My appointment with the Sas Bahu Temple in Gwalior has been long overdue. Five years ago I visited the wonderful Sas Bahu temples near Nagda in Rajasthan on a day trip out of Udaipur, and the resulting photographs were widely distributed throughout the internet by lovers of Indian history and architecture and understandably so, the carvings to be found there are amongst the most exquisite I have encountered over my 21 visits to the country. However, one thing that did slightly frustrate me were the number of instances when those photos would be wrongly attributed to the Sas Bahu temple in Gwalior. I would try and correct each occurrence as I stumbled across them on Facebook, Instagram etc, but it’s an almost impossible task once the error starts to proliferate.
Last year I had plans to visit Gwalior as a day trip from Orchha, but I soon realised Gwalior has so much to offer that it deserved an extended stay in the city, so instead I visited Datia Palace, the Karan Sagar Chhatris, and Sonagiri, all of which are equally amazing. So this year I finally made it to Gwalior, and spent over a week exploring the monuments within the city and a number of heritage locations in the surrounding countryside.
Also known as the Sas-Bahu Mandir, Sas-Bahu Temples, Sahastrabahu Temple or Harisadanam temple, the Sas Bahu Temple is an 11th-century twin temple located on the hilltop almost halfway along the eastern wall of Gwalior Fort. A single ticket purchased from near the Mansingh Palace entrance will allow you access to this temple, the Teli Ka Mandir, and the main palace itself. It’s a short 20 minute walk from the ticket office to this temple, so be sure to get your ticket first !
Like elsewhere in India, these twin temples have locally been called Sas Bahu Temple. The word Sasbahu means “mother-in-law, bride” or “a mother with her daughter-in-law”, an association that implies them being together and interdependent. A visitor from the ASI explained to me that a ruler had built the larger temple (Sas Bahu) for his queen. When he passed away and his son became the next king, his wife (the daughter-in-law of the earlier king) asked him for a temple of her own to worship, and hence the new king built the smaller Shiva temple next to the Sas Bahu temple, where his mother prayed.
I’m not completely convinced by this story to be honest. I think it is more likely that “Sas Bahu” is a local corruption of “Sahasra Bahu”, meaning “One with a thousand arms”, which makes perfect sense as the larger temple is indeed dedicated to Vishnu.
An inscription found inside the portico of the larger temple tells us it was built in 1093 AD by King Mahipala of the Kachchhapaghata dynasty. What stands today is a partly ruined temple, the tower and sanctum were badly damaged by numerous invasions in the region.
The interior of the temple is quite richly carved, although many of the figures have sadly been mutilated. The body of the temple is divided into three separate storeys, with steps hidden away in the corners of the ground floor to give you access to the higher levels. This is a slightly precarious climb so should only be attempted if you are relatively agile and have a good head for heights. Anyone attempting this will be rewarded with a far more impressive view of the interior of the temple, and allows you to get a little closer to some of the carved details on the pillars.
Back at ground level, remember to look up to admire the ceilings of this and indeed any other temple you may visit in India. The detail and complexity of the carvings and overall construction is amazing, and in the heat of the moment can be easily overlooked as there is just to much to see and admire in this temple.
In the 13th and 14th centuries the temple had fallen out of use, partly plastered over, and was used as a dwelling house. As a result there are no inscriptions attributed to this period, but by the 16th century some pilgrim inscriptions start to occur again, which implies that the house was returned back to being a active Hindu place of worship. This fluctuation of use fits quite neatly with the changes of rulers in the region during this period between Muslim and Hindu dynasties.
The much smaller Sas Bahu temple is built in the shape of a cross and only consists of a single storey. The sanctum has completely disappeared, and unfortunately there are no inscriptions here to helps us date the structure. It is however widely believed to be a later construction to that of the nearby larger temple.
It was great to finally see “the other Sas Bahu Temple”. I’m sure there are many other examples in India, but this one along with the example at Nagda in Rajasthan seem to be the most well known. A short distance away is the Teli Ka Mandir, the ticket for this monument also provides entry into that temple, so be sure to also include it on your itinerary for the day.
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