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Pray In The Shade

An ancient temple with India's largest Shiva linga gets a facelift

Pray In The Shade
Vivek Pateria
Pray In The Shade

A task left unfinished for a thousand years has recently been completed. Kings came and went, territories were won and lost, wars raged and peace reigned, but the Shiva temple at Bhojpur, in Madhya Pradesh's Raisen district, stood gapingly incomplete—without a roof and with several of its exquisite columns missing—for ten long centuries.

The much-venerated temple, which houses the biggest Shiva linga in the country, a fact that earned it the sobriquet 'Somnath of the North', has finally got a roof. Even if it is made of fibreglass, and not the intricately carved red sandstone that was used to build the rest of the temple.

Why fibreglass? "Calculations showed us that a stone roof would not be able to bear the load and would collapse," explains K.K. Muhammad, superintending archaeologist of the MP circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which supervised the restoration of the temple. Happily, when viewed from the inside, the roof gives the impression of being made of carved stone. With this roof, the 6.70 m high Shiva linga that was long exposed to the elements now has a canopy.

A missing column too has been refurnished, and the temple walls have been cleaned of dirt accumulated over the centuries. The ASI says its objective was not to complete the temple, but to conserve it, but the effect of the restoration is that this ancient Shivalaya no longer looks unfinished.

The temple had been left incomplete by its builder—the legendary Raja Bhojpal of the Parmar dynasty (1010-53 AD)—for reasons shrouded in the mists of time. The city of Bhopal, a half-hour drive, is named after this 11th century ruler, who was also a great scholar and builder.

Historians speculate that a sudden natural calamity, a severe resource crunch or a war might have forced Raja Bhoj to abandon work on the temple midway. Muhammad has a new take on why the temple was roofless: "Though Raja Bhoj was an expert architect, it seems there was some mathematical error in calculating the load the roof would have to bear, and it collapsed. After that, perhaps circumstances did not permit the king to rebuild it."

The temple was conceived on a grand scale. Standing on an immense platform, 32 metres long, 24 metres across and 5 metres high, its great entrance doorway, of richly carved stone, is 10 m high and 5 m wide. The Shiva linga is placed on a massive stepped stone pedestal.

It appears that a much bigger complex than currently exists was planned. Building and layout plans etched on rocks and stone slabs close to the temple suggest that many more temples were proposed to be built. However, the plans could not be carried out, probably for the same reason that construction here was abandoned midway. Had the plans been executed, Bhojpur would have been one of the biggest temple complexes in the country.

This structure was built with huge stones, each weighing several tonnes. A ramp, the remains of which can still be seen, was built to carry the stones to the site. After a nationwide hunt, the ASI managed to locate similar stone in an area near Agra and master masons and sculptors were commissioned to carve them in a style matching the original. A 12-tonne pillar, carved out of a single stone, was put in place a few months ago.

"It took us more than six months to devise the intricate system of pulleys and levers required to put the pillar in its slot because a crane with a boom long enough to put the pillar in its proper place was simply not available in the country," says Muhammad.

The temple boasts two other pillars weighing 33 tonnes each, each carved out of a single block of stone. "How fascinating it would be to know how ancient builders erected those pillars when, with all the technology and resources we have at our command nowadays, it took us six months to instal a pillar of almost one-third the weight," marvels Muhammad.

Encroachments around the temple have been removed and it now basks in its full glory. It has been declared a monument of national importance, and the ASI is trying to get it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But for the people of Madhya Pradesh, Bhojpur has already become even more special than it was before. Since its restoration, the temple attracts almost ten thousand pilgrims on holidays and festival days.


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