The idea behind this article was not originally mine. It came up during a discussion with someone few months back. Therefore, it would be unethical for me not to state this fact at the outset.
The Baleshwar Temple is situated in Champawat (Uttarakhand).It is dated to late 14th century when the region (the present day Eastern Uttarakhand/Kumaon) was under the rule of Chand dynasty, with Champawat as their capital.
One of the striking architectural features of this ancient temple, built in a style normally associated with the temples from Southern India, is the use of mandaps to connect two Shiva temples. The two other temples of the complex are dedicated to Ratneshwar and Champawati Durga
Once the cynosure of the capital Champawat, and perhaps visible (as it sits on a knoll) from a distance, the temple complex is now surrounded by modern construction. It attracts a large number of devotees on the days considered auspicious for Shiva worship. A fair is organized on Shivaratri, and the people also throng it in the month of Sawan.
Rest of the days, the temple witnesses a trickle of worshipers, including the regular ones as well as the visitors from nearby villages who come to Champawat for various reasons. Arrival of these devotees is keeping the dharmic fire alight as far as maintenance/cleanliness of temples (garbh-griha) and daily puja is concerned.
Exquisite stone work is the first thing a visitor notices upon entering the temple complex. The magic woven on stones by the carvers is visible not only in the exteriors but also on the ceilings of the temples.
Those interested in sculpture are fascinated by the craftsmanship manifested in various forms, including the mystical yoginis, dancing nymphs, and bejeweled beauties. But for the devotees, these earthly and heavenly distractions were a test of their devotion towards Shiva.
The temple is largely in a ruined state at present, and it is merely a good fortune that some excellent artwork has survived. Hopefully the coming generations will also get a chance to marvel the craftsmanship of the people who constructed the Baleshwar Temple.
So, who is responsible for the current ruined state of the Baleshwar Temple?
Neglect on the part of the Chand rulers (when Chand dynasty was on decline)? – may be but unlikely due to the tradition of the region. Also, the interlocking technique used in the temple construction ensured longlife of the structure.
A natural calamity, such as an earthquake? – may be but we will have to search the surviving historical records to check for this remote possibility.
However, there was another factor (responsible for the ruined state) that finds fleeting mention in the context of Eastern Uttrakhand (and its temples) in general and the Baleshwar Temple in particular.
Eastern Uttarakhand faced Islamic (Rohilla) attack twice during the 18th century. While the second attack was successfully repulsed at the gates of hills, the first attempt, due to inadequate military planning by the defenders, allowed Rohillas to march right up to the capital Almora.
Before they left, Rohillas resorted to what an invading Islamic army does – widespread looting and destruction of temples. The Baleshwar Temple of Champawat was among those scarred by the Rohilla attack, and this disfigured Nandi is still there to recount the tale.
The marks of religious barbarism are evident on many figurines currently at display at the temple complex. This set, when intact, would have nudged the faculty of imagination of a devotee, taking her straight to Kailash Parvat where Shiva can be seen seated on his icy throne, along with Parvati. Incidentally, the Shikharas of the Baleshwar Temple are said to be designed in a way to give an appearance of the Mt. Kailash.
Now, these faceless idols only generate a feeling of despair, and force the beholder to imagine the visage that was carved, the minute details that would have made these idols lively, and the imagination (plus the devotion) the master chiseler would have used to recreate the events related to Shiva.
The Baleshwar Temple is dedicated to Shiva therefore many figurines here represent him in various forms, such as the one on the left hand side, showing him as the Apasmara (the demon of ignorance)-crushing Nataraja. Due to defacing (with surgical precision), it can only be conjectured that the figurine on the right represents one of the other popular dance forms associated with Shiva. In the absence of the likes of Amar-Chitra-Katha, the narration through carvings not only helped inquisitive children to know about different aspects/stories related to Shiva (and other gods) but also led to seeding their minds with Dharma. Perhaps, one of the aims of the religious terrorism unleashed by Rohillas was to bereave the coming generations of this source of dharmic knowledge.
These headless idols were not originally inside this small temple; however, they give a fair idea regarding what a daily worshipper would have witnessed upon entering the temple for the first time after the retreat of Rohillas from Champawat. Imagine how an old lady, resuming her daily climb to the temple, would have felt on finding the headless and faceless idols. The same very idols on whose foreheads she was putting vermillion, without a break since years, after settling in Champawat as a young bride. The same very idol whose calm eyes gave her the assurance she looked for during her troubled times in the past.
The attempts of the ASI, to make the complex more presentable to the visitors, have failed to hide the mangled vestiges of the temple’s glorious past. Scattered Amalakas (disc type structure that sits on main Shikahara), other parts of the temple architecture, and a number of idols lined up for display, suggest that there were more structures inside the compound. It is anybody’s guess why these structures disappeared. Islamic invaders did their best (wherever they could) to shatter the belief of Hindus. But the Baleshwar Temple (among many in India) is a testimony to their failed attempt. The old lady described earlier, recovering from initial shock, would have simply cleaned the area around Shivaling, and would have performed Jalabhishek after decorating it with fresh flowers.
!! ॐ मृत्युंजयाय रुद्राय नीलकण्ठाय शम्भवे !..!! अमृतेशाय शर्वाय महादेवाय ते नम:!!
(I pray to Lord Mahadeva who has conquered death, who is the destroyer of the universe, who has a blue neck and who gives happiness to all)
Who can destroy the destroyer and the faith of his devotees on him? Rohillas never understood it.
This Brahmin, performing Puja alone on a cold evening, is a living proof of it. Centuries will pass and some other person would be there at the Baleshwar Temple (irrespective of its state), sitting at the same place, busy in his/her daily Shiva-Stuti, and asking for happiness to all.
Pictures and narration by @_antithesis_1