From Jain rock-cut caves to Hindu temples to Buddhist stupas, Odisha contains some of the finest examples of ancient Indian architecture. While religious influence, royal patronage and a rich maritime trade encouraged a spate in construction, the intrinsic artistic quality of the local craftspeople ensured the monuments were embellished with the best of sculptures and ornamentation. Considered as a special group (Kalinga school) within the matrix of Indian architecture, the larger body of temples consist of four parts – deul or the sanctum sanctorum, jagamohan or the audience hall, nat mandir or the dancing hall and the bhog mandap or the hall where offerings were made.
Bhubaneswar, the state capital, is probably the best place to begin your journey into the architectural heartland of Odisha. It is said that between the seventh and 12th century, the city had more than 7,000 temples, of which only a handful have survived. Parshurameswara Temple, from the 7th century is the oldest surviving temple. The beehive-shaped tower (deul) and the porch in front (jagmohan) depict the development of Odisha’s temple architecture. Mukteswara Temple, from the 10th century, acts as a bridge between the early and later styles. Unlike other temples, it has an intricately carved arched gateway in front. Rajarani Temple, from the 11th century, gets its name from the two coloured stones used to construct it. But the most famous temple here is the Lingaraja Temple dedicated to Tri-bhubaneswara (Shiva). The main temple, with its 180-feet tower, sits in the middle of a huge complex and is surrounded by other shrines. It is said that the main temple dates back to late 11th century but some of the other shrines date back to the sixth century. While non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple complex, they may catch a panoramic view of the complex from an observation deck just outside.
Ekamra Heritage Walk, an initiative of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation, Odisha Tourism and Bhubaneswar Development Authority, and executed through Detour Odisha, is held every Sunday. It is free of charge but requires prior registration. The walk starts at 6.30am from Mukteswara Temple, covers less than 2km and takes 2-3 hours. For registration and more details, see ekamrawalks.com
Located about 6km from Bhubaneswar are the twin hills of Udaygiri and Khandagiri, where you will find rock cut caves where Jain monks used to live and pray. Dating back to second century BCE, Udayagiri has 18 caves and Khandagiri 15. Vehicles will take you to the base of the hills, from where you have to ascend the hills. Open from dawn to dusk; ticketed entry.
The Jagannath Temple in Puri, which enshrines the gigantic wooden idols of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, Balabhadra and Subhadra, was built in the 13thcentury. The over 200-feet high temple spire can be seen from a long distance away. The sculptures on the temple’s exterior were revealed after the layers of white plaster were peeled off under a maintenance project by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Non-Hindus are not allowed inside. But you can see the towering structure from the roof of the Raghunandan Library (in exchange for a nominal donation).
A visit to Odisha is never complete without seeing the Sun Temple at Konark (about 55km from Bhubaneswar). Epitome of Odisha’s architectural splendour, the 13th century temple was built by King Narasimhadeva of the Ganga dynasty, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Called a ‘poetry in stone’ by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, it shows the finesse with which the local craftsmen could wield their instruments. Although centuries of neglect and vandalism has destroyed much of the temple, the construction is not difficult to imagine. Shaped like a giant chariot it had 24 gigantic wheels and seven celestial horses pulling it. Tomes have been written about the temple, the legends associated with it and the sense of time that has been built into the architecture. Although the sanctum sanctorum is without a roof and only a pedestal inside, there are three chlorite statues of Surya (Sun god) on the outside. The horizontal tiers of the jagamohan is marked by the free-standing statues of celestial musicians, dancers and mythical animals. Intricate carvings can be seen on the temple walls and the wheels. One of the most famous sculptures here is that of a giraffe, an animal found only in Africa. Singular pieces, which were once part of the main temple, are now arranged throughout the complex. The Sun Temple is best enjoyed in the early morning or late afternoon. Open from dawn to dusk; ASI monument; ticketed entry.
About 100km away from Bhubaneswar, is Lalitagiri, Udaygiri and Ratnagiri, together known as the Diamond Triangle. Located in the Mahanadi river basin, they were seats of Buddhist learning under the Vajrayana sect of monks. It is said that the centres exhibit constructions extending between first century BC and 12thcentury AD. Buddhakhol, about 40km from Brahmapur, is also known for its Buddhist ruins.
Scattered throughout Odisha are temples or shrines that have evolved outside the major school of architecture prevalent in Bhubaneswar, Konark or Puri. Built of chlorite slabs, the temple of Kichakeswari in Khiching in Mayurbhanj district is one such example. Rasika Raya Temple of Haripur (20km from Baripada) is one of the finest brick temples of Odisha.
The best time to explore Odisha is between November and February. So add a few days to your itinerary for the international hockey tournament and enjoy some of the masterpieces of Indian architecture. Since the sun can be strong in this part of the country, it is best to explore the monument early in the day or late in the afternoon. Remember to carry sun-protective gear, including sunscreen lotions, and drinking water, and wear comfortable walking shoes.