The marvel at Bhitargaon

A visit to one of the earliest surviving brick temples of India

Updated - December 09, 2018 12:33 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2018 12:15 am IST

One of the most important sources for studying history is architecture, which is why it is often called built heritage. It documents the progress of man and civilisation. In India, religious and secular buildings are testimony to the skill of artisans and workers and the resources of the rulers and richer sections of society. 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.

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.

I got a chance to visit this temple in October with some friends. We went on a long drive through the countryside to reach the temple, which is located in the middle of a village within an ASI enclosure.

According to Cunningham, the temple, facing east, measures 66 sq ft and has indented corners. The earliest photographs of it, taken by Cunningham’s assistant Beglar in 1878, show a small projecting hall before the entrance. The entrance into the sanctum shows one of the first uses of a semi-circular doorway. It is, however, a corbeled or false arch composed of bricks placed edge to edge instead of face to face. Cunningham calls this the ‘Hindu arch’. He writes that this is peculiar to India. This is different from a true arch which has a wedge-shaped voussoir and a triangular keystone. The corbeled arch cannot support large domes whereas a true arch can.

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.

In a dilapidated state

Beglar’s photograph shows the temple in a dilapidated state. This is because lightning struck it and damaged it, destroying the top of the shikhara. According to Cunningham’s conversations with the locals, this happened a few years before the mutiny in 1857 but no one knows the exact date.

The outer semicircular arch over the entrance steps has also fallen. Only the one leading into the sanctum remains. The structure we see now was reconstructed from the masonry in 1905 and is different from its original shape as it was rebuilt in unrelieved straight vertical lines. The top was left untouched as there was no evidence of its original shape. The sanctum is a windowless space of 15 sq ft and must have had an image in it. According to Cunningham, because of the Varaha incarnation at the back of the temple, it was probably a Vishnu temple.

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