The wonderful 10th century Varahi Deula Temple is located in the village of Chaurasi (also spelt Chaurashi), just 30km north of the Konark Sun Temple in Odisha.
Built during the Somavamsi rule which saw a dramatic shift away from Buddhism to Brahmanism in the region, this east-facing temple built from sandstone is a fantastic example of mature Orissan sacred architecture.
The temple setting alone makes any visit here memorable. Set within semi-landscaped grounds that are well tended to, outside the compound the landscape is covered with palm trees and paddy fields. It seems a world away from Konark, and in all likelihood you will be experiencing this temple without another soul around.
Considered to be the most beautiful temple in the entire Prachi Valley, the ASI have clearly directed some attention towards this temple in recent years. The temple has been sympathetically restored, and whilst I am not always a fan of ASI landscaping attempts, here I think they’ve done a great job. Often I feel there’s an excessive use of flowering plants that remove the temple too far away from what was it’s natural surroundings, but here the landscaping is restricted to some hedges, well kept lawns, and the planting of a few additional shrubs and trees. On the whole, the temple still blends in with the surroundings and it feels far more harmonious.
My first impression of the temple was how much it reminded me of some of the structures at the Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram, which predates the Varahi Deula by around 300 years. But it’s only a passing similarity, the profusion and quality of the carvings here is on a completely different level.
Architecturally, the temple marks a shift away from the usual tradition of Rekha and Bhandra type, and exhibits a style which according to Orissan terminology is known as the Khakhara or Gaurichara variety.
The temple is lavishly decorated with sculptural figures of divinities, secular themes, decorative motifs and scroll work.
Despite the addition of blank masonry that has been inserted during the renovation process and the fact that some of the carvings have suffered from extreme weathering, none of those factors distract from what is a truly visual treat.
Much of the foliate and figurative ornamentation survives, including the wonderfully pierced stone windows in the Jagamohana and nagas entwined around pilasters. I’m starting to realise that the depiction of nagas is both widespread and frequent in Orissan temple sculpture.
Of particular note also are the reliefs found on a single board that surrounds the whole Jagamohana just below the roof. Here are a variety of scenes, including the killing of a deer by Rama and Laxmana from the Ramayana, the abduction of Sita, the murder of Jatayu, the uprooting of seven palm trees, and the murder of Vali. With so many carvings on display, it could be all too easy to forget to look up and see the details of these smaller intricate examples that have been wonderfully executed.
This temple is certainly the case of the more you look, the more you see. It pays to spend quite some time here to soak up everything, and revisit areas where you may have thought you had exhausted all there is to see. On revisiting certain areas and looking more closely, it became clear that there’s quite a high number of erotic scenes carved on the temple as well, sometimes the degree of weathering makes it less clear at first glance.
The niche of the south wall houses Ganesha, while the niche of the west wall protects the image of Surya. Sadly, the niche on the north wall is unfortunately empty, but perhaps once contained the image of a tantric deity, perhaps Bhairava.
I was particularly captivated by the image of Surya, holding two lotus flowers and seated on a chariot, driven by seven tiny horses and a minute charioteer (Aruna). Note the flying scarves giving that extra sense of motion.
Inside the temple, the presiding deity is that of Matsya Varahi. With the face of a boar and the body of a divine woman, in her right hand is a fish while the left hand holds a skullcap. She is seated on a pedestal, with her right foot on her vehicle, a buffalo. Represented with a third eye, her hair is decorated in spiral coils.
Almost all the detail on the Matsya Varahi idol was covered during my visit, and I wasn’t going to attempt to do anything to reveal more. Apparently the image also has a big belly, which implies she is holding the entire universe in her womb. She is worshiped in accordance with tantric rituals, and is offered fish everyday.
In addition to the main deity in the sanctum there are two more much smaller images of Varahi.
My thanks goes to Kumud Kantikar for recommending a visit to this temple, it certainly pays to know people with some prior knowledge of lesser-known monuments in the region. If you’re visiting the Konark Sun Temple as a day trip from Bhubaneswar, this makes for a perfect stop off en-route.
The Varahi (Barahi) Deula Temple at Chaurasi is open sunrise to sunset.
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