The Bisalpur Temple: The shrine of Gokarneshwar Mahadeva on the bank of the Banas river

[Oh] Maharaja [Bisaldeo], there is the temple of Mahadeo [Shiva], the river Banas, shy as a virgin is there. There is a great mountain three kos in height; they who see the water which flows from it are delighted…There is a lofty mountain there, a swift river, many birds, gardens, and places sacred to Shiva; shaded retreats, creepers entwining the trees with leaves and flowers of various colours, plantains, and fruits, Koils, Chakors, peacocks, Sarases, beautiful to behold. Boars, lions, companies of deers:-the Raja seeing them was astonished…In the mountain was a cave [which]…is the unrivalled shrine of Mahadeva; [where] always Apsaras descend in the night. This place four men discovered: their names will I relate, explaining, -Bhasmasura, Ravana, Madhu, Kaitava, these dwelling here pleased the Deva…The Raja [Bisaldeo] was amazed in his mind hearing the story of the place…[Later, upon fulfilment of his wishes] he gave orders for the erection of a temple and the construction of a town called Bisalpur. [sic] [1]

Bisalpur is inextricably associated with King Bisaldeo, another name of the Chauhan ruler Vigraharaja IV, who is believed to have erected the Bisalpur Temple in the 12th century CE. When the famed poet Chand Bardai described the life of the Chauhan King Vigraharaja IV, ancestor of his protagonist-hero Prithviraja Chauhan, in his work Prithviraja Rasau, he could not beautifully describe the natural landscape of the town Bisalpur. The town is referred to as Vigrahapura in an inscription on a pillar inside the mandapa of the temple from 1187 CE (1244 VS), during the reign of Prithviraja Chauhan, which strengthens the imminent association between the ruler, the town and this temple. Bisaldeo was dazzled by the beautiful landscape here. It was surrounded by lofty mountains and greenery and blessed with an abundance of water from the river Banas flowing next to it. Even today, thousands of tourists flock to this village, an offbeat destination in the Tonk district of Rajasthan, to enjoy this landscape, now enriched with a massive lake created by the Bisalpur dam on the river Banas. Further, a major pilgrimage site dedicated to the temple of Gokarneshwara (Gokarnesvara) Mahadeva is situated in a cave close to the Bisaldeo Temple, which is no longer actively used for worship. Historically, innumerable tirthas (sacred site) have emerged in this area, often next to water bodies. These such natural-turned-sacred sites gradually emerged as spaces for political and economic exchange, which is also the case of the local settlement at the site before it came to be named Bisalpur, after King Bisaldeo.

Vanapura, Bisalpur and the creation of the politico-religious space

In 1872, A.C.L. Carlleyle visited Bisalpur and provided the first known archaeological report on its temples under the supervision of Alexander Cunningham, the first Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). He reported remains of an older city, such as the fortification wall, citadel and ancient temples, as well as fragments of Jain imagery, which might have belonged to some Jain temple previously present in the area. All these old remains were in existence even before Visalpur (Bisalpur) was founded. Carlleyle suggested that the older city was called Vanapura, named after Vana Rishi, an ancient sage who appears to have become the tutelary saint of the locality. He based this claim on a popular traditional saying which he translated as:

At Visalpur did Vana Rishi dwell,
in heavenlike repose.
Above, Mount Girwar steep o’erhangs his cell;
below, the Banas flows. [2]

He added that the Vanapura seems to have been ruled by the Takshakas (Nagas) of Todarai Singh. After that, it appears to have remained under the control of the Guhilas of Chats in the 10th and 11th centuries, before it eventually came under the control of Chauhanas of Ajmer.[3] There is reason to believe Carlleyle’s assertion that even before the establishment of Visalpur, the settlement (whatever its name was) was under the control of local chieftains of the Guhila clan. Bisaldeo Temple has at least two inscriptions that record donations or veneration by someone referred to as ‘Shri Rajputra Galhano’ and another by someone of Guhila lineage, ‘Navya Guhilai.’[4] The presence of these two 12th century epigraphs suggests that these Guhilas continued to serve as feudatories and local lords of this region, even under the Chauhan reign.

