The Harshnath Temple: Divine abode of Shambhu on Harsha Hill

There was once a wise man named Harsha who lived in a village in the Churu district of Rajasthan with his beloved sister, Jina. The two became orphaned at a very young age but their deep love was sufficient to support each other. He was soon married to a lady, jealous enough not to tolerate the excessive love of the siblings. The two ladies entered into a dispute about which of the two is loved more by Harsha. To determine it, both carried water-filled earthen pots on their heads and called for Harsha’s help. Unlike usual days, that day Harsha, unaware of the bet, first took off the pot from the head of his wife! Furious Jina permanently left her village to stay at the Kali-Shikhara hill in Sikar, Rajasthan and started worshipping the Goddess Durga. Disheartened Harsha tried his best to persuade his adamant sister but, on his failure, decided to permanently settle at the nearby hill, later named after him as Harsha-giri. There was one self-manifested or svayambhu shivalinga at the hill called the Pancha-mukhi Mahadeva. With utmost devotion, he worshipped the deity and was blessed by Lord Shiva to be worshipped in Kaliyuga as the Harsha Baba or the Harsha Bhairon.[1]

Every year thousands of pilgrims travel to Harsha Hill, located 22 km from Sikar in Rajasthan, to receive darshana (pay homage) and perform ceremonies at the shrine of Harsha Bhairon or Harsha Baba, believed to be the kula devata (family deity) of many local castes and the patron deity of the city of Sikar. Another major religious centre in the city is the Jina-mata mandir, dedicated to the local form of the Goddess, located at a nearby hill. At some point in their history, the shrines dedicated to two local deities were integrated through folk legends. Harsha Bhairon is worshipped on Harsha Hill as a semi-iconic rock smeared in orange paint, a common visual depiction of Bhairon throughout the subcontinent, but here with three abstract heads (Image 1). The idol is placed in a small room in the underground storey, part of a walled enclosure on the hill likely built in the late medieval period. Several sculptures, roughly dating to the second half of the 10th century CE are affixed on the walls and other portions of this complex. These sculptures, once adorning at least a dozen temples of the 10th-11th centuries that once dotted the hill, now only remain in the form of base courses. The only surviving temple from that period, albeit in a dilapidated and ruinous state, is the historical Harshnath Temple dedicated to Shiva, which was built in the second half of the 10th century CE (Image 2). It was this temple and its presiding deity, as we learn from the local epigraphs, that led to the naming of the hill as the Harsha Hill and not the Harsha Bhairon of folk legends. The historical Harshnath Temple is still in active worship with an ancient four-faced linga (aniconic representation of the Hindu god Shiva) inside the sanctum called Pancha-mukhi Mahadeva. The four faces on the sides and the space at the top representing the fifth face (sometimes visually depicted) represent Shiva in his Sadashiva aspect.

Image 1: Close to the Harshnath temple complex lies the Bhairon shrine, with a semi-iconic rock, locally known as the Harsha Bhairon.
Image 1: Close to the Harshnath temple complex lies the Bhairon shrine, with a semi-iconic rock, locally known as the Harsha Bhairon.
Image 2: The Harshnath Temple, now in a state of ruin consists of a mulaprasada of tri-anga specification, joined by a rangamandapa.
Image 2: The Harshnath Temple, now in a state of ruin consists of a mulaprasada of tri-anga specification, joined by a rangamandapa.

