Annapurna icons in a drought-prone UP region temple

The Jarai Math temple, located in Baruasagar town in the Jhansi district of Uttar Pradesh, is a Gurjara-Pratihara period temple of the 9th–10th century CE.

Published: 11th February 2022 02:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th February 2022 02:26 AM   |  A+A-

Annapurna icons on the door jambs of the Jarai Math temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region (L) and Images of Goddess Annapurna at the terminals.

Annapurna icons on the door jambs of the Jarai Math temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region (L) and Images of Goddess Annapurna at the terminals.

The Jarai Math temple, located in Baruasagar town in the Jhansi district of Uttar Pradesh, is a Gurjara-Pratihara period temple of the 9th–10th century CE. The temple has some unique features, including the presence of many Annapurna images, and the fusion of Hindu and Jain iconographies. We will delve into them after a description of the temple architecture and icons.

The Jarai Math follows the panchayatana (quincunx) pattern. The central temple consists of a garbhagriha (sanctum), an antarala (vestibule) and a mukha-mandapa (portico); the last has not survived. Among its four subsidiary shrines, only two have survived. The subsidiary shrines and a part of the shikhara (tower) of the central temple were rebuilt during the Bundela period (17th century CE) in the Mughal style with pyramidal roofs.

The cult image inside the garbhagriha is mutilated, however the temple was dedicated to a Goddess. This is evident from the images of various Goddesses carved all around and an image of a 16-armed Goddess on the lalata-bimba (crest-figure). It is suggested that the temple was dedicated to Goddess Jara, thus the name Jarai Math. Jara is mentioned in the Mahabharata in connection with the birth of Jarasandha. It is told that she was a demon and a grihadevi worshipped by the households by painting her images over the walls. People who did not worship her were to face destruction and other hardships in their life. It is generally believed that the demon Jara got deified and attained the status of a Goddess in due time. Reminiscences of the same may be observed in the Jara-Jivantika cult prevalent in Maharashtra.

The grandiose sapta-shakha (seven bands) doorway of the garbhagriha is exquisitely carved with various figures and icons across its seven tiers of lintels. The uppermost tier has dancers placed within narrow niches. The tier below has Ashta-dikpalas (eight directional guardians), four on either side, and a lotus pedestal in the centre. Two figures of Varahi, each holding a child and seated opposite to one another, are placed over the lotus pedestal. The tier below has Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and two interesting Annapurna icons at the terminals. On the left terminal are shown two females standing facing each other. The woman on the left is holding a spoon in a posture of giving alms while the one on the right is holding a bowl to receive alms. Generally, in the iconography of Annapurna, it is Shiva who is shown receiving alms from Parvati. The female figure receiving alms in this sculpture may be a shakti of Shiva, probably Bhairavi. Bhairava is closely associated with Shiva-Bhikshatana iconography, which Annapurna is also a part of. The sculpture on the right terminal has Parvati and Shiva in their usual positions and posture. It has an interesting feature: A bird is sitting over the spoon held by Parvati, and another bird is in the bowl held by Shiva. It suggests that the bird is part of alms in this case. 

The fourth tier from the top has six Goddesses: Lakshmi, Ambika, a mutilated figure of a four-armed Goddess, Saraswati, Chakreshvari and another disfigured four-armed Devi. Ambika is holding a child and sitting under a mango tree. Chakreshvari is seated over a lotus pedestal holding four chakras (discus). Ambika and Chakreshvari are Jain Goddesses, and their presence suggests an amalgamation of Jain and Hindu iconographies. The reason behind this may be that the sponsors of the temple were of divergent faiths and included their respective icons in the overall scheme of this doorway. The tier below has Navagrahas (nine planets) on the left and Saptamatrikas with Vinadhara-Virabhadra and Ganesh on the right. In the centre lalata-bimba is a mutilated figure of a 16-armed Goddess.

Sculptural panels of the door-bands are dominated by the Annapurana icon, carved seven times, four on the left jamb and three on the right side. These seven panels display a variety of differences. While the main theme remains constant, Shiva receiving alms from Parvati, in some panels he is shown without clothes and in some with clothes of varying degrees. In a few panels, Shiva is accompanied by a dog, suggesting his Bhairava aspect.

The presence of the multiple Annapurna icons over the temple gives food for more thought. The legend goes that once Parvati got angry over Shiva leaving the whole world devoid of food and grains. However, Parvati was not able to bear the grief watching her subjects crying and begging for food. She became Annapurna and opened a kitchen in Varanasi to distribute food. The world was restored to its previous state once Shiva came to that kitchen begging for food and received alms from Parvati.

Baruasagar is a part of the Bundelkhand region and droughts, reduced/delayed rainfalls and famines are not new to this area. As per a report, Bundelkhand experienced a major drought every 16 years during the 18th and 19th centuries CE. The situation may not have been very different during the 9th–10th century CE when this temple was constructed. The temples were the social institutions of that period and the sculptures over them were a device to propagate a desired message to the masses. These multiple Annapurna sculptures were part of that device to propagate the message of food distribution during troubled times.

Saurabh Saxena

Founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites

(Puratattva.India@gmail.com)



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