Vigraharaja IV was a famed ruler of the Chauhan dynasty whose military and other achievements resulted in Dashrath Sharma referring to his reign as the ‘golden age of Sapadalaksha.’ As an aggressive warrior and ambitious ruler, he embarked on several retaliatory expeditions against the Chalukyas to avenge the defeat and humiliation of his father. He expanded his dominion far beyond the region of Sapadalaksha[5] after defeating various Chalukyan vassals, rebuffing Muslim invaders and capturing Delhi from the Tomar and converting them into complete feudatories. His military exploits are glorified in Sanskrit eulogistic literature like the Prithvirajavijaya and Lalitavigraharaja.[6]

Bisalpur was one of the several towns established by and named after him. This, along with the erection of a temple, facilitated the spread of his political authority outside of Sapadalaksha in this remote yet forested region under the control of the local chieftaincy of Guhilas. The process of state expansion in this land was further aided by the support of the devotees of the Shaiva-Pashupata tradition. This is one of the earliest communities of Shaiva devotees, who claimed their ascetic lineage from Lakulisha, a human-ascetic manifestation or avatar of Shiva. In the ancient cities and towns of Rajasthan, amidst the various sects of Brahmanism, Shaivism found the greatest acceptance and prevalence during the Kushana and Gupta times. Of the four major Shaiva sects, Shaivasiddhanta, Kaula, Kapalika and Pashupatas, the Pashupata tradition was the most popular in the region, and their influence was quite visible from the 7th century onwards. Having received patronage from various local clans—Pratiharas, Chauhana, and Guhilas, among others—the Pashupata ascetics often enjoyed significant political influence.[7]

The Chauhan dynasty had been associated with this religious sect for centuries, which became quite apparent based on evidence from the 10th-century Harshnath Temple at Sikar, Rajasthan. The Harshnath stone inscription celebrates the Pashupata ascetic, Allaṭa, in verses 33–34, for building the temple of Harshnath ‘with the wealth received from the pious people,’ while various rulers drew legitimacy for their sovereignty through grants and patronage to this temple (v 18).[8] The Pashupata influence at the Harsha hill became self-evident with the depiction of Lakulisha, not simply at the lalatabimba or the niche placed on the centre of the lintel of the doorway of the sanctum—serving as the emblem of the Pashupata identity—but also as an independent image on the temple wall. While the Bisaldeo Temple lacks any epigraphic mention of this sect, Lakulisha’s placement at the lintel attests to the political influence of this sect over this temple. Details about the extent of influence exercised by this sect are sparse except for a reference to a ‘Yogi Achintyadhwaja,’ who would have been quite likely an ascetic of this sect, testifies to their regional influence.

The lord of this new structural temple was called Gokarna as appears from the contemporaneous epigraphs at the temple,[9] and thus, the temple seems to had derived its sacrality and nomenclature from the older cave shrine of Gokarna. While the origins of the Gokarna sect are impossible to trace and the linga is itself believed to be svayambhu or self-manifested one, its sacral importance seems to have preceded the construction of Bisaldeo Temple in the 12th century, as evidenced by epigraphic and late medieval bardic accounts. The Prithviraja Rasau clearly states that Vigraharaja IV had the Bisaldeo Temple erected at the site after his wishes were fulfilled by the siddhas of the lord Gokarna, who were pleased with his devotion to the cave.

The natural landscape of Vanapaura-Bisalpura was perceived to be a spiritually charged space by the Shaiva ascetics who centred their devotion on Gokarneshwar Mahadeva, a local manifestation of Shiva. At this time, the region was a minor settlement with some temples (including a Jain one) and some fortifications, but this changed drastically after the Chauhan political intervention at the place. They established a city at this settlement, named after the ruler, and linked this minor settlement to the broader political, economic and religious nexus of the Chauhan domain. Politically, the local Guhila chieftain was brought under the Chauhan state structure. In an inscription composed during the reign of Prithviraja Chauhan in 1187 CE (1244 VS), a merchant trader Setha Thananaka notes that the settlement was linked with the thriving commercial economy of the state. By establishing the temple to Gokarna, the Chauhans were able to further exert political influence with the aid of the Pashupata sect.

Temple plan and architecture

The temple consists of the sanctum connected with the mahamandapa (hall) through a vestibule or antarala, followed by a mukhamandapa (front porch). The temple is built out of white sandstone and faces west, in the direction of Banas river. It lacks a circumambulatory area and is therefore of the nirandhara variety. Each of the lateral transepts of the mahamandapa has a cell with a flat ceiling, which lies vacant at present. Roughly above these transepts are the protrusions providing an elevated sitting area (asanapatta and kakshasana), above which are five dwarf pillars.

Carlleyle’s report consists of a fully measured plan of the temple that was lithographed at the Surveyor General’s office in 1877, and there have been no changes or alterations in the plan in the years since then. The temple walls are unadorned and plain, lacking any images. The niches built on the walls of the sanctum and the antarala lie vacant. It is not sure if images ever occupied those niches. The exterior of the temple is plain in contrast to its interior, which is richly carved.

