About 180 km south-west of Jaisalmer, where the Thar Desert meets some isolated outcrops of the Aravalli mountain ranges, lie the ruins of the temples of Kiradu. It is believed that there were around 108 temples on this site, but today only 5 temples remain — 4 of those are dedicated to Shiva and 1 temple is believed to have been dedicated to to Vishnu.
I first heard about the temples at Kiradu when I received an invitation from Suryagarh. The itinerary attached with the mail included a visit to these temples. I was intrigued enough to look up for more information on the internet immediately — even before I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, I found little substantive information online. This only made the temples more intriguing and mysterious for me and I couldn’t wait to see them for myself when I visited Suryagarh in July 2016.
And after lunch on my last day at Suryagarh, we set off to see the Kiradu temples. It was a beautiful, but long, drive through the Thar, through dramatic changes in the landscape from desert to hilly.
It was around 6 pm when we arrived at the Kiradu temples, which meant I had an hour or so before sunset and before the light faded. The next hour saw me racing from temple to temple, pumped with adrenaline, trying to take in as much of the details as I could and photographing whatever I thought was interesting or significant.
Once known as Kiratakupa, Kiradu first finds mention in official records in the Archaeological Survey of India Report for 1907-08. Located about 40 km from present-day Barmer city in Rajasthan, Kiradu has remained relatively unknown and underrated due to its very location. Not much is known about who built these temples; however, from the few inscriptions available one can infer that they are about 1,000 years old, and were built between the multiple invasions that Kiradu has faced. From Mahmud of Ghazni in the early parts of the 11th century to annexation of this territory by the Khiljis and later the Tughlaqs of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th and 14th centuries, Kiradu has faced a lot.
One look at the temples and you know that its destruction — at least a major part — has been deliberate. From limbs and breasts cut off to disfigured facial features to empty garbha grihas all point to this. There are very few sculptures that are fully intact. Nature has also played its part in the present condition of the temples. The Kiradu temples are located in a valley surrounded by hills and sand and rain water coming down from the hill slopes have contributed to the damage as well. Seismic activity in the region has also played its part in structurally weakening the temples and bringing many of them down.
Though the 5 temples at Kiradu are quite distinct from each other, they have some common features: (i) they are all built from sandstone (though the colour varies from yellow to a pinkish red), (ii) sculptural reliefs of Gods and their consort Goddesses are placed at principal niches (like this Laxmi Narayana shown in the photograph on the left), and (iii) dikpalas or guardians of the directions, and matrikas feature quite prominently on the temple walls.
Both mythology — Lingodbhava murti, Sagar Manthan, Dashavatar — as well and scenes from daily life — worship, music, dance, combat practice, war, etc. have been depicted on the temple walls There are occasional surprises, too, like a rare Pancha Ganesha and also a panel showing two warriors firing arrows at each other.
Of the four temples dedicated to Shiva, the name of only one is known thanks to an inscription found there. Named after the king who built it— Someshwara — it is also the most intricately carved of all the temples at Kiradu. It has an octagonal mandapa, though the roof is missing now. The other three Shiva temples are smaller, single-roomed structures and appear to have been built at a later date.
Only one temple at Kiradu is attributed to Vishnu. This temple, which is furthest from the entrance to the temples, has almost nothing standing — the shikhara is gone as are the walls of the temple. All that remains are the pillars that would have supported an octagonal mandapa (see the first photo in this post) that probably served as a dancing hall. The lower part of the pillars are carved with high relief sculptures of women — probably apsaras — while the upper portion has smaller figures of Dikpalas, Matrikas and Gods and Goddesses.
When I first saw the temples, I was struck by the similarity of their style to the sun temple at Modhera and the Rudra Mahalaya Temple at Sidhpur in Gujarat. I found out later that I wasn’t far off the mark with regard to the comparison as the Solankis, who built the aforementioned temples in Gujarat, are also supposed to have built these temples at Kiradu. This architectural style is known as the Maru Gurjara style and is common in both North Gujarat as well as in Rajasthan. The multi-turreted spire, reminiscent of the mythical Mount Meru, elaborately carved pillars and the toranas from both these regions are very similar in style.
Given below are a series of 6 photographs, which highlight the distinct architecture of the Kiradu Temples. Click on any of the photographs to start the slide show and follow the arrow keys to see the others.