Locals believe this linga to be a svayambhu or self-manifested one, and it was once worshipped by the folk hero Harsha. Later, a structural temple was built around it during the time of the Chauhan rulers of the Shakambhari lineage. It is difficult to trace the origins of Shaiva associations with the hill. Artistically, the linga is almost contemporaneous with the main shrine. However, some reservations have been raised regarding its status as the original cultic image of the shrine, suggesting it might be a later replacement.[2] Archaeologically, the earliest certain evidence of the religious association of this hill is not with Shiva but with Surya, the Sun God. An independent sculpture of Surya, now placed in a masonry shelter near the Harsha Bhairon Temple on the hill was dated to the 8th century CE by Ambika Dhaka.[3] Subsequently, more shrines dedicated to Surya were built in the 10th-11th centuries, indicated by findings of independent sculptures of Surya, suggesting a continuation of Surya association at the hill. Additionally, temples dedicated to various other Brahmanical deities were erected on the hill. A large number of independent yogini (manifestation of the mother goddess) sculptures led to the speculation of a lost yogini temple compound, the Chaunsath Yogini compound, featuring a standard sixty-four or varying numbers of female deities. Vaishnavism also gained much prominence at the hill during this period. Elizabeth Cecil identified three displaced temple lintels within courtyards at the site, where Vishnu appears to be the central deity, indicating the presence of at least three Vaishnav temples at the hill.[4] The maturity of the Vaishnava tradition is supported by several independent Vaishnava images. Particularly noteworthy is an image of Vaikuntha Vishnu (a four-faced image with the heads of a lion (right) and a boar (left) flanking a human head), which reveals the presence of the Pancharatra[5] form of Vaishnavism at Harsha Hill.

At least a dozen shrines dedicated to various deities were erected at the hill in the second half of the 10th century and early 11th century.[6] However, the complex was not designed or planned to be a panchayatana (a layout of a main shrine with four subsidiary shrines at four corners), as the number and distribution of the sub-shrines do not follow the order of symmetry and proportions.[7] Most of these shrines were built around the historical Harshnath Temple, indicating the spatial and religious significance of this Shiva temple. Surprisingly, none of these diverse sectarian shrines were recorded in the extensive Harshnath Temple inscription of VS 1030 (973 CE), except for the temple dedicated to Harsha. This inscription, considered the most important document of early Chauhan history, was engraved on a large slab of black stone and is now stored in the Government Museum, Sikar. In the inscription, Shiva is revered as Harsha-Shambhu and is recognized as the kula devata of the Chauhan dynasty.

The inscription records the achievements of various rulers from this lineage, beginning with Guvaka I, who likely ruled in the first quarter of the 9th century CE and served as a vassal of the powerful imperial Pratihara dynasty during the reign of Nagabhata II of Kannauj. He was possibly the first ruler of this lineage to establish royal ties with Lord Harsha. The inscription does not clarify whether the shrine was commissioned by Guvaka or if it predated his time and was revered deeply by him. However, what becomes apparent by this time is the Shaiva association with the hill and that the dominance of Shaivism at the site had surpassed all other traditions, including the earlier presence of the Surya tradition dating back to the 8th century. The Shaiva shrine of Harshnath was built in the second half of the 10th century CE, quite likely replacing an older humble shrine from Guvaka’s time. This reconstruction likely occurred during the time of King Simharaja, who is praised in the inscription for his generous land grants to the Harsha Temple, renovation of the temple, establishment of an andaka (gold shell) on the temple spire, and granting various villages to the Harsha Temple (v 18). The house of Chauhans, so far, was simply a minor feudatory of the imperial Pratihara dynasty. However, the fortunes of the dynasty changed under the subsequent ruler, Simharaja, who became the first Chauhan ruler of Shakambhari to assume the title of maharajadhiraja (the King of kings) by freeing his territory from the suzerainty of the Pratiharas.[8] Although Simharaja provided generous charities to the temple, the process of temple reconstruction did not happen under the leadership of any temporal ruler but under the spiritual leadership of ascetics from the powerful Pashupata tradition. Ascetic Allata is celebrated in verses 33-34 of the Harsha stone inscription for building the temple of Harshnath with the funds received from devout individuals. After his death, the remaining task was finished by his faithful pupil, Bhavadyota. The temple also received generous financial support from Vigraharaja, Simharaja’s son, as well as several traders, merchants and individuals from nearby villages.

