Spiritual Nest in Sariska Tiger Reserve: The Neelkanth Mahadev group of temples

On a plateau surrounded by cliffs nestled in the forests of the Sariska Tiger Reserve in the Alwar district of Rajasthan is a cluster of several temples. Spread across a stretch of about two kilometres, this cluster is commonly referred to by the name of one of the better-preserved temples of the group, the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. Hence, the cluster can be regarded as the Neelkanth Mahadev group of temples. Over a dozen edifices, these are predominantly Shaiva temples, with some dedicated to the Jain tradition. Except for the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, all that remains of the other structures are primarily remnants in the form of plinths and scattered architectural elements. The complex also consists of baolis (stepwells) and tanks. Notably, the Lachoro tank to the west of this cluster of temples is a unique example of a medieval water structure that was created to provide water for the settlement.

Image 1: Map showing all the temples, tanks and remains from the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Complex.
Image 1: Map showing all the temples, tanks and remains from the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Complex.

That the entire complex was fortified is evident from the fragments of the fortification walls interspersed with gateways in different directions. Several British officials have written about these temples in their accounts, wherein all were mesmerized by the humongous size and scale of the temples. For instance, in the Gazetteer of Rajputana, Major Powlett wrote, ‘At one time on the plateau of these hills, there was a considerable town, adorned with temples and statuary. The most remarkable remains are a colossal human figure cut out of the rock, similar to some of those on the fort-rock at Gwalior.’[1] On his tour of Rajputana, A.C.L. Carllyle, an English archaeologist, wrote about Rajorgarh (rather Rajauri or Rajawar) as the ‘ancient capital of the Badgujar tribe.’[2] Alexander Cunningham also camped at the foothills of the present-day Sariska Tiger Reserve. He noted the architectural details of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple.[3]

Image 2: The Neelkanth Mahadev Temple is situated amidst dense vegetation, among the foothills of the Aravalli Range, inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The temple built in sandstone stands out in the greenery spread across the plains.
Image 2: The Neelkanth Mahadev Temple is situated amidst dense vegetation, among the foothills of the Aravalli Range, inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The temple built in sandstone stands out in the greenery spread across the plains.

Background of Rajorgarh and the Pratihara Dynasty

The advent of the 10th century CE ushered a new phase to the city of Parnagar or Paranagara, the ancient capital city of Rajorgarh, which is situated in the present-day Alwar district of Rajasthan. It is on the route that connects Jaipur and Delhi, two important modern cities. The new era was marked by the rule of the Pratihara dynasty, who were probably a branch of the imperial Pratiharas of Kannauj. Though not much is known about the Pratiharas of Rajorgarh, several temples built in the 10th and 11th centuries CE credited to their patronage are found amidst the Sariska Tiger Reserve. These edifices are testimonials of the thriving settlement in the Rajorgarh region and the Pratihara rule. Two rulers of this line of the Pratiharas are known from the epigraphical evidence: one is Maharajadhiraja Savata, who was succeeded by his son, Maharajadhiraja Mathanadeva. An inscription found in the premises of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple is one of the significant epigraphical references for dynastic information. The inscription consists of 23 lines, and it is written in the Nagari script and Sanskrit language. The opening verses of the inscription ascribe it to the period of a certain Paramabhattarak Maharajadhiraj Parmeshwar Vijayapaldeva and Kshitipaldeva from the year VS 1016 (960 CE).[4] According to F. Kielhorn, who edited this inscription, the two names belong to the rulers of the Pratiharas of Kannauj, and to whom homage is being paid in the inscription.[5] The main person from the inscription who is known to us is Maharajadhiraja Parmeshwar Mathanadeva, the son of Maharajadhiraja Savata, from the Gurjara Pratihara lineage who reigned in Rajyapura (Rajorgarh). If Kielhorn’s suggestion holds true and if the difference in the epithets used for the latter two rulers is considered, it can be speculated that Savata and Mathanadeva were the feudatories. The new line of rulers was probably in the process of establishing their principality in the region, with Rajorgarh as the capital city. To substantiate this further, readings from the inscription prove significant. The main purpose of creating the inscription was arguably to announce the installation of an image, or perhaps the consecration of the temple, of the god Lacchukeshwar Mahadev. This temple was named after the king’s mother, Lachchuka. M.A. Dhaky, an eminent historian of temple studies in India, has noted that the resemblance between the mother’s name and the Lachoro tank at Neelkanth is probably because both were patronized by the same ruler.[6]

