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Hindu Temple Architecture In Assam

The Hindu temples of Assam do not fully illustrate the architecture of the state but they provide a clue to it. On the basis of available material, the state’s architecture can be traced to the Gupta period, i.e., the Varman dynasty of Kamarupa (from the 4th to the 7th century CE). Not a single temple belonging to the pre-Ahom-Koch period, i.e., the 13th Century CE stands today. Wherever a temple existed in that period, we see only heaps of ruins over which the Ahom-Koch temples were constructed. The heaps of ruins are full of various broken parts of the stone temples. The scattered pieces of the temples can be assigned to a period ranging from the Gupta period to the 13th century CE. Quite a few surviving temples can, however, be seen standing all over the state even today, and are datable to the late medieval period, i.e., the 16th to 17th centuries CE.

More than one reason is ascribed for the loss of the temples belonging to the pre-Ahom period. First, there must have been some large-scale earthquakes; it is possible that, in the great earthquake of 1896., several monuments were reduced to rubble. Secondly, the damp climate of Assam helped in the growth of vegetation over the monuments, which hastened the decay of the monuments. There are quite a few inscriptions that refer to the erection of temples in pre-Ahom Assam. The first reference occurs in the Nilachal inscription of Surendra Varman (Mahendra Varman), datable to the 5th century CE. It refers to the existence of a cave temple on Kamakhya hill, also called Nilachal hill.

Strangely, there is no sign of any cave temple at the site of the Nilachal inscription, but only the trace of a disturbed natural cave can be found. It is possible that the natural cave was modified for use as a temple on the lines of the Udayagiri cave temple.

The existing temple ruins do not show that Assam had developed an independent architectural style in its early history. But we have evidence to show that the architectural style in Assam was very much influenced by that of the Guptas. At Datparvatia, near Tezpur, the ruined temple gives us a clear picture of the plan, which has a striking similarity with the Gupta temples found in Central India. With the beautiful sculptured figures of Ganga and Yamuna, bearing the characteristic features of the Gupta period, the dvara of the ruined temple at Datparvatia is a priceless work of art. However, this masterpiece was in all probability an import from the Ganga-Yamuna valley.

In Assam, i.e., Kamarupa, three dynasties flourished in the pre-Ahom period. These were the Vraman, Salastambha and Pala dynasties. Some Varman rulers were contemporaries of the Gupta kings. When the Gupta dynasty, due to the inner conflicts amongst the kings, started declining, the art activities also had to face obstacles. Kamarupa, the bordering kingdom of the Gupta empire under the Varman rulers, however, continued the Gupta art style. Some influence of Gupta architecture can be seen in the work of the days of the Salastambha rulers. For instance, the Majgaon temple dvara (Gharpora Cuburi), Tezpur, depicts the figures of Ganga and Yamuna, the river goddesses so popular in Gupta art and architecture. However, the plinth of the Datparvatia ruined temple, which consists of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) and mandapa (hall), is simple and depicts the Gupta architectural style clearly.

From, almost the beginning of the Varman dynasty, from the 5th century CE to the end of the Salastambha dynasty, i.e. the 10th century CE, there were architectural activities in and around Tezpur. The temples in ruin at Bamuni-Pahar and Majbon and the architectural components preserved in the Cole Park, Tezpur, bear testimony to this.

As in many cases, the plinth area is not traceable; it is necessary to depend on the style of architectural components to determine their age. The depiction of the miniature shikhara (spiral) depicted in some dvaras (gates) of broken temples also helps.

The post-Gupta architectural developments in Assam are more akin to those of Central India than of Odisha. The shikhara of this period was dome-shaped like that of Khajuraho and not of Odisha, which is pyramidal in shape. Sometimes, it appears the shikharas of the temples of Assam bear similarity to those of eastern Odisha, Bengal or even northern India, in addition to those of Central India. But certainly, they have no relation to the South Indian or Deccan-style Shikharas.

The use of the raised platform for the erection of a temple complex was not popular, but there are some examples such as the main ruined temple at Bamuni Pahar. A majority of the temples of this period have the garbhagriha at a level lower than the mandapas, with a flight of steps to climb down and reach the garbagriha. Instances of such garbarihas of temples outside Assam are a very few.

