The drive along the NH48 in Western Maharashtra's heavily industrial sugarcane belt, is through a continuing series of ugly, dilated towns dotting either rim of the state highway; each one hungrily diffusing the outer boundary of the other in an unbridled quest for more housing & development space.
This unceasing invasion of the state's rural landscape, endures all the way down to its northern border with Karnataka. But at any point on this scenic route, disfigured by human activity, and particularly towards the southern end of the border, one only has to veer slightly off the chief artery to set foot into lush, bucolic inner country.
Here, the roads become narrower and often un-navigable because of the bumps. For miles on end there is field after field of tall cane, punctuated with occasional patches of banana and sky-scraping coconut trees. Bullock Carts slow you down as the ways taper, and tiny hamlets emerge at bends, with their terracotta tile houses and balconied stone structures still intact, albeit giving way gradually to a more modern architectural style, so starkly discordant with the idyllic postcard landscape.
Out here, in this rustic, isolated terrain, near enough to a hyper-urban highway civilization and yet so completely insulated from it by an unchanging pastoral existence, one doesn't expect to hit upon anything momentous. And so, when you first notice it with that mesmerized look of wonderment, it is the unlikely, back-of-beyond site that strikes you most about the Kopeshwar temple, a hidden architectural jewel, marketed these days as the Khajuraho of Maharashtra, that houses some of the finest examples of ancient temple sculpture in this part of the country.
A Brief History
Sitting by the banks of the River Krishna in the non-descript village of Khidrapur, some 60 kilometers east of the city of Kolhapur, this stunning relic dedicated to Lord Shiva, and a rare one that has ling forms of both Shiva and Vishnu in its inner sanctum, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Thanks in most part to a song filmed here in the temple complex, for a recent movie adaptation of the popular Marathi play, Katyar Kaljat Ghusli.
"Visitor numbers have trebled over the past two years. The weekends are particularly crowded," says Shashank Chothe, a PhD student who along with his father has written a useful handbook, 'Khidrapurchi Mandire' that briefly chronicles Kopeshwar's fascinating history which dates back to the 7th century AD, when construction of the temple is thought to have begun under the reign of the Chalukyas.
Frequent battles between warring kings however, led to long stretches when the project was completely abandoned. It was the Silhara ruler Gandaraditya and subsequently the Yadava kings of Devgiri who completed the structure some 500 years later in the 12th century.
A stone pedestal mounted east of the temple's southern door, with carved inscriptions in Sanskrit, and written in the Devnagri script, mention 1136 as the year when renovations were completed by Raja Singhandev of the Yadava dynasty. The text also contains an astonishingly long royal title given to the emperor:
‘Shri Mahadevgiravidhishta Samastabhuvanashraya Shri Prithvivallabha Maharajadhiraj Parmeshwar Dwaravatipurvadhishwar Vishnuvanshodbhava Yadavkulakamalakalika Vikasbhaskar Samasta Arirayajagajampa Ittyevamadismastarajavalismalankruta Shrimatpratapchakravarti Shri Maharaj Shri Singhandev.’
The Legend of Kopeshwar
Ambling along the temple's perimeter, one is easily bedazzled by the exceptional artistry of the carvings that crowd the outer facade of Kopeshwar, which is pierced through the Mahadwar (the great doorway). The temple itself is divided into 4 parts - the Swargmandapam, the Sabhamandapam, the Antral Kaksha (intermediate space) and the Garbha Griha (sanctum sanctorum).
"The Swargamandapam with its ceiling open to the sky, and supported by 48 intricately engraved pillars ascending towards the circle, is undoubtedly the greatest architectural feature here " asserts Asif Kagwade, our young guide. It is truly a masterpiece, with a round black basalt stone, 14 feet in diameter placed exactly under the ceiling to let smoke out during a Yagna or Havan.
But unlike other Shiva temples, the Swargamandapam, through which one enters the main hall, doesn't have a Nandi at the doorway. Legend has it that Raja Daksha, who was opposed to his daughter Sati marrying Lord Shiva didn't invite the couple for a Yagna he was hosting. When Sati went there on a Nandi to confront him, she was humiliated in front of the guests. Unable to bear the affront, she jumped into the fire and ended her life. As Shiva heard of his beloved wife's death, he couldn't contain his rage, and killed Raja Daksha by cutting his head off.
