Bhubaneshwar literally means ‘Lord of the Earth’ and it denotes Shiva who is the main deity of the Lingaraj temple, the biggest and most revered temple of this city. This city forms one node of the Golden Triangle with Puri and Konark being the other two. It is also called the ‘Temple City of India’ due to the numerous ancient temples that dot the town with some of the finest examples of the Kalinga style of architecture.

Bhubaneshwar and its surrounding area are of historical significance right from ancient days as is evident from the Ashokan inscriptions at Dhauli that date back to the 3rd century BCE. This area saw the influence of Buddhism and Jainism that was spreading from the Magadha region to other parts of Indian sub-continent, Tibet, China, and the South East Asian countries. It became a great centre for religious and spiritual activities that led to revivalist movements and birth of Shaiva sects which manifested in the form of numerous temples dedicated to Lord Shiva being constructed in the area.

Indian temples are built according to the norms of architecture and proportions laid down in ancient texts such as the Shilpa Prakasha which has survived the ravages of time. On a journey through the temples in this city, one can see the evolution of temple architecture and construction style. All these temples are built with sandstone of varied shades that gives a vivid and dramatic effect.

Parasurameswara Temple

The Parasurameswara temple is an iconic temple and one of the earliest prototypes for the distinctive Kalinga style temple architecture that features the tower or Shikhara over the sanctum sanctorum called ‘Deul’ or ‘Rekha Deul’  and the ‘Jagamohan’ or the gathering hall for devotees. The Shikhara has a curvilinear spire that continues in future temple architecture in the Kalinga style. This temple dates back to the 7th century CE and shows an influence of the Pashupat sect of Shaivism as the name of this temple is linked to a Pashupata sect teacher called Parasara, who was a follower of Lakulisha. Lakulisha was a Shaivite revivalist and reformist who according to some historians is the founder of the Pashupata Sect.

This temple has the most exquisite carvings on the doorway and the surrounding walls. The prominent depictions are those of Lord Shiva in his various manifestations along with his family. The horseshoe shape motif showing a fierce monster’s face with fangs and a gaping mouth surrounding a figure or a deity is shown for the first time in this temple. It is called keerthimukha and it gained more prominence in future temples. This horseshoe shape motif shows the influence of the chaitya motifs used in doorways and windows of the Buddhist Viharas.

There is a Shivalinga situated outside the structure just to the left of the main temple doorway with thousand lingas carved onto it. It is a unique attempt to portray the infinite energy of the Shivalinga.

One wall panel depicts Lord Shiva in his ‘Tandava’ or cosmic dance pose. The limbs of Shiva are in a flowing movement as he dances in a trance. The depiction of flow in the movement without attention to joints is unique to Kalinga style carvings.

[Shiva and Parvati along with Ganesha is carved in the centre. Shiva in his animated Tandava pose to the left. ‘Bho’ features on the top panel]

Mukteshwara Temple

The Mukteshwara Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and dates back to the mid 10th century CE. This temple shows improvement over the earlier Kalinga style of architecture. When compared to the Parasurameswara temple, the Jagamohan is far more developed with a pidha(a slightly raised flat surface – a colloquial Magadhi term used for wooden flat surfaces for sitting on the floor) shape roof with receding tiers. This pidha shape Jagamohan became the typical style of roof making for all future Kalinga temples. This temple is famous for its rich architectural brilliance and superiority in carvings and is a marvel to behold.

The basic layout of this temple is unique with a richly decorated archway or ‘Torana’ leading to a lower level. The compound wall that runs along the contours of the temple has carvings of various deities that include Buddhist and Jain images alongside Shaivite images. These carvings give a glimpse to the acceptance and synthesis of multiple Indic religions as a way of life for Indians.

The decorated archway or torana is a masterpiece that has two pillars that hold the semi-circular pediment. This torana entrance shows an influence of the Buddhist Stupa gateways of a more ancient era. The base of the pillars has miniature temple carvings and the upper area has floral motifs. The arch rests on a lotus base with fine floral strings. Full-bodied beautiful ladies in relaxing poses adorn the curve of the arch. This is magnificent not only in form but also in impact as it brings calm to the visiting devotees. The curve of the torana ends in stylish elephant heads. Flora, fauna and other attractive delicate carvings adorn the entire torana.

