Temples of Ashapuri
The World Monuments Fund (WMF) has signed a contract with the University for PRASADA to carry out feasibility studies for the recovery, conservation and presentation of some twenty-six ruined medieval temples at Ashapuri.
This work is part of the Madhya Pradesh Monuments Project, a partnership between the WMF and the Government of Madhya Pradesh. PRASADA is also carrying out a parallel study, funded by the INTACH-UK Chapter (formerly INTACH-UK Trust), of the significance of Ashpuri in the architectural history of central India.
The temple remains at Ashapuri, under the protection of the Directorate of Archaeology, Archives and Museums, Government of Madhya Pradesh, testify to a flourishing city during the Pratihara and Paramara periods, and an important cult centre with continuous activity in temple construction from at least the 9th to 12th centuries. A decade ago only a small group of ruined medieval temples was apparent, and a small museum exhibiting sculpture and architectural fragments, of startlingly fine quality for such a little-known site. Since then, many more temples have been located and excavated, the majority on a hill outside the village and overlooking a tank. The cause of their destruction is still uncertain.
As a result of recent excavations, hundreds of architectural and sculptural fragments have been laid out across the site, while many still lie in heaps.
There are numerous ruined temples in central India, but there is probably no site where the remains so many fine and varied temples lie scattered. Not one of these temples survives intact. Only a couple have some pillars and beams still erect. Ashapuri therefore represents a rare challenge as to how to protect, and how to give due value and meaning, to the vestiges of an important centre of medieval Indian temple art.
Adam Hardy has taken an interest in Ashapuri since his first visit in 2000 with Meera Dass (PhD, PRASADA 2001), then INTACH convenor for Bhopal circle. He returned in 2007 when Dr O.P. Mishra of the Madhya Pradesh Directorate of Archaeology showed him the recently discovered heaps of extraordinary temple remains on a hill near the village.
In 2012 the Welsh School of Architecture signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal, under its Director Prof. Ajay Khare (PhD, PRASADA 2004), and chose Ashapuri as the focus for their first research collaboration. A Nehru Trust fellowship enabled Dr Vishakha Kawathekar from SPA to visit Cardiff in the summer of 2012 and this helped the planning of future projects.
In May 2012 Adam received a grant from INTACH-UK Chapter (formerly INTACH-UK Trust) for an initial study of the site, focusing principally on the significance of Ashapuri for the architectural history of central India. This has been a very useful complement to the conservation project subsequently commissioned by World Monuments Fund.
In 2011 the Government of Madhya Pradesh formed an agreement with World Monuments Fund (WMF) to develop and implement conservation plans for 43 sites of architectural and archaeological importance in the state, and designated Ashapuri and Orchha as two priority sites. This was announced in a press release (PDF) in April 2012. WMF set up its Madhya Pradesh Cultural Heritage Project and Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI) were appointed as Project Coordination Team.
In April 2013 WMF signed a contract with Cardiff University for Research, Documentation and Preparation of Feasibility Reports (Phase 1) for Group of Temples and other Monuments, Ashapuri, Dist. Raisen, Madhya Pradesh, India. This the first of three planned stages, and is concentrating on three of the earlier (Pratihara period) temples.
The objectives of PRASADA's contract with WMF include:
- survey and mapping of the site and surrounding areas, identifying sites of archaeological significance
- detailed drawings of surviving portions of the temples
- piece by piece photographic documentation with key measurements
- typological (element by element) photographic documentation for the whole site, with basic measurements, to build up overview and allow identification of stray pieces
- monitoring salvage archaeology operations carried out by MP Department of Archaeology
- detailed drawings showing theoretical reconstruction of the temples, with explanatory analysis and alternatives where original design is uncertain
- an electronic database
- feasibility study/report, including options for arrangement, display, reconstruction (partial or full) of the temples in question, and an initial strategy for display and interpretation of the site as a whole and for infrastructural development.
Ashapuri in architectural history
In parallel with the project commissioned by the WMF we are investigating how the temples at Ashapuri relate to the broader regional traditions in terms of style, temple composition and iconography, and considering their significance for the history of Indian temple architecture in general. This aspect of the project has been supported by a grant from INTACH-UK Chapter (formerly INTACH-UK Trust) for a study entitled Ashapuri and the Creation of Bhumija Temple Architecture.