As in other parts of the country, in Assam, too, the use of bricks and stones for temple construction was known. The temples of the pre-Ahom period certainly bear resemblance to the Indo-Aryan style. R D Baneji has noticed the influence of western Chalukyan style and even Javanese influence on the architectural style of Assam, but basically, it is a product of Indo-Aryan architecture.

The architectural activities of the Ahoms can be divided into two phases. Nothing remains of the first phase now, though literary references to its existence are available. The Garakhia temple at Nazira town near Sibsagar, built by Pratap Singha (1603-41 CE), is the only extant temple of this phase. This monument, representing the early phase, bears Islamic traits.

The second phase of temple architecture began with the enthronement of Gadadhar Singha in 1681 CE. Gadadhar Singha, by erecting Hindu temples, showed his inclination towards Hinduism – his example was followed by his successors till the end of the Ahom rule. He did, however, maintain a link with the Tai religion and faith. After him, Rudra Singha followed the tradition of building Hindu temples and during his time, temple architecture reached its standardization and his followers adopted the Nilachala type in the construction of Jai Dol.

The temple architecture of Ahoms reached its zenith during the period of Shiva Singha. The Shiva temple at Sibsagar is the tallest (40 meters high) among the existing historical monuments in Assam. In Guwahati and north Guwahati, almost all the temples were constructed over the ruins of the temples built in the pre-Ahom days. The Baneshwar temple in Guwahati and the Chadrashekhar temple at Umananda in north Guwahati, which reflect the declining phase of architecture were built by Chandra Kanta Singha (1811-18 CE), the last Ahom ruler of Assam.

The temples of the Ahom period, like those of the pre-Ahom period have a garbhagriha, a vimana, a shikhara, and a mandapa, constructed according to the Indo-Aryan style, except in the case of Fakuwa dol of the period of Rudra Singha.

The Kochas, who were powerful enough and who once conquered even Gargao, the capital of the Ahoms, held sway in the lower part of Assam and north Bengal. The Kamakhya temple on Nilachal hill was built by Naranarayana in 1565 CE. In fact, the temple was constructed over the ruins of the older pre-Ahom temple with Koch expertise. Meghahumdum, the architect of the temple, developed a new architectural style. This style is known as ‘Nilachala type’. Kamakhya is the earliest dated monument in its complete form in Assam. The second important temple was constructed at Hajo in 1583 CE. Like the Kamakhya temple it is also a renovated temple, but dedicated to Bhagavan Vishnu. It is smaller in size.

The Cutias ruled in the Shadiya region in the north-east corner of Assam on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. This tribe erected the Tamreshwari temple at Sadiya in the Dibrugarh district. This temple, popularly known as Shakta Goddess Kesakhati, was destroyed during the great earthquake and the Brahmaputra eroded the site completely, and so there is no trace of this monument. However, we get a clear picture from the report of Colonel Hanny and Dalton, who visited th site in the middle of the 19th century CE. Bloch also reported it, along with a photograph of the ruined temple. This simple stone temple must have lost its shikhara in some earthquake and later copper sheets were placed ton it. It was therefore, called Tamreshwari (Tamra – copper). Near Dhakuakha, in the village of Bhagarchuk, was noticed a temple which CD Tripathi assigned to the Cutia period.

The Kacharas, known also as Dimasa Kacharis, had their first capital at Dimapur, their second capital at Maibong, and their third and last capital at Khasput, in the Barak valley. The second capital of the Kacharis (6th century CE), on the bank of the river Mahur, shows a monolithic hut or rock-cut temple of the days of Harisha Chandra Narayan (1721 CE). The monument resembles a typical Bengal structure. This is the sole example of monolithic structure in Assam.

The Khaspur monuments include a two-gate house and two-storied Boro Duwari, which are secular monuments, and three temples dedicated to Shiva, Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Kali (Ramachandi). All these monuments bear the traits of a Bengal-type cottage. The temple of Shivatila, near Sonai, also bears a Bengal-type roof.

Thus, the architectural activities in the pre-Ahom period were carried out in accordance with the Indo-Aryan formula with slight variations here and there.