My visit to and exploration of the Kiradu temples was like none other. I had to put aside my usual approach of a leisurely walk through the site to get an idea of the site and looking closely at the more interesting features, or maybe sketching out the plan or a particularly intriguing portion or panel, and finally photographing the site. As I mentioned earlier, I had one hour to see all the temples and apart from a few details that registered because of my familiarity with the theme, everything was mechanical. See, click a photograph, move to the next. Repeat.
Perhaps for the first time in my travels, and especially a temple visit, I did all the ‘analysis’ at home. Every photograph was zoomed into, and the details pored over and noted. While many sculptures were identified, the identification of many more remained elusive. Like this bearded man on the right. Who is he?
The details that helped me identify certain sculptures, like the Dikpalas, also made me aware of the many that I missed. Of the 8 Dikpalas, I got only 5, maybe 6. Similarly, with the Matrikas too, I realised only later while going through the my photos, that I had missed out on many.
Given below are a set of photographs of the Dikpalas and the Matrikas. Click on any of the photographs to start the slide show and follow the arrow keys to see theothers
I was most fascinated by the regular, non-religious themes, and it was only these at the Kiradu Temples that I photographed consciously. Battle scenes with elephants, horses and chariots; a warrior or sometimes a bird emerging from the mouth of a makara; a row of figures following the curve of a pillar; apsaras on a pillar, each with a different hair style, and much more. Presenting a selection of such depictions:
At around 7 pm and as the light faded, I made my way back to the Someshwara Temple where a puja had been organised. A number of priests had gathered there to conduct it. I was quite distracted when I took my seat. My mind was wandering all over, probably due to the adrenaline that had taken me through 5 temples in one hour at Kiradu.
Once everyone had gathered, the havan or the sacred fire, was lit and the puja began. Initially, I took a few photographs, a video even, but soon the hypnotic chanting of the shlokas and the crackling of the fire calmed me down and I put the camera away. I started to relax and focus and even time travel to centuries ago.
It was easy to imagine a setting like this when there would have been pujas held and people from nearby villages gathering to participate in it, sing the aarti and then partake of the prasad or the bhog that followed.
Maybe on special days there would be dance performances dedicated the lord or for the people. The King (and maybe the royal family) would come with his retinue of ministers and courtiers. Perhaps, visiting kings and special guests too were witness to these occasions as were wandering musicians and dancers who were invited to perform
The Kiradu temples would not have been just a religious site; it would have been a social place for people to get together.. What all would these temples have been witness to — the construction, consecration, the worship, the performances, the destruction, the neglect… I came back to the present only when the aarti began !
After the puja, I had the chance to briefly interact with the President and Vice-President of the INTACH chapter of Barmer, who shared information on the rich history of Barmer — its Buddhist and Jain past, its links with Gandhara, the possible destruction of the temples from flooding due to change in river course, and the colossal neglect that the temples and the Barmer region faced today. They rued that Barmer wasn’t even on the tourist map for anyone and how they were fighting an uphill battle to bring people to the region.
A saatvik bhog had been prepared for us at the temple and over the meal that night, it was not just the delicious food that occupied my thoughts. The temples of Kiradu were topmost on my mind at that time and they continue to occupy my thoughts and words, even after so many months.
It is that kind of a place, and I hope I have been able to convey why the temples of Kiradu are so special.
Note: Special thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Anuradha Shankar for help in the identification of some of the sculptures. Anuradha also visited Kiradu, but in September and her post on the temples will be out soon. This last week or 10 days, we have been furiously DMing photos and discussing the details, often late into the night only to continue with the discussion the next morning. What to do? We are like that only 😀
Disclaimer: I was invited by Suryagah to visit and stay with them and explore the Thar and beyond as part of a blogger group. They organised the trip to Kiradu and I can’t thank them enough. This post is an outcome of that visit; needless to stay, the views and words are all mine.🙂
The Suryagarh Series
2013: The Suryagarh experience | Something new, something old: Jaisalmer revisited | The incredible music of Salim Khan and Sikander Langha
2016: The Suryagarh experience… Revisited | Sifting through the sands of time | The temples of Kiradu | The incredible music of the Thar at Suryagarh |