Architectural Features

Several art historians have commented on the archaeological remains of the Harshnath temple complex. One of the earliest observations was laid by D.R. Bhandarkar in 1913 who tried to establish correlations between the epigraphical descriptions and the archaeological remains of the site. Verse-12 of the Harshnath stone inscription describes the complex as:

‘Glorious is the mansion of the divine Harshadeva, which is charming with the expanse of (its) spacious hall (mandapa), exquisite with the splendour of a gold shell, (and) lovely in consequence of (the statues of) Vikata and the sons of Pandu set up in the row of structures along (its) sides. Resembling (in height) the peak of Meru, it is pleasant on account of an excellent arched doorway (torana-dvara), and well-carved bull (Nandi), and is full of manifold objects of enjoyment.’ [9]

Correlating the epigraphical description of the temple complex with the archaeological remains, Bhandarkar writes that ‘all the parts of the temple referred to in this verse can be traced among its ruins on the hill. A long flight of stairs leads to the courtyard of this temple. Just where these stairs end are the shafts of two pairs of columns one in front of the other, which were no doubt once surmounted by a torana and formed the arched entrance, as stated in the verse. A little further on, on a raised terrace is an old marble image of Nandi, once no doubt placed in a pavilion, of which the plinth only has survived. This is unquestionably the bull referred to in the inscription. It also says that there were other structures on the sides of the temple, and that in one of them were the images of the Pandavas and Vikata. That there were these structures is clearly proved by the remains of the subsidiary shrines on the south and north-west. The images of Pandavas also may be easily recognised in the ruins on the north-east. Here are six colossal images, which were originally, when whole and entire, as high as seven feet almost, and which are to this day said by the people to be those of the Pandava brothers and Draupadi.’[10] However, Bhandarkar’s identification of Vikata as the ogress Hidimba is problematic, as the term refers to Parvati.[11]

The Meru-like shrine of Harshnath, as described by the inscription, is now in a significantly ruinous condition. The east-facing temple consists of a mulaprasada (main shrine) of tri-anga (three planes of an offset) specification and was joined by a rangamandapa or a pavilion with an interior platform that is used for religious ceremonies. It lacks the pitha (lowermost plinth of the temple) but starts from a single plinth course. The vedibandha (basal mouldings) is damaged in some places but otherwise had a kumbha (pitcher) with an intricate udgama (pediment) motif with a small central box carrying a figure. The jangha (main wall), which is almost totally ruined, had dikpalas (gods of the cardinal directions) at the karnas (corner projections) as indicated from remains found in the north-eastern corner having an image of the dikpala, Isa. The surasundaris or apsaras (celestial damsels) possibly were at the pratirathas (intermediate main projections) as well as in the salilantara-recessess. Vyalas (mythical composite creatures), were also present, possibly in the recesses flanking the bhadra (central projection on the walls of the temple) niches. The nature of deities in the bhadra niches cannot be ascertained but can be conjectured to have Shaiva associations. Although the superstructure has collapsed, it is suggested to have possibly been of the anekandaka shikhara (multi-spired superstructure) variety. While this shrine exhibits features of the Maha-Maru style, some later shrines in the complex, with only bases surviving, suggest an influence of Maha-Gurjara features in the mouldings of the jagati (platform).[12]

The antarala (vestibule) of the temple stands in a renovated form and the pillars of the vestibule seem to be a later replacement.[13] The mandapa (pillared hall) consists of a rangabhumi which is a raised platform with four pillars on its four corners and transepts. All the pillars of the rangabhumi are different in measurement and ornamentation, with no uniformity in thickness. Ambika Dhaka suggests that these pillars are not original but belong to some other temple. She has identified two pillar fragments in the Government Museum, Sikar, which she argues likely to be a part of the original temple.[14] One of the pillars is quite different from the others as it features the image of Goddess Parvati and apsaras on all sides of the niches. Below them are images of Shaiva ascetics worshipping the shivalinga and playing musical instruments, apsaras, dancers and musicians. If these pillars are indeed not original, it indicates the presence of at least one more Shiva temple at the site. Several Shaiva images can be found in the archaeological remains of Harsha Hill or in the museums, although all but one are part of architectural fragments or the devakostha (niches) of the temple walls.

