Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar is often associated with magnificent temples and jaw-dropping architecture. And, yet, despite the glorious architecture that defines the cityscape, there is one temple that stands out. As if its unique name was not enough – it’s called the Rajarani Temple – the shrine has no presiding deity!
Built around a thousand years ago, during the later stages of the Somavamsi dynasty, the temple has a pyramidal entrance hall called a jagamohana or mandapa, and a towering spire called a deul or shikhara or vimana that rises to a height of 59 feet.
The stories and traditions surrounding the temple revolve around its unusual name, the ruler who patronised it, and the deity for whom it was built. Different historians have presented opposing viewpoints to explain these aspects. It is generally believed that it was built during the later stages of the Somavamsi rule in the 11th century CE. The Somavamshis ruled the region between the 9th and 12th centuries.
At present, there are two local theories to explain its name. According to the first one, the statues of Nag and Nagin at the entrance had led people to believe that they were the king and queen who ruled the land when the temple was built. The temple was thus named ‘Rajarani’.
The second theory, which is more widely accepted, suggests that the name came from the material used to build the temple. It was a fine-grain, red and yellow sandstone locally known as ‘Rajarania’.
Then there are theories regarding the deity for which it was built, and whether or not it was ever consecrated since no deity is currently worshipped in the shrine. Historians believe that there is a high probability that it may have been a Shiva temple. The carving of Lakulisa — the founder of Pashupata Shaivism, one of the oldest and most prominent Shaivite schools — just above the entrance door and below the navagrahas (Nine planets) suggests that the temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva. Two small Saiva dwarapalas (doorkeepers), called Prachanda and Chanda, carved on either side of the entrance, support the theory that this was a Shiva temple.
But the truth about the reigning deity continues to remain a mystery since the temple’s name, Rajarani, is unrelated to any Brahmanical pantheon divinity.
Rajarani is distinguished from other temples in Bhubaneswar by the feminine representations sculpted on its outer walls. These female figures in various poses bear a striking resemblance to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh. The temple’s structural plan is similar to that of Khajuraho’s Kandariya Mahadev temple. This could be because the Somavamsis arrived in Odisha from Central India, where Khajuraho is located.
Though Rajarani Temple did not flourish as a place of worship but it is nevertheless one of the most popular tourist attractions as it is an architectural masterpiece. The temple is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India, its manicured lawns serving as the perfect setting to marvel at the beauty of this ancient structure, especially during sunset.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
– Aveek Bhowmik is an independent journalist, an avid traveller and passionate storyteller who writes about heritage, lost traditions, local communities and food.