One of the oldest temples of the Konkan coastal stretch is the Ambernath Shiv Temple located at Ambernath about 50 km from Mumbai. Ambernath literally means Lord of the Sky or Space and interestingly, this temple does not have a roof over the sanctum sanctorum! Locals believe that the presiding deity may have been named Amarnath by the Pancha Pandavas but over time, came to called as Ambernath.
Legend has it that the Pancha Pandavas and Draupadi spent a great deal of time here during their exile. As we know, Duryodhana had sent his spies to monitor the movements of the Pancha Pandavas during their exile. It took a great deal of cunning on the part of the Pandavas to finally give the slip and finish the remainder of their exile incognito (agyatvas). There is strong historical evidence to state that the Pandavas traversed the dense forest of Ambernath on their way to the kingdom of Virata.
Ambernath Temple is said to have been built by the Pancha Pandavas in one night. This statement is based on indisputable facts as the architecture and sculptures seen on the facades are extremely rare to say the least and undoubtedly the work of people who belong to the realm of Supreme Consciousness (Chaitanya). Huge stones have been used for its construction that have survived the ravages of the weather and time.
However, the Pancha Pandavas were unable to finish the temple owing to the fear that they may be caught by Duryodhana’s spies in their final year of exile and left the temple without building the shikara over the garbha griha. The Shiva Linga seen inside the sanctum sanctorum is said to be Swayambhu and consecrated by the Pandavas.
This temple and its surrounding area has intrigued archaeologists and historians for centuries. There is a kund close to the temple which has a hot water stream whose origin has not been found. There is a mile long geological cave whose opening has now been closed which leads to the ancient forest of Panchavati. The Waldhuni river that flows nearby swells up during the monsoon and rushes into this complex that is surrounded by tamarind and mango trees.
Locals say that excavations were conducted at Ambernath and though the existence of an ancient civilization is yet to be ascertained, vessels and objects were found which suggested that Ambernath was an important cultural centre in the ancient times (as early as 200 BCE). It is likely that this village was known as Hallyacha Pada previously. Discovery of ancient inscriptions in the complex suggests that the existing structure of black stone and lime was built by Raja Chhittaraja of the Shilahara dynasty and probably renovated by his youngest brother Manvani or Mummuniraja.
Historians and architects opine that there is no temple quite like Ambernath anywhere in the world. The temple architecture is unique with the stone assembly resembling the Hemadpanti style of architecture but the overall construction seemingly like the Vesara style. The shikhara would have been in the Bhumija style had it been completed.
The exterior carvings of the temple though damaged owing to decades of neglect still retains its charm and elegance. Intricately detailed sculptures of Varahi Devi, Durga Devi, Lord Ganesha, Lord Kartikeya, Lord Shiva in myriad postures, Lord Vishnu, Lord Brahma and others as well as large panels of musicians, dancers, apsaras, yakshas, gandharvas, sages, floral and animal motifs and others adorn the walls.
The main shrine is a square and measures 13 feet in length and is 8 feet below the ground. There are nine steps from the mandapa that lead you into open to sky sanctum sanctorum. The walls right up to the open roof are richly decorated.
This west-facing temple is about 60 feet in length and had a Nandi enshrined in the west originally which is no longer there. The temple has a square maha mandapa with three entrances in the south, west and east. Strangely, the temple layout shows two squares that appear to run diagonally touching each other corner to corner but in reality, are two squares whose sides touch each other thereby forming heavy unequal recesses at the corners which is visible externally. The interiors of the mandapa have spellbinding relief work.
There is no part of this temple that is bereft of embellishments. There are many sculptures of Lord Brahma that belong to the ancient times suggesting that worship at this sacred shrine has been in place since the beginning of the Common Era or even earlier.
The plethora of sculptures seen in this temple are outstanding to say the least. It is indeed unfortunate that most of them are barely discernible owing to neglect and possibly desecration at some point in time.
This historical temple site has a lot of spiritual potency which can be felt the moment one steps foot into the complex. One hopes that this temple will be restored to its former glory and be included in the heritage cluster of Mumbai.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)