Ambarnath Temple

Ambarnath – The Earliest Dated Bhumija Temple in Maharashtra

Located on the west bank of the Waldhuni river 6km south-east of Kalyan in the Thane district of Maharashtra, the 11th century Ambarnath Temple is one of the finest examples of early temple art and architecture, and is the oldest securely dated Bhumija temple in the state (and quite possibly the whole of India).

Dedicated to Shiva, an inscription above the north porch entrance suggests that the construction of the temple commenced during the reign of the north Konkan ruler Chhittaraja (approx 1022 – 1035 A.D.), and was completed during the reign of his younger brother Mummuniraja (1045 – 1070 A.D.). While there are a number of Bhumija temples in India that are likely to be older based on their architectural elements, none of these have inscriptions to help us pinpoint a date for their construction.

Ambarnath Temple enters the “modern day” archaeological record in the 1850s in reports by Rev. John Wilson and with photographs taken by Captain Charles Scott. Ambarnath was one of the first temples in India to be formally recorded in terms of meticulous detailed drawings, observation and photographs, in a trial scheme that was a precursor to the formation of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861.

I always enjoy looking at these early photographs of heritage sites in India, often showing a landscape little changed for many hundreds of years, and a stark reminder of how much has since changed in just the last 150 years.

These early photographs of Ambarnath Temple do also highlight how little has changed recently to the overall fabric of the building itself. While many repairs have occurred since 1850 which is most evident inside the temple (more on that later), we can see that the main temple tower collapsed long ago with no record existing as to when that occurred. The most obvious cause for this collapse would be the result of an earthquake.

The west-facing temple is in a style typical of 11th century temples, combining Nagara and Dravidian architectural elements from central India. Unlike similar temples that are typically set on a high platform, Ambarnath stands in a slight hollow, potentially due to the sanctum being almost 3m below the floor of the adjoining mandapa. This may suggest that the original linga enshrined in the sanctum was naturally formed ( or “self-existent”).

The temple consists of a sanctum and mandapa, giving a total length of approximately 20m, with a connecting vestibule and entrance porches to the north south and west. Externally the plan appears to be made up of two squares set diagonally to each other, but internally the sanctum and mandapa are square and aligned side to side.

The fluted nature of the external temple walls with projections and recesses accommodates a plethora of sculptures, and this is the true wonder of Ambarnath. My visit to the temple (mid-morning to mid-afternoon) provided the best lighting across the south elevation of the temple, and so the majority of my photography was focused here.

In total I took over 700 photographs of Ambarnath, 400 of which were edited. With the sheer volume of art and imagery on display at Ambarnath, reducing that number down to a level sufficient for a blog post was challenging to say the least. I apologise in advance for the time it may have taken to load up this page :-).

The primary sculptures are predominantly of a Shaiva theme from Hindu mythology, over 70 in total, forming a band around the temple slightly above eye level. Weathering has unfortunately taken its toll as the soft stone used here is prone to flaking, but many of sculptures are still very much intact, and they are simply wonderful.

Here we have images of gods and goddesses, hermits and celestial beauties. The prominent deities have larger niches assigned to them.

At the center of the triptych on the southern elevation of the sanctum is Gajantaka. Although this carving is quite severely weathered, the essence of the carving first chiseled nearly a millennium  ago is still very much apparent. This is Shiva, holding aloft the head and hide of the demon Gajasura, adopting a dynamic dancing pose. It’s a fantastic work of art despite the fact that much of the carving has now been lost. Above Gajantaka is Vishnu, followed by Natesha in the shukanasika as your eye rises towards the now partially ruined shikhara.

At the center of the triptych on the corresponding northern elevation of the sanctum is a twelve-armed Mahakali, displaying an impressive set of fangs. She is depicted holding various items, including a dagger, trident, sword, drum, skull club, bowl, and a severed head. Higher up above her in the shukanasika is Chamunda.

Being faced with such an abundance of carvings it’s difficult to know where to start from a photography perspective. But it’s important to occasionally draw your attention away from the primary sculptures, and try to train the eye (and lens) to inspect some of the finer details presented here. The Pitha (base of the temple) is a prime example, comprising of a number of horizontal layers containing a many interesting carvings on a smaller scale.

Here the imagery is more secular, giving us tantalizing glimpses of 11th century daily life. One panel in particular seems to depict a man dressed in Arabic clothing, possibly sheering three sheep with a woman standing by. Other scenes are more typical of Pitha carvings, with imagery of dancers, musicians and (of course) elephants.

Another small detail, easily overlooked but impossible to ignore once seen, is the abundance of carved Makaras. These are sea-creatures in Hindu mythology and the equivalent to the Zodiac sign Capricorn in Hindu astrology. Makara appears as the vehicle of the river goddess Ganga, Narmada and of the sea god Varuna. Depicted here with their tiny heads projecting forward supporting numerous tiers of sculptural elements, the detail of the carving where weathering has been kindest is simply amazing.

Having already filled up a couple of SD cards capturing the outside of the temple, it was time to finally explore and record as best I could the interior. This is very much a living temple, and the relatively small interior space coupled with a constant flow of devotees proved a little challenging when trying to photograph anything. As much as possible I do try to respect people’s privacy when photographing any heritage site in India.

But the challenges do not stop there, far from it. The lack of available light coupled with the usual “no tripod” rule adds further complexities, as does the thick smoke that lingers in the upper reaches of the interior. This is particularly frustrating as there are many carvings high up on lintels that are near impossible to make out. If you want to try and record any of this detail with a camera, a powerful torch is definitely recommended (which I did not have!).

