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Ekamra Kshetra – The Temple City, Bhubaneswar

Date of Submission: 15/04/2014
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N20 15 E85 50
Ref.: 5916

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Bhubaneswar has a unique position among the cities of India. A temple town with series of ancient sandstone temples, heritage ponds and water tanks, its wealth of monuments is testament to an ancient continuous architectural and historical heritage covering over 2,000 years from the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD representing most of the important dynastic changes over the period. Bhubaneswar is dubbed the “Temple City” – a nom-de-plume earned because of the 700 temples which once stood here. It still boasts of a cluster of magnificent temples, constituting virtually a complete record of Kalinga architecture almost from its nascence to its culmination. Ekamra Kshetra[1] comprises the area of the old city of Bhubaneswar that forms the centre of this temple architecture and is considered a Hindu holy city.

As per the Anantavasudeva Inscription of Paramarddi, Ekamra was a sacred area “...adorned with hundreds of mango-groves, wherein exists a single Devakula [temple] surrounded by numerous temples.” As per Ekamra Purana, a 13th-century Sanskrit treatise, it is believed that this sacred kshetra was a Panchakrosa (10 miles) in circumference bordered by Khandagiri hills in the west, Kundalesvara temple in the east, Balhadevi Temple on the north and Bahirangesvara temple near Dhauli on the south, with Lingaraj Temple as its centre. It is also described that there was an inner circle to this Kshetra bound by Meghesvara temple in the east and Sundaresvara temple in the south. Ekamra Kshetra comprised of 45 villages and was divided into asta-ayatana[2] or eight sacred precincts, each with its water body, temples, small shrines, tirthas and prescribed pilgrim/ritual procession routes that are ritualistically and symbolically connected to the Lingaraj Temple.

Although Lingaraj Temple was the centre of Ekamra Kshetra, the old town of Bhubaneswar itself was focused towards the Bindusagar Tank in the near vicinity of Lingaraj Temple. A geomantic approach was adopted in town planning with specific directions vis-à-vis topography, location and orientation of water bodies, landuse zoning et al. The town structure was a not-so-geometric but organic derivative of the Mandala[3] concept. The tanks such as Bindusagar, Devipadahara Tank, Kapilesvara Tank were attached with religious symbolisms and considered holy.

This temple town contains scores of ancient stone temple which vary in size from the gigantic structures like the great Lingaraja, 128 feet high, to the miniatures of a few feet set up in waysides or along the banks of the ancient tanks. The area, in which the ruined or living monuments are scattered, extends over 10 miles and are testimony to Bhubaneswar’s continued occupation throughout the ages.

The property, apart from its spiritual, religious and architectural wealth, has abundance of archaeological evidence, manifest in the extensive ruins of Sisupalgarh, Ashokan rock edicts and evidence of ancient wall at Dhauli hillock.

The next link in the chain of the historical monuments is found at Udayagiri and Khandagiri, the twin hillocks, situated about 6 miles to the north-west of the temple town. These hillocks are honeycombed with rock cut caves originally meant for the Jain ascetics. These caves with their bas-reliefs and Bahmi inscriptions provide us with the early specimens of art and architecture of the place, which can be approximately seen in one of these caves, known as the Hati Gumpha. This unique historical document throws considerable light on the early history of Kalinga and India in the 1st BC and 1st century AD.

Next, in order of antiquity are the numerous temples mostly situated in the present town, of which the earliest ones, the temples of Laxmanesvara, Satrugnesvara and Parsuramesvara, according to the chronology so far established belongs to the 6th century and the latest one, that of Ananta-vasudeva, dates back to 1178 AD. There is thus a gap of about 700 years between the Jain caves of the Khandagiri and Udayagiri and the earliest temple of the place. But recent archeological evidence shows that the limits of the temple building period can be extended on both sides and the gap narrowed; the earliest temple can be back to the 6th century and the latest brought down to the 15th or the 16th century CE.

If, therefore, the narrowed gap can still be reduced or completely bridged with new discoveries, we shall have a continuous history of the development of art and architecture of the place from the 4th or 3rdcentury BC to the 15th or 16th century AD, a period of about 2000 years, which covers almost the whole dated history of Odisha from its very dawn to the last Hindu dynasty.

The Kalingan temple architecture of Bhubaneswar represents the Nagara style temple architecture with regional ramification to be suitably called with the nomenclature Kalingan temple architecture depicting the grace, the joy and the rhythm of life in all its wonders varieties. The temples of Ekamarakshetra have been built by the creative impulse of the builders within evolved canonical texts or Silpa Sastras like Bhubanapradipa, Silpa Prakash and Silpa Ratnakosha etc. Many a terms used in these, if not all, are even now used by the traditional Odia architects.

The temples are mostly built up sand stone, the Khandagiri and Udayagiri hills providing the nearest quarry. The masonry is ashlar with the surface stones finely dressed and fitted together. 

Architecturally, the Odishan temples resolve themselves into three broad orders, known in local terminology as Rekha, Pidha and Khakhara. In a typical Odishan temple the first two go almost side by side and from two component parts of one architectural scheme, the sanctum with the surmounting curvilinear spire, combinedly known as the Deul (also called Badadeul, the big temple or the Rekhadeul, a temple of which the spire gives the optical impression of one continuous line) and the frontal porch, called Jagamohana or Mukha-sala(also known as Bhadradeul, auspicious temple, or Pidhadeul, a temple of which the roof is made up of Pidhas or horizontal platforms), characterized by a pyramidal roof of receding steps. Thus a typical Odishan temple is a combination of two types.