Later, Lord Vishnu brought Shiva or Kopeshwar (the incensed god) to Khidrapur to pacify him. Shiva took his curse back and restored Daksha to life again, but with a goat's head. The legend illustrates how the temple got its name, and why there is no Nandi here.
It also explains why the cool, dim interiors of the Garbha Griha, its walls carved with 18 gorgeous figurines of worshiping nymphs, houses the ling forms of both Shiva (Kopeshwar) and Vishnu (Dhopeshwar), making it a truly uncommon place of worship for the two rival sects.
"In fact, this is the only Shiva temple in the country where you first get a glimpse of Lord Vishnu in the ling form, before you can see the actual shivling," says Chothe.
A Sculpted Treasure House
If the dark inner sanctum represents divinity, peace and answers questions to the captivating myths that inspired Kopeshwar's creation, a clockwise tour of the breathtaking exterior provides scope for reflection on what Indian society, customs and life may have looked like, a thousand years ago. It also stands testament to the towering heights Indian sculpture and carving reached around 10th Century AD.
The temple rests on an incredible gajapatta, a hefty platform of 92 carved elephants, each one distinctive in the way it's been bejeweled, attired or postured. "This one in particular, depicting an obvious state of motion is perhaps the best statue in the complex." points Asif to one particular figurine. "Even the great artist M F Hussein was most impressed by it."
But atop the gajapatta are pillars with a bustling profusion of carvings, each one more exquisite than the other; curvaceous women in dancing positions, languid queens stretching out their arms, or engrossed with their writing, old women with sagging breasts, scenes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Panchatantra. There are animals, plants and fruit of all variety. There are travelers; Negros, Afghan Pathans, Irani tradesman and a Parsee from the Kutch. There is also the Buddha, an Ardha-Nareshwar, a Vastu defying south-facing Ganesha, a paunchy Kuber and a dazzling array of other gods and goddesses. The facade is a bustling microcosm of India's commercial, spiritual and social existence in the medieval age.
Kopeshwar suffered heavy damage during the raids in the Sultanate of Aurangzeb, as is evident from the several defaced statues here. All the 92 elephants have their trunks hacked out. A story about the emperor's daughter who refused to leave the premises, mesmerized by the beauty of its sculptures, which led to her father vandalizing the statues was fabricated to diffuse religious tensions. But the truth is that this temple, like several others in India, was a casualty of the mass-scale devastation of Hindu religious sites that began after Alauddin Khilji invaded the Deccan.
As our guide narrates stories of Aurangzeb's barbarity, they provoke the usual rumble-grumble of censure among the crowd. Mostly young college students clicking selfies with the nude sculptures, and families with children poised precariously atop the delicately carved platform without any admonishment from their parents.
This is the imminent threat that the temple faces today. Apathy from visitors, and of utter neglect from authorities despite being under the watchful eye of the Archeological Survey of India.
A study of the site undertaken by the International Journal of Advance and Applied Research points to numerous risks such as unregulated housing growth in very close proximity of the temple site, unclean surroundings and a total lack of basic tourist facilities such as toilets, lodging or transport from major regional towns.
At some level, much of this is perhaps a consequence of the temple's obscurity on the tourist map. At the opening doorway, there is a garish plastic hoarding that says 'Welcome to the Khajuraho of Maharashtra'. But aside of this, there is little or no publicity of the site, which remains perhaps the greatest barrier to safeguarding this isolated relic.
The IJAAR study has some helpful suggestions on how Khidrapur can brought under the tourist radar in a triangular scheme along with Ajanta, Verul, Badami, Hampi and others. But with even the country's most prominent heritage sites low on the political priority list, such studies will expectedly languish in the dusty drawers of Indian bureaucracy, than spur any meaningful action.
One can only take solace in the fact, that a magnificent monument that has survived nearly a 1000 years of brutal attacks by different regimes, will endure the indifference of the state because of its sheer resilience and beauty.