For the upkeep of Lacchukeshwar Mahadev, the king granted the revenues received from the village of Vyagharapataka.[7] In addition to this, the inscription also reads that the religious management of the temple was entrusted to Omkarashivacharya, the disciple of Rupashivacharya, who followed a lineage that came from Amardaka. The exact details of the lineage, school and sectarian traditions of these Shaiva pontiffs are not known. But since the names of the predecessors of the ascetic are specified in the inscription, the primary sage to look after the temple or image that was consecrated according to this inscription must have been a significant person. In the last few lines, the inscription notes some other donations that were granted to the temple and that the proceeds were also jointly applicable to the god Vinayaka set up in the same place. In this regard, a Ganesh sculpture found in the vicinity of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple bears an inscription dated 953 CE.[8] Cunningham could read the words ‘Shri Maharaja’ from an otherwise illegible inscription.

Since the political information about these Pratiharas is limited, the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple remains constitute an important archaeological record on the history of the region and its rulers. During the 18th century CE, the Badgujars (also known as Bargujars or Bargurjar) Rajas of Jaipur ruled Rajorgarh, and the walls at Parnagar are attributed to them. This indicates, as pointed out by Cunningham, that Parnagar might have continued to be a place of significance till the 18th and 19th centuries CE.[9] It is also plausible that the site was abandoned at some point, likely after the 10th century CE, the reasons for which are unknown. M.A. Dhaky, writing on the temple group in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, said that ‘either due to some natural catastrophe or calamitous political insurgency, the site had been devastated by the end of the tenth or the beginning of the next century, and since then it has largely remained deserted.’[10] Today, the road leading to the site is a bumpy ride. The inner roads of the Sariska Tiger Reserve area are in bad condition. The temple has been surrounded by agricultural fields in recent years.

The architectural exuberance of the temples of the Neelkanth group is evident even from the damaged monuments. As gleaned from the scattered remains and restored structures, several of these temples were triple shrines, panchayatana (the central shrine is surrounded by four subsidiary shrines), or saptayatana (six subsidiary shrines surrounding the main temple). The surviving superstructure is crafted in the Latina Nagara variety i.e., mono-spired and formed of ribbed vertical bands. The few extant walls have Shaiva, Vaishnava, and some syncretic imagery. Dhaky opined that the temples in the Neelkanth group exhibit architectural styles that prevailed in North India at that time, that is, the Maha-Maru, Maha-Gurjara, and Maru-Gurjara styles. The Neelkanth Mahadev Temple from the group is akin to the Maru-Gurjara style.[11] This influx of eclectic styles makes the temple group of Paranagar an intriguing site and provides insight into the artistic transmission in northern India between the 9th and 11th centuries CE. Since the Neelkanth Mahadev is situated at the entry point of the cluster and survives in a better state of preservation than other temples, delineating its architectural details would prove fruitful for a more complete understanding of the cluster.

Neelkanth Mahadev Temple

The construction of the triple-shrine Neelkanth Mahadev Temple can be stylistically dated to the late tenth century CE. Oriented towards the west, the temple has three shrines connected with a mandapa (pillared hall) fronted by a mukhamandapa (front porch). The temple has undergone several renovations, especially the exterior of the northern and southern shrines, which have been reconstructed using plain stone blocks and incongruously added fragments of the temple. The central shrine of the temple has also been partially reconstructed right upto the finial, using the original blocks of carved stone. The plinth and the basal mouldings of all three shrines have survived. As these bits are preserved, it is fairly easy to outline the temple's original plan, elevation, and architectural details. All three shrines are pancharatha (consisting of five projections) on plan. In this, a broader bhadra (central projection) is flanked by a narrower intermediary called the pratiratha and cornered by a karna moulding. The sizes of all these elements diminish in proportion to the principal central projection.

