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.



  1. Lovely place. Ashapuri ruins indicate a rich cultural presence long back there. Its reminded me of Badami. Thank you for bringing out this hidden gem.

    1. Hi Siddeshwar,

      Ashapuri with the setting of the lake does remind of Badami. But as far as experimentation and invention goes, Ashapuri was Central India's Aihole.

      Thanks for readiing!

    2. Lovely place Nirdeshji....had the previlage to visit the place in 8thApl'15....the 'Bhoothnath' complex of 26 sites....just imagine the wonderful place beside the lake in all its splendour 1000 yrs would have been a spectacular view....

    3. Rajeshji, the setting of the temples by the lake is incredibly splendid in its loneliness, giving a chance to travellers like us to go back in time. Thanks for reading and keep travelling!

  2. I can see that carvings really need protection. Beautiful things!

    1. Hi Kathie,

      They are taking care of some carvings in the museum but the structures as whole are totally disintegrated - but it has been done at Bateashwar, so it could be done here too as long as the members are all here. Or some cannibalization can be done to erect few temples.

      Thanks - as always!

    2. Speaking of canniblazation Nirdeshji, its already there....if u see the still functional hanuman mandir, its not hanuman mandir firstly...its of Bhoothnath- Lord Shiva....the priest showed me the idol in the temple very closely & with much detail...its a sculpted figure of Shiv drinking the 'Vish' from some vessel & there is a dog at his feet & trishul on his kamarband....parwati's sketch can also be seen on the left side of the huge stone which is a swambhu shivling....the priest said this & the whole makeshift temple was errected some 50 yrs ago from the loose stones lying 1 pic i have taken u can clearly see the pillar with the dwarpal on the side wall in horizontal position....also a spectacular trimutri figure of Brahma-Vishnu- Mahesh near the door of the temple is inappropriatly placed...

    3. Rajeshji, Great Observations! I am not good at iconography so could not decipher. Since there is a lot of original material here, it is possible to erect a few more temples here in addition to the Hanuman / Bhootnath Temple! Some images can be brought back from the museum to embellish the temples. Thanks for the observation and leaving your comments!

  3. So close to Bhopal and yet Ashapuri has remained evasive for me. Thanks for the wonderful information.

    1. PN Sir,

      Tomorrow is a good day to discover Ashapuri!

      Thanks for the appreciation!

    2. BTW....the priest yesterday informed me that around 8th May'15 a yagna is scheduled to take place at this site 26 temple....a temporary shed is already ereceted & a approachable road is to be made this week itself....anybody cares to join me can inform & include me...

    3. Rajeshji, sometimes I feel its good that such heritage sites are unapproachable. More crowds mean more damage and more filth in the lake since we dont know how to care for our heritage. I liked the remoteness of the temples and hope they stay like this. Lets see where 8th May finds me!

  4. Good job done. Excellent photos and descriptive account.

    1. Thank you Ranbir Sir for taking out time to read!

  5. Great to see this wonderful place through your lens. Madhya Pradesh is keeping its heritage alive with good work being done in preserving our long lost heritage. Thanks for sharing your pictures and interesting historical information in a simple and lucid style. Very much appreciated.

    1. Thanks Aadil! Yes MP is doing a great job of conservation and promotion. I love the MP Tourism ads.

      Thanks again for reading!

    2. Nirdeshji my views differ in this matter....yes the MP toirism ads are the finnest but not the facilities on the sites......hundreds of sites are languishing & lying in total neglect...present sites are least taken care of & not even proper toilets or cafeterias in or around the sites....lets take eg of Bhimbetka the world's oldest discovered paleolithic site has nothing to offer to tourists...the facilities are abmissal & often costly to tourists....ancient arts lovers like us can take it all in our stride due to our passion for this subject but a 'tourist' wont....they crave for good facilities....lots need to be done in MP to promote tourism....its in bad shape...

    3. Rajeshji, after visiting several states including Maha Gujarat Rajasthan AP, I think MP ASI/Tourism are doing a fabulous job. I have seen little known places getting restored / conserved. Just compare little known forts like Rahatgarh Asirgarh Chanderi Ajaigarh with well known forts of Maha and you will realise MP is way ahead of the other states. As always, there is lot more that can be done but they are on the right path. Karnataka is doing good job also as is CG. Lately Telangana is also making a splash in the media. MP Tourism is one that is making the other states think about tourism. And yes, people like us will love our heritage nevertheless!