Mukteshvara Temple – A Dream in Sandstone


“Gem of Orissan architecture” – James Fergusson1

“A dream realized in sandstone” – M M Ganguly2

“…handsomest – a charming epitome of the perfection of Orissan temple architecture – faded – colorless – joyless – but beautiful past effacing even by the decay of a thousand years, which has furrowed its brow, and wrought wrinkles on its once glistening surface” – Debala Mitra3

In the temple city of Bhubaneswar, only few temples stand out from the rest. One among these outstanding specimens is the Mukteshvara Temple which is situated in a garden complex known as Siddharanya (forest of siddhas). It faces west and stands on the southeast corner of the garden. It is enclosed within a low compound wall along with a large tank, a well and a torana. At a little distance, on its west, over a raised terrace, stands six miniature temples, all in a row. These are arranged in two group, containing three temples each, and the space between the groups is aligned with the main entrance of the temple. On its southeast side, four miniature temples are placed, all facing west.


Mukteshvara temple is hailed as the culmination of the incessant experimentation taken by the Orissan artisans. These experimentation are evident on earlier shrines. Thus Muktesvara stands as the end of an artistic epoch. Few of its distinguished features are its low decorated enclosure wall, torana at the entrance and sculpted ceiling in its mandapa. These elements were used for the first time in Orissan art and were not used after for any other temple, thus putting Muktesvara temple in a very distinguished category.


A torana stands just before the compound’s entrance on the west. It has two heavy pillars supporting a rounded arch on top. The pillars are square at base, consisting of two courses. These are decorated with miniature temple carvings. Above this square base rises a sixteen faceted shaft with its top and bottom decorated course. Above is the capital of the column in form of a ribbed cushion topped with an abacus. The torana arch is formed by two makaras, extending on opposite ends. At the bottom ends and at apex are three gavaksha (windows) or chaitya decoration. These chaityas have a male head inside. The torana is dominated by four, two on front and two at back side, reclining female figures, resembling voluptuous yakshis. Such toranas were erected to facilitate dola-utsava ceremony where a movable image of the deity is placed over a swing for rituals.


Being enclosed by a surrounding wall and built over a stone pavement, the space between the temple and the wall serves the purpose of a circumambulatery path. This enclosure wall is built with four courses of stones. The bottom-most course contains plain stones with gavaksha (window) design, many of these windows have standing figures. The next course has niches set within two flanking pilasters. These niches have a male face or a lotus. The third course has plain stones with a small standing or seated figure at its top. The last course is plain and simple, curved at the top. There are thirty corner niches on this enclosure wall. These niches are decorated with various images. Among these figures are Avalokiteshvara4, Lakulisa, Buddha4, Surya, Vishnu, Ganesha, Sarasvati, Varahi, Kartikeya, Chamunda and Parvati. The enclosure wall is plain from inside.


Within this compound, on the south of the main temple, is a small tank, locally known as Marici-Kunda. It is known for its medicinal properties, specially to cure barrenness among women5. The entrance doorway of the tank is carved, having Ganga and Yamuna at the doorjambs and Lakulisa seated with his four disciples in the center of its lintel. On the east side is a large tank which is fed by a natural spring. This might have served as the main tank of the temple.



Jagamohana is a rectangular building built in tri-ratha style. It is topped with a pidha style roof. In the chronology of the Orissan temples, this is the first jagamohana of a pidha-roof over a square plan. There are few earlier temples in Orissa where pidha roof is experimented over a rectangular plan, as in the Patalesvar temple at Paikapdada. The jagamohana roof of Mukteshvara is built with twelve tiers of pidhas topped with a kalasa. This roof is supported on no pillars. The entrance is preceded by a large chandra-shila (moonstone) followed by a doorway guarded by two dvarpalas. The lintel of the doorway has a mutilated male ascetic figure may be Lakulisa due to the popularity of the Pasupata sect and appearance of this icon at several other contemporary temples.


The external walls of the jagamohana are duly decorated with various figures and motifs. Women images dominate the overall sculptural program. These images can be categorized into three main categories, nayikas, sala-bhanjika and alasa-kanyas (indolent damsels). Salabhanjika images are differentiated by the presence of a tree almost forming a canopy over the female figure. Many different types of salabhanjikas images are observed here, i.e. lady with a monkey where the latter is trying to pull her girdle, lady relaxing over a tree with her leg braced on it, lady pulling out a thorn, lady playing with a child or baby, lady standing on a doorway with a bird perched on it etc.


North and south walls of jagamohana has lattice windows of diamond patterns. Recess between the kanika and anuratha is decorated with naga-pilasters. At the bottom, it has six pabhaga mouldings topped with a slim shaft entwined with a naga or nagini figure. These naga-nagini pillars, which are first introduced in this temple, later became a norm in the Orissan temple art. Here these naga-nagini pillars are arranged in alternate manner, a naga pillar followed by a nagini pillar and again a naga pillar. Naga-Nagini are shown with head down and tail upwards, suggesting a downward movement.



The ceiling of the mandapa is made of five receding stone courses, but of different shapes. The innermost is a square, next three are octagonal and the last is rectangular, thus resulting triangular and trapezoidal panels at the corners. These panels are decorated with various images and designs. The innermost panel is in shape of an eight-petal lotus where each petal acts as a niche housing Sapta-matrikas with Vinadhara-Virabhadra. All matrikas except Chamunda are holding a baby. The center of this lotus is in shape of a circular disk incised with crescent symbol. It is circumscribed by three rings, each consisting of a sixteen-petal lotus. This lotus is surrounded by six relief panels depicting musicians and dancers.


