Archive for March, 2015

State and culture in Kosala during medieval period: a study of oral narratives on Patnagarh and Marjarakesari in Narasinghanath

Narasinghanath has constantly drawn the attention and consideration of scholars belonging to diverse disciplines such as sociology, history, archaeology, art, and culture since a very long time. The ground is that, it continues to offer novel information partly because various pieces of facts exposed in this field compel us to rethink and reorganise and partly because the ever-growing intricacy in the political landscape of West Odisha which encourages additional examination to reconfigure certain images and symbols for the purpose of socio-historical reconstruction and rebuilding of this place. The present paper is an endeavour to understand and appreciate the mode and reasons of assimilation of a local deity called Narasinghanath (Little Tradition) in the religious cult Hindu society and culture (Great Tradition) in the modern West Odisha i.e. erstwhile Chauhan Rajya (state or kingdom).

In the present context, we have relied largely on the material and substance from the oral tradition accessible in the local areas, which sustains this process of assimilation. Generally, historians have shown slight regard for the oral tradition and in some places only; they treat the claims of the oral evidence rather cavalierly. Nevertheless, it is recommended here that oral narratives like myth and legend are manufactured and attached to the Narasinghanath tirtha (pilgrimage) to establish and to validate the faith of the numerically dominant aborigines with the Hindu epic tradition and thereby the larger Hindu religious tradition (Great Tradition). Accordingly, aesthetic consideration plays relatively an insignificant role in the present study.

The area of our study is Narasinghanath tirtha. The shrine of Narasinghanath is bounded by rich jungles and is situated about 32 kms south-west of Padampur town. It is quaintly situated at the foot of a hill of similar name Narasinghnath, which is an essential part of the Gandhagiri or Gandhamardan hill range. This hill range rises from 2000 to 3000 feet in height and reaches its highest point 3234 feet in the peak of Narasinghanath hill. This tirtha is in the former Borasambar1 zamindari under the previous Patna rajya i.e. Patnagarh. Afterward, it became a part of erstwhile Sambalpur rajya.

One branch of the Gandhamardan hill range runs along the southern frontier of the ex-Borasambar zamindari and separates Bargarh district from the district of Bolangir. