Amarkantak is a famous Hindu pilgrimage center in the Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh. It is situated at an altitude of about 1000 meters and is surrounded by three mountain ranges, Vindhya, Satpura, and Maikal. Bordered by lofty hills and dense forests, Amarkantak is very significant from an ecological point of view and is part of an important biosphere reserve, Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve. The town is also known for the origin of three important rivers, Narmada, Son, and Johila. In fact, though it is generally taken that river Son originates from Amarkantak, however, its specific origin spot is in the village Kodawahi in Chhattisgarh. The rivulet Son from Amarkantak meeta Arpa, and the latter merges with Shivnath and the later merging into Mahanadi. However, the Son river that meets Ganga in Patna originates from Kodawahi in Chhattisgarh. Beglar1 visited Amarkantak in 1873-74 and mentions the town being a famous stopover for the pilgrims who were going to Puri or returning from there. The religious merits of the town are described in the Padma Purana explaining that one who goes to the Amarkantak will enjoy the fourteen worlds of thirty-seven thousand crores of years. Afterwards he will be born on earth as a king and reign as supreme emperor. A visit to Amarkantak has ten times the values of an Ashvamedha. If one has Shiva’s darshan there, one will attain the heaven. It further mentions that at the time of an eclipse, all kinds of holy things converge towards Amarkantak. Those who take bath in Jvaleshvara will enter the heaven. The dead will have no rebirth. Those renounce their lives at Jvaleshvara will live in Rudraloka till the time of the great deluge. In this valley live the Devas known as Amaras and numerous sages.2
From time to time, Amarkantak has been identified with various historical and mythological places mentioned in the classical Sanskrit literature includings the epics and the Puranas. Beglar identifies it with the Amarkuta of the Meghaduta of Kalidasa. Kibe3 identifies it with the Lanka of Ravana. The chapter 186 on the Narmada-mahatymya of the Matsya Purana, Amarkantak mountain is mentioned to be situated on the western boundary of the Kalinga and from this mountain originates the Narmada river. The Purana mentions two places, Jaleshvara and Amareshvara in Amarkantak as the famous tirthas, however no spot in the present city are known with these names. In a later chapter the origins of Jvaleshvara are explained, however, as it is mentioned as a tank, it may be probably the same as the present Narmada-kund on the basis of its sanctity. The other place Amareshvara may be the Amarkantak region in proper. The Purana also mentions two other rivers originating from Amarkantak, Kapila and Vishalyakarni (Vishalya). The river Kapila may be the present Kapil-dhara, the waterfall made by Narmada when it plunges about 6 km from the Narmada-Kund. River Vishalya is said to merge with Narmada later on its course therefore it may be identified with any other small rivulet originating within the Amarkantak region. In the chapter 188 of the Matsya Purana, it was on the Amarkantak mountain where the second city of demon Tripura fell after it was burnt by Shiva. As it fell while burning, it was named Jvaleshvara. Due to the burning of this city, there was a commotion over the earth and the heaven and Shiva stabilized the situation by installing this burnt city over the Amarkantak mountain at a spot named Maheshvarapur.4
General Epigraphs – This section gives details on various epigraphs which are not associated to a particular monument.
- Amarkantak Statue Inscription5 – written in Sanskrit using Nagari characters – dated year 922, probably of the Kalchuri Era which corresponds to 1170-71 CE – The inscription is inscribed at the pedestal of a statue of a male person who is shown seated holding a lotus-bud. On his either sides are standing female figures with fly-whisks. The object of the inscription is to record that the statue is an exact representation of Narayana, the son of Madhavaksha, who was the superintendent of writing at Ratanpura.
Monuments – There are many temples and shrines of different interests in Amarkantak. All the archaeologically relevant temples are confined to a single complex, presently under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India under the name of the Group of Ancient Temples. The rest of the shrines are of great religious and pilgrimage interest however their original character has been hidden by many modern extensions and makeovers.
Shiva Temple (Machchendranath Temple) – The temple faces east and is located north of the Vishnu temple. It consists of a square garbha-grha, antarala, and a rectangular mandapa. The temple is constructed over a platform consisting of three moldings. The platform follows the contours of the pancha-ratha pattern of the temple vimana. The vertical elevation of the vimana consists of adhisthana, jangha, baranda, and shikhara. The adhishthana contains three moldings. The jangha is divided into two tiers separated by bandhana molding. The central bhadra-ratha offset has been provided with niches in both tiers. These niches were meant to hold images however at present these are empty. The tiers on other rathas are not equipped with niches but decorated with chaitya-window designs of floral and geometric decorations. The kapili wall is also divided into two tiers with niches provided on both the tiers. The shikhara is separated from the jangha by four baranda moldings. The karna-ratha of the shikhara has ten bhumis (stories) separated eleven by bhumi-amalakas. Above the griva is resting a large amalaka topped with a kalasa.