The basal mouldings of all three shrines consist of plain courses called the bhitta, followed by slender moulding called the karnika, a curved cyma reversa moulding called the jadya kumbha, which is topped by another karnika. These rectangular bands of mouldings then join a graspatti (moulding of kiritmukha or face of glory), further connected to the tall kumbha (pot-shaped) moulding, which is decorated on its surface with images of divinities. The kumbha moulding that corresponds to the central projection of the shrine has attendant figures flanking the central small figures. The niches that frame these figures are mainly of two types. In one variant, the frame comprises two pillar motifs that are capped by a niche that looks like the flames of fire. In the other, the pillar motifs are surmounted by a type of gavaksha (dormer window). Deities like Vishnu, Ganesha, Surya, Bhairava, Durga, and Chamunda, as well as mithuna (amorous couples) and ascetic figures, among several others, are depicted on the kumbha moulding. The kumbha moulding in the central shrine has been reconstructed, and, therefore, the small niche figures have been added later. From what remains of the original in all three shrines, it can be surmised that along with the kumbha moulding, at least two more mouldings were present initially, the kalasha (pitcher-shaped round moulding) and a kapotali or kapotapalika (moulding that resembles a parrot’s beak). The latter must have had decorations in the form of triangular triratnas flanked by half-gavaksha motifs.

The main walls of both the north and south-facing shrines have been lost to time. The east-facing shrine has its wall almost intact on the eastern side and has been minimally restructured on the south and north sides. The presence of this wall aids in speculating about the general iconographic programme of the temple. This is the shrine dedicated to Shiva, with a Shivalinga in the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum). The exterior walls have the images of Narasimha, Harihararka, and Tripurantaka on the northern, eastern, and southern sides, respectively. The image of Harihararka is a composite image comprising Vishnu, Shiva, and Surya in a single figure, indicating the syncretism of three different religious sects. This image, coupled with the dedication of the three temple shrines to three different deities, suggests that the worshippers patronized various religious traditions simultaneously.

The east-facing shrine in the temple also has an extant shikhara (superstructure). It is a shikhara of the latina nagara variety. This type of shikhara was most common until the beginning of the 10th century CE. It was only after this period that the shikharas of temples underwent experimentation, resulting in multi-spired, complex shikharas. The shikhara of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple consists of a central band made up of a mesh of gavakshas and corner bands that comprise layers of small aedicules. It is fairly easy to conjecture that the side shrines were also adorned with exactly the same variety of shikharas based on the numerous remains found in the vicinity of the temple as well as the similarities in the plans for the three shrines.

Image 3: Seen here is the eastern elevation of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. The central shrine is the best preserved of all shrines in the tri-kuta temple. The Latina Nagara variety of shikhara atop the central shrine of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple has been renovated.
Image 3: Seen here is the eastern elevation of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. The central shrine is the best preserved of all shrines in the tri-kuta temple. The Latina Nagara variety of shikhara atop the central shrine of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple has been renovated.

