This group is the earliest extant temples in Bhubaneswar. The antiquity of area is attested by the finding of a bell-capital assignable to the Maurya period. Being among the oldest sites in the town, its sanctity is still celebrated, lord Lingaraja visits once every year on the day of Ashokahtami (March-April), when his movable image is taken to Rameshwara Temple. Debala Mitra1 explains that this event reflects a later period deity paying homage to a deity of an earlier shrine.
These three shrines, from north to south (viewers left to right), are known as Lakshmaneswar, Bharateswar and Shatrughneswar, named evidently on the Ramayana heroes. An another temple, located opposite to this complex, is known as Rameshwara, thus completing the set of four temples named on the four main heroes of Ramayana. Orissa has been connected to various events from Ramayana period therefore it is not surprising to find temples named after the heroes of that epic.
These temples were found in ruins and reconstructed utilizing old material wherever possible. Due to this, the sculptures and components got all intermixed during this reconstruction. Therefore, it would be advisable to treat these as a group rather than as separate shrines. Lakshmaneswar is restored without its crowing member and facing stones, Bharateswar’s base was restored with plain blocks of stone, and Shatrughneswar is in good state of preservation thus allowing us to understand the architecture and style of the whole group.
These temples are constructed in a line on north-south axis. These are enclosed within a wall, thus making a complex. All faces west and are tri-ratha in plan. The bada (vimana) is divided into three parts, pabhaga (base), jangha (body) and baranda (top most molding just before the spire). The pabhaga contains three components (horizontal moldings), khura, noli and again a khura. This three-molding pabhaga is a characteristic feature of early Orissan temples. In dimensions, the pabhaga is generally the half in height that of jangha.
An interesting feature found in these temples is their central niche (raha paga) on side walls, which cut through the pabhaga, resembling the main entrance door. These are designed as a mini-rekha shrine. Donaldson suggests that this reflects that the origin of these temple lies in a simple four-door shrine, with opening in each direction2. In contrast, kanika niches (corner niche), on either side of the central niche, start above the base (pabhaga). All the central niches are empty now.
The door-frame of all the temples is in T-shape design, very similar to the ones we find in early Gupta temples. Here, we find four bands, mostly with scrollwork, where the outside band crosses with the lintel above, the latter extends little beyond the boundary, making a T-design. Dvarpalas are placed at the door-jambs. Dvarpala on proper left depicts Bhairava aspect to Shiva, the fierce one. The dvarpala on the proper right depicts Mahakala aspect, the benevolent one3.
Lakshmaneshwara Temple – The first temple in line is Lakshmaneswara temple. Only the lower part of the temple had survived and the rest is a reconstruction. In the restored temple, only the door-frame is in its original shape. Remains of a rectangular plinth in front of the temple suggests presence of a jagamohana (hall). A single pillar is found lying inside the sanctum suggesting that the jagamohana was a pillared hall similar to its counterpart in Parasurameshwara temple4. However, it would be hard to say whether this jagamohana was coeval with the main shrine or a later addition. Parida differs on the pillar being part of jagamohana, stating that such a pillar cannot be used to support roof of a hall5.
Among the sculptures of the temple, there are very few specimens of interest. Shaiva dvarpalas are carved at the entrance door-jambs. A mithuna-couple is found at the base of the jambs of the raha niche on the east or back side. An image of Surya is found above the lintel over the main entrance. Apart from these sculptures there are few animal and human motifs, however not of much interest.
On a niche in the southern eave, a block with carvings of eight planets (ashtagrha), has an inscriptions naming these planets. This block has now been removed to Orissa State Museum. The inscription reads the names of the planets carved on the panel. Four names can be read with little difficulty but rest four are completely damaged. The four readable names are Soma, Budha, Brhaspati and Sukra. As this ashtagrha (eight planet) panel is inscribed with the names of the planets, majority of scholars have taken a view that this naming was required because it was the first time when this device was introduced and thus needs an identification for the viewers. We also find inscribed ashtagrha panel on Parasurameshwar temple however all the later temples do not have inscriptions on grha panels, as probably by then this panel had become a common practice thus identification was no more required.
