Himachal Pradesh is popularly referred as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ or ‘Land of the Gods’. It is easy to see why, for scattered all across this exquisitely beautiful North Indian state are temples or abodes of the Gods. Among these shrines is the Bhimakali Temple complex in Sarahan village, 180 km from Shimla. The temple’s unique and ornate architecture and colorful history make it a showpiece of the region.
The Bhimakali Temple is a grand ‘tower temple’, its majestic twin towers being its most defining feature. This temple complex includes a few smaller temples as well.
Sarahan, called the Gateway to Kinnaur, was the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Bushahr, on the old Hindustan-Tibet road. Bushahr, founded in 1412, later formed a part of the Shimla Hill States, which consisted of Tehri-Gharhwal and Dehradhun on one side, the plains if Ambala on another side, and surrounded by Kullut, Spiti and Sukhet.
At 6,500 feet above sea level, Sarahan is enveloped by dense pine forests and is not visible from the road below. But once you arrive here, you are greeted by apple orchards, snow-capped mountains and the famous Bhimakali Temple. Like many places in Himachal Pradesh, this is a pilgrim town, where life revolves around the local deity.
The Bhimakali Temple is located plum in the centre of the village. Once the palace of the Bushahr royal family, this wooden temple complex is an iconic symbol of the town.
The Legend of Bhimakali
Maa Bhimakali is regarded as the reincarnation of Goddess Durga. It is believed that Banasur, son of the great demon King Bali, was the ruler of this princely state during the Puranic age. King Banasur was also an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva.
Legend has it that Usha, daughter of King Banasur, and Anirudh, son of King Pradyuman, who in turn was the son of Lord Krishna, were having an affair. Enraged, Lord Krishna killed King Banasur. It is believed that the head of King Banasur is buried in front of the entrance gate of the temple and is marked by an elevated platform leading to the first courtyard.
After the death of King Banasur, King Pradyuman became the ruler of this kingdom. And, since then, it has been governed by the descendants of this dynastytill the princely states were incorporated into a sovereign India.
It is believed that the head of King Banasur is buried in front of the entrance gate of the temple
Back in the mists of time – there are no known records to indicate when – the ruling family of Bushahrbuilt this grand temple complex and devoted it to their presiding deity, Goddess Bhimakali.
Another legend surrounding the goddess relates to the Daksha Yajna incident, when the ear of Sati, daughter of King Daksha, is said to have fallen on the ground here, making this a place of worship as a peetha-sthan. This is how Bhimakali temple became one of the 51 shakti peethas in the country.
There is a representation of this eternal goddess consecrated on the top floor of a newly reconstructed temple building. The storey below is occupied by Goddess Parvati, daughter of the Himalayas,and consort of Lord Shiva.
There are three more temples in the complex, dedicated to Lord Raghunathji, Narsinghji and Patal Bairava ji.
An Architectural Marvel
Believed to be around 800 years old, the Bhimakali Temple boasts architecture that is not duplicated anywhere else in the erstwhile hill states, and is an amazing blend of Hindu and Buddhist styles.
Among its unusual features is its classification as a ‘tower temple’, found exclusively in the hilly regions of Himachal. It is also the most outstanding example of tower temple typology construction.
The main temple complex is built around the three courtyards enclosed by buildings on all sides. Unlike many other standalone tower temples, this temple complex consists of a few smaller temples, a guest house, old royal palace and twin towers.
The first courtyard, which is at the lowest level , has a Narsingha temple constructed in stone with a shikhara on top covered with a sloping wooden roof. The second courtyard has a Raghunath temple and the third courtyard, the highest of the three, has the imposing twin towers. Maa Bhimakali resides in one of these towers All three courtyards are accessed by highly ornamental and ornately carved gates. Ancillary buildings and residential space for support staff were provided on the periphery of the temple complex.
The temple complex has four gateways at different levels, which provide access to the courtyards and act as passages. Each of these gates is different from the others. The main entry gate to the temple complex is gold-plated and richly carved. The second gate is made of wood with intricately carved silver foil. The third gate is meant to provide access to the Raghunath temple. The fourth gate, which is a simple structure made of stone and covered with slate, is the main door that leads to two main tower temples. This gate is known as Shri Dwar.
Apart from the twin towers, the other outstanding feature of the Bhimakali Temple is the elaborate and rich carvings in wood and in silver throughout the complex. Idols of a variety of gods and goddesses are carved on the shutters, balconies, balusters and balcony railings. Intricately carved wooden brackets are used as supports for the balconies, while highly decorative wooden patterns can be seen on the external facades of the twin towers and a few other structures in the temple complex.
One of the most prominent features are the wooden chimes, which produce a humming sound as they oscillate in the wind. The moment one hears them, the atmosphere in the temple complex changes completely.
Aesthetically, this architectural style represents a perfect symphony with the ecosystem and culture of the people. Only locally available materials like stone and deodar wood are used, and the entire community participates in the building process under the guidance of the chief master mason. Natural slate has been quarried from nearby areas and used as the main roofing material over the wooden roof trusses. Roofs in the temple complex have a distinctive character and form a fascinating skyline.
Bhimakali Temple is among the best known experiments with locally available building materials and indigenous construction techniques to create architectural gems.
Apart from the Bhimakali Temple, Sarahan has a few other places to explore. For bird enthusiasts, there is a bird sanctuary. There are also many small hamlets, which you can explore barefooted.
While Sarahan intrigues with its tales of powerful gods and very old rituals, it also transports you to a world of old-fashioned, picturesque houses, wild roses and apple orchards. If there was ever a place where you could feel a sense of tranquility and power, at the same time, it is in the Bhimakali Temple at Sarahan.
Shabbir Khambaty and Swapnil S Bhole are practicing architects from Mumbai. After graduating in 2004, they have been involved in research projects as well as interesting architectural projects and those involving interiors. They have been conducting research in Himachal Pradesh since 2003 and have documented 27 villages including temples, forts, palaces and residences, to date. They also teach at architectural institutes in Mumbai.