Compared to its exterior, the interior of the temple is in pristine condition. The mandapa that joins the three shrines must have had dwarf walls with short pillars and low seat backs. This is evident from remnants of the rajasenaka (dwarf wall portions) with diamond motifs, and vedika (pedestals) on a row of ganas (attendants) that have been incongruously added to new enclosed walls erected at the same place in the plan. The original semi-open form of the mandapa must have made way to light up the now-dark interiors of the temple. The central square space and rectangular aisles surrounding it have intricately carved pillars, beams, and ceilings. The most intricate pillars of the temple are at the centre. They are of cylindrical variety with an octagonal base. The shaft of the pillar has depictions of surasundari (celestial damsels or nymphs) figures, gandharvas (celestial mythical figures), and vidyadharas (celestial mythical couples) on it. The brackets of pillars have animal-faced bharavahaka (load-bearing figure) sculptures. Dhaky has noted a similar pattern of pillars that could also be found in several other temples in Rajasthan, such as those in Kiradu, Chittorgarh, and other places.[12] The other pillars of the mukhamandapa and the one flanking the entrances to the shrines are square in section. Another important thing to note is the difference in the materials used in the construction of the temple. The exterior of the temple is in red-pinkish sandstone whereas these pillars are carved out of black gneiss or schist. It is apparent that several varieties of stones must have been available from the lofty mountainous surroundings of the temple.

Image 4: The view of the interior of the mandapa (pillared hall) of Neelkanth Mahadev Temple as seen from the north western corner of the mandapa. In front of the three shrines of this temple is a shared mandapa with four pillars at the centre.
Image 4: The view of the interior of the mandapa (pillared hall) of Neelkanth Mahadev Temple as seen from the north western corner of the mandapa. In front of the three shrines of this temple is a shared mandapa with four pillars at the centre.

The exquisite ceiling is made by suspending concentric circles above the central square. It is complemented by a row of sculptures on rectangular beams supporting the four central pillars. The four corners of the ceiling are attached to the pillars by female bracket figures. In contrast to this central vitana (ceiling), the rectangular spaces surrounding the central square have plain, flat ceilings with lotus medallions in low relief.

Another noteworthy feature of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple are the doorways of all three shrines. The beams above the antarala (ante chamber or vestibule) of all the shrines have an image of Shiva mounted on Nandi. The main doorframes of the shrines are of a panchashakha type (consisting of five divisions of vertical bands). The lintels have rows of sculptures, in which the image of Shiva on Nandi is at the centre, flanked by images of Brahma, Ganesh, Natesh, Chamunda, and Vishnu on the sides. The lower registers of the doorframes have attendants depicted on them. However, the doorframe of the west-facing shrine is missing them. Based on these sculptures, Dhaky suggested that the north shrine might have been dedicated to Vishnu or Ganesh and the south shrine to Brahma or Devi. Currently, the sanctums are empty and the imagery on the exterior walls of both these shrines has barely survived, leaving room only for conjecture.[13]

The main temple of Neelkanth Mahadev has two shrines on its northeast and southeast sides. Single shrine temples must have had a garbhagriha and a small mandapa attached to it. Most portions of these small temples are lost, except for sporadic remains of the basal mouldings of the garbhagriha. The remnants are similar to the mouldings of the main shrine. Several sculptural and architectural fragments that belong to the original structure of the temple are stored in the vicinity of the temple itself. One can only imagine the exuberance, intricacy, and beauty of the temple in its original form.

Naugaza Shantinatha Temple

This ruined temple stands to the east of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. Not much of it is left to describe in terms of its architecture, but the colossal figure of the Jina Shantinatha is the most noteworthy aspect of this temple. There is inscriptional evidence that dates the temple to 923 CE, situating the construction of this temple approximately fifty years before the construction of the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. Even with regard to style, the fragmented architectural pieces exhibit stylistic affinities with the Maha-Gurjara temple style more than the Maru-Gurjara temple style. The original simple plinth of the temple was planned as pancharatha. Built out of plain stone courses bereft of ornamentation except for some gavaksha designs, the masonry of the main temple is quite a contrast to the subsidiary shrines of the temple. These side shrines are on the periphery of the main temple and have mouldings such as the gajathara (row of elephants) and jadya kumbha. Similar mouldings are also found on the plinth that runs along the mandapa of the main temple. It is difficult to say whether the construction of the main temple and the side shrines are contemporary with each other. Plausibly, the asymmetry in terms of style might have occurred because of subsequent reconstruction campaigns. More than the surviving architectural details, the colossal Jina image, indicating a strong patronage of Jainism in the early 10th century CE in this region, is the highlight of the temple. There are no identifiable remains of another Jain temple in this group.

