The Mallikarjun Temple in the sleepy village of Loni Bhapkar has been on my radar for nearly a decade. Situated on the right bank of the river Karha, a tributary of the river Nira about 80 km south-east of Pune, I was finally able to visit the site earlier this year.
There are in fact three separate sites of interest in the village, all of which are well worth exploring. The Mallikarjun temple is perhaps be most well known, although there are scant references to it on the internet and none of my reference books bother to make any mention of it at all. In my experience, the absence of such reference materials can often result in the greatest of surprises, and the monuments of Loni Bhapkar are certainly no exception.
The other two sites of note are the Someshwar Temple in the heart of the village, with an impressive set of Hero Stones that have been collected from the vicinity, and the Bhairavnath Temple located at the eastern extent of the village. Both of these sites will feature in subsequent blog posts.
The temple complex here consists of three primary structures, the Mallikarjuna Temple presently dedicated to Shiva, the Sri Datta Maharaj Mandir dedicated to Dattatreya (a form of Vishnu), both facing a elegant small step-well known locally as Puskarni.
The Puskarni is beautifully proportioned and extremely clean, surrounded by a stone wall with 24 niches (devkoshatas) facing the tank. Each one of these niches probably once contained one of 24 images of Vyuhantara Vishnus. It’s wonderfully peaceful here, the sort of place you could just sit and be alone for many hours. I was at this temple complex for well over an hour and didn’t see a single soul.
The symmetry of the Puskarni is amplified by the a wonderfully carved pavillion directly in front of the white Sri Datta Maharaj Mandir, which may be contemporary with the adjacent Mallikarjun temple. There is evidence to suggest that an additional pillared pavilion once existed on the south side of the Puskarni that protruded into the stepped section.
The carvings on this pavilion warrant a much closer inspection, there is a vast array of imagery on display here.
Here can be seen ten incarnations of Vishnu, and carvings depicting other deities such as Shiva, Arjuna, Krishna and Balrama, in addition to dancing women and musicians playing a number of instruments.
There is also a depiction of a woman giving birth (Matrushilpa), and a surprising number of erotic scenes as well.
All of this is just the start of what is quite a special little temple complex literally in the middle of nowhere. Currently located near the roadside and likely to be very close to where you park the car is an isolated Varaha (Yadnyavaraha) statue, sadly now missing his nose.
Below the legs of the boar are a conch (shankh), lotus (padma), mace (gada) and disk (chakra), all items associated with Vishnu. Lying beneath appears to be a demon begging for mercy, but this part of the carving is also quite badly damaged now.
Covering the body of the Varaha are repetitive images of Lord Vishnu, a local told me in the village that there are over 140 instances of his image on the boar, although I confess I didn’t attempt to count them. It’s a such striking image, and one I have seen a few times but on a much larger scale at sites like Eran and of course the famous Varaha temple at Khajuraho.
This carving was discovered in a field behind the Dattatreya temple in 1999. News of the discovery caused sudden interest in the temple complex, prior to this the site had escaped the attention of most scholars.
I was fully expecting to have to explore the surrounding fields to find this Yadnyavaraha, but it was in fact the very first thing I saw as I stepped out of the car. So recently it must have been moved to its present location, although it is a little concerning that it still stands in relative isolation, somewhat detached from the rest of the temple structures, and precariously close to the roadside.
So much of India’s heritage can be considered “at risk” from a number of factors, be it encroachment from development, accidental damage, or in many cases theft. As the considerable effort has been made to move this Varaha closer to the temple complex, I wish it has been deposited a little further away from the roadside.
A number of Nandi carvings face the Mallikarjun Temple, in front of which appears to be the footprint of a Varahamandap which has since disappeared. You can just make out the outline of the structure in the following photo. It is thought that this was originally where the Varaha carving we’ve just seen was placed.
The front facade of the Mallikarjun Temple is probably one of the more colourful examples I have come across in Maharashtra for an ancient temple. Every inch of this facade has been painted, usually a practice I am not a great fan of, but here for some reason it appears less out of place.
The temple construction, and potentially some of the associated structures, are believed to date back to the 13th century and attributed to Hemadpant (also known as Hemādri Paṇḍit). As well as a scholar, theologian, poet and architect, Hemdapant was prime minister from 1259 to 1274 A.D. during the reigns of King Mahādev (1259–1271) and King Ramachandra (1271–1309), both of the Seuna Yādav Dynasty of Devagiri who ruled over western and southern India.
During Hemadpant’s time as Prime Minister the Yadav dynasty reached its zenith, and he was also responsible for introducing the use of Modi script for Marāthi in government correspondence.
Hemadpant is attributed with the invention of constructing dry stone temples, using interlocking masonry without the need for any mortar. He is thought to have been directly involved in the construction of several temples in and around Maharashtra, although the term “Hemadpant architecture” today merely refers to the building style rather than constructions that he personally instigated.
The Yadav’s completely embraced the bhumija style of temple architecture, the example here clearly shows motifs that have been borrowed from the Gujarat region, with Jalis (perforated stone or latticed screens) at the front, but here there is a significant change of form.
The front elevation of the temple is tripartite, divided into three parts separated by columns. This three bay configuration facilitates the placement of diagonal beams, forming octagons that underpin the building of the corbelled central dome above the sabhamandapa.
Also note the four small turrets (or finials) on the corners of the sabhamandapa. Here they are quite subtle, but it is an architectural feature which has been borrowed from the early Sultanates, and would go on to be widely embraced by the Marathas. A good example of this is at the Bhairavnath Temple, also in Loni Bhapkar.