Based on paleography, the inscription has been dated to the latter half of the sixth century CE, around 575 CE by Panigraphi. The same dating has been accepted by Donaldson6. However, A N Parida differs with this dating, and making this inscription contemporaneous with that of the Parasurameshwar temple, assigns it to the middle of the seventh century CE, which is also the view of Vidya Dehejia 7. Parida also differs on association of this panel to Lakshmaneswar as stated by Donaldson, and he assign it to Shatrughneswar temple.
Bharateswara Temple – The middle temple is known as Bharateswara and is very similar in design to its neighbor. the lintel above the doorway is decorated with a frieze depicting the capture of wild elephants.
Shatrughneswara Temple – The last and southern-most temple is known as Shatrughneswara. This is the most complete temple in sculptural aspect however it is also greatly restored. The contrast in the style of spire and body of the temple is evident, its gandi (spire) is pancha-ratha while its body is tri-ratha in plan. Parida differs with Donaldson when the latter states that the gandi is of pancha-ratha plan. Parida contends that the recesses are not that deep to be taken as fully developed projections therefore we should take gandi as tri-ratha plan only8. Donaldson states that this combination of tri-ratha bada and pancha-ratha gandi is also a characteristic of early Orissan temples.
The lintel above the doorway has Shiva-Parvati in the center. Below them are their mounts, Nandi and lion. They are both seated opposite to each other, separated by a trident which is placed in between. At the terminals is a shrine, on each side, one housing a linga and another a face, which Debala Mitra suggests an anthropomorphic form of Shiva9.
The front portal of the temple is highly ornamented. Two superimposed medallions are present, lower has Ravananugraha-murti and upper showcasing Nataraja. Ravananugraha-murti is a marvelous specimen depicting Ravana lifting Kailasa mountain. Shiva and Parvati is sitting atop mountain where Parvati is shown much stressed and in fear, clinging over to Shiva. Kartikeya and Ganesha are present on either side, while a lion and a bull are below Shiva-Parvati. Ravana is shown with five heads and ten arms.
The upper medallion has a twelve-armed image of Nataraja. He is shown holding a serpent in his two upper hands, spread across his body above his head. His mount, Nandi, is shown seated near his feet on his right. Above the Nataraja image, an image of Lakulisa is present suggesting the affiliation to the Pasupata sect. An interesting image of a female figure spreading her legs to expose here genitalia is present on the front façade. This image is later known as Lajja-gauri however in general, it represents the ritual act of propitious female power of fertility.
North nice of the west or front side has an image of Hari-Hara. He is standing in sambhaga (equipoise) posture holding a trisula (trident) and a chakra (discus). A gana is present on his right and a lady on his left.
The west kanika niche on the north side has a ten-armed image of Nataraja. He is shown playing vina held in his two front hands. His two upper hands hold a snake, stretched across his body above his head. He is shown as urdhvaretas, with erect linga. Nataraja is accompanied with Kartikeya on his right and a gana on his left. His bull, Nandi, is at the back of Nataraja.
Donaldson tells that by this time, Kartikeya appears not to have attained the status of a parshva-devata10. In this temple, Kartikeya is found on a niche of the east side. He is shown seated cross-legged on his mount, peacock. He is holding his Shakti (spear) in his left hand.
The west kanika niche on the south side has a six-armed image of dancing Ardha-nareeshwar, half-male and half-female aspect of Shiva. The middle portion of the image is missing, thus we can no more see the female breast and urdhvaretas aspect. The attributes in his hands include a trident (trishula), rosary (akshamala), a mirror and nilotpala (lily). Presence of bull and lion, respective mounts of Shiva and Parvati, also help in identification of this image.
1 Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 31
2 Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 32
3 Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 35
4 Panigrahi, K C (1961). Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar. Kitab Mahal, Cuttack. p 148
5 Parida, A N (1999). Early Temples of Orissa. Commonwealth Publishers. New Delhi. ISBN 8171695191. p 72
6 Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 31
7 Parida, A N (1999). Early Temples of Orissa. Commonwealth Publishers. New Delhi. ISBN 8171695191. p 70
8 Parida, A N (1999). Early Temples of Orissa. Commonwealth Publishers. New Delhi. ISBN 8171695191. p 71
9 Mitra, Debala (1966). Bhubaneswar. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 34
10 Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 37