The garbha-grha doorway is simple without decoration. The lalata-bimba over the door lintel carries an image of dancing Ganesha. Inside the garbha-grha is a shivalinga. The mandapa has four central pillars and twelve half-pillars on the periphery. These half-pillars are raised over the parapet wall with an allowance of benches in the interior. This makes the mandapa close at the bottom but opens at the top, allowing the sunlight to penetrate inside. The sukanasa above the antarala is topped with a gaja-simha (lion-elephant) motif, the lion standing on the top of the elephant holding its trunk in his jaws. The roof of the mandapa would have been executed in the phamsana style with receding tiers however it has not survived.
Karna Temple – This is the most important temple in the group. It is a triple shrine complex constructed over a high-rising platform. The temple has been named after the Kalachuri king Karnadeva (1041-1073 CE) based on legends and traditions, however, there is no supporting epigraph for the same. The central temple faces west and others face north and south, the latter has survived only in its ruins. However, as the other two shrines are identical therefore it may be assumed that the third shrine was also of the same plan and pattern. As evident by the remains of pillar bases, all these three temples were connected to a common square mandapa through their separate anatala passages, this common mandapa has not survived the toll of time.
The garbha-grha door-frame is pancha-shakha (five bands). The jambs and lintel are decorated with floral motifs and the lalata-bimba also contains a rosette. The vertical elevation of the vimana consists pitha, adhishthana, jangha, baranda and shikhara. The vimana follows the sapta-ratha pattern with seven offsets. The adhisthana has regular five moldings and the jangha is divided into three tiers separated by two bandhana moldings between each tier. The uppermost tier is smaller than the rest two tiers. Niches are provided only on the central bhadra offset and the kapili wall of the antarala. The rest of the rathas (offsets) are decorated with arabesque designs but no niches. All the niches are presently empty. The shikhara has twenty bhumis (stories) demarcated by twenty-one bhumi-amalaka on the karna-ratha. A large amalaka is placed over the griva and it is topped with a kalasa (vase), the kalasa of the central shrine is missing.
Vishnu Temple (Keshava-Narayana Temple) – This twin-temple shrine has two garbha-grha, one facing north and another east, connected to a shared common square mandapa. On plan and elevation, both the shrines are identical. Banerji mentions that originally there was only one shrine in the south with a mandapa, but later, another shrine was built in the west sharing the same mandapa. The garbha-grha doors are plain and carry Ganesha on the lalata-bimba of their lintel. The entrance to the mandapa is from the east. The mandapa is supported on half-pillars allowing an opening on the top. The roof of the mandapa is constructed with receding tiers, thirteen in total. The vimana is pancha-ratha in the plan, the jangha is divided into two unequal tiers, the lower tier is larger than the upper. The central bhadra offset carries niches in its two tiers however all the niches are presently empty. The shikhara is separated from the jangha by four baranda moldings. The karna-ratha of the shikhara has twelve bhumis (stories), each separated by a bhumi-amalaka. There are no images inside the garbha-grhas however Beglar6 mentions two images, one in each shrine, during his visit.
Pataleshvara Temple – The temple is more or less constructed in the same pattern and style as the other temples in the complex. It faces west and is situated east of the Vishnu temple described above. The temple consists of a square garbha-grha, antarala, and a rectangular mandapa. The garbha-grha floor is considerably lower than that of the mandapa, it can be reached by seven steps, hence the name Pataleshvara ( the god of the nether world). The mandapa has four central pillars and half-pillars around its periphery to support the roof above. Its roof is pyramidal with receding tiers, the total number of tiers is twelve. The vimana is composed of adhishthana, jangha, baranda, and shikhara. The jangha is divided into two unequal tiers, the upper tier is smaller than the lower. Niches are only available on the central bhadra ratha and these niches are adorned with diamond decoration. The shikhara is separated from the jangha by four baranda moldings. The karna-ratha has eleven bhumis (stories), each separated by a bhumi-amalaka. Above the griva is placed a large amalaka topped with a kalasa.
Johila Temple – The temple faces north and is located west of the Pataleshvara Temple. Like other temples in the complex, this temple is also constructed over a high platform. The temple consists a garbha-grha and antarala. The vimana is tri-ratha in the plan, all the exterior is left simple and undecorated. The shikhara rises in pyramidal shape like in phamasana-style. Looking at the simplicity and unattractive appearance of the temple, it does not seem contemporary to the others and was probably constructed in the later period of the 14th century CE during the Baghela empire of Gahora.7
Panch-Matha – This temple is situated northeast of the Vishnu Temple. It is made in Gond-Rajput style using brick, pilaster, and calcium. It is a group of five temples, all constructed on a common platform, following the panchayatana (quincunx) style. The temples may be assigned to the 15th-16th century CE based on their style and architecture.
