They may lack the craftsmanship of Khajuraho, the religious significance of Sanchi and the intrigue of Bhimbetka, but the Nachna temples in Madhya Pradesh are no less significant. The small village of Nachna, in Panna district in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, is home to one of the earliest surviving temples in Central India.
Of the two temples discovered here in the late 19th century, the Parvati temple dates to the Gupta period, that is, the early 4th to late 6th CE, when this powerful dynasty ruled much of India. The Parvati temple dates, more specifically, to the 5th-6th century CE, when this region in Central India was ruled by the Uchchhakalpas and Parivrajakas, feudatories of the Guptas.
Most significantly, the Parvati temple is said to be one of the prototypes of Hindu temple architecture. It is a simple, flat-roofed, two-storey stone shrine with a mandapa (hall) and a garbhagriha (sanctum).
However, the doorway of the temple is beautifully decorated, bearing images of the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. Interestingly, the human figurines carved on the doorway offer a glimpse into what people may have looked like during the Gupta period. Alexander Cunningham, then the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, points out that the hairstyle of the male figures resembles that of the Gupta kings as depicted on their coins.
The other temple at Nachna is the Chaturmukha temple, also known as the Chaturmukha Mahadev temple. Unlike the Parvati temple, this shrine dates to a much later period, probably the 8th-9th century CE. It is not a Gupta-era temple but is built in the Pratihara style of architecture.
Significantly different in design from the Parvati temple, this shrine is built on a high platform, it has a tall shikhara (tower) above the sanctum sanctorum, and reflects the gradual evolution in the architecture of temples in the region. The only feature common to both temples are their intricately carved doorways.
The highlight of the Chaturmukha temple is the Shivalinga within the sanctum, from which the temple derives its name. Around 4 feet high, the Shivalinga has five faces, four of them facing in the four directions and a fifth on the top. Together, they represent the Panchamukha aspect of Shiva.
The north face, Vamadeva (water) represents maintenance; the east face, Tatpurusha (air) represents protection; the west face, Sadyojata (earth) stands for creation; while the south face, Aghora (fire) symbolises destruction. There is a fifth face, on the top, which is rarely depicted. It is known as Ishana (ether) and is beyond space, time and the four directions, and it represents the Formless Absolute of the Hindu theology.
Temple Building Tradition
Dynasties across time have built temples in the subcontinent but the earliest evidence of them goes back to the Guptas. While temples were probably built even earlier, scholars believe these were probably constructed from perishable material like timber, due to which they haven’t survived.
The ‘Temple No 17’ at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh is considered to be the oldest surviving temple in India. It too is a Gupta-era shrine and dates to the 5th century CE. The Guptas, whose capital was Pataliputra in present-day Bihar, ruled much of the Indian subcontinent for over 200 years. It was one of the most powerful dynasties of ancient India and it was during their rule that temple architecture began to evolve.
Apart from Temple No 17 at Sanchi, the Vishnu temple at Tigawa, Shiva temple at Bhumara and the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh are other examples of the earliest and most prominent temples in India of this period.
Discovering the Nachna Temples
The Nachna temples were discovered by Alexander Cunningham, who published a report on them in 1885. Cunningham visited the village of Nachna in 1883-84. He noted that the local residents were aware of the temples and often visited them as the village, earlier known as Kuthara, was an important city in the Bundelkhand region in ancient times.
Among the ruins at the site, he found only two surviving temples – the Parvati temple and the Chaturmukha temple. It was Cunningham who first placed the Parvati temple in the Gupta era. He writes, “The temple of Parvati is one of the most curious and interesting shrines that I have seen. It is curious from the conventional imitation of rock-work on all the outer faces of its walls. It is especially interesting, as it seems to preserve the old fashion of the temples cut in the rock. The figures on the outer walls and on the doorway are all in the Gupta style of sculpture.”
While neither the Parvati nor the Chaturmukha temple bears any inscriptions, a 5th century CE inscription was found on a rock near Nachna. Sadly, the inscription is incomplete, only mentioning the person it is ascribed to, ‘Vyaghradeva’, as a feudatory of ‘Prithvisena’.
While this inscription is disputed among scholars, some have identified the kings mentioned in it as Prithvishena I of the Vakataka dynasty, and Vyaghra of the Uchchhakalpa dynasty, feudatories of the Guptas, who ruled parts of Central India during the 5th and 6th centuries. On the basis of the inscription, scholars believe that Nachna may have been an important region in the 5th century CE.
Although only two temples have survived at this site, several stone reliefs have been found at the site. These may have been part of the ruined temples. Some of these stone reliefs are believed to be among the earliest known friezes depicting scenes from the Ramayana.
Today one of the earliest temples in Central India lies forgotten amid the more high-profile, popular destinations in the region.
Now, get a chance to engage with leading experts from across the world, enjoy exclusive in-depth content, curated programs on culture, art, heritage and join us on special tours, through our premium service, LHI Circle. Subscribe here.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books