Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Mukteshvara temple Bhubaneshvar - Seven thousand wonders

Mukteshvara temple

Foreword I wrote essay this for a series on temples, titled Seven Thousand Wonders of India, in Swarajya magazine last year. They stopped after six essays. This is the seventh. Here is the link to the first six essays.


Until I visited Bhubaneshvar, I used to think Kanchipuram was the temple capital of India. The difference is that Kanchipuram temples are of Dravidian architecture, while Bhubaneshvar has temples of Nagariarchitecture. Puri gets the fervent devotees, and Konarak gets the UNESCO tag and global acclaim, but Bhubaneshvar has so many marvelous temples, it is a crying shame they are not far more famous. Orissa history too, gets subsumed under the larger Indian narrative – Asoka’s conquest of Kalinga is all we ever hear. But Orissa has a long and amazing history. The Bhaumakaras, Shailodbhavas, Somavamshis, Chodagangas, Gajapatis and other dynasties that ruled Orissa developed and continued a distinct line of Nagari architecture, called Kalinga.

The Mukteshvara temple has no inscriptions, but art historians say it was built in the Somavamshi era, most likely by the king Yayati I.

The largest, grandest, centralest temple of Bhubaneshvar is Lingaraja, in the heart of the old city. But the most beautiful enchanting captivating temple must surely be Mukteshvara. Oddly, very few locals seem to know it, perhaps because it is maintained by the ASI. KedaraGowri temple, equally ancient, just across the street, is far more famous.

A priest in Lingaraja temple told me that the city has one less than one lakh Siva temples – if one more temple had been built, the city would have equaled Kashi in sanctity; so at Siva’s own request, it wasn’t built.


Mukteshvara and Siddheshvara are twin temples in the same complex, facing west and east, respectively. Siddheshvara temple is taller, but plainer, with far fewer decorative features. They both have a garbagraha and jaganmohana (or jagmohana – called sabha-mandapa in most Nagari temples). The larger Kalinga temples like Lingaraja and Puri also have two more mandapas called nata-mandira and bhoga-mandira. There are also several small shrines, several with lingas, scattered all over the complex.

Pond and the two temples

The stone used is a distinct reddish Orissa sandstone, locally called rajaraniya. In fact, about a mile away is a larger temple called Rajarani, named not for some royal, but after the stone. It is softer than granite, but not perhaps as soft as soapstone, so yields itself to very intricate sculptures. Here and there one sees damage, but a lot of it marvelously well preserved.

Mukteshvara has two unique features - a torana entrance; and a short surrounding wall. There is also a well to its south called Marici kunda, and a beautiful spring-fed pond to its east.


The entrance torana is a beautiful arch, which has suffered some damage, but has been restored so masterfully, that it is not at all obvious. Slender beautiful women languidly grace both sides of the arch – which is one sculpture, not a series of blocks. The two ends of the arch rest on amalakas, which top the dressed pillars. The central portion of these pillars are sixteen sided, topped by kirtimukhas having pearl garlands (muktamaala) coming out of their mouths.

Torana and Compound wall

Compound wall

The short decorative compound wall around the Mukteshvara is not seen anywhere else in Bhubaneshvar. Lingaraja has a huge compound wall around it, but most other temples are just open with grounds around them. Even the Siddheshvara temple in the same campus doesn’t have such a wall. The compound wall parallels the several zig-zag cuts and patterns of the temple itself. Its lower part is decorated with a series of panels with patterns; the corner panels have intricate miniature sculptures, in them. Even smaller sculptures decorate the  upper level.


There are five different types of vimaana or shikhara in Nagari architecture. In Kalinga temples, usually the garbhagruha or deula (devaalaya in Odiya language) is of rekha type and the jaganmohana of phamsana type (called pidha in Orissa). The rekha type is the most common among Nagari temples in general and in Kalinga temples in particular. The shikhara can be very plain, or very elaborately carved: older temples in Bhubaneshvar like Lakshmaneshvara, Bharateshvara and some smaller temples like Uttareshvara, are low in decoration; as is Siddheshvara : but Mukteshvara itself is suffuse with decoration and sculpture, unparalleled for a temple of its size. The most elaborate feature of such decoration are gavakshaas : small circles and semicircles, in several intricate, repeating patterns. These are found in Nagari temples like Kashi Vishveshvara in Pattadakkal, also; but for sheer beauty in patterns and the overall pleasing effect, Mukteshvara is among the best.