[The magnificent archway or torana – Mukteshwara Temple]

The Jagmohan and Shikhara are built on raised platforms and have intricate carvings right from the base to the top. The entrance to the temple has an intricately carved rectangular doorway with rows of floral designs that run on all sides. There is a carving of Lord Shiva with a damaged face just above the door. The Kirtimukha above the doorway has a lion on the top.

The Vimana here has more pronounced carved edges that run in lines from the base and culminate at the top. The Kirtimukhas at the four faces of the shikhara are very prominent and protrude outwards. Such highlighted Kirtimukhas are the first of its kind in Kalinga architecture. Nataraja has been depicted above the kirtimukhas on all four faces. There are carvings of deities, sadhus, dwarfs, beautiful women performing various activities, nagas & nagins, flora and fauna throughtout the outer walls. The nagas and nagins had become a common feature in Kalinga Architecture and was slowly gaining more prominence as they were considered auspicious and divine. There are little empty niches where deities were placed for worship during earlier times.

[Beautiful carvings on multicoloured sandstone]

Fullbodied Women have been depicted in various poses – playing musical instruments, dancing, resting, doing ‘shringar’ etc. The figures emanate happiness and are associated with prosperity and fertility. There are some very intriguing carvings of women riding mythical creatures such as half lion and half bird. The woman is depicted with a sword and in total control of the beast she rides. The beast has beaded tassles emerging from its mouth and is shown subjugating an elephant. These carvings of powerful woman warriors depict the importance given to women during this era.

[The Woman warrior riding a mythical beast – Mukteshwar temple]

There are ornate latticed square windows on the south and north sides of the Jagamohan. The continued importance of the Pasupata Sect saint Lakulisa is visible in the small figure holding a lakuta or club on the lintel of the window. A closer look at the carvings surounding the window shows numerous monkeys playing and jumping on the branches and even grooming each other. Around this depiction are carvings of women and mythical creatures.

[The Latticed window]

This temple and its association with Buddhism is apparent not only from the Torana and the Bho but also from prominent depictions of Lord Buddha in his seated meditating pose among the carvings.

The doorway of the sanctum sanctorum of this temple is intricately carved with lions at the base of the raised platform. There are human figures that stand guard and three layers of floral patterns that run along the border of the door. The top of the door has Gajalakshmi as the deity. The Navagrahas or the nine celestial objects of worship are depicted on the upper panel. The main deity is Lord Shiva, who is worshipped as a lingam with a hooded Naga surrounding it.

[Sactum santorum of Mukteshwar temple]

The roof within the Jagamohan has exceptional carvings that culminate in an eight-petalled lotus. There are various tiers of carvings that takes a tapering form corresponding with the tiered outer shape.

[Roof inside the Mukteshwar temple]

Siddhesvara Temple

The Siddhesvara Temple is in the same compound as the Mukteshwar temple. This is also dedicated to Lord Shiva. The main temple structure has a complex Kalinga style of architecture with a pidha style jagamohan and shikhara. There is an introduction of squatting figures supporting the top of the shikhara and is followed in future temple structures as well. The jagamohan also has pidha mundis or figures on the corners as a new feature in Kalinga style architecture. This temple lacks the intricate carvings that are ubiquitous in all other kalinga style temples. It is said to be an unfinished temple.

Between these two temple structures are a few subsidiary shrines facing the doorway of Mukteswar temple with images of various deities within them.

[Mukteshwar – Siddheshwar complex]

Rajarani Temple

The Rajarani Temple dates back to around 1000 CE. This temple graduated into a masterpiece as far as refinement in architectural construction and the finery and depth in the carvings is concerned. The Jagamohan has the pidha roof in the multi-tiered pyramidical form. The Vimana is 18 metres high (55 feet) and has clusters of tower shaped miniature replicas of itself that taper to the curvilinear disc shaped structure called the amalaka with a kalash on top. Such a Vimana with replicas of itself is the first of its kind and this style is said to have influenced other temples in Central India.

The entrance to the Rajarani temple is unique with striking Nagastambhs or pillars with anthropomorphic cobras coiled around them. The left Naga is a male deity and the right Nagin is a female deity. They are considered auspicious in Indic religions and represent the protective forces of nature. Such depictions are common throughout other countries influenced by the Indian civilization. The base of these pillars are dramatic as they have three lions subduing three elephants. The doorway has floral carvings on all sides with Shaiva-Dwarpalas or gatekeepers in the lower portion.