Banerji8 mentions a few images he found during his visit, the images are no more found in the temple complex at present. To the east of the Machchendranatha Temple, an image of a goddess was found inside a ruined but partly renovated temple. The image originally consists of four different slabs, three placed vertically and the last on top placed horizontally. The fourth and the topmost slab was missing. The central vertical slab bears the main figure of a female standing on a lotus pedestal. She has four hands and holds a lotus and a water vessel (kamandal). On either side of her legs are shown seated sages and flying celestials on either side of her head. Below the lotus pedestals are female attendants carrying fly-whisks and sages in anjali-mudra. Banerji assumes that this was the original image of river Narmada that lost its sanctity together with the stone-paved tank near which the image was found. He assesses that stone-paved tank to be the original source of Narmada and Son. The other image mentioned by Banerji was of Vishnu with his dashavatara engraved on its back slab. This image was then known as that of Sonabhadra, river Son.
Narmada-kund Complex – This large temple complex houses the tank said to be the origin of the Narmada river. There are two temples, facing each other and connected with a mandapa, one known as Narmada Udgam temple and the other as the Narmada Mai temple. Both the temples have a female deity inside the sanctum, one is having four arms and holds a baby while another has eight arms. There are many subsidiary shrines within the complex dedicated to various gods however these two temples are the main temples where pilgrims pay their veneration. Spilsbury9 mentions a legend about the construction of these temples telling the goddess Narmada appeared in a dream of a banjara (nomad), Rewa Nayak, and asked him to clear the site of the present tank that was filled with a dense mass of bamboo jungle.
Sonmuda – Located about 1.5 km from the Narmada Udgam, Sonmuda is supposed to be the source of the river Son. It meets Arpa after a distance and the latter flows into Shivanath which meets Mahanadi later in the course. Sonmuda is located in the village Son Bacharvar (सोन बचरवार). River Son is one of a few rivers in India that are spoken in a masculine gender whereas most of the other rivers in India are spoken in the feminine gender. In this format, Son is known as Sonbhadra. Sleeman10 mentions a legend involving Narmada and Son explaining why Narmada flows westwards but the other rivers flow eastwards. Nerbudda (as he spelt for Narmada) was born in Amarkantak and was to marry Sohun (as he spelt for Son). As per traditions, the bride and groom were not allowed to see each other before the marriage ceremony. On the day of the wedding, when Sohun came to fetch his bride, Narmada, the latter got very impatient to see the groom. As she could not go herself, she deputed Jhola, the barber’s daughter, to take a close view of the groom and report back. The groom fell for Jhola and the latter reciprocated. Some say that Jhola pretended to be Narmada and Sohun had no fault. When Narmada came to know of the episode, she rushed forward and with one foot pushed Son to run back the eat from where he came and with another foot pushed Jhola to sprawl after him. She decided not to go to the east and will flow to the west in all her majesty as a virgin queen.
Kapil Dhara – It is located about 6 km from the Narmada Udgam, where a small stream of the Narmada plunges down a 24m high vertical cliff-face into a gorge. After this fall, the Narmada transforms into a large river. It is believed that the ancient sage Kapil performed severe austerities here and a small temple dedicated to him is constructed here. It is also believed that the sage Kapil asked Narmada to stop flowing but she defied him and fell into a gorge.
Dugdha Dhara – A little far from Kapil Dhara is located another small waterfall known as Dugdha Dhara (the milky stream). The name is derived from the frothing waters of the river.
Sri-Yantra Temple – It is a modern temple constructed after the pattern of Sri-Yantra.
1 Beglar, J D (1878). Report of a Tour in Bundelkhand and Malwa, 1871-72; and in the Central Provinces, 1873-74, Vol. VII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp. 227-235
2 Mani, Vettam (1964). Puranic Encyclopedia. Motilal Banarsidass. New Delhi. ISBN: 8120805976. p. 27
3 Kibe, M V (1928). Ravana’s Lanka located in Central India published in the Indian Historical Quarterly vol. IV. pp. 694-702
4 Chapter 186 & 188 of the Matsya Purana
5 Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum vol IV part II. p.
6 Beglar, J D (1878). Report of a Tour in Bundelkhand and Malwa, 1871-72; and in the Central Provinces, 1873-74, Vol. VII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p. 230
7 Gond, Heera Singh (2018). A Study of Archaeological Remains of Anuppur District (M.P.), a Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, Amarkantak. p. 83
8 Banerji, R D (1931). The Haihayas of Tripuri and their Monuments. Central Publication Branch. Calcutta. pp. 59-60
9 Spilsbury, G (1840). Notes of a March from Brimhan Ghat on the Nerbudda, to Umarkuntuk, the source of that River published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. IX, no 105. p. 899
10 Sleeman, W H (1844). Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official vol. I. J. Hatchard and Son. London. pp. 18-20
Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.