Unveiling the Secrets of Gujarat's Temples: Beyond Upside-Down Myths

How Gujarat got temples that are upside-down or topped with mountain peaks

Such stepwells have been built in the Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, even Delhi, regions for over 2,000 years.

Internet alien hunters have concluded that in Gujarat there is an underground upside-down temple, despite the fact that the ‘upside-down’ temple has upright images of Vishnu and his avatars.

‘Sober’ students of architecture know that they are simply referring to the Queen’s stepwell in Patan, Gujarat, built a thousand years ago. Such stepwells have been built in the Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, even Delhi, regions for over 2,000 years.

It allowed people to get to water, deep underground, and enjoy the pleasure one gets in a river’s bathing ghat. The artwork was meant to entice the underground water to rise up towards the surface, with a little help of the gods.

People believed that this underground river in a relatively dry region was actually the invisible river Saraswati. Like Ganga, this river also came from the realm of the gods.

As per the regional Saraswati Purana and the Skanda Purana written about 800 years ago, the devas had asked Rishi Dadichi for his bones, which they could use as weapons.

Angry that the devas had killed his father, Dadichi’s son known as Pipallada, had created a fire to destroy the heavens, but when the devas explained why Dadichi had died, the son decided that the fire Vadawa, instead of destroying the heavens, would be placed at the bottom of the sea.

The task of taking the fire from the heavens to the bottom of the sea was given to the river Saraswati who carried it down to the coast and in the process disappeared, which is why the Saraswati river is not seen.

Lakshmi in the ports of Bhrigukachchha

The Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat is called Lata, or “Bhrigukachchha”, which means the high coast. Here there are rivers that flow into the sea from a height, which means there are no deltas.

But for many people this region is called the Bhrigukachchha after Rishi Bhrigu. Rishi Bhrigu’s daughter is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The name may allude to the fact that this region is associated with rich seaports that brought in great wealth from West-Asian sea trade.

Bhrigukachchha is mentioned repeatedly in Buddhist literature as a place of great prosperity, as merchants there took care of Buddhist monks. In fact, the coasts of Gujarat are full of caves that were once monasteries of Buddhist monks. Chinese travellers speak of Buddhist establishments here. They have existed since the time of Ashoka.

The Girnar inscription in Junagadh has inscriptions by the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, the Scyhtian Rudradaman (the first king to make a royal proclamation in Sanskrit) and the Hindu emperor, Skandagupta, from 300BCE to 300CE.

Seaports of Gujarat were linked via highways to Delhi, and this was a major source of toll-tax and wealth for kings of the Maru-Gurjara regions.

About 1,500 years ago, the 5th century, the Matrika dynasty favoured both Buddhism and Jainism. There was a huge Buddhist monastery in the Vallabhi region. It is here in Vallabhi that the Shwetambar Jains finally codified their scriptures 1,500 years ago.

About 1,200 years ago, in the eighth century, the Jain monks had a close relationship with the Chavda kings who established Anhilwad or the city of Patan at a site where a hare fought back hunting dogs (a recurring motif in medieval Hindu lore to show a place where dharma is established and jungle law is overturned).

It was said that the Chavda kings would travel every Monday to pray to Somnath. Impressed by this devotion to Shiva, the god himself travelled northwards to meet the king midway.

Rivalry with Jains and Malwa

After the Islamic conquest of the West Asia, much of Sindh came under the rule of the Arabs. The Gurjara-Pratihara kings did not have good relations with the Arabs but the Rashtrakuta kings of the Deccan had very good relations. Gujarat continued as a thriving trading centre, connecting Delhi and Ujjain to the coasts, where ships plied between West Asia and India’s western coast.

Jain lore is full of tales of sea merchants like Jagdu seth, Somchand, Savachand and Sripal, who used their fortune to build Jain temples atop the mountains of Gujarat. Gujarati language is full of Persian and Arabic words, revealing this was the land of traders.