Ashapuri is a key site for understanding the architectural history of central India in the medieval period. It is 6km from the famous, unfinished Shiva temple of Bhojpur (starting point for our AHRC-funded The Indian Temple project), attributed to Bhoja (c. 1020-55). The full historical and architectural significance of these two sites can only be understood if they are considered together. When the enormous dam was built at Bhojpur, and construction of the gigantic temple started on the bare rocks alongside, Ashapuri would have been the major urban settlement nearby. Stylistic peculiarities in the Ashapuri remains show that it was from here that the masons must have come to build Bhojpur.
Up to the 11th century, architectural styles in central India show continuity, with gradual transformation from the Gupta period. This is true of the Nagara temples in this region that can loosely (to use a dynastic label) be termed 'Pratihara'. In parallel with similar developments in western India, the unitary Latina form of Nagara temple proliferated into composite (anekandaka) forms from around the turn of the 10th century, eventually developing into the fully-blown Shekhari form, familiar at Khajuraho. Evidence of the transitional stage is rare. It is exciting to discover miniature shikharas in the 'Pratihara' style at Ashapuri, evidence of experiment with anekandaka forms. The site is thus important for understanding this late blossoming of the Nagara tradition of the region ('Tradition A').
The ruins of Ashapuri also hold crucial clues to, and seems to play a key role in, a radical stylistic shift of style that took place in central India in the 11th century, accompanying the appearance of a new temple form or 'mode', the Bhumija.
This new mode emerges around the turn of the 11th century. Unlike other kinds of temple, the Bhumija appears as if it has been invented rather than having evolved gradually. Malwa is its heartland, where the Paramaras made it their preferred temple form. Surviving Bhumija temples in Malwa are not only a new mode, but are in a different style ('Tradition B'), apparent in the character of mouldings and details, from the previously prevailing regional tradition ('Tradition A'). This new style has certain Deccani-Dravida affiliations. Tradition B comprises craft workshops specialising in the Bhumija mode. The remains at Bhojpur, and the line drawings there, represent the flowering of this new Tradition B (regardless of whether or not the main temple was intended to be a Bhumija one).
In this context, the great interest of Ashapuri lies in the fact that it includes temples from both Tradition A and Tradition B, including a phase when the two seem to have coexisted and interacted. This points to an influx of new groups of craftsmen, from or affiliated to the Deccan, who became the Bhumija specialists, or at least put their stamp on the new style. While surviving Bhumija temples elsewhere in Malwa belong to Tradition B, here is evidence of Bhumija temples, perhaps of the late-10th century, that seem transitional in character, with aspects of both traditions.
It is possible that Ashapuri was the melting pot from which the Bhumija form emerged, while Bhojpur continued the enterprise on a grandiose scale. Once Tradition B is established at Ashapuri, the site represents the kind of thinking reflected in the Samaranganasutradhara, the canonical architectural text attributed to Bhoja, demonstrating awareness of different forms of temple and different regional traditions, including a notion of Dravida temple architecture, as illustrated by some fascinating 'Dravida' details seen at Ashapuri.
Methods and first fesults: Temple 5 rediscovered
The first temple that we have studied is Temple 5. A moulded platform (pitha) has survived, and most of the fragments have been laid out together, though until sorting is complete there will inevitably be material from other temples mixed in. Enough remains of Temple 5 to work out the design of the mulaprasada. The proportion of surviving carved pieces may be less than 20% of the original.
Further work is underway to determine the feasibility of different degrees of reconstruction and the options for meaningful display of the material.
Temple 5, though intimate in scale, is the most lavish of the Pratihara temples at Ashapuri. Its carving retains much of the freshness and sensuality of the three-centuries old mainstream central Indian Nagara tradition that created it, while arriving at an unprecedented degree of proliferation in its pancharatha (five projection) plan. We would place it towards the end of the 9th century or the beginning of the 10th.
Temple 5 has a miniature shikhara crowning the bhadra to create a lesser temple form emerging at the centre of the whole. This is a beautiful precursor of the anekandaka (multi-spired) concept. Nothing quite like Temple 5 is known, and it occupies a distinct moment in the blossoming of the tradition.
In April 2014 we completed the feasibility report for Temple 17, probably the earliest of the group, datable to the early-ninth century. A high proportion of the original material is available, so this will be a prime candidate for reassembly.
School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal
- Ramesh Bhole and Shweta Vardia (conservation architects)
- Kshama Puntambekar (planner, database creator)
- Apoorv Srivastava (engineer).
- Shri M.M. Kannade (ex-officio Superitending Archaeologist and engineer)
- Shri C.V. Kand (structural and geotechnical expert)
- Shri Narayan Vyas (archaeologist)
- Dr O. P. Mishra (archaeologist).