sunset. Plan therefore according to the season. The best season however is winter.
From there on visit Udaygiri caves because they will take more time than Heliodorus Pillar. There are some 20 caves and best seen during day time with good light.
Then go towards Heliodorus Pillar- it’s just a pillar and few things in the compound. Won’t take long, I guess. Do not skip it though.
Finally keep best for the last. Udaypur is further north in Ganj Basoda district. But do not rely on local directions, many people give confusing ones. We had to turn around twice this time. Last time our driver was fully aware of the route and the road, so we didn’t pay much attention.
While returning this time, after we crossed the Bareth railway crossing, a villager advised us on the directions to Vidisha: “Gulabganj se sidho leno padego.” So, remember that. From then on it was fairly easy as the road is almost straight and leads to National Highway 146. Vidisha is on NH 146.
For Udaypur village therefore you stick to the NH 146 route and take straight from Vidisha. Turn towards Gulabganj. Then turn right at the Bareth Railway crossing. From then on it is fairly easy. Even then, if you do plan a visit I would advise renting a taxi service possessing more knowledge of the route.
Make it a picnic:
It’s not an option, but a necessity. That is in case you do a plan a full day visit, you need a decent supply of fuel for your engine. Pack sufficient snacks etc., for the journey therefore.
The scenery is splendid. The whole road leading up to Neelkantheshwar is scattered with tiny villages and fields. In winters with the wheat crop standing it is a wonderful sight. But your sight may not register a decent hotel. A few small shops for tea perhaps. But that’s it. Sanchi has a few restaurants where you can get proper meals and possibly Vidisha. But not much ahead of it.
Neelkantheshwar in the afternoon:
It is best to visit Neelkantheshwar in the afternoon. Firstly, it is the farthest place in the route taken above and one should enjoy it in leisure. No haste to be elsewhere. Besides it looks best in the setting sun. In my view, the rays of the setting Sun enhance the hues of the red sandstone with much more brilliance:
May be that’s what the lonely man is trying to tell.
Since this post was written I have become aware of at least one legend associated with the lonely man. According to it, the workers and artists had to stop work and climb down before sunset. One such man couldn’t and result- turned to stone.
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