The cell is generally smaller and less spacious than the porch. This is in conformity with the Hindu practices, for the cell is meant for a glimpse of the deity and ritual worship, and the porch for congregation where the visitor may wait, meditate or read. To these were added in the fully developed temples two more structures on the same axis, known as Natyamandira and Bhogamandapa (hall of offering).

This proud sculptural and architectural wealth, coupled with its sanctity as Ekamra Kshetra, one of the five great religious centers in Odisha since early medieval days, attracts thousands of visitors to Bhubaneswar from all corners of the world throughout the year. Even the most casual spectator is thrilled at the sight of the majestic and sublime grandeur of its soaring temples, the perfect symphony between their sculpture and architecture, the superb workmanship of their carvings and the grand repertoire of their sculptural and architectural motifs. To the connoisseur of fine arts, Bhubaneswar is one the most delightful resorts in India.

Total Historic Structures in Ekamra Kshetra - 199

Centrally protected monuments - 23

State protected monuments – 11

[1] Ekamra Kshetra can be loosely translated to mean an ‘area (kshetra) adorned with mango trees (ekamra). As noted in Ekamra Purana, a 13th-century Sanskrit treatise, the presiding state deity of Lingaraj was originally under a mango tree, hence the name Ekamra Kshetra.

[2] Asta-ayatana is a ancient Hindu system of reference such that shrines are located at the four cardinal points and at the four intermediate points of cosmos. The eight sectoral regions that emerge  are guarded by their respective gods.

[3] Mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the Universe. Graphically, it denotes any plan or chart which symbolically represents the cosmos. The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Mandalas often exhibit radial balance.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

It is rare to find such a large number of ancient monuments at one place, such as at Ekamra Kshetra, Bhubaneswar. Dubbed as the “Temple City” – a nom-de-plume earned because of the 700 temples which once stood here, it still boasts of a cluster of magnificent temples, constituting virtually a complete record of Kalinga architecture almost from its nascence to its culmination with the Lingaraj Temple as its culmination that has been described as "one of the finest examples of purely Hindu temple in India" by noted architectural historian of 19th Century CE, James Ferugsson. Coupled with other urban components like water bodies, clear hierarchy of roads, city zoning et al, Ekamra Kshetra is an outstanding example of Hindu city planning based on the application of the Mandala concept, which in itself is a unique system of planning unparalleled in the world.

With a radiant aura, all the monuments including Temples, Mathas, Fort, Caves, Tanks and other antiquarian remains have uncommon aesthetic importance in respect of their style of construction, state of preservation continuing for the posterity.

Ekamra Kshetra is the synthesis of multi–religious systems namely Brahminical, Buddhist and Jain. Even Brahminical faith was proliferated into Saiva, Sakta and Vaisnava affiliations, and exhibits important developments in architecture, building technology, town planning etc.

These temples are still functional and home to numerous intangible living traditions, rituals, festivals and other observances believed to be centuries old. The presence of the old system of Sevayats (Servitors) who are associated with the day to day temple rituals and their existing settlements around the temples is equally significant.

Criteria (i): The presence of such a large number of temples at one location with the culminating architectural marvel of Lingaraj Temple is a sheer case of human creative genius.

Criteria (ii): Ekamra Kshetra exhibits an important interchange of human values throughout ancient and medieval periods at Bhubaneswar that is manifest in the development of Kalinga architecture so much so that the entire range of this style is evident within Ekamra Kshetra.

Criteria (iii): Ekamra Kshetra bears an exceptional testimony to the multi-religious, multi-sectoral holy city and associated traditions that are still living. The design and development of Ekamra Kshetra as a Hindu sacred city based upon the principles of Mandala are still evident.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Since many of the monuments within the property are protected by law either by the national government or by the state government and the focus of these agencies is preservation of sites, it can be safely stated that the site maintains a good measure of Authenticity and Integrity. The entire property area comes under the jurisdiction of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation while the responsibility of the planning and development regulations is vested with the Bhubaneswar Development Corporation, both of which are aware of the significance of Ekamra Kshetra and are willing to work upon an appropriate framework for protection and management of the overall site.

Comparison with other similar properties

While several Hindu temples and complexes are inscribed on the World Heritage List, none of them have been nominated as a complete Hindu city, promulgating the ancient principles in city planning and construction as per Vastu Shastra. Also, while Ekamra Kshetra is a living site with several intangible traditions still in place, most of the sites inscribed are archaeological parks and groups of monuments.

Ekamra Kshetra can be compared to the following World Heritage sites:

1. Angkor Wat, Cambodia: Although a much larger site in comparison, Angkor Wat is an archaeological park with few components of living heritage. Ekamra Kshetra is a living city with a larger historic timeline with continuous traditions and a complete timeline of Kalinga architectural developments.

2. Group of Monuments at Hampi, Karnataka: Inscribed as the capital city of the Vijayanagara rulers established during their brief rule from 14th Century CE – 16th Century CE, Hampi is also a predominantly archaeological site that does depict the town planning principles of a Hindu Kingdom but does not follow the Mandala concept in its town planning. Again the strength of Ekamra Kshetra lies in it being a living heritage site with an almost untouched original city structure.

3. Group of Monumants,Pattadakal, Karnataka and WHS The Great Living Chola temples of South India, Tamil Nadu: Protected archaeological sites with exceptional temple architecture that belong to other eras and have different architectural style and construction. The Kalinga architecture manifest at Ekamra Kshetra is unparalleled.

On a national level, Ekamra Kshetra is comparable to the holy city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. However, Ekamra Kshetra comprising predominantly protected monuments is less prone to management issues and its aspects of Authenticity and Integrity can be easily maintained.