The doorway of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) has the lalatabimba (lintel) exhibiting the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Since this temple was dedicated to the Lakulisa Pashupata belief system, it may be assumed that this lintel is not the original. The doorframe is saptashakha (having seven bands) and the dvarapalas (door guardians) and the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna occupy their standard positions. Inside the sanctum is a four-faced linga, still worshipped as Pancha-mukhi Mahadeva, representing Shiva in his Sadashiva aspect. As previously noted, this idol, though contemporary to the main shrine, may not be the original cultic image. While he occupied a central place in the sanctum in the form of linga placed on yoni (womb), Shakti is represented as Parvati in panchagni-tapa (penance) on the principal wall inside the sanctum, surrounded by beautiful sculptures of nayikas (female dancers) all around the wall (Image 3). They stand in swaying movements and turn toward the central figure of Parvati. Interestingly, their names are inscribed there in the 10th century kutila script (Image 4).

Image 3: Inside the sanctum, a four-armed Parvati is depicted performing the penance of the panchagni-tapa, visually represented with fires on either side.
Image 3: Inside the sanctum, a four-armed Parvati is depicted performing the penance of the panchagni-tapa, visually represented with fires on either side.
Image 4: Inside the sanctum of the temple there are beautiful sculptures of nayikas on the wall. Most of them are inscribed with epithets in the 10th-century kutila script. The two-armed damsel carries a chamara fly whisk.
Image 4: Inside the sanctum of the temple there are beautiful sculptures of nayikas on the wall. Most of them are inscribed with epithets in the 10th-century kutila script. The two-armed damsel carries a chamara fly whisk.

Parvati stands erect on an iguana and hence has been labelled as Godhasana Gauri[15] or Godhikasana Gauri.[16] Flaking her are two standing and two sitting female attendants. Below the seated female attendant to the left of the sculpture was once inscribed an unusual epithet for Goddess Vikata. This epithet was first reported and discussed by R.C. Agrawal in 1967[17] but was later rubbed off by some mischief-mongers. Beneath the image of Parvati are a few letters, PA. PU. DA., likely marks of a mason.[18]

Interestingly, the unusual epithet, Vikata, also appears in the Harsha stone inscription, which Bhandarkar had problematically identified as the ogress Hidimba. However, Agrawal’s pertinent discussion on the epithet inscribed below the image of Parvati in the sanctum clarifies that the Goddess was locally hailed as Vikata at Harsha Hill. Agrawal gives a possible explanation for this unusual name, ‘Gauri was treading the Vikata Marga by performing penance and it appears that she was so named as Vikata: the word is derived from the Sanskrit word Vikata.’ He further adds that the Avanti Khanda of the Skanda Purana alludes to Vikata as a Goddess, mother and yogini and that the eulogists of the Harshnath inscriptions may have drawn inspiration from this text.[19]

The friezes at the ceiling of the sanctum are exquisitely carved. One frieze depicts Indra seated on his elephant, Airavata, surrounded by numerous drumming and dancing gods. At the centre of the frame is a dancing figure, identified by Stella Kramrisch as Indra himself, who became one of the dancers.[20](Image 5) The depiction recalls verse 7 of the Harshnath stone inscription, which records Indra’s devotion towards Shiva.

Image 5: In the frieze of the drumming and dancing gods are Indra, seated on his elephant Airavata; a warrior holding a sword and shield, and an Apsara.
Image 5: In the frieze of the drumming and dancing gods are Indra, seated on his elephant Airavata; a warrior holding a sword and shield, and an Apsara.

He [Shiva]—who, full of joy (Harsha) after he incinerated the enemies of the gods at Tripura with his burning arrow (and) was worshipped by a multitude of joyful gods led by Indra, who praised and bowed to him—took up residence here on the mountain peak under the very name Harsha out of favor for Bharata [India]. May that moon-crested one, now with a second residence, dwell (here) in the form of the linga for your well-being. (v 7)

Harshnath Temple and its Afterlife

The humble shrine dedicated to Lord Harsha, the place where Guvaka fostered his royal relations with the lord, soon emerged as a royal belief centre. Even though the shrine was re-erected in the second half of the 10th century under the leadership of Shaiva ascetics of the Pashupata tradition, it was fostered under the financial patronage of the Chauhan rulers, traders, and rich individuals. The Harshnath stone inscription records donations from ruler Vigraharaja II, under whose reign the inscription was composed, as well as donations received from his predecessors. However, there is little doubt that the patronage continued after him. Ambika Dhaka discovered two small epigraphs inside the sanctum inscribed above two damsels, referring to a certain Chamunda Raya or Raja.[21] He appears to be a later successor of the dynastic line who lived in the 11th century, hinting towards a sustained patronage at least until this time.