A thousand years ago, the Gujarat zone was ruled by Solanki kings who descended from the Chalukyas of the South. Kumarpala Solanki patronised the Jains. The Jain monk Hemachandra wrote many Jain works and even composed the earliest work of Prakrit grammar in the 12th century that shaped early local literature.

As per Jain lore, Hemachandra’s literary works helped the Solanki kings compete with Bhoja of Malwa. Hemachandra’s works were paraded on elephant processions and this was the time the Jain community came into prominence in Gujarat.

This is the time the Modhera temple in Ujjain came up near the Tropic of Cancer in Gujarat. This rivalry between Malwa and the Gujarat regions, the land of Mahakal and the land of Somnath, led to intellectual outpourings and the rise of many works on astronomy.

Besides Bihar, the place where Jainism originated, major pilgrim spots of Jainism are located only in Gujarat – atop the mountains of Girnar and Shatrunjaya, in Saurashtra. Girnar is associated with the nirvana of Neminath, the 22nd tirthankar, while Shatrunjaya is linked to the nirvana of the Pandavas.

Rivalry between Gujarati and Jain traders and accountants manifested in storytelling. In Jain lore, Neminath was the mightier cousin of Krishna and all of Krishna’s family became Jains.

In Hindu lore, the coasts of Gujarat are where Krishna found refuge after being driven out of Mathura by the king of Magadha. On the coasts of Gujarat, near Somnath, is Krishna’s city of Dwarka and the place where he died and the Yadu clan met its end – Prabhas Patan.

As per local lore, Krishna’s grandson, Vajranabh, built Krishna temples in Dwarka and other cities along the Gujarat coast, while Krishna’s son, Samba, built the temples dedicated to the sun.

Much of Gujarat’s bhakti tradition can be traced to the poet Narsi Mehta who lived near Junagadh in the 15th century. His stories speak of his poverty, and his familiarity with the banking instrument known as hundi (or promissory note) a reminder of Gujarat’s close association with trade.

Roofs like mountain peaks

Gujarat is the land where the Parsis, escaping Islamic persecution in Iran, got shelter about 1,200 years ago in the city of Sanjan. For a long time, in Gujarat, the Muslims were either traders at seaports or raiders of temples such as Somnath. But this changed from 500 years ago, when the Gujarat Sultanate came to be established.

The most famous ruler was Mehmud Begara, so called because he conquered the great forts of Junagadh and Pavagadh and established his rule. He broke Krishna’s temple in Dwarka. Eventually the Gujarat Sultanate came under Mughal rule and the port of Surat became a source of legendary wealth.

Under Islamic rule, temples were broken and a term which is very unique to the Gujarat region emerged – shikhara bandhi temple. Shikhara is a temple roof shaped like a mountain peak.

Muslims forbade the building of these temples, which could be seen from the sea, and so identified the coast, like lighthouses. They wanted the coastline to be dominated by Islamic domes and minarets. So Jains stopped building temples and instead focused on creating fabulous Jain manuscripts.

Hindus housed their deities in houses without such roofs – thus began the tradition of havelis, where Krishna lives in a house, and the residents of the house – followers of Pushti Marga – see themselves as tenants.

This rebuilding activity of temples, or shikhara, resumed as the Jain monks gained the trust of the local Muslim kings as well as under the auspices of Swami Sahajanand of the Swaminarayan community in the 19th century.

While everybody talks of Hindu reformation that took place in Calcutta under Raja Ram Mohan Roy, we forget that another reform movement took place in Gujarat by the Swaminarayan community at the same time.

Led by a community of monks, Swaminarayan Sampraday is anchored in Advaita and vegetarianism. They promoted women’s education and upliftment, earning the respect of the elite. The community maintained good relations with Khoja Muslims and the British.

In fact, the first Swaminarayan shikhar bandhi temple was built in 1822 on land given by the British. They continue to build temples, in India and abroad. It shows the influence of Maru-Gurjara style of architecture with its multiple storeys and torans. The garden around the newer temples have fountains, similar to Mughal charbagh, and is something never seen before in Hindu temples.

The power and influence of this community can be seen in the architecture of the newly commissioned Ram mandir of Ayodhya.




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