Saturday, 17 May 2014

Ashapuri - Four Hundred Years of Temple Construction

Ashapuri Temples, situated between Bhojpur and Bhimbetka, do not attract even a fraction of visitors as its two better known neighbours do. Even though MP Tourism has good signage but the dirt track leading to the temples discourages the average traveller who ignores the Ashapuri Temples and keeps going towards Bhimbetka on the smooth black top road. Also, while Bhojpur and Bhimbetka have their reference points of the giant Shiv Temple and prehistoric Rock Art respectively, Ashapuri Temples have sadly nothing to identify them with. Things are expected to change soon.

Lush Green MP
For you, the dirt tracks work as harbingers of new discoveries. A dirt track means that the place you are looking for is off the tourist grid and finding it will give a heritage junkie like you an intense rush. About six kilometres south of Bhojpur Temple, the sign indicates that Ashapuri Temples lie two kilometres to the left. You bump along the track among the lush green fields spread all around you. And then you run into a dead end. It seems that even the locals are not aware of the temples - they are pointing you to Ashapuri village that was couple of kms down from the point you took the left on the dirt track.

Ashapuri Lake - Tranquility and Solitude

Few more enquiries and you are rumbling ahead on an iron bridge. In Madhya Pradesh the scenery gets prettier and full of surprises as you venture into the interiors. Soon a lake makes its appearance. A lone boat without its owner bobs on the water. On the far side of the lake some kids go running and splashing into the water. Beyond the lake the hills rise on three sides. The place has perfect solitude.  This is the absolute bliss zone - you are lucky to keep seeing them across India.

Ruins of Ashapuri Temples
Ashapuri Temples
You keep driving on the bund road with the lake on your left. On the corner of the lake and the bund you see the group of temples on the left. The temples on the edge of the lake have fallen into the water with the gentle waves lapping at them. Just below the ancient ghats a man washes his clothes on a stone slab.  The temples are built on a gradually rising hill. Most of the hill is covered in dry vegetation of winter months. There is not much left of the complex. You only see a lone structure standing and few upright pillars.  The sign indicates that this is Bhutnath Temple of Ashapuri Group of Temples. The temple complex is under the protection of Directorate of Archaeology, Archives & Museums, Government of MP.

Surviving Platforms
Shiv Temple Plinth
As you enter the complex, it is apparent that only the foundation of temples survives. Everything else is lying broken on the ground. Some sanctums of the temple are seen in the surviving platforms or pithas. Looking at the temple members scattered all around, it seems that some temples had flat roofs while some were built in Nagara style with shikhars. Some temples have shivlings while some temples have their foundations dug with the stones neatly marked. Here, temple architecture students can get a good idea of how the different stone pieces were put together to construct the temples. 

The good thing is that MP Archaeology, as part of some preliminary survey and study, has put the dismembered stones in different groups and has numbered the pieces. It is possible that funds are awaited and restoration work might begin soon. Just beyond, the hill rises and whichever way you see there are mind boggling number of temple fragments taking up every inch of the ground.

Fragmented Pieces of Ceiling
Some research indicates that the complex consists of twenty six temples of which the Bhutnath Temple was the largest. Most of the temples were built from 9th to 12th century and are attributed to Pratihars and Parmaras. Both Vaishnav and Shiv temples were built.

A Magnificient Upright Pillar
Beautiful Motifs and Sculpture
These temples are relatively small just like the Bateshwar Group of Temples in Morena. Even the setting on a gentle hill is similar. While Bateshwar has tanks and baolis, Ashapuri is built overlooking the picturesque lake.You can now actually visualize what the Bateshwar Temples would have looked like before the conservation by Mr. KK Muhammad restored them to their original splendour. It is also possible that just like at Morena, these temples were destroyed by the same earthquake.

Bhutnath Temple - with the foundation dug up for study
Bhootnath Temple with the surviving Mandap

Decorated Pillar Capitals
The only erect structure is of the Bhootnath Temple or Temple 5. The east facing Bhootnath Temple is the largest temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and was built in the new Bhumija style of architecture. Paramars who built this temple developed the Bhumija style and looking at the fragments, the temple was similar to Udayeshwar temple of Vidisha. The mandap with erect pillars was built of red sandstone. The shikhar had five bhumi (storey) compositions. Fragments and images recovered from the site confirm the temple was grand and richly decorated.

Lintel Remains
Pillar Remains
More Fragments in the Scrub
Though Ashapuri now is a little known place, it was a flourishing centre and saw continuous temple construction activity for about four centuries. It is believed artisans who built the nearby massive Bhojpur Temple came from Ashapuri. It was Ashapuri that saw the introduction of stylistic style of temple making called Bhumija. In North India, from seventh to tenth century, Nagara temples were of Latina type. This form had temples with curved spire or shikhar with amalakas at the corners of their false storeys. Some examples of Latina form are the temples at Bateshwar in Morena and Terahi in Shivpuri, both in MP. From tenth century onwards Latina form evolved into the multi-spired Shekhari or Anekandaka mode of Nagara in central and western India. Shekhari is a group of miniature shrines embedded into the single spire of Latina temple. Shekhari temples are found at Asoda and Modhera in Gujarat and Khajuraho in MP. The Nagara style or ‘Tradition A’ can also be called Pratihar style.

Remains of a Shikhar
Temple Fragments scattered over the hill
It is in this context that Ashapuri is important. Bhumija style did not evolve but came into being abruptly around the turn of 11th century here at Ashapuri. The Paramars established Malwa as their centre for Bhumija temples called ‘Tradition B’ while Nagara was called ‘Tradition A’. At Ashapuri both styles co-existed and acted as the melting pot from which Bhumija style emerged. The new style had Deccan-Dravidian features which meant that artisans came to Ashapuri from the Deccan. Ashapuri in a sense was the Aihole of Central India where experimentation led to a new style. So while elsewhere in Malwa temples were built in pure Bhumija style, here in Ashapuri, some temple remains are seen with transitional characteristics. Shiv Temple at Bhojpur could have been the grand culmination of Bhumija style but was left unfinished. Bhumija style is distinguished by central projection tapering towards the top on each of the four faces. The quadrants formed are filled with miniature spires, in horizontal and vertical rows, all the way to the top. Udayeshwar Mahadev Temple in Vidisha is the best example of Bhumija style. The temples at Ashapuri demonstrate the thinking in the canon Samaranganasutradhara written by the greatest Paramar King Bhoj I who probably was the benefactor of Ashapuri.

Remains of the Day
Ashapuri Temple Ruins - View from hill top
Walking up on the hill is not easy as the ground is littered with temple fragments. There are thousands of them in all directions, but mostly clustered in groups. There is a shed with couple of caretakers looking after the site. After some time they lose interest in you. You teeter around the fragments taking in the sight of incredible destruction. 

Standing under a tree at the top of the hill you seem to be transported back to the times when Ashapuri was the the place to be for a master artisan. The place and the atmosphere provided you with the canvas to showcase your skills. You experimented with designs and with forms. The king treated you well and the people loved you. You saw Ashapuri change from a town on a hill to the temple town attracting even greater number of artisans. Some even came from distant Deccan. You got a chance to teach and imbibe new styles. Today, in the present as you look down at the lake and at the vast number of temple remains, you wonder if by magic the fragments would just arrange themselves into their original forms and Ashapuri comes back to life. You are not day dreaming - such magic has already been performed at Morena. On the other side the hill dips. There could be remains of other temples in the surrounding hills waiting to be discovered.

Hanuman Temple
On the other side of the temple complex is a Hanuman Temple with its dome and walls painted pink. There is a priest and some images are embedded on the sanctum walls. The temple looks of recent construction. In the courtyard are the remains of platform of another medieval temple.

Ashapuri Temples - One Last Look
Onwards to Ashapuri Museum and Bhimbetka - good work by MP Tourism
The broken splendour of the temples, the quiet of the once humming temple centre, and the desolation of once teeming town leaves you affected. Reluctantly, you leave the complex and drive back along the bund of the lake as the Ashapuri Temples recede in the background. And again you are wonder stuck by the huge unknown heritage troves India has to offer as soon as you hit the dirt track.

Ashapuri Museum

Ashapuri Museum - Dancing Ganesh built of Red Sandstone
Ashapuri Museum - Shiv Parvati Aalingan Image
You come back to the main road and drive towards the Ashapuri village that houses the museum. Intact temple members have been displayed here - some outside in the open while others are stacked in the rooms inside. It is apparent that Ashapuri temples had riches of sculpture. There is an exotic image of Shiv Parvati along with Rishabh (Nandi) and Simh (Parvati’s vehicle Lion). Rishabh and Simh rest at their feet. The amazing feature of the image is Shiv delicately lifting Parvati’s chin with fingers! There is another huge image of Dancing Ganesh with one hand carrying his teeth and the other hand in a possible dance mudra. The images here at the museum together with the fragments of pillars, walls, door jambs, ceilings and shikhars laid out on the hill would have all combined to create a temple wonderland that Ashapuri truly was a millennium ago. You are sure when you come here next time, the site will be as spectacular as it was 1300 years ago.

Billauta Temple Ruins
Billota Temple - Vishnu Dasavathara Pillar

Billota Temple - Sahasraling
Coming out of Ashapuri village as you come back on the main road there is another temple site on the left called Billota Shiv Temple. Again the temple is in ruins. The site has an impressive shivling possibly a Sahasraling. A richly decorated broken Vishnu Dasavathara pillar has different avatars of Vishnu - Varah, Narsimha, Vaman and Parasuram on its four sides.

It seems the glory days of Ashapuri will be back soon. School of Planning and Architecture at Bhopal is inviting applications from students for an on-site programme at Ashapuri Temples. This international ongoing project is collaboration between SPA Bhopal and Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University of UK and is funded by World Monument Fund. The two month internship programme will begin from 21st May 2014. The interns are expected to photo document, survey and create database at the site which will help in the possible erection of certain temples. This has been announced in the background of a partnership between WMF and MP announced on April 24, 2012 that will take up restoration of Ashapuri temples on priority.

Once the temple conservation is done and a road built, you are sure the tourist circuit will include Ashapuri Temples and Ashapuri will regain its rightful position as the Aihole of Central India. Pratihars and Paramars will love it.

Getting There - Ashapuri in Raisen district of MP is about 35 kms from Bhopal and 6 kms south of Bhojpur Temple. You can see Bhojpur Temple, Ashapuri Temples & Museum and Bhimbetka in a single day.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Ater Fort - Into the Deep Ravines of Chambal

If Morena was not scary enough for an average traveler, you are now driving towards the ravines of Chambal in the neighbouring district of Bhind. Of course, Morena was a harmless revelation and it magically surprised you with the triple marvels of Bateshwar, Padhawali and Mitawali temples. You are on a new mission - to see the Ater Fort deep inside Bhind on the banks of Chambal.

Ater Fort 

Fields of Bajra - On the way to Ater
Ater Fort Rising
The road from Porsa in Morena to Ater in Bhind was being laid and the ride was painful and slow. Only the green fields all around helped ease the pain. Rivers everywhere with good canal system has turned the Chambal area into a granary. Friendly people on the way ensure that you keep heading the right way. And then as you negotiate another turn on a stream bed with ravines on both sides you see the Ater Fort rising on the horizon.
Ater Fort Map
Ater Fort - The Towering Ramparts
Ater Fort - Entrance Gate
Just before the Ater town, about 2 kms south of Chambal river, you make a final left turn and arrive at the fence gate of the fort. Except for roadside shop owner across the road there is nobody around. You leave the car in his care and enter the grounds. The entire area is quite and desolate. The fort walls tower over us on the left. They must be about 20 m high. As the ground is relatively plain apart from the mud ravines around, the walls and the intermittent seventeen bastions provide the defense to the fort. The walls have watch posts built on top that turn out to be pavilions later. You walk around the ramparts following the dirt track until you arrive at the entrance gate which could be the north–west gate. First signs of life in the fort are detected here. The caretaker is surprised to see us and gives us some general directions but is considerate enough to depute his colleague to accompany us. This caretaker brandishes a mean lathi. He douses our concern by saying one word – snakes! You are in Bhind and the visit will be incomplete without a fear factor – if not dacoits, snakes will do just fine. You are glad that you are donning tough shoes and jeans.

When you first heard of the Ater Fort, it was a complete blind spot. But if you are within easy striking distance then you have to go see it for yourself. There is not much information available about the fort. At the fort entrance there is the brief introduction to the history of the fort. Inside there are no signs to identify the different buildings. It will be a challenge to piece together some background of the fort.
Ater Fort - The Third Gate
Ater - Diwan-i-Aam
The fort generally is crumbling. ASI seems to be doing some patch work to help the fort hold on to some of its past grandeur. After passing through the red sandstone third gate and then turning left, you enter the gates of possibly the Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience. There is not much here with the courtyard in the middle and ruined walls all around. Facing the gate on the east is a jharokha with bangla roof where perhaps the king sat during the proceedings.

Ater Fort - Diwan-i-Khas

Saatmanjila and King's Throne

King's Throne with Ornamentation
Octagonal Platform in the Diwan-i-Khas
Moving ahead to the left brings you to the most intact and majestic area. This is the the Diwan-i-Khaas or the Hall of Private Audience. The east side has a raised recess with stucco walls. The balcony with the bangla roof is the throne of the king. The ceiling has some pretty ornamentation which has now faded. You have seen similar bangla roof canopy at the Diwan-i-Aam at Red Fort in Delhi. Apparently the architecture is inspired from the Mughals. Below the balcony on the ground is a ruined octagonal platform that had marble and other colourful stone embellishments. Above the King’s seat, dwarfing the courtyard rises the tower called Saatmanjila. Just opposite the king’s balcony, across the courtyard, on the west side is another balcony where perhaps the nobles sat. The courtyard has a small pool in front of the noble’s balcony. Today the pool is filled with water from the recent rains.

Diwan-i-Khas - View from South Baradari
Inside South Baradari
On the north and south sides of the open courtyard are the dilapidated baradaris and rooms. On the first floor on either side you can see graceful pavilions. It is time to explore the tower and the pavilions.
Floral Motifs
View from Satmanjila

Chambal on the Horizon - Another View from Saatmanjila
As you gingerly pick your way up the tower, you see colour paintings and panels. Most of the places the original stucco work has fallen off leaving little patches of colour. As you climb higher you can see the fort complex and the grounds beyond in all directions. In the north, beyond the town, you can see the Chambal river. Here in the fort, to the east are the ruins of private quarters or palaces of the king and the queen.

Ater Fort - North Pavilion

The Best Place in Ater Fort

Makarmukh on Rood of Pavilion
Beautiful Mural in North Pavilion 
You come down to the first level to see the pavilions up close. The pavilions sit at the edge of the platform at the top of the fort ramparts. With projected balconies the pavilions provide a pretty picture. These are the watchposts you saw on the ramparts. On the roof  you can see a crocodile face hanging from the edge. This must be the Makarmukh and the face is that of a gharial. Gharials, a family of small crocodiles with narrow snouts are found in the Chambal river. Just below the overhanging snout is a bracket with a hole where perhaps the kingdom’s flag was unfurled. The gharial makarmukh is the ideal image as Ater is gharial country and crocodile is the preferred vehicle of River Ganga and God Varun. The gharial makarmukh doubles up as Somasutra or water run-off point. Inside the pavilion, there are paintings on the walls depicting the royal couples. Cool breeze flows from the Chambal through the jharokhas. Large terrace spreads out in front overlooking the courtyard.  This is the best part of the fort to spend some time with yourself.

The pavilions outside have inscriptions dated 1765 and1776 with the names of Scindia Rulers who later ruled Ater - Mahadji,  Daulat Rao, Jiwaji Rao and Madhav Rao. One inscription says that the pavilion was built by Sidhi Shri Maharajdhiraj Shri Maharaj Vasat Singh Judev in Samvat 1822 in the Paush month.

View of the Palace from first level
The caving roof of the Palace
You come down to see the palace area. Like the audience halls, the palaces are also designed around courtyards. Most of the structure is in bad shape and the caretaker does not want you to go in the verandahs. The heavy stone slabs holding the roof have cracked and it is matter of time before the entire structure collapses. There are heaps of debris all around - restoration if done will be time consuming and costly.
Ruins amid Ravines
This is the tragedy of having plenty. Out here in the badlands, where a tourist is as rare as a dacoit, why would an agency spend funds to restore a fort when it knows it will not get any returns on its investment. A possible solution could be the development of the area into a tourist circuit that could include boat ride over the Chambal, visit to the Gharial Sanctuary in Morena, climbing the Saatmanjila in Ater Fort and then onwards to the three temple marvels of Morena.
Bhadorias at their peak
The Ater Fort was built by the Bhadoria rulers. The dynasty is believed to have been established in 8th century by Raja Chandrapal Dev and derives its name from his son Raja Bhado Rao. Later Bhadoria kings fought with Delhi Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak and also partnered with the Mughals. This region called Badhwar has a strategic location where five rivers including Chambal and Yamuna meet. King Badan Singh started the construction of Ater Fort in 1644 and King Maha Singh completed it in 1668. Badan Singh also built the Bateshwar Temples on river Yamuna in Agra District. In addition to Ater Fort, the Bhadorias also built forts at Nawgaon, Pinahat and Hatkant. At their peak the Bhadorias had a kingdom extending from Gwalior in South, to Dholpur in West and Mathura and Kanpur in East. The Scindia rulers captured the fort in 18th century.
Chambal Boat Ride - courtesy Vipin Gaur
Sunset in Bhind 
If you are feeling adventurous, then drive through the town to reach the banks of Chambal river. On the river you can take a boat to cross over to the other side into Agra. The sun is about to hug the horizon. After all this is Chambal. You take one last look at the proud and towering walls of the Ater Fort rising over the mud ravines and leave for Gwalior. You only wished that you had been able to identify the Khooni Darwaza, Badan Singh ka Mahal and Barakhamba Mahal!

Getting There: You can reach Ater by making either Morena or Gwalior as your base. Ater is 90 kms from Morena and 110 kms from Gwalior via Gohad and Bhind. For adventure seekers, Ater Fort can be reached from Bah in Agra district and crossing the Chambal River on a boat!