The temple stands on a very high platform, which can be approached by a flight of steps on its north side. The exterior consists of standard adhishthana basal mouldings with five elements, which are all unadorned. The jangha (main wall), with its empty niches on three sides, supports the varandika mouldings. Above this rests the pancharatha superstructure or shikhara of the nagara variety. The shikhara is divided into nine storeys marked by eight bhumi-amalakas on each of the four corners. Above this truncated top of shikhara are standard elements like amalaka, kalasha, etc. The roof of the antarala is made of a small dome while the roof of the mahamandapa consists of a hemispherical dome. B.L. Nagarch (1991) has prepared a detailed report on the architectural elements of the temple. In his visit, he noticed some of the collapsed architectural features of the temple that were kept on the platform, no longer available. This included fragments of the samvarana roof of the mahamandapa.[10]

He notes that the mouldings of the ardhamandapa and mahamandapa differ from the mouldings of the sanctum. Elsewhere, he mentions that the level of the floor of the sanctum is lower than the level of the floor of mahamandapa.[11] While this difference in levels may have impacted the choice of mouldings, it could imply that the two components of the temple may have been built independently in separate time periods.

The temple is far more intricately and profusely decorated in its interiors. The closed sanctum has standard plain walls but with a stone lintel supported by brackets fixed in the northern wall for keeping a lamp and other articles of worship. The ceiling of the sanctum is of nabhichchhanda variety and consists of six bands of concentric overlapping circles. The top of the ceiling is carved with a lotus. The jamb of the doorway is carved with sculptures of Ganga-Yamuna and Shaiva dvarapala (attendant). The lintel of the sanctum-doorway shows Lakulisha seated in padmasana (lotus pose) in dhyanamudra (meditation pose) and carrying his lakuta (club) and fruit, inside a niche on the lalata. Four-armed depictions of Brahma and Vishnu are shown on the right and the left hand of the lintel respectively.[12]

The ceiling of the central hall of the mahamandapa rests on eight elaborately carved tall pillars. Each of these pillars has a square base above which rests the shaft which is square in the lower portion, octagonal in the middle portion and circular in the upper portion. Above these are some architectural mouldings, a shaft that supports the capital and the beautifully carved bharvahaks or mythical flying load bearing figures.[13]

The square portion of the shaft of the pillar of mahamandapa is carved with a niche on each of its four faces, each niche contains a sculpture of an apsaras, an ascetic or a royal figure venerating Shiva. In one case, the sculpture is a four-armed depiction of Bhairav. This image is placed on a pillar shaft near the entrance of the temple and is practically the first religious image that one encounters when visiting the temple. Erection of a separate shrine to the fierce aspect of Shiva, Bhairav or Bhairon, is a common feature of various early medieval, medieval and even contemporary shrines. The Chauhan temple at Harshagiri (Sikar), which is two centuries older than the Bisaldeo Temple, has a separate enclosure dedicated to Bhairon. However, in the absence of any Bhairav shrine at Bisalpur (per the current evidence), this Bhairav image at the entrance of the shrine might have served the same purpose. While the depiction of ascetics on these pillars aligns with the centrality of ascetic tradition in the Pashupata order, the royal figures depicted in veneration of Shiva (such as holding out a garland) attests to the role of their patronage in the spread of Shaiva doctrine in this age.

The apsaras have been shown in various postures such as dancing, caressing a child and holding a ball, among others. The octagonal portion of shaft is decorated with a band of eight-spoked chakras, chains-and-bells and kirtimukhas (face of glory). The central hall of mahamandapa is embellished with eight beautiful makara toranas.

Above the brackets of the upper pillars of mahamandapa rests the architrave of the ceiling, which is carved with five elaborately carved friezes. The ceiling of the central hall or mahamandapa is of the nabhichchhanda variety and consists of a band of five concentric overlapping circles decorated with lotus-petals and other floral designs. Several major-minor inscriptions were inscribed inside the temple, including one composed during the reign of Prithviraja, giving hints about the ‘after-lives’ of the temple.

The afterlives of the Bisaldeo Temple

It is unknown when the Bisaldeo Temple stopped being used for active worship, but it certainly enjoyed centuries of sustained patronage after its construction under the direction of Vigraharaja IV. The pillar inscription during the reign of Prithviraj Chauhan and other epigraphs shed light on patronage from Chauhan feudatories and traders during the second half of the 12th century. A number of medieval epigraphs provide evidence for continued pilgrim activities. Some of the pillars have been inscribed with male figures of ascetics and nobles centuries after its construction, while other epigraphs originate as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, based on the palaeographic style.

