Bhuvan! How can we forget this character (meaning the World / Earth) played by Aamir Khan in the 2001 sports-drama Hindi movie Lagaan? But as popular as Aamir Khan made the name, the word is also the main etymological component of our own city’s name. Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, is named after the Lord (Eswar) of the World (Bhuvan); but He is actually Tribhubaneswar, Lord of the Three Worlds – the Heaven, the Earth and the Netherworld. His abode is, therefore, called the Temple of Lingaraja (King of all Lingams, the iconic form of Lord Shiva).
Lingaraja temple’s origin is as mysterious as the occupant Himself! An inscription dated 1114-15 AD on the walls of Jagmohana (Hall of Gathering, before the sanctum sanctorum) informs us of a grant of a village by the then Ganga dynasty king, Anandavarma Chodaganga, for maintaining a perpetual lamp in the temple. It is interesting that an inscription about a perpetual light leads us to the Eternal Light! So it is presumed that the temple was already in existence, probably built by the earlier Somavamsi dynasty kings with ‘Kesari’ title. Standing for more than 1,200 years now, Lingaraja Temple precedes the Jagannath Temple (12th century) in Puri and Sun Temple (13th century) in Konark. The edifice, with later additions by the Ganga dynasty, stands out as the culmination of Kalinga style of temple architecture perfected during Ganga dynasty; so much so that it is considered to be the most perfect specimen of temple architecture in the whole of Eastern India. Kalinga kingdom, by then, had acquired temple building experience of three long centuries, thus mastering the art to the highest level of perfection.
Built of sandstone and laterite, Lingaraja is one of the oldest and the biggest temple complexes in Bhubaneswar, where there were once 7,000 shrines! Hence, it was famed as the Temple City, the Cathedral City of the East. Now, unfortunately, only about 500 of them survive – small and big – in the old Bhubaneswar, with new concrete ones springing up in the new Bhubaneswar, the planned capital city. Undoubtedly, Lingaraja is the centre of the old town.
Situated within a vast compound of 520 ft (158 m) by 462 ft (141 m), it is surrounded by about 50 other shrines of various sizes and of various periods, probably containing images salvaged from temples damaged in the course of time. Many of them have only a Lingam image with a metal snake spreading its hood above it, named after some or the other god. Facing east, the main entrance is flanked by Lions as is the tradition, and is called the Simhadwara (Lion Entrance). Like most of Odisha’s temples, this temple is also based on the overall Nagara (Indo-Aryan) style. The next important and large temple within the Lingaraja Temple complex is that of His consort Parbati. She is also known as Bhubaneswari. Estimated to have been built in the 13th century, the chisel work here is a refined one.
It is surprising to find Vaishanavite images also inside this Saivaite enclosure, an influence of later dynasties owing allegiance to Vaishanavite sect and the increased influence of Puri Jagannath cult. It went to the extent of some Vaishanavite rituals creeping into Lingaraja Temple. One can even notice a proud Garuda (mount of Vishnu) perched majestically along with Nandi (mount of Siva) atop the stone pillar! Another strange thing that I noticed was the placing of Nandi (Bull) image in a separate room outside the southern side of Jagmohana, instead of directly facing His Lord from inside the jagmohana!
As Hindus are strictly not allowed inside the complex, there is a raised platform near the northern entrance from where one can happily click photos. A marble plaque there informs of the restoration of the temple from 1925 to 1929 by the erstwhile British governors of Bihar and Orissa. The total cost of Rs. 1,36,097 was almost equally shared by the government and private sources. Photography is also prohibited inside the compound, but devotees are tempted to secretively click the beautiful structures and images. It was not so in 1982 when I visited the shrine and happily clicked a few B&W shots. Unaware, this time also we had clicked a few shots before being warned by other devotees. We had only followed what a few others were doing, I mean, clicking! As we came out after a harried darshan, we saw security personnel frisking devotees at the Singhadwara before being allowed in. ‘Lucky us!’ we thought; Lord Lingaraja was kind to us! Back then, I had captured the 150 ft. tower above the sanctum sanctorum from a distance of five kms on the Puri-Bhubaneswar road, with my camera. With a thick concrete jungle sprouting all around, it is impossible now take photographs. The tower’s walls are two meters thick!
In front of the sanctum sanctorum (deul) is the jagmohana (the hall where devotees assemble), then the natya mandira (dancing hall) and the hall of offerings (Bhog mandap). The last two were later-period additions, maybe built after a century, or so, by the Ganga kings. Again, as in most of the Odisha temples, while the outer walls are embellished with sculptures, the inner walls are mostly plain, devoid of any work, probably to keep devotees’ focus only on the deity. As the walls are designed on the panch rath (five-fold) pattern, the play of sunlight and shade on the structure and the sculptures is dramatic. All these four structures steadily rise in height to the ultimate 150 ft. height of the deul. They are all interconnected.
The deul, constructed on a square base, has a soaring curvilinear tower (sikhara); hence, it is known as rekha deula. The jagmohana, built on a rectangular base, is a pidha temple, i.e., its roof consists of pidhas which are horizontal platforms arranged successively in a receding formation to constitute a pyramidal superstructure.
Used to the South Indian temple custom of not being allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum, it was a shocking surprise for me to not only enter inside the deul but also offer flowers directly to the image. Though He is called the Raja of Lingas (Lingaraja), because the image is a swayambhu (natural), it is neither in proper shape nor big in size; in fact, it is not visible at all. Hence, He is called ‘Bhubaneswar’ (originating from the earth). The surrounding of the image is covered on the floor by silver plate of 3 ft. diameter.
Bhubaneswar is also known as ‘Ekamra Kshetra’ since Lingaraj was originally under Ekamra, a mango tree. Unlike many other temples in Bhubaneswar, Lingaraja Temple is under active worship where Lord Shiva is also worshipped as Harihara, a combination of Vishnu and Shiva. Jointly maintained by the Temple Trust Board and ASI, about 6,000 devotees visit it on a daily basis. On Maha Shivaratri, the major festival of Lord Shiva, more than two lakh devotees congregate here.
However, as a word of warning, one needs to be beware of the pandas (pujaris) there who have turned the temple into an insensitive commercial spot. As soon as you enter, you are surrounded by them; we mistook one for a guide but he dumped us into the deul where another took over. Ultimately, we had to shell out Rs. 200 – Rs. 150 for puja and maha prasad (a handful of some sweet item and a sugar candy) and Rs. 50 for the so-called guide) – after being forced to mumble back some mantras. Even inside the sanctum sanctorum the pandas canvass for customers, asking them to pay Rs. 20 to touch the base of the swayambhu Lingam. All of this left me disgusted and felt like sanctity was lost.