The marvel at Bhitargaon

Context:

  • The excavations of cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation testify to early urbanisation, as early as 2,600 BCE.
  • Rock-cut architecture began to develop from the 3rd century BCE. Though the earliest rock-cut architecture is from the Mauryan dynasty, the Ajanta caves are among the earliest rock-cut temples.

Brick Temple:

  • As man progressed and learnt new techniques, rock-cut temples gave way to stone temples and as stone was not easily available everywhere, to brick temples.
  • In the Gangetic plains, which have alluvial soil and paucity of stones and rocks, many brick structures came up.
  • Though rock-cut and stone temples withstood the vagaries of time, brick temples were not so fortunate. That is what makes the brick temple of Bhitargaon, about 50 km off Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, so special.

The man who restored heritage

  • In 1861, Lord Canning appointed Sir Alexander Cunningham as the Archaeological Surveyor to the Government of India, and it is to Cunningham that we owe a huge debt, for he located and rescued a good part of India’s built heritage. He was responsible for excavations in Sarnath in 1837 and Sanchi in 1841. In 1871, he was made the first Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. After that began a series of field surveys, which are documented in reports. In the Report of the Gangetic Provinces 1875-76 and 1877-78, Cunningham writes that his friend, Raja Ravi Prasada, gave him information of a brick temple near Kanpur that had superior terracotta work. Between November 1877 and February 1878 he made two visits to Bhitargaon.
  • The village Bhitargaon had been part of an ancient city called Phulpur. The temple was simply known as Dewal, or temple, by the locals. It is one of the earliest surviving brick temples of India.
  • Though Cunningham had placed it as belonging to the 7th century, it has subsequently been identified as belonging to the late Gupta period, to the 5th century.

Features of the temple:

  • The temple also has a tall pyramidical spire (shikhara)above the inner sanctum (garbha griha). This shikhara became the standard feature of the Nagara temple architecture of India.
  • The walls are 8 ft thick. They are decorated with terracotta sculptures on panels fitted into niches separated by bold ornamental pilasters made for the purpose. Many have fallen or have become damaged and have found their way into museums.
  • The remaining ones are of Shiva and Parvati seated together, Ganesha, an eight-armed Vishnu, a Mahishasura Mardini and many animal figures, flora and foliage. Muhammad Zaheer, who examined this temple in the 1960s, and who wrote The Temple of Bhītargāon, counted 143 panels.
  • According to Cunningham, because of the Varaha incarnation at the back of the temple, it was probably a Vishnu temple.