The final obstruction that presents itself when striving to record the mandapa interior, specifically the central columns, is a very real and physical one. By the early 1900s Ambarnath temple was in real danger of collapsing, it was reported that every lintel was badly cracked. Attempts had been previously made to support the interior by the use of wooden props, but they were insufficient and a decade later a more long-term solution was deployed. The wooden props were replaced by iron uprights and beams, most notably placed immediately next to the four central pillars of the mandapa.

There is a slight shock factor when you first see these iron pillars, perhaps even being seen as quite a rudimentary fix to the underlying problem. That being said, here they are over 100 years later still successfully performing the exact function as intended, and I have no doubts they will still be here in another 100 years. Without the deployment of these iron structures, I would most likely be photographing rubble today. Obviously these pillars do obstruct viewing (and photographing) the central pillars, but it’s a small price to pay.

One cannot deny the skill of the sculptors that were deployed at Ambarnath. In many respects this is more apparent in the interior of the temple compared to the exterior, as here one is able to get up close with many examples of miniature sculpting. Each pillar has over 30 panels of carving from top to bottom, every inch of the columns has been given meticulous attention.

Looking up, the volume of quality carving and detail remains consistently high. The peripheral ceilings are flat, bordered by friezes.

The central domed mandapa ceiling is wonderfully elaborate, and even more stunning. Here you can see a number of cracks from a time when the whole structure was at risk of collapsing. Thanks to those iron supports, the ceiling is now stable and preserved.

Immediately below the central domed ceiling is a band of four friezes, one on each of the cardinal points, each consisting of seven images that are just 25cm tall. Due to their location, poor light, and poor quality of light they are tricky to photograph to say the least.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cornices of the mandapa have been equally blessed by the hands of the sculptors. If your view is obscured by the dense smoke that often wafts around the interior, it’s worth being patient to see if it will dissipate for a short while so you can truly appreciate the craftsmanship that surrounds you.

As previously mentioned, a number of steps lead down to the sunken sanctum interior. It’s a hugely atmospheric cave-like space, with dense smoke all around and a shaft of daylight reaching the deity from a small “window” in the ceiling/roof. I’m not particularly comfortable photographing sanctums, especially in what is a living temple, so I did not linger for long here.

Ambarnath temple was completely unknown to me until 2017, despite having visited Mumbai and Pune countless times in the preceding 12 years. It wasn’t until I was contacted by one of my blog readers, Dr. Kumud Kantikar, that I became aware of its existence. After retiring in 2004, Kumud has been an independent researcher in Indology focusing on medieval temples in Maharashtra. In 2013, she published Ambarnath Shivalaya: A monograph on the temple of Siva at Ambarnath, which is now also available in Marathi.

Kumud’s work looks beyond the aesthetic quality of sculptural art, trying to understand the meaning conveyed through the sculptural scheme in an individual temple. Her book on Ambarnath is a stunning piece of work. She has managed to create something that is accessible to all, be it a casual tourist or someone who has been deeply immersed in such subject matters for decades. Her obcession and passion for Ambernath is both infectious and unwavering.

If anyone would like to get a copy of Ambarnath Shivalaya: A monograph on the temple of Siva at Ambarnath, please contact aprantbooks@gmail.com or parag.purandare@gmail.com.

Despite the time I spent at Ambarnath and the many hundreds of photographs I took, there is still much I missed on this visit. I’m grateful to have a copy of Dr. Kumud Kantikar’s book as a constant reminder that one day I need to return here and resume my efforts. Sadly that will not be happening in early 2021 for obvious reasons.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Kumud Kantikar for accompanying me around Ambarnath last year, and to Mohan and Samita Ranade for sharing our road trip (and for the poha!).


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Categories: Ambarnath Temple, India, Maharashtra

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27 replies »

  1. Dear Kevin THANK YOU!

    A few suggestions : finest examples of Yadava era (Yadavas have not yet become ‘the power’ yet) temple belonging to the era when Art and Architecture ruled?

    Hemadpanthi temples : NOT so. ‘Hemadpanti’ temples have plainer exteriors. Hemadpant lived to 13th century.

    *Form of Vishnu (?* NO. It is Bhairava, a form of Shiva*adhyama Dashatala* *Madhyama Dashatala : refers to the ‘Tala’ i.e. relative proportion. The is image of ‘Devi’, consort of Shiva*

    Vagish *v *ara

    [image: image.png] amazing detail I had not noticed at the top in the center

    *Salute Kevin!*

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Superb Documentation of a Beautiful creation by ‘our’ ancestors.(you included)

    If you have more pictures which you could not post in this post maybe you could do a part 2 “Details” please.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Awesome photography. I like all the photographs . Ialso like the information that you are given . Actually I am from Maharashtra but I did not about this temple. Thank you for this .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Photography is most certainly allowed outside the temple. I was with someone known to the A.S.I. but I don’t believe there’s even an issue taking photographs inside. Although I had company, I pretty much explored the temple by myself.

      Like

  4. Was referred to the page by my classmate Devendra Kane, an avid historian & numismatist. We hail from Thane, that’s close to Ambernath, yet haven’t had the privilege to visit. I realised after reading your piece that while we do visit several of these culturally rich temples we hardly realise/ are aware of the intricacies & stories surrounding the sculptures. These are what humanize these temples & bring to the fore the heritage left by our ancestors.
    Really appreciate your passion & effort in preserving these for posterity – and it would be amiss not to mention like minded experts like Dr. Kumud for their yeoman service.
    Thank you all for keeping our heritage alive.

    Liked by 2 people

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