From sculptural inscriptions to temple complexes, here are some of the artefacts you can expect to find on a tour of Ancient India

By Anvi Sawant

In ancient India, forces of nature were feared and revered. A lot of the livelihood and other aspects of civilisation were dependent on nature, some of it continues till date.

The special houses which were made for the deities presiding over these forces of nature in the ancient times were the temples and other worship places. The temples were carved from stones while in Buddhism, worship places were carved from mountains in the form of caves. In the state of Maharashtra many ancient caves and temples are present but I will be listing a selection of three, two of which are located in the city of Mumbai and one, an entire complex located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.

Lonad Buddhist Caves and Shiva Temple

Near the bustling city of Mumbai lies the village of Lonad 6.43 km to the north of Kalyan, a place which has its own history. In this village, Buddhist caves dating back to the 6th or 7th century A.D can be found along with sculptures dating back to the 10th century and a temple for Lord Shiva from the 11th century A.D.

I had gone on a heritage walk conducted by a historian based in Mumbai and called Dnyanada Kulkarni who explained that Buddhist chapels of that time which were carved out from mountains had some typical features such as a clean drinking-water tank, a resting area for the monks along with many artistic inscriptions on the pillars present on the outer verandahs.

Some of them are defaced due to time in these caves but many depicting the royalty and other common people remain. They have intricate carvings of a man walking in front of an elephant with another running behind it, the king meting out justice in his court, giving an umbrella to a hermit and many other things. A very interesting carving lies on the wall right outside the cave which has a scene from a king’s court. In the middle lies a beardless king surrounded by his attendants.

One woman is seen shampooing his hair, another one to the right is holding a musical instrument and behind there are some attendants holding flowers. The left hand of the king looks injured and the right is resting on a waistcloth made up of fine muslin. There is a spittoon in front of the king. One woman is holding a cymbal and some man and woman servants standing behind the king are holding washpots and another woman to the side is holding a purse with a finger on her lip which is a sign of respect. Dnyanada said this was a common theme which is found in another famous historical site of the 6th century which are the Ajanta caves located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.

To the north of the village of Lonad is a Shiva temple dating back to the 11th Century A.D built by the Satahavana kings which is in ruins but its glory still remains. It is made up of slabs of Black stone stones not fit together by mortar. There is a lake next to it which is commonly found near the Shiva temples of that time. There was a dome which was a part of the roof and has now collapsed but few remains of it can be seen.

The remains on the base of the walls of the temple have panels full of inscriptions. There is a carving of a woman squatting with her face covered by a flower. It is of an otherwise ferocious Goddess Lajja Gouri feeling shy, Dnyanada explained that the squatting position was considered to be healthy during child-birth. It is one of the very few Lajja Gouri carvings in India. There is another inscription next to it of a person worshipping the Shivaling. Shiva temples were normally places which were used for contemplation, achieving heightened states of trance through meditation and musing about philosophy.

Lajja Gouri

In order to keep people away from disturbing the peace and atmosphere of the place by grabbing the land, you have an inscription on the base of the wall from that time which warns that the progeny of the encroacher would marry an animal.

Ambernath Temple

Located on the banks of the Waldhuni river and an autorickshaw ride away from the Ambernath railway station is the 10th century A.D temple built by the Shilahara dynasty. This temple too is made up of black stones and limes which were available locally and once again were not fitted by mortar but carved from single rocks. Ambernath means ‘Lord of the sky’ and the main sanctum of the temple does not have a roof but the hall outside it does and that too is full of artistic inscriptions. The walls of the temple are full of beautiful sculptural works, with precise depictions of the human body in its various emotional and physical forms. These are the sculptures of Gods, Goddesses, hermits and celestial nymphs. Every sculpture has a story behind it, some of it was explained by Dnyanada such as the story of Mahakali , the Goddess who wears a necklace made up of human skulls or that of Hari- Hara, which is the union of two male Gods. Usually the part outside the Sanctum would be used for dance, music and other artistic performances.

Kailasha Temple

This 8th century A.D temple complex is a part of the Ellora caves located in Aurangabad, which are a group of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu structures. The speciality of this structure is that it has been vertically carved out of a mountain from the top to bottom, using the cut-out monolithic technique. The cut-in monolithic technique is more commonly used in the rest of the Ellora caves and throughout the world which involves carving mountains from the front but that is not what has been done over here.

A pillar measuring approximately 90-100 feet is right in the middle of the structure. This pillar was constructed by removing all the portions of the mountain surrounding it. This involved complex mathematical calculations.

Goddess killing a demon

There are intricate carvings everywhere in the temple complex. It is one of the architectural marvels of the world. The limitations of human beings can be experienced in this huge temple complex.

My trip to all these places made me understand a completely new dimension of the capability of human beings to create artistic wonders while maintaining the balance with nature.

The limitations of our present life as humans in front of the minds, skills and talents of the people lost in the pages of history can be experienced here. What remains is the possibility of a human being to transcend their current potential to think and to create by entering a new plane of existence from the spiritual and artistic architectural essence of these places. These are the places which take us beyond the theories found in our textbooks towards a different timeline of a world of existence.

If you’re interested in the prospect of embarking on a heritage walk like I did, then contact @dn_kul on her Instagram account.

Picture credit Anvi Sawant

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