The next course has two reliefs, one of Ganesha and another of Kartikeya. Ganesha is shown with eight arms with upper two holding a snake across his body. He is accompanied with ganas who are shown dancing and playing instruments. Kartikeya is shown with two arms seated in ardhaparyanka-mudra, holding his shakti, and accompanied by a peacock and a rooster. Kartikeya is also accompanied by three male figures, all very similar in representation, and all holding a spear and shown in trisikhandaka coiffure. Agrawala6 identifies these three figures as three different representations of Kartikeya. Agrawala refers to Mahabharata which tells that by his yogic powers, Kartikeya transforms himself into four aspects with a view to approaching his different parents simultaneously. He approaches Rudra as Skanda, Uma as Vishakha, Agni as Sakha and Ganga as Naigameya. Similar myth is also mentioned in various puranas.


The next course has four reliefs, two depicting musician and dancers and other two showing women in meditation. The fourth course has four panels, all mostly identical, depicting women in meditation. The last and the fifth course has images of kirtimukhas. Smith7 suggests that the seven mothers with Virabhadra represent the eight directions and planets . He identifies this mandapa ceiling with a mandala, quoting Kiranagama, stating that the mandala represents the Absolute at its very center while the periphery contains the emanations through the union of Shakti and Ananta, where the latter is represented as Naga. The union of Shiva and Shakti is also represented by an incised crescent moon over a full blown lotus at the very center of this ceiling, where the lotus represents the goddess and crescent the god.



Smith also interprets this ceiling as a narrative tableau depicting key events in mythology related to Shiva and Parvati, with emphasis on the penance performed by Parvati. He connects the ceiling with the births of Ganesha and Kartikeya, especially of the latter due to his relationship with Krttikas, the wives of the Seven Sages. His arguments are very interesting however at the same time slightly untenable.


Deul is pancha-ratha in plan and consists of a bada, gandi and mastaka. Its bada is formed of three divisions, pabhaga, jangha and baranda. Pabhaga mouldings differ in number at the different projections, four mouldings at kanika and five at raha and anartha. Lowermost moulding is decorated with chaitya-arches housing a face, standing figure or left vacant. The additional moulding at anuratha-pagas and raha-pagas, fourth from bottom, is decorated with elephant frieze.


Raha-paga projects considerably compared to other projections. It is consisted of a niche, with two pilasters on either sides. Ganga and Yamuna are placed on these pilasters. Both the pilasters, inner and outer, are very similar in design, except on the inner pilasters few mouldings on the top are replaced with a standing lady musician. Kanika-paga is consisted of four pabhaga mouldings, above it another moulding decorated with a standing female figure, next comes another long moulding decorated with scroll work within a kirti-mukha and finally the last moulding of square shape housing a gana or yaksha. Anuratha-paga has five pabhaga mouldings, above which is placed a khakhara-mundi with roof consisted of eleven pidha tiers. All the niches are empty suggesting that the images were carved on a separate stone later fitted into the space. As there are no traces of these images, probably, these stones were removed and stolen subsequently.



While female figures dominate in the overall sculptural program of the temple, male figures are dominant in the friezes placed at the baranda. These images depict linga-worship, carrying offerings for worship, teacher-disciple units, ascetics in various moods like dancing and counting beads. The baranda friezes also have few panels depicting elephants.







Gandi follows the bada in pancha-ratha design. This arrangement makes the temple more harmonious due to continuous vertical alignment between these two components. Vajra-mastaka is formed with single chaitya arches with two dwarfish ganas standing on its wings. It houses a face otherwise a Nataraja icon.





The niche below the vajra-mastaka houses three curious friezes. The niche in the center shows a male seated with his attendants on the sides. Donaldson8 identifies these with sikshadana scenes (guru imparting knowledge to disciples) or royal figure with attendants. Smith9 identifies these with royal images, probably the king instrumental in the construction of the temple. He argues that the idea of divinity of the king was always vogue in India since ages. The placement of these royal images at these prominent locations at Mukteshvara temple suggests the assimilation of the god and the king into a single monument. Though he states that this does not result into worship of the king, however it clearly asserts the position a king held onto his subjects.


Sanctum doorway is very similar in decoration as that of the jahamohana. It has Gaja-Lakshmi at its lintel, and dvarpalas at the door jambs. A nava-grha panel is placed above the lintel.


Traditions prevalent in Orissa credits the construction of this temple to the king Yayati-Kesari. This king may refer to the Somavamshi king Yayati I Mahasivagupta (922-955 CE). Smith suggests that the traditions are authentic since the dates of Yayati I correspond closely to the date of the temple arrived based upon architectural analysis.

Next – Rajarani Temple

1 Fergusson, James & Burgess, Jas (1910). History of Indian and Eastern Architecture vol. II. John Murray. London. p 97
2 Ganguly, M M (1912). Orissa and her Remains. Thacker Spink & Co. Kolkata. p 275
3 Mitra, Debala (1960). Udayagiri & Khandagiri. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 156
4 Panigrahi, K C (1961). Archaeological Remains in Bhubaneswar. Kitab Mahal. Cuttack. p 93
5 Mitra, Debala (1960). Udayagiri & Khandagiri. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi.
6 Agrawala, P K (1979). Tetrad of Skanda Deities in a Relief at Bhubaneshwar published in East and West Vol. 29, No. 1/4, pp. 157-161
7 Smith, Walter (1984). The Ceiling of the Mukteśvara Temple in Bhubaneswar published in Artibus Asiae, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 73-95
Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 306
9 Smith, Walter (1991). Images of Divine Kings from the Mukteśvara Temple, Bhubaneswar published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 51, No. 1/2 (1991), pp. 90-106