The strong association between the Bisaldeo Temple and the patron king were immortalized in various medieval bardic accounts, most notably the Prithviraja Rasau by Chanda Bardai and the Bisaldeva Raja Rasau by Narapatinalha. Both provided their own versions of what led to the king to commission this particular temple. Chanda Bardai ridiculously turned Bisaldeo, one of the most powerful and successful rulers of the Chauhan dynasty, into a comical character whose misfortunes brought him a loss of virility which he regained after worshipping Gokarna deva at the cave temple of Bisalpur and the king, then, ordered to erect the Bisaldeo Temple and establish the Bisalpur town. However, the boon soon turned out to be a bane which possessed him with an uncontrollable sexual drive, eventually transforming him into a demon.[14]

The Bisaldeva Raja Rasau of Narapatinalha states that King Ajayapala had two sons: Anadeva and Bisaladeva (Anadeva was Bisal’s father in Prithivarajavijaya.) and both inherited 20 crores each. While the former built the Anasagar lake at Ajmer, the latter chose to erect this temple with the money. However, ‘his military achievements didn’t permit him to finish the work.’[15] This could mean that the temple construction began under the direction of Bisaldeo but was completed by his successors or feudatories. Even the Prithviraja Rasau gives no clear answer as to whether the temple was definitively completed under his reign. Rather, his life, in this fictional account, is shown to have taken a miserable turn soon after he commissioned this temple. The difference in the elevation and the mouldings of the sanctum and the mandapa, may indicate a chronological gap between the construction of the two. Nevertheless, these stray references in medieval fictional, bardic accounts and archaeological data simply provide alternative perspectives to think about the patronage of the temple.

Indeed, the Bisaldeo Temple has had an interesting after-life since its initial construction, but it eventually became an abandoned space for several centuries. The Bisaldeo Temple had derived its sacrality from the shrine of Gokarna and after its decline, that sacrality returned back to the lord Gokarna who is still the epicentre of regional religious pilgrimage.


Footnotes:

[1] Summarized account from J Beamess Translation from the first book of the Pritiviraja Rasau, In The Indian Antiquary, vol.1, 1872, pp. 269–282.

[2] Carlleyle, Report of a Tour in Eastern Rajputana, 156.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For an overview of some of the epigraphs of Bisaldeo Temple, see Carlleye Report of a Tour in Eastern Rajputana, 155–156.

[5] Sapadalaksha region, comprising parts of Rajasthan and north-western India, was ruled by Chahamanas or Chauhan dynasty of Shakambhari lineage.

[6] Sharma, Early Chauhan Dynasties, 56–62.

[7] For an overview of the influence of Shaivism in the region, particularly that of Paśupata, see Jain (1972:522-3). For a detailed discussion on a close association between the Guhila politics and Pashupata tradition, see Nandini Sinha-Kapur’s State Formation in Rajasthan: Mewar during the Seventh-Fifteenth Centuries.

[8] Bhandarkar, ‘Some Published Inscriptions Reconsidered,’ 57–64.

[9] Carlleyle, Report of a Tour in Eastern Rajputana, 155.

[10] Nagarch, ‘Visaldeva Temple, Visalpur,’ 223.

[11] Ibid. 223, 220.

[12] Ibid. 220.

[13] Ibid.

[14] English translation of the first cantos of Prithviraja Rasau, 271–274.

[15] Parashar, Shri Gokarneshwar Mahadeva Mahima, 28. (emphasis mine)

Bibliography:

Beames, John. “Translation from the First Book of the Pritiviraja Rasau.” Edited by James Burgess. The Indian Antiquary 1 (1872): 269–82.

Bhandarkar, D. R. "Some Published Inscriptions Reconsidered. 1-Harsha Stone Inscription of Vigraharāja’." Indian Antiquary 42 (1913): 57–64.

Carlleyle, A. C. L. Report of a Tour in Eastern Rajputana in 1871-72 and 1872-73, by A.C.L. Carlleyle ... Under the Superintendence (and with preface) of Major-General A. Cunningham ... Edited by Alexander Cunningham. Reprint. Vol. VI. New Delhi: The Director General, Archaeological Survey of India, 2000.

Jain, K. C. Ancient Cities and Towns of Rajasthan: A Study of Culture and Civilization. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1972.

Sharma, Dasharatha. Early Chauhan Dynasties: A Study of Chauhan Political History, Chauhan Political Institutions and Life in the Chauhan Dominions from 800 to 1316 AD. Jodhpur: Books Treasure, 1959.

Nagarch, B. L. ‘Visaldeva Temple, Visalpur’, Pathways to Literature, Art and Archaeology, (ed.) Chandramani Singh and Neelima Vashishtha, Jaipur: Publication scheme, 1991.

Pandia, M. V., R. K. Das, and S. S. Das. eds. The Prithiviraj Raso of Chand Bardai, Vol. 1. Medical Hall Press: Benares, 1904.

Parashar, Jiwanshankar. Shri Gokarneshwar Mahadeva Mahima. Laxmi Pustak Bhandar, Deoli.