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Ashapuri in Architectural History

INTACH

In parallel with the project commissioned by the WMF we are investigating how the temples at Ashapuri relate to the broader regional traditions in terms of style, temple composition and iconography, and considering their significance for the history of Indian temple architecture in general. This aspect of the project has been supported by a grant from the INTACH-UK Trust for a study entitled Ashapuri and the Creation of Bhumija Temple Architecture.

Ashapuri is a key site for understanding the architectural history of central India in the medieval period. It is 6 km from the famous, unfinished Shiva temple of Bhojpur (starting point for PRASADA's AHRC-funded The Indian Temple project), attributed to Bhoja (c. 1020-55). The full historical and architectural significance of these two sites can only be understood if they are considered together. When the enormous dam was built at Bhojpur, and construction of the gigantic temple started on the bare rocks alongside, Ashapuri would have been the major urban settlement nearby. Stylistic peculiarities in the Ashapuri remains show that it was from here that the masons must have come to build Bhojpur.

Up to the 11th century, architectural styles in central India show continuity, with gradual transformation, from Gupta period. This is true of the Nagara temples in this region that can loosely (to use a dynastic label) be termed 'Pratihara'. In parallel with similar developments in western India, the unitary Latina form of Nagara temple proliferated into composite (anekandaka) forms from around the turn of the 10th century, eventually developing into the fully-blown Shekhari form, familiar at Khajuraho. Evidence of the transitional stage is rare. It is exciting to discover miniature shikharas in the 'Pratihara' style at Ashapuri, evidence of experiment with anekandaka forms. The site is thus important for understanding this late blossoming of the Nagara tradition of the region ('Tradition A').

The ruins of Ashapuri also hold crucial clues to, and seems to play a key role in, a radical stylistic shift of style that took place in central India in the 11th century, accompanying the appearance of a new temple form or 'mode', the Bhumija.

This new mode emerges around the turn of the 11th century. Unlike other kinds of temple, the Bhumija appears as if it has been invented rather than having evolved gradually. Malwa is its heartland, where the Paramaras made it their preferred temple form. Surviving Bhumija temples in Malwa are not only a new mode, but are in a different style ('Tradition B'), apparent in the character of mouldings and details, from the previously prevailing regional tradition ('Tradition A'). This new style has certain Deccani-Dravida affiliations. Tradition B comprises craft workshops specialising in the Bhumija mode. The remains at Bhojpur, and the line drawings there, represent the flowering of this new Tradition B (regardless of whether or not the main temple was intended to be a Bhumija one).

In this context, the great interest of Ashapuri lies in the fact that it includes temples from both Tradition A and Tradition B, including a phase when the two seem to have coexisted and interacted. This points to an influx of new groups of craftsmen, from or affiliated to the Deccan, who became the Bhumija specialists, or at least put their stamp on the new style. While surviving Bhumija temples elsewhere in Malwa belong to Tradition B, here is evidence of Bhumija temples, perhaps of the late-10th century, that seem transitional in character, with aspects of both traditions. It is possible that Ashapuri was the melting pot from which the Bhumija form emerged, while Bhojpur continued the enterprise on a grandiose scale. Once Tradition B is established at Ashapuri, the site represents the kind of thinking reflected in the Samaranganasutradhara, the canonical architectural text attributed to Bhoja, demonstrating awareness of different forms of temple and different regional traditions, including a notion of Dravida temple architecture, as illustrated by some fascinating 'Dravida' details seen at Ashapuri.