[The artistic doorway in Rajarani temple]

The carving of the pashupat sect saint, Lakulisha on the lintel of the doorway shows him sitting cross-legged in the yogmudra pose with a lakut or club/stick held to his chest with his left arm. His four main disciples; Karushya, Garga, Mitra, and Kushika are carved on the four corners. The sanctum of this temple is empty, and it is said that the main deity of this temple must have been Lord Shiva based on the carvings depicting Shiva and Parvati; Lakulisha of the Pashupat Shaivite Sect; and the Shaiva-dwarpalas. This is not a functioning temple due to the absence of the main deity.

[Lakulisa with his disciples in miniature at the door]

The sides of the Jagamohan are comparatively bland when it comes to carvings but the pillared windows are a must see. Just like the entrance door, the windows are flanked by pillars with lions subjugating elephants. This is different from other windows as it is not latticed but has small pillars with a carved floral base that go up in varied designs to reach the lintel.

[Pillared window panel – Rajarani temple]

The Vimana is famous not only for the architectural feat but also for the depth of carvings. Apart from the ever present Nagas, Nagins, Yakshas and Yakshinis, there are the exceptionally beautiful, tall and slender nayikas called the ‘Alasya Kanyas’ or languorous maidens. The ancient text ‘Shilpa Prakasha’ mentions the depiction of alasya kanyas are mandatory in the temples as they highlight the creative impulses of the natural world leading to the continuity of life. The worshipper is not to shy away from the various aspects of life including Shringar and love.

[Shikhara of the Rajarani temple]

The ‘Alasya Kanyas’ adorn two distinct lower stories of the Vimana. The depictions are vivid and animated giving a feeling of cheerfulness to the viewer. One maiden is pulling down the branch of a tree, which is similar to the depictions of such maidens in other ancient Buddhist monasteries like on the gateways of the Sanchi Stupa. The common themes include acts such as a lady adorning herself, playing with her child, playing musical instruments, dancing etc.

[The beautiful maidens at Rajarani temple]

Above the three-stage moulded plinth of the temple structure stands the most beautiful multi-stage lotus pillars. The base of these pillars have miniature carvings of beautiful women, deities, flora, and fauna with the ubiquitous kirtimukhas above them. One such small panel depicts Nataraja – Lord Shiva performing the cosmic dance.

Many of the faces in these carvings have been damaged. It seems that all the sculptures within easy reach have been damaged, especially the faces as if a concerted effort was made to destroy them and stop the temple from being a place of worship and veneration.

[Miniature base panel with dancing Shiva]

Another unique feature of this temple is the fine, distinct sculptures of the guardians of the eight directions called the ‘Dikpalas’ that are carved around the Vimana on the eight cardinal directions. It is quite an adventure in itself to try and locate them among the intricate sculptures carved on the Vimana in such abundance.

The dikpalas are recognisable as they stand on lotus pedestals with their mounts (vahanas) below them. These are male deities with minimal sheer drapes on them. The first dikpala is on the east corner pillar of the Vimana, at the point at which the Jagamohan ends. The dikpalas are listed below in a clockwise direction:

Indra, the lord of the heavens and of rain, thunder and storm is the Lord of the East. He holds a vajra or thunderbolt and an elephant goad. His mount, Airavat, the elephant is below him.

Agni, the God of Fire is the Lord of the South East. He is potbellied and holds a staff. His mount, ram, stands below him.

Yama, the God of Death is the lord of the South. He holds a staff and a noose. His buffalo is below him.

Nritti, the God of misery is the lord of the South-West. He holds a severed head and a sword and stands above a prostrate figure.

Varuna, the God of oceans is the lord of the West. He holds a noose and his mount is a Makara or a crocodile.

Vayu, the God of Winds is the lord of the Northwest. He holds a banner and his vehicle is a deer.

Kubera, the god of wealth is the lord of the North. He stands above seven jars of riches and has a horse.

Isana, the lord of the Northeast, holds a trident.

Indra, Yama, Varuna, and Kubera are also considered to be the Lokapals or the guardians of the world.

[Guardians of the eight directions]

The ever-present depictions of snakes in the anthropomorphic Nagas and Nagins are shown to come out from the underworld and rise up to bless all. These exquisite nagas appear three dimensional as they curl around thin columns that are carved between narrow gaps amidst the elaborately carved base pillars. Each pillar is unique with layers of carvings and filigree. One can stand at a place and go on discovering image after image, some obvious and some hidden behind the not so obvious. From tiny complete animated figures, rows of elephants, lions, and monkeys, tiny Buddha heads surrounded by a kirtimukha to dwarfs or even a smiling child. There is so much to take in that it leaves one bewildered by its beauty.

