History & Culture

Mundeshvari temple: History in every stone

‘Mundeshvari temple is considered the oldest functional temple in the country’ — I have come across this clichéd-sounding line multiple times. And it set me thinking. How old is it then? Is it older than Benaras and its many temples? So I decide to visit Mundeshvari temple in Bhabua, 100 km from Benaras, to find some answers.

Mundeshvari temple in Bihar

Mundeshvari temple in Bihar  

I also chance upon a reference to the temple in Saba Dewan’s classic, Tawaifnama, where she writes: “Some recent scholars are of the opinion that the goddess installed in the Mundeshvari temple might well have been a deity worshipped originally by the aboriginal population, described in the Vedic and post-Vedic texts as asura and daitya. In the long-drawn-out struggles between the forces of invading Brahmanism and the indigenous population of the Kaimur area, the goddess seems to have been usurped and made part of the Hindu pantheon”.

The archaeological remains around Mundeshvari temple, Bihar

The archaeological remains around Mundeshvari temple, Bihar  

Along with two colleagues I plan a trip from Benaras. We cross over into Bihar and pass through a huge gate bearing the name of the temple. At the foot of the hill atop which the temple stands (the temple’s height is reportedly 182.8 metres.) we see many people in colourful clothes. The atmosphere is festive. Some are returning from the shrine while others are on their way up the hill. As we vend our way up, we come across multiple species of trees including arjun, peepal, chilbil (Indian elm), semal (silk cotton) and bael (wood apple). Nature and the arts have a close connection with all Indian temples.

Temple design

Fiona Buckee in her paper, ‘The curious case of the octagonal temple: An architectural analysis and revised history of the temples of Mundesvari Hill,’ 2020, describes the temple thus, “It is a sandstone Shiva temple built to an octagonal plan, with four doorways opening out in the cardinal directions and large central niches flanked by smaller side niches on each of the interceding walls. It lacks a spire”. She adds that it is “unusually broad, stretching 14m across from door to opposite door, which, combined with its truncated roof and heavy base mouldings, gives it a low-lying, heavy-set appearance”.

The archaeological remains around Mundeshvari temple, Bihar

The archaeological remains around Mundeshvari temple, Bihar  

Archaeological remains are scattered all around the temple. I try to absorb the history, and wonder if more temples existed on the hilltop. I then come across a sign that proves me right. It reads thus: ‘The large number of loose sculptures and architectural members scattered around the temple are perhaps part of the shikara and mandapas of the temple which collapsed long ago’.

Most people here appear to be locals. While some wait in a queue to get inside, others prefer to pray in silence sitting amidst the stones. There are deities installed in the open as well. This temple is known for its offering of goats, but no animals are killed now; the sacrifice is symbolic. It is said that the goats fall unconscious as a priest chants mantras and showers flowers and rice on them. Then they regain consciousness as he repeats the mantras.

Travellers’ accounts

The temple, like so many of our ancient places of worship, presents a beautiful view of the landscape. I tried to imagine it during Hiuen Tsang’s time (636 - 638 AD). According to the temple website, the Chinese traveller wrote about a “shrine atop a hilltop flashing light, at about a distance of 200 lee southwest to Patna”. Thomas and William Daniell, who produced the first published records of the site, came here in 1790.

Buckee’s paper further states that, “rather than being seventh century, the octagonal shrine was built about a millennia later, in the sixteenth-seventeenth century, incorporating doorways and mouldings salvaged from the ruins of the seventh century temples that once graced the hilltop. This in no way denigrates the importance and sanctity of the monument or the site.” It is rather, she says, “yet another milestone on the long timeline of architectural patronage and worship at this remarkable hilltop”.

The writer is a history buff and

an avid blogger.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 3:57:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/mundeshvari-temple-history-in-every-stone/article34659226.ece

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