Located at the bank of the sacred Wainganga River in Markanda village in Gadchiroli district, the ancient temple complex of Markandeshwar is popularly called as the ‘Khajuraho of Vidarbha’. Titled by historians and architects as the ‘Most Picturesque Temple Complex’, the iconic Markanda Mahadev Temple is steeped in spirituality, heritage and culture.
This temple complex built in the Hemadpanthi style of architecture between the 8th – 12th century originally had twenty-four structures though only six are open to the public now. Archaeological finds at both Chamorshi and Markanda suggest this place was a prosperous trade centre in the ancient times. Markanda derives its name from Markandeya Maharshi who is said to have come to this sacrosanct place to seek the blessings of Lord Mahadev.
Legend has it that when Markandeya Maharshi was told of his birth and his imminent death at age 16, he immediately set off to Wainganga River with the blessings of his pious parents. It is in this location, that young Markandeya performed exemplary tapaha (penance and austerities) to seek the boon of immortality from Lord Shiva. Yama Dharmaraja came at the appointed hour to drag Markandeya to his abode and tied the noose around his neck. Markandeya immersed in deep meditation with every atom in his body resonating the name of Lord Shiva surrendered at the Lotus Feet of his beloved Lord. Lord Shiva manifested from the Shiva Linga and dissuaded Yama Dharmaraja from taking his devotee. Lord Shiva pleased with Markandeya’s devotion blessed him with eternal glory and life. The rich purple hued Linga placed in the sanctum sanctorum overlooking the river is said to have been worshipped by Markandeya Maharshi.
Locals also say that Hemadri Pandit or Hemadapanta, the famous Sanskrit scholar and trusted minister of the Yadavas of Devagiri had darshan of Chiranjeevi Vibhishana who was troubled by illness at this place. Moved by the plight of Vibhishana, Hemadri cured him and was offered a boon for his services. Hemadapanta asked for the aid of the rakshasas to build temples. Vibhishana agreed on the condition that they were to work only for one night at a time. It is said that this how Hemadapanta successfully built splendid temples at Markanda, Bhandak, Neri and other places.
The Nagara style of architecture seen in this temple complex is similar to the temples built by the Chandelas in Khajuraho and other places. No inscriptions have been found in the temple complex to mark the exact date of construction. The largest and most elaborately sculpted temple of the group is dedicated to Markandeya Maharshi and Lord Shiva. Unfortunately, this temple was struck down by lightning about 250 years ago and the upper part of the shikhara fell on the roof of the mahamandapa. Another smaller temple in this complex was completely destroyed. The Gonds later repaired the temple adding massive piers and arches to support the structure.
The group of twenty-four temples are enclosed in a quadrangle (around 60 metres by 36 metres) with three entrances on the river side, front and sides. All the temple facades are richly decorated with scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharat, Puranas, Dasha Avatar, erotica, dancers, animal figures, musicians, Gods and Goddesses, sages and lions and elephants breaking the continuity of bands of human figures. Predominantly, the panels have Lord Shiva and Parvathi Devi in their myriad sublime forms. Experts say that there are about 409 sculptures in all whose beauty is unparalleled.
Four ornamented pillars support the roof of the mahamandapa of the main temple and a lofty shikhara rises above the sanctum sanctorum. There is a marble statue of Sant Gadge Maharaj, a revered saint of Vidarbha in the main temple. The temple dedicated to the Dasha Avatars of Lord Vishnu is noteworthy. There is an open aisle which is divided into twelve parts by pilasters along the western wall of the enclosure.
People come from across Maharashtra to perform the funeral rites on the bank of the divine Wainganga River.
The grace, charm and loveliness of the carved surfaces and the matchless architectural ingenuity is indeed captivating. Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has now stepped in to restore this temple complex to its former glory and hopefully this architectural marvel will soon be given its rightful position in the global map as a World Heritage Centre.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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