[Naga and Nagin – elegance personified]

Brahameshwara Temple

The Brahameshwara Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, was built in the mid 11th Century CE by the rulers of the Somavanshi dynasty. There were inscriptions on the temple that are now lost, but the records remain to shed light on the architects and date this temple. An additional feature in this temple are the four smaller shrines on the four corners of the main temple structure. This is called the panchyatna form. The Vimana of this temple is almost 19 meters high (62 feet). This temple is unique as for the first time iron beams have been used in temple architecture. It is a functional temple.

[Brahmeshwar temple complex]

The exterior of this temple is intricately carved with depictions of the ‘alasya kanyas’ that denote fertility, happiness, and continuity of life; beautiful floral designs; fauna and mythical creatures; the eight directional guardian deities; musicians, dancers; Lord Shiva and other deities. There are empty niches that may have hosted deities for worship in earlier times. Brass/copper hooded cobras have been placed in these niches. The Naga is considered auspicious and is also related to Shiva worship. The miniature replicas of the shikhara start from a lower level here when compared to the Rajarani temple. Each replica in the lower levels houses a deity or a couple or sometimes just a beautiful woman.

[Exquisite carvings and miniature replicas of Shikhara in Brahmeshwar temple]

This temple, quite like the Mukteshwara temple, has prominent protruding sculptures of lion heads in the Jagamohan and the Vimana. The Kirtimukhas are prominent although the head of a deity is not present in all such features. The lion head is surmounted on the top of all these Kirtimukhas. Beside the main disc-shaped amalakas that adorn the top of the shikhara, there are numerous smaller amalakas with kalashas on top of them.

What is again noticeable are the broken heads of almost all sculptures up to the eye level. The barbarianism was coupled with laziness as the upper sculptures are not easily accessible and have escaped vandalism.

[Side view of Jagamohan and Vimana(Shikhara)]

There are some intriguing panels on the sides of the Jagamohan. These panels give the effect of windows. The panels are made up of beautiful slender full-bodied women with sinuous stems that run behind them and end in a beautiful canopy shaped flower. The central lady has a seven-headed Naga as a canopy over her head. These ladies are performing different activities as they all hold different articles in their hands and their poses also differ. The heads have been destroyed.

Another intersting feature is the carving of a dancing lady above the lintel of this window-panel. She stands on one leg in the tribhanga mudra (body curved at three places). She is dancing in front of a temple with numerous musicians around her. These panels show the dexterity of workmanship of the sculptors in reproducing such complicated dance moves on stone. There are amorous couples to the sides of this dancer. It is amazing how one small panel can depict so much about the happenings of those days. Odissi is a classical dance forn that was and is performed on temple grounds of Odisha. This temple is said to be the forerunner of the temple dance tradition.

[Panel with the dancing lady]

Lingaraj Temple

The magnificent Lingaraj temple was built during the 12-13th Century CE. It is the product of centuries of Kalinga style temple building that manifested in this huge temple structure. Bhubaneshwar is identified with this highly revered Shiva temple. In this temple, there are more structures apart from the Vimana and Jagamohan. The concept of Natya mandir (dance hall) and Bhog Mandap (eating hall) has been introduced here. There are multiple shrines in the campus (almost 50 of them). The Vimana here is the tallest in Bhuvaneswar.

[Vimana and Jagmohan in Lingaraj temple]

There is a ban on carrying phones or cameras in the whole complex and as a result, visitors cannot take back the memory of wonderful carvings in these structures. There is a designated platform to take photographs but it doesn’t capture the grandeur as the whole campus cannot be covered in one frame.

[The extensive courtyard of Lingaraj Temple]


Apart from these prominent temples, there are hundreds of other magnificent temples in this town showing proof of continued patronage by the rulers across hundreds of years. The effort involved in creating such great artistic structures must have been huge. These temples are a living testament to the richness and grandeur of a bygone era.

The grandeur of Kalinga architecture continued beyond the temples of Bhubaneswar and the Jagannath temple at Puri is a great architectural marvel apart from being the spiritual guide for hundreds of millions of people (being one of the four Dhams or holy locations).

The apex of this style was achieved in Konark where the Vimana has been destroyed but even the half damaged Jagamohan and natya mandir has such splendour and exquisite carvings that it does not seem to be created by human hands

This article was first published by Pragyata