Like a jewel expertly set against the magnificent backdrop of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, the medieval temple of Baijnath is truly a place of sanctity and serenity. Perched on a grassy knoll and situated just off the otherwise unremarkable main street of the town of Baijnath, it is one of Himachal Pradesh’s significant shrines and pilgrim centres.
The Baijnath temple derives its name from ‘Baijnath’ as the Vaidyanath version of Lord Shiva is worshipped here. Vaidyanath is Shiva’s avatar as the 'Lord of Physicians' (‘vaid’ means ‘physician’) and devotees with all manner of ailments pray at this temple in search of a cure.
Built in 1204 CE, the temple has survived the numerous earthquakes that have rocked this region for centuries and destroyed many great temples like it. The Kangra region was also extremely wealthy due to its location on the trade routes from Kashmir, Punjab and Tibet. Numerous temples were built by local kings and prosperous merchants here; sadly, most of them have been destroyed by earthquakes over time. We don’t know of the early history of Baijnath or why it was built exactly where it stands; we can only deduce its story from snippets of the past.
Thankfully, there are two stone inscriptions inside the temple known to historians as ‘Baijnath Prasastis’. These inscriptions tell us that the shrine was built in 1204 CE by two wealthy merchants who were ardent devotees of Lord Shiva, Ahuka and Manyuka, even though some historians believe there may have been a shrine here as early as the 9th century CE.
Translated, this is what the inscriptions say:
In his country, there is a well-known merchant, Manyuka, son of Siddha. Of him, whose devotion to Mahesa was constant and whose conduct was pure, there was the mother called Chinna.
Whose younger brother is Ahuka, whose wealth is undivided from his brother and who is solely intend on doing good deeds; and whose wife named Gulha is free from censure, and remains busy in honouring all the guests.
The Baijnath Prasastis are intriguing as they are written in the Pahari language, using the Sharada and Takri scripts. The Sharada script was popular in the northern region of the subcontinent and Gurmukhi was derived from it. The Takri script too was an early medieval script from the northern region. Dogri, an official Indian language, was written in the Takri script till the 1940s, after which it was replaced by Devanagari. This tells us about the confluence of cultures here.
Fast forward a few hundred years and we encounter Raja Sansar Chand (1765-1823) of Kangra, a Katoch dynasty ruler who renovated the Baijnath temple in his time. This too is gauged from inscriptions in the temple. Sir Alexander Cunningham, the famous British archaeologist who founded the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), noted an inscription dated 1786 which referred to the renovations done by Sansar Chand.
Another date inscribed on the wooden doors of the complex is Samvat 1840, which is 1783 and is close to Cunningham’s findings. The temple also sustained some damage after the 1905 Kangra earthquake. The damage was noted by J Ph Vogel, a Dutch epigraphist who worked with the ASI, and was repaired soon.
The Baijnath temple is built in the Nagara architectural style and is truly a wonder. The shikara (temple tower) rises to 80 feet and is heavily ornamented, using different iconographic details. Some say it is decorated in floral motifs, while others argue that it is an undeciphered script. The façade of the main entrance has images of divine beings including Ganesh and Hanuman. A panel is also dedicated to the wedding of Lord Shiva and Parvati. Small niches, which are highly ornate, are dedicated to gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon.
There are two Nandi bulls in the courtyard of the shrine. The outer walls of the temple complex are unique in the sense that there are various inscriptions engraved on them. The exterior walls bear various shlokas whereas the inside surfaces have divine and semi-divine figures engraved on them.
Still a living temple but protected by the ASI, the Baijnath temple is a unique gem of medieval Himachali architecture
LHI Travel Guide
The temple is 16 km from Palampur and 36 km east of Kangra town, Himachal Pradesh. Pathankot railway station is the nearest broad gauge line station and is 130 km from Baijnath. The nearest airport is Gaggal near Dharamshala and is about 60 km from Baijnath.
Abhimanyu Kalsotra is a graduate from St. Stephen's College, Delhi in history and economics. He is a history enthusiast with an interest in medieval and art history.