Most people visiting Uttarakhand’s twin towns, Dehra Dun and Mussoorie, get lured by their colonial charm. Places like Mall Road, Chetwode Hall or the George Everest Estate and the sprawling campus of the Forest Research Institute are on every visitor’s bucket list and, of course, worthy of attention. But the Himalayas have been beckoning seekers since much earlier times and there’s plenty of unexplored ancient history too, that you can encounter and record, in these mountains.
A two-hour drive (at the 75 km milestone) from Mussoorie, on the road that connects Mussoorie to Chakrata, you will come across the ancient temple of Lakhamandal. The village is secluded, on a hillock fringed by grottoes, some of them bearing evidence of a rich limestone topography of rocky stalactites and stalagmites. Cross the river and drive around a hillock to arrive at the ancient site of the temple complex of Lakhamandal. One has to walk a narrow lane flanked by majestic timber alpine homes with slate roofs. Clamber up the steep stair and you are in the main temple complex. Besides the main temple is a stepped brick platform, at the center of which is a Shiva lingam. Unlike most historic monuments in the mountains which are rock hewn, the Lakhamandal platform is a brick structure, the technology for which is understood to have been introduced from the Northern Plains in the Gupta Age around 500 to 600 CE. A partially legible Sanskrit inscription from the site supports the case of the Lakhamandal site being from the Gupta period, since the Brahmi letters can be dated back to the 5th century on paleographic grounds. The inscription refers to a genealogy of chieftains: Jayadasa, Acala, Chhalaesadasa, Rudresadasa and finally, Chhagalesa. These chieftains acquired the regal titles narapati (lord of men) and ajayesvaranripa (invincible king), and as is evident from the names, were worshippers of Shiva, the Pashupata, master of the bounded flock.
The village of Lakhamandal is steeped in antiquity, with many sculptures recovered from the fields around, unfortunately now locked up inside the vaults of the Archaeological Survey of India.However, you do not have to be a historian to realise that the settlement is steeped in history when you find sculptural fragments or even stone images lying uncared for in and around the village. There are small stone relics or inscriptions piled on one of the village platforms. Farmers occasionally dig out pieces of carved stone and images from the fieldstoo. Such fragments of stones can also be observed fitted into the retaining walls of village houses.
Despite the archaeological wealth that abounds this village, it has largely remained terra incognita for most visitors. Often the site suffers because tourism brochures and websites associate it merely with the legend that the Kauravas built lakshagriha, the house of shellac, here, for the Pandavas to stay in. The devious plan, as most are aware thanks to Amar Chitra Katha, was to trap the Pandavas inside the highly inflammable house and set it ablaze. However, the Pandavas escaped to a place called Chakrapur through a tunnel. That place is associated with present day Hanol, the venerable shrine of Bautha or the perpetually seated MahasuDevta. Similarly, yet another folk tale associates the place to present day Chakrata (ancient Ekachakrangari), to which the Pandavas escaped.
Notwithstanding the Pandava connection, the complex otherwise is also a grand edifice, its history being more expansive than the Mahabharata legend, with several intriguing finds challenging the history buff to dig deeper. For instance, another Sanskrit inscription, engraved on a polished rectangular chlorite slab at the site contains twenty-three lyrical verses which credit the widowed princess Isvara, to have constructed the temple as a memorial to her husband Chandragupta, son of the king of Jalandhara, who died in battle.
At the westerly entrance of this sixth century shrine are two figures, probably a pair of dwarpalas or door keepers, 177 centimeters high, suggesting Lakhamandal’s early historical associations with death and funerary rituals. The impressive figures stand with ease, the one on the left with the knee slightly bent and right hip thrust outward. The broad feet firmly planted on a pedestal share the weight of the expansive upper body with a long, bulging staff or lakula on which he leans, grasping its narrow end in his raised right hand. The other hand rests on the hip. A short, transparent lower garment is held in place by a cloth belt whose ends stream down his thighs. The face large, eyes deep-set, is crowned by a diadem tied together by a ribbon that hangs down the back of his neck. It is incised with a lotus blossom. He also wears a short necklace formed of irregularly cut gems and a narrow bracelet on each wrist.
The other figure standing a short distance away is similar, but its right hand has gone missing forearm down, and may well have held a staff. The notable difference between the two is that this figure’s diadem features a skull consumed in a ring of flames. Therefore, both figures reflect an opposing symbolism of life and death. While the skull-in-flames motif is a symbol of release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, the lotus represents not just life and purity, but also resurrection and claiming a descent from the sun.
The lakula, or the staff, on which the figure leans, connects the site to the Pashupata community, a Shaiva order whose members famously frequented crematoriums and followed the teachings of Lakulesha, a staff-holding sage whom they revered as an incarnation of Shiva.
Powerful feet, well-developed pectoral muscles, toned abdomens, tightly curled locks and gently swaying postures in black stone, these figures represent unsurpassed artistic breakthroughs where the sculptor achieved a balance between idealised postures and naturalistic details, juxtaposing smooth polished bodies to sharply carved instruments. Clearly, the Gupta period sculptors created masterpieces that should attract history buffs from across the globe, for these are, in effect, the earliest known pair of life-sized, free standing doormen in South Asia!
Photo credit: Vinesh Poswal
(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon That?)
Tuesday, 11 August 2020 | Lokesh Ohri
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