Image 5: The ruinous Naugaza Shantinatha temple houses the colossal Jina Tirthankara Shantinatha image in its garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum). Only the exterior plinths of this temple have survived. These are decorated with elephant friezes and geometric patterns.
Image 5: The ruinous Naugaza Shantinatha temple houses the colossal Jina Tirthankara Shantinatha image in its garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum). Only the exterior plinths of this temple have survived. These are decorated with elephant friezes and geometric patterns.

Other temples in the Neelkanth group

In the Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture, Dhaky recorded over a dozen temples at this site. He numbered them sequentially, starting with the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple being temple no. 1. The Jain temple is temple no. 9.[14] The other temples have also been numbered, but the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) records use the local names for the temples. Broadly speaking, the temple remains on the eastern side of the complex, near the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, are at least relatively preserved; however, there is severe damage to the temple to the west of the Lachoro tank. A noteworthy aspect of all the temple remains in the Neelkanth group is the scale of the temples. Each monument is spread across a spatial layout larger than five metres. Most temples stood on a high, raised platform. Square shaft pillars with ghatapallava (vase and foliage) motifs at their centre are the most common variety found among the temple remains. The plinth details of many temples, especially the temples to the east of the Jain Temple, have remained intact. Had the entire complex survived in its original form, it would have been one of the largest temple complexes of Shiva and Jain temples.

Image 6: Seen here are remains of two temples from the Sariska Forest Reserve. The temple on the left is a restored single shrine that had a Latina Nagara variety shikhara (superstructure). What remains of the temple on the right is only its huge plinths with geometric patterns; above these plinths, there are remnants of pillars.
Image 6: Seen here are remains of two temples from the Sariska Forest Reserve. The temple on the left is a restored single shrine that had a Latina Nagara variety shikhara (superstructure). What remains of the temple on the right is only its huge plinths with geometric patterns; above these plinths, there are remnants of pillars.

Footnotes:

[1] Cunningham, Report of a tour in Eastern Rajputana in 1882-83, 124.

[2] Carllyele, Report of a tour in eastern Rajputana in 1871-72 and 1872-73, 83.

[3] Cunningham, Report of a tour in Eastern Rajputana in 1882-83, 126.

[4] Smith, ‘The Gurjaras of Rajputana and Kannauj,’ 53–75.

[5] Kielhorn, ‘Rajor Inscription of Mathanadeva,’ 263–66.

[6] Singh, ‘Lachoro tank: a pre-medieval waterworks,’ 1287–1292.

[7] Kielhorn, ‘Rajor Inscription of Mathanadeva,’ 263.

[8] Cunningham, Report of a tour in Eastern Rajputana in 1882-83, 126.

[9] Ibid., 125.

[10] Dhaky, Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, 349-50.

[11] Dhaky, 350.

[12] Dhaky, 358.

[13] Dhaky, 357-359.

[14] Dhaky, 352-360.

Bibliography:

Carllyele A. C. L., Report of a tour in eastern Rajputana in 1871-72 and 1872-73. Volume VI. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1878. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.35451/page/n5/mode/2up

Dhaky, M.A., ed. Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture North India: Beginnings of Medieval Idiom c. AD 900–1000. 2 volumes. I: 426 pp. II: 913 plates. New Delhi: American Institute of Indian Studies and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 1998.

Kielhorn, F. ‘Rajor Inscription of Mathanadeva.’ In Epigraphia Indica 3 (1894) 263–67.

Smith, Vincent A. ‘The Gurjaras of Rajputana and Kannauj.’ In The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 41 (1909) 53–75.

Singh, Vinod Kumar, ‘Lachoro tank: a pre-medieval waterworks at Paranagar.' Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 2000-2001, Vol. 61, Part 2. (2001) 1287–1292.