Another interesting feature is the difference in construction materials. The lower part of the temple has been built from stone, whereas the upper part and the shikhara have been built from brick. Perhaps by using brick it was easier to achieve some of the smaller decorative elements and architectural details compared to carving them out from solid rock ? I suspect originally this upper part of the temple would have been plastered to render a smooth and fine finish which was already present in the lower stone built portion of the temple.
Inside the temple are some nicely carved pillars crowned with yakshas. Panels on the columns depict a number of varied carved scenes, including musicians playing various instruments, an elephant being chased by a beast, dancing apsaras, a woman dressing up with a mirror and helped by her attendants, plus many more.
Above the four central pillars is unquestionably the highlight of this temple, but in the dim light it can be hard to make out, let alone photograph. On square beams supported by these columns are narrative panels, artistically carved in bold relief.
The scenes depict important incidents from the childhood of Krishna, the narration begins on the north-facing panel and continues in sequence on the west-facing, south-facing and east-facing panels.
These scenes are well described in texts like the Bhagavata Purana and the Harivamsha Purana, but these carved panels in the Mallikarjun temple the have only been documented by scholars in the last couple of decades.
For those wishing to understand in detail the scenes depicted here, I suggest you read an excellent write up on these carvings – Tracing the Inspiration of Sculptural Narratives of Krishna Lila at Loni Bhapkar: Observations and Analysis, by Gopal Joge, Shantanu Vaidya and Shrikant Ganvir.
I wish I had found this article prior to my visit here, I highly recommend you take a printed copy if you decide to see the temple for yourself. My rather poor photographs were all taken hand-holding the camera, and only scratch the surface of the complex scenes that are depicted in these carvings.
The central ceiling is also a wonderfully carved specimen, if you can ignore the covering of cobwebs through the incredibly dim light.
In the sanctum are two Shiva Lingas, probably signifying the presence of both Shiva and Parvati. “Mallika” is another name for the Godess Parvati, and “Arjun” for Shiva. A local legend says that Shiva and Parvati once came to the village and stayed for a few days at the temple complex.
Although this is now Shiva temple, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mallikarjun was originally dedicated to Vishnu. The existence of that finely carved Yadnyavaraha seemingly discarded from the temple complex, the dismantled Varahamandap, and the 24 niches for Vyuhantara Vishnus surrounding the tank are supporting evidence to the known fact that the Yadavas themselves worshiped Vishnu.
Mallikarjun probably switched to a Shiva temple to align with the family deity of the Bhapkar family, whose ancestral home is Loni Bhapkar. The Bhapkar family belong to the 96 Kuli Maratha clan and were themselves employed by the Yadavas in their army. Many people in the village today have the surname Baravkar which literally translates to ‘Barav (or pushkarni) makers’. The Bhapkar family were Sardars (officers) in the army of Shahji Bhosle, father of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
After the decline of the Yadav dynasty, the local Bhapkar family patronised many temples in the region, extensively renovating and revamping temples such as Bhairavnath in the village. They almost certainly had an influence in substituting the main god in the temple to align with the Shaivism wave during the Maratha era.
Back outside, the white painted Sri Datta Maharaj Mandir was unfortunately locked when I visited, so I was only able to peer in through the gate grill. It is much smaller and less elaborate than the adjacent Mallikarjun temple, and may also have been subjected to later renovations. Although I am no expert, it feels as though this temple is a slightly later addition to the complex but may be on the site of an earlier temple.
Between the Mallikarjun and Sri Datta Maharaj Mandir is another more recently constructed temple/shrine. During my visit I wrongly thought this was Sai Baba, a spiritual master who is has a huge following by both Hindus and Muslims, particularly in Maharastra.
This is in fact the shrine to Swami Dattanand Saraswati. He was a well educated IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer in the 1900s who became a devotee of Dattaraya and was elevated to saint/swami. Whilst on official duty at Ganagapur in Karnataka, a village noted for its temple to Lord Dattatreya and a kshetra (place of pilgrimage), he had a dream (‘drishtant’ in Marathi). The contents of the dream I do not have the details of, but it resulted in him renouncing material desires and becoming an ascetic. He moved to Loni Bhapkar and settled in the village to conduct his simple spiritual life. The village is well known among other ‘nath panti’ devotees, a sect that worships Dattaraya.
Somewhere in or near to this shrine is a hole in the ground where his bones can be seen. This is usually covered, but the cavity is opened for viewing every year during Datta Jayanti, which celebrates the birth date of the Hindu god Dattatreya during December/January.
Swami Dattanand Saraswati is associated with a number of miracles in the village. In the south-west corner of the Mallikarjun temple complex is an old dilapidated structure that is never opened and nobody ever goes close to. It is said it contains an evil spirit (‘khaiis’ in Marathi) that was trapped by the Swami.
That concludes a virtual tour of Mallikarjun temple at Loni Bhapkar. A site that stands in relative obscurity and yet is easily reachable as a day out from Pune. This tiny village has so much more to offer as well, which I hope to cast some light on in my next couple of blog posts.
My warmest thanks to Harshad Bhapkar, who upon reading my initial blog was able to add much more detail concerning his home village.
Bhumija Temples With Brick Shikhara At Loni Bhapkar And Palasdev.
P.P. Dandwate, B.S. Gajul and P.S. Joshi.
Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute
Vol. 64/65 (2004-2005), pp. 147-155
Tracing the Inspiration of Sculptural Narratives of Krishna Lila at Loni Bhapkar: Observations and Analysis
Gopal Joge, Shantanu Vaidya and Shrikant Ganvir
Department of A.I.H.C. and Archaeology, Deccan College Post Graduate Research
Institute. Revised: 13 November 2016
Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology 4 (2016): 417-434
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