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How to showcase the temples of Odisha

Author: Aditya Dash

Industrialist, Bhubaneswar

Living in the city of the temples means that you will have to show the temples to plenty of visitors. After staying in Bhubaneswar for more than a decade I have developed my own tour guide of sorts for some of the temples. It is not so much about the temples, but about interpreting the stories behind the marvellous sculptures. Mostly because I did not find the standard interpretations suitable, and maybe the works of Dan Brown and Devdutt Patnaik have influenced me at a sub-conscious level.

At the entrance of most temples in Odisha, you have the figure of a Lion trampling over an elephant. The standard interpretation is that this represents the triumph of Hinduism over Buddhism. Could our sacred places of worship have something so petty? I don’t think so. A more accurate and presentable interpretation would be that the elephant represents material knowledge while the lion represents spiritual knowledge. It is about the superiority of a creature that is not easily tamed or domesticated (lion) to a creature that has been utilized by man (elephant). It is about how things that can be controlled are ultimately powerless against things that cannot be under our control.

Maybe in future posts I will cover other temples, but for this one I will cover the Mukteshwar temple. If you are facing the arched gateway look at the bottom left portion of the right outer wall.

At first glance it looks like two men wrestling. Put your palm to cover out half the square and you will see that it represents a man with two knives. Same pose and same figure if you repeat for each side of the square. I believe such carvings would have been used for instructions to students of the occult. How to find the hidden divine pattern in our broad canvas of the universe. A warrior with two knives could have multiple interpretations. We are all fighting our own battles could be one of them.

On the right and left side of the main temple windows, there is the popular Jataka tale of the monkey and the crocodile. A story where a clever monkey first utilises a crocodile to collect berries for him, and also escapes from the crocodile by using his wit. Why single out this story? Is there something about the moral of the story? Or an additional interpretation perhaps? Maybe it is advocating quick thinking and a great consulting pep talk for our ancient merchants. It is very likely that at their prime, these temples would have been the modern day equivalent of financial districts. In the time before blockchain, one had to rely on religion to make anonymous individuals collaborate towards a common goal.

Moving on in a clockwise fashion you will find an outer panel statue of Lord Ganesh. The location of Ganesh on the right is so, that the devotee will have an obstacle free Darshan, after being blessed by the remover of obstacles. In the Mukteshwar temple none of the panels have statues, my gut feeling is that they are probably at the British Museum or at an antique collector’s.

Ganesh statues you will notice are the best preserved. Perhaps after an invasion, when society limped back to normalcy it would have been the merchants who would cough up the money and install a new statue. Because come peace or war, commerce goes on. Maybe defacing the statue of Ganesh would not have had the psychological impact like defacing the statue of Kartikeya would.

The back side of every Shiva temple is adorned with the statue of Kartikeya, the God of War and general of the Devas. Usually this statue is either missing or completely defaced. No better way to demotivate a conquered population than by defacing their God of War.

Parvati would have adorned the left side of Lord Shiva, because the wife is always seated on husband’s left side. This is also the reason why in the Mahabharata Shantanu’s father declines Ganga’s marriage proposal stating that she just walked right in and sat on his right which represents the mother, sister and daughter.

I would also like to briefly point out this magnificent sculpture. The local priest will say that this is proof of genetic engineering back in the day. This is another instance of portraying what divinity is all about. Sometimes to understand god, we need to see the unimaginable. Here it is brilliantly portrayed through a figure of a female warrior and riding a gigantic elephant lion.

Finally, we enter the main temple. Like every other Shiva temple, this one will have a Navagraha panel at the entrance. The 9 celestial beings who churn out our karmic obligations. Rahu the head and Ketu the tail are the easily identifiable ones, followed by Surya and Chandra. If you look hard enough you can probably make out Brihaspati (Jupiter). Over the years, astrology has morphed into ugly things such as muhurat cesareans while the essential spiritual aspect of astrology remains largely unexplored.

The ceiling has a very elegant panel of the eight different forms of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It might strike you as a bit out of place that we have a panel dedicated to the Goddesses of wealth in the temple of Shiva, who in this temple is known as Mukteshwar – the one who has escaped from the bondage of karma and the one who can grant the power to escape from this bondage. This inherent conflict will not appear to be so, when looked from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only after buying that Ferrari can you become the monk who sold his Ferrari. Maybe after being satiated and jaded of all your desires, you will be ready for salvation.

Finally, you have the Shiva lingam placed inside the sanctum sanctorum. Representing the union of Shiva and Shakti. A form for the formless “God”. The Vedanta concept of God is more relatable after reading the works of Douglas Adams and Spinoza. Another point to note is that in one of the mini temples you will have a Shiva lingam with a square shaped yoni. These were used for special Tantric/Occult rituals. That’s it for now folks, hope you enjoyed my ramblings.

About the author:

Aditya Dash is the Managing Director of Ram’s Assorted Cold Storage Limited – a vertically integrated frozen shrimp exporter. In his spare time he engages himself in travelling and documenting Odisha’s rich culture.

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