The rectilinear look of the rekha temples is most distinct: a series of flat layers, slightly receding from their respective lower layers, seeming to curve towards the amalaka at the top. The levels or talaa-s are less visible in rekha devalayas compared to Dravida temples; these levels are called bhumi, and each is marked by a small amalaka called bhumi amalaka.


The vertical partitions, of rekha devaalaya, called ratha-s, are much more starkly visible. A temple may have three, five or seven rathas – the central one is projecting, and the others are often recessed or alternate, between recession and projection when more than three. Mukteshvara is pancha-ratha temple; the corner rathas are shared among the adjacent faces of the temple. The earlier Bhaumakara kings built tri-ratha temples; and the Chodagangas who succeeded the Somavamshis built sapta-ratha temples.

A sculpture in a gavakshaa features in every slab except the bhumi-amalakas in the corner rathas. The anuratha-s between the centre ratha and corner rathas are completely covered in intricate gavakshaa-s all the way to the top. The central ratha has a large panel on each side, called  chandrashaala, which has a circular centre, gana-s on either side, and a kirtimukha pouring out pearls from the top. Slightly above these are images of Nataraja in each side. The front and central portion has an important keystone featuring a seated lion; a common feature in all Kalinga temple.

elements of architecture

The Kalinga equivalents of the adishtaana and paada are called paabhaaga and jangha; these together are called badaa and form the lower part of the temple. These are often plain, but even these are extensively decorated in Mukteshvara. Shaalabhanjika-s adorn the pilasters; some are quite damaged though. Mithuna couples, vyaala-virala-s (riders on lions like in the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple), kapaaTa kanyaa-s, gaja-simha-s (lions riding on elephants) can be seen here and there in recessed niches. 

A lion faced praNaala brings water out from the garbhagriha.


The jaganmohana is shorter, squatter, and its shikhara is a series of plain and parallel slabs. But the lower half is just stunning in its complexity and elegance. There are windows in the centre of the northern and southern walls, surrounded by a series of sculptures of frolicking monkeys in a creeper (lathaa); flanked by two elaborate pilasters; the walls on both sides of these pilasters have two pilasters that are in the shape of temples, and a highly segmented corner pilaster, with two cylindrical stambhaa-s in between, around which a naaga is shown climbing. Above the window are two sculptures of kapaaTa-kanyaa-s (women opening or modestly standing behind doors) – these are also repeated on the rekha-deula, as are the naaga stambhas

The twelfth century Tamil epic Kalingathu Barani, narrating the conquest of Kalinga by the king Kulottunga Chola, has an entire chapter, in every stanza of which, women are asked to open the door to welcome victorious soldiers. One wonders whether the poet Jayamkondaar, actually visited Orissa, saw these sculptures and was inspired to include this concept in his poem.


The interior of the jaganmohana is just as splendid, especially the ceiling, though it is difficult to photograph in the darkness. A series of beams arranged as octagons and rectangles, alternating, leads to a circular lotus design at the very center. Remarkably, this internal pattern is not even remotely discernible from the external pattern on the roof. The central lotus has saptamaatrika sculptures in its various petals. The alternating design creates interesting patterns in the corners, and the sthapathis have run riot with their imagination, richly endowing it with various sculptures of dancers and musicians, as bracket figures. Kartikeya and a dancing Ganesha flank the central square.

interior of ceiling

Other Sculptures

The lintel over the entrance to the sanctum features navagrahaa-s in a row. Above them is a Gajalakshmi panel in the center.

The miniatures sculptures in small square panels, topped by single gavakshaas in triangles, are the standout sculptures of Mukteshvara. Some of these are in excellent condition, others damaged to varying degrees. Lakulisa, unknown munis by themselves or with disciples, yoginis, dancers, musicians, composite sculptures – the variety is breathtaking. Perhaps the most charming are images of Surya, Kartikeya, and Sarasvati. A tricky sculpture, featuring four bodies of women in gymnastic posture, but sharing only two heads, is quite similar to such sculptures in every kind of temple in every region in India, from Ajanta to Tirunelveli.

Some sculptures of Mukteshvara deula

Unlike most Dravidian temples, the dvaarapaalaka-s aren’t huge and threatening. One barely notices them, carrying a bow and arrow or a trishula, as we enter the temple. Voluptuous women embracing tree branches; smiling nagas and naginis bearing garlands; shy women holding half open doors; these are the most memorable aspects of Mukteshvara.

More sculptures


  • Lecture by Shyam Raman, THT, 2016
  • Site Seminar book, Tamil Heritage Trust, Madras
  • The Mukteshvara in Bhubaneshvar, by Walter Smith
  • Photos from my visits.

Related Links

Muktesvara temple (TK Krishnakumar blog)



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