The temple is now in a ruinous condition. K. Deva, M. W. Meister and M. A. Dhaky opine that the ‘the temple within the centuries after its erection had collapsed, either due to insufficiently deep foundation or by some calamity such as earthquake. The Islamic iconoclasts possibly had no hand in its destruction’. Following a pan-Indian convention, locals allegedly held Mughal ruler Aurangzeb responsible for the sad fate of the historic temple in an interesting anecdote:

The local tradition goes that there were some eighty-four temples at Harsha Hill but were ravaged by Aurangzeb who was curious about the light of a flickering lamp burning inside the Harsha Temple, which he could directly see on a clear day from his capital in Delhi! He then embarked on a quest to destroy the Jinamata Temple. However, he was attacked by a swarm of bees. Aurangzeb apologized to the goddess and promised to patronize lord Harsha Bhairon, whose shrine he had forgotten to ravage. [22]

The exact timing and circumstances of the decline of the Harshnath Temple and its surrounding temples cannot be determined. Signs of repairs and replacements, such as the lintel of the door, pillars and the linga inside the sanctum, suggest ongoing maintenance, but it is difficult to ascertain when these took place. Local traditions assert the shrine of Harsha Bhairon predates the Kaliyuga. The origins of this cult and the shift in the identity of Harsha from the shivalinga of Harshnath to Bhairon are obscure. Shaiva association with the hill continued in medieval centuries, either in relation to the Harshnath Temple or the shrine of Harsha Bhairon, or both. This association prompted the first chieftain of Sikar, Ras Sahoo Singh to build a new Shiva Temple on the hill in 1718 CE (Image 6 and 7), adjacent to the Harshnath Temple. Some early modern structures also exist near the Bhairon shrine. Several 10th century sculptures were affixed at some time on the walls of these structures and the enclosure of Harshnath Temple. Priestly services in these temples have been performed by Parasher Brahmins from Harsha village for several generations.

Image 6: This 18th-century Shiva Temple is raised on a high platform and located at the entrance of the temple complex, next to the Harshnath Temple. The temple is still active in worship.
Image 6: This 18th-century Shiva Temple is raised on a high platform and located at the entrance of the temple complex, next to the Harshnath Temple. The temple is still active in worship.
Image 7: Local performing ceremonies at the shrine after marriage inside the Shiva temple of the 18th century CE.
Image 7: Local performing ceremonies at the shrine after marriage inside the Shiva temple of the 18th century CE.

Festival and Cultural Traditions at the Harsha Hill

Today, Baba Harshnath or Harsha Bhairon occupies the central spiritual space on Harsha Hill, drawing numerous devotees and serving as the kula devata of many local families. Newlywed couples, who are expected to start their marital journey with his blessings, first offer their prayers to the medieval Shiva Temple, where the pujari performs various rituals and ceremonies. They then visit the historic but dilapidated Harshnath Temple to venerate the Pancha-mukhi shivalinga before concluding their visit to the shrine of Harsha Bhairon, where the principal ceremonies are performed. Jharula or mundana (hair tonsuring) is also a common practice at the shrine.

In addition to Shivaratri, Bhadra-krishna-trayodashi or the thirteenth day of the waxing moon in the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) is celebrated with great fervour at Harsha Hill, featuring elaborate decorations. An annual fair, known as baba ka mela is held at the hill for 10-15 days, thrice a year during the month of Bhadra and during two navaratris (biannually celebrated 9-day festival dedicated to the mother goddess or Goddess Durga). The new year is marked by a grand bhandara (food distribution) at the hill, where the entire city of Sikar and nearby villages are invited to partake in baba ka prashada. For tourists, the ideal time to visit the hill is during the monsoon season, when the lush greenery blankets the area, creating a hazy ambience described by locals as reminiscent of Manali.


Footnotes:

[1] This folk legend, well known to locals, was narrated by the chief priest of Bhairon Temple on February 14, 2024.

[2] Dhaka (377) highlights a strong possibility of it being a later replacement based on two points.

1) This four-faced linga has three benevolent faces and one fierce. As per the texts, the fierce side should be facing southward but here it is in the north.

2) There is a difference in the circumference of the Linga in situ which is smaller and the socket which is bigger.

[3] Dhaka, ‘A fresh light on architectural and sculptural art of Shiva temple at Mount Harsha,’ 379

[4] Cecil, ‘The Medieval Temple as Material Archive.’

[5] Pancharatra Vaishnavism is an ancient sect centered on the worship of Lord Vishnu/Narayana as the supreme entity and elucidates different aspects and manifestations of the divine, through the concept of vyuha or emanations and avatar or manifestations. Its rituals and devotional practices are outlined in a large corpus of Pancharatra texts.

[6] Cecil, ‘The Medieval Temple as Material Archive.’

[7] Dhaky, Meister, and Deva, eds., 107.

[8] Jain, Ancient Cities and Towns of Rajasthan, 396.

[9] Bhandarkar, ‘Some unpublished inscriptions reconsidered,’ 57–58.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Agrawal, Bhāratiya Vidyā, vol. 27, and Agrawal, Goddess Vikatā of Harshanātha.

[12] Dhaky, Meister, and Deva, eds., 107.

[13] Dhaka (377) has suggested that only the base or kumbha part of these pillars is original and the remaining is a later addition.

[14] Dhaka, ‘A fresh light on architectural and sculptural art of Shiva temple at Mount Harsha,’ 377.

[15] Agrawal, ‘Goddess Vikatā of Harshanātha,’ 246.

[16] Dhaka, ‘A fresh light on architectural and sculptural art of Shiva temple at Mount Harsha,’ 375.

[17] Agrawal, Bhāratiya Vidyā, vol. 27, 58.

[18] Dhaka, ‘A fresh light on architectural and sculptural art of Shiva temple at Mount Harsha,’ 376.

[19] Agrawal, ‘Goddess Vikatā of Harshanātha,’ 246.

[20] Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, 402–403.

[21] The epigraph Dvar li dvar srita chamunda rajasyaha was inscribed above the head of the first damsel in the eastern wall and holding fire flames in her right hand, and again on damsel number thirteen (excluding Gauri), fixed in the northern wall, but with slight variation. Dhaka (2001:376)

[22] Anecdote narrated by the chief priest of Bhairon Temple on February 14, 2024.

Bibliography

Agrawal, R.C. Bhāratiya Vidyā. Bombay. Vol. 27. 1968.

Agrawal, R.C. ‘Goddess Vikatā of Harshanātha, Sikar. In Jignasa: Journal of History of ideas and culture Part-2, edited by Vibha Upadhyaya, Jaipur: University of Rajasthan, 2011-2012.

Barrows, Herbert. Reading the Short Story. Vol. 1 of An Introduction to Literature, edited by Gordon N. Ray. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

Bhandarkar, D.R. ‘Some unpublished inscriptions reconsidered-Harsha stone inscription of Vigraharaja.’ Indian Antiquary, no. 42 (1913): 57-64.

Cecil, Elizabeth A. ‘The Medieval Temple as Material Archive: Historical Preservation and the Production of Knowledge at Mount Harsha.’ Archive Journal. 2017. https://www.archivejournal.net/essays/the-medieval-temple-as-material-archive/.

Dhaka, Ambika. ‘A fresh light on architectural and sculptural art of Shiva temple at Mount Harsha, Sikar. In Purā-Jagat-J.P. Joshi Commemoration Volume. Edited by C. Mangarbandhu, A. K. Sharma, B. R. Mani, G.S. Khwaja, 370-380. Delhi, 2001.

Dhaky, M. A., Michael Meister, and Krishna Deva, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian temple Architecture North India: Period of Early Maturity c. AD 700-900. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

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

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple, Volume 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1946.

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