Religion and architecture, sculpture, drama and an eldritch vision combined in a compelling assertion of reality in the great Bhojeshwar temple at Bhojpur, situated just 50 km away from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh.
As you drive for a while on the Bhopal-Hoshangabad highway, you turn off onto a branch road. From here onwards, the land seems to be greener, appreciably more lush, and yielding to the plough. And then, a little less than 30 kilometers out of Bhopal, the road begins to wind up an arid, boulder-strewn hill rising above the softening mist. Only a little distance away lies the ruins of an ancient capital and a majestic temple, which has defied time and invaders for the past 900 years.
Once upon a time, 900 years ago, Bhojapura, a city centered around a Shiva temple, was founded by the Paramara king of Dhar. And thereby hangs one of the many fascinating tales of our land compounded of history, legend and the rich bardic embroidery that is so typical of the sagas of our past. No one really knows who the Paramaras were. They could have been warrior nomads from the Steppes who had ridden into the reputedly rich lands of India.
The Paramara dynasty lasted for 110 years and produced a lineage of warrior-scholars who were as adroit at waging wars as they were at penning poems. But of all the heroic Paramaras who dominated Malwa, Raja Bhoja was undoubtedly the greatest. He not only fought against the Huns and Chalukyas of Kalyani, he also wrote books on astronomy, medicine, grammar, lexicography, religion, and architecture. And then, according to the legend, he contracted a terrible skin disease.
We often come across this phenomenon of dermatological disorders of kings. The ruler of Surajkund in Haryana, for instance, was a victim of skin disease; so was the great king who built the Sun temple at Konark. Interestingly all such legendary patients had been advised by sages to dig lakes, which would benefit the community, and to bathe in such socially enriching reservoirs. Bhoja's conflict must have been extremely deep because an ascetic advised him to construct a lake larger than any other in India, fed by 365 springs and bathe in it at an auspicious hour.
About 40 kilometers from Bhopal, near the headwaters of the Betwa, Bhoja's engineers found just such a concourse of natural springs. With great ingenuity, they constructed a lake which spread over 64,750 hectares. The great social benefits of this stupendous work must have soothed the troubled mind of Bhoja because after he bathed in the lake his ailment was cured. It was probably then that, in thanksgiving, he began the construction of the great Bhojeshwar temple.
The Bhojeshwar Temple
Today, the ruined and incomplete Bhojeshwar Temple still humbles the mind. Constructed in the latter part of the 11th century, its great stone blocks encompass a doorframe, which towers ten meters high and five meters wide. Four titanic pillars, richly carved, rise to support an incomplete dome. The high noon sun lances through the dome, illuminates a massive pedestal made of three stepped blocks of sandstone, seven meters square. An iron ladder ascends this huge pedestal to reach the uppermost platform, directly beneath the high roof, open to the sky. Dominating this platform and the great brooding temple is a magnificent lingam more than two meters high and over five meters in circumference.
In the temple, religion and architecture, sculpture, drama and a weird vision combine in a compelling assertion of reality. There is a brooding imminence about this great black temple that demands attention and reverence; and streams of school girls, as bright as moving garlands of flowers, moved up and down the ladder seeking the blessings of the great monolith, bowing to mumbled prayers from an ochre-robed, white-bearded priest who stood near like a vision of a benevolent and slightly portly Father Time.
If the incomplete temple can evoke such awe, how much reverential fear would have been evoked by the final work of Raja Bhoja? But the savant king was fated never to complete his imposing shrine. For, at the glorious end of the Paramara era in 1060, the Chalukyas of Kalyani and Gujarat combined with Lakshmi-Karna of the Kalachuri dynasty attacked Raja Bhoja's capital. In that fierce battle, Raja Bhoja died defending his kingdom. And so today, only the temple stands, and beyond it, a damaged Jain colossus rides in a whitewashed building. Stones still lie around partially carved as they had been when the sculptors fled nine centuries ago when Bhoja fell. Eagles still wheel in the wide sky as they did over that ancient bloody battlefield. And a train chuffs and mourns across the plain like a sad spirit of a warrior, slowly departing.
But Bhoja’s forty-two-year reign is still celebrated in myth and legend as well as in this time-defying monument. For, as long as the temple stands, and the doorway towers and the sculptures enchant and the great lingam broods with implacable power in the 900-year-old Bhojeshwar, so long will the memory of King Bhoja shine like a diadem.