Rajarani Temple: Bhubaneswar’s Temple Without a Deity

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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!

Rajarani Temple
Rajarani Temple | Author
A view of the temple from the rear
A view of the temple from the rear | Author

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.

A lion guarding the entrance from atop the pyramidal jagamohana
A lion guarding the entrance from atop the pyramidal jagamohana | Author
An amalaka (ridged stone disc) and amrita kalasa (pot containing nectar of immortality) adorn the summit of the spire or tower
An amalaka (ridged stone disc) and amrita kalasa (pot containing nectar of immortality) adorn the summit of the spire or tower | Author

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.

Entrance of the temple
Entrance of the temple | Author
A balustrade window with lions that are so powerful that they have subdued elephants and used them as supports
A balustrade window with lions that are so powerful that they have subdued elephants and used them as supports | Author
Naga sculptures flank a small temple
Naga sculptures flank a small temple | Author

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’.

Carvings of Varuna, Lord of the Waters, and other gods, on the temple walls. The female figures in various poses have striking similarities to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh.
Carvings of Varuna, Lord of the Waters, and other gods, on the temple walls. The female figures in various poses have striking similarities to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh. | Author
Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, and protector of the north
Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, and protector of the north | Author

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’.

Agni, the God of Fire, and other figures carved on the temple’s walls
Agni, the God of Fire, and other figures carved on the temple’s walls | Author
Agni, the God of Fire and protector of the south-east
Agni, the God of Fire and protector of the south-east | Author

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.

Varuna, protector of the west and Lord of the Waters. Varuna is holding his weapon, the Pasha (noose), in his left hand.
Varuna, protector of the west and Lord of the Waters. Varuna is holding his weapon, the Pasha (noose), in his left hand. | Author
Carving of a Yali rider
Carving of a Yali rider | Author

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.

Sculptures of women and other figures in various poses on the walls of the temple. These are strikingly similar to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh
Sculptures of women and other figures in various poses on the walls of the temple. These are strikingly similar to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh | Author
The temple’s walls are adorned with elegant and complex carvings of female figures in various moods
The temple’s walls are adorned with elegant and complex carvings of female figures in various moods | Author

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.

Sculptures of women and other figures in various poses on the walls of the temple. These are strikingly similar to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh
Sculptures of women and other figures in various poses on the walls of the temple. These are strikingly similar to those found in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh | Author
Manicured lawns within the temple grounds are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India
Manicured lawns within the temple grounds are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India | Author

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.