Just off the Mehsana-Udaipur stretch of Highway 8 (NH8) is a small town called Shyamlaji in Gujarat. It is an important pit stop on a highway that runs from Mumbai to Delhi via Surat, Baroda, Ahmedabad, Udaipur and Agra, and a lifeline of Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Shyamlaji is the last stop before you enter the Aravalli hills and then descend into the Banas-Berach river plains, where Udaipur is today. Replace the SUVs, trucks, trailers and two-wheelers that zip along this highway with bullock carts laden with goods for trade and you are transported to medieval times.
The town lies on the Meshwo River and the occupation of the river valley goes back to Mesolithic and Microlithic sites. When the Meshwo was dammed to create the Shyam Sagar Reservoir in the late 1960s the entire valley was submerged and with it, several Mesolithic sites as well as the Kshatrapa Era Buddhist religious site of Devnimori.
In the 4th CE, a beautiful brick stupa, the only stupa in Gujarat, was constructed here during the reign of Kshatrapa ruler Rudrasena III (348-378 CE). A beautiful reliquary was donated by Rudrasena III, and in it lie the bodily remains of the Buddha, according to an inscription on the casket. The complex also consisted of two viharas, or monasteries, a number of smaller stupas, and a unique apsidal brick shrine. The complex was finally deserted in the 9th CE.
Modern-day Shyamlaji is a beautiful temple town with a magnificent temple dedicated to Krishna/Vishnu in his avatar as Shyamlaji. The modern town, which is dated to the 15th-16th CE, rests on top of a much older Early Historical site.
M S University, Baroda, carried out a series of excavations at Devnimori and also excavated at Shyamlaji in 1961-62 under Prof B Subbarao. In the Kshatrapa period (3rd to 4th CE), the excavators were surprised to find that it was a fortified site, no doubt because of its important position on a vital trade route. There were solid brick walls around it.
There was also an older, early Kshatrapa phase, going back probably to the 1st CE. Phase II had the fortifications and the brick sizes were identical to those seen at the Devnimori site, thereby dating Phase II to the 4th-5th CE. The next phase saw the occupation of the site by the Maitraka rulers of Vallabhi and the terminal phase belonged to the Early Medieval Period and had coins of the Gujarat Sultans (Ahmad Shah I - 1410-1443 CE), Mewad State and Baroda Gaekwads (including Khanderao - 1870 CE). On top of this was the modern town itself.
The temple at Shyamlaji is its central pivot and there are three different legends relating to its origin. The first says that Lord Brahma performed penance here for 1,000 years and when Lord Shiva was pleased, he asked Lord Brahma to conduct a yagna, and Lord Vishnu manifested himself as Shyamlaji.
The second legend says that Vishvakarma, the architect of the Gods, constructed the temple in a single night but daylight struck before he could take it away and he was forced to leave it behind. The third legend, which sounds quite plausible, says the idol of Shyamlaji was found by a local tribal man who worshipped it and saw the yield on his farm increase. Learning of this, a Vaishnavite merchant built a temple and installed the idol in it. This temple was subsequently beautified by the rulers of the princely state of Idar, under which Shyamlaji fell. Subsequently, in much more recent recorded history, the temple was renovated by a wealthy business family.
A massive, three-week-long fair is held at Kartik Purnima (October-November) each year, and thousands of people descend on camel carts, sing devotional songs and bathe in the Meshwo River. Shyamlaji is also called Sakshi Gopal or Gadadhar, and the idol appears to belong to the late/post-Gupta style of architecture (7th-8th CE).
Vaishnavism came to Gujarat in a big way in the 7th-8th CE, with the advent of Ramanujacharya and Nibakacharya, well-known early medieval sages. In 1565 CE, Shyamlaji was visited by the famous Vaishnavite preacher, Shri Vallabhacharya. This rejuvenated the fortunes of the temple town and it once again became a centre of pilgrimage.
The temple is a towering, two-story shrine. Built in the Nagara style, it has a high, star-shaped base. Various deities are depicted in sculptures on the base, and there is a band of elephants symbolically supporting the temple. Islamic architectural influences are also seen in the temple’s dome, which covers the main mandapa. Numerous scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana are carved on the temple, which is made of yellow sandstone. There is a life-size cement elephant standing in the temple courtyard.
The temple bears a number of inscriptions but the two early ones, dating to 94 CE and 102 CE, are very modern and may be copies of some earlier inscription. The copper plate embedded at the entrance has an inscription dated to 1762 CE, written by the local ruler, the Thakore of Tinto. The inscriptions refer to the idol as ‘Gadadharji’ (the Wielder of the Mace), one of the attributes and titles of Lord Vishnu.
Adjacent to the main shrine is a much earlier 9th CE temple. This is much smaller and only a portion of it survives. Many people and various scholars feel it is the site of the original shrine. It is known as the Harishchandra Chauri. Most interestingly, there is a beautiful Solanki-style (11th-12th CE) torana, or ornamental gateway, in front of the Harishchandra Chauri.
There is also a small shrine dedicated to Ganesha with an image most definitely in the late-Gupta style. A number of other sculptures including those of Shiva and Chamunda have been found in the vicinity.
Today, the shrine is well maintained by a local trust. Along with the adjacent reservoir, the venue is very scenic. Being near the Aravallis, the climate is pleasant most of the year and Shyamlaji has become a very prominent pilgrimage and tourist destination.