Even as the ASI begins work on the landmark Bhojeshwar temple in Madhya Pradesh, Sheila Kumar pays tribute to an unfinished dream

When I read about the ASI starting renovation work on the Bhojeshwar Shiva temple in Madhya Pradesh, I couldn’t help but recall a visit to the magnificent shrine some years ago. Going down memory lane in this particular case was easy; once you set eyes on this shrine, you will never forget it.

Flashback time. I’m in a car heading north of MP’s capital city Bhopal. It takes a lot to beat the roads of central India when it comes to potholes, craters, and a stark absence of avenue trees lining the roads — something, anything to break the monotony of the dull landscape. The road north was no different. And it didn’t help that we were on the fading cusp of late summer-early autumn, with a relentlessly cruel sun shining down on us.

When our driver suggested a slight detour en route to take in the Bhojeshwar temple, the suggestion was well received; any break was a welcome break.

Turning down a kutcha dusty lane, we drove a while before coming to stop before something large, something unapologetically austere yet something that transfixed the eye.

Lo and behold, the Bhojeshwar temple. The shell of the temple is made up of solid walls of red stone, shooting up to the sky. Inside rests the largest lingam in the country, perhaps the world.

Raja Bhoj (1010-1053), wise ruler, visionary, patron of the arts, a budding architect himself, built pretty much of Bhopal and this temple, too, is his legacy. Built in 1050 AD, this stark yet stunning shrine basically comprises a carved dome resting on four massive pillars.

Intricately carved

The pillars, each of them 32 feet high, are richly carved with graceful figurines. But here’s the thing. You enter the sanctum sanctorum and find it open to the elements. Because, for reasons lost in the maze of history, this temple remains incomplete. Speculation has pegged the incomplete pantheon to war, shortage of funds, natural calamities and the like.

Inside the temple, the lingam dominates. All of 18 feet in circumference and about eight feet high, the polished stone stands in the centre of the edifice. Set on a massive platform and made up of three superimposed limestone blocks, it is truly magnificent, quite the acme of 11th century architecture. Strangely enough, it faces west rather than the circumscribed east.

A stone’s throw away stands a Jain shrine with a 20-feet statue of Mahavir — they sure believed in things larger than life in these parts! For years, a big mela used to be held at the Bhojeshwar temple on Shivratri.

Everywhere in the vicinity of the temple, there lie signs of the unfinished dream. Pillars, brackets, columns are to be found some distance away from the temple. There is even a floor plan of the shrine, etched onto flat rock! A ramp had already been constructed along one temple wall to carry the massive stones to the top of the building.

A small distance away is the dry flatbed of what used to be a cyclopean dam on a vast lake spanning all of 700 sq km. Once upon a time, the Bhojeshwar temple was surrounded by large bodies of water, fed by the Betwa River. Today, there is no dam, or water. The ASI has now begun a restoration project at the site, aiming to give the temple a roof, lay the grounds for a landscaped garden, all in all a general face lift, as it were. Somewhere in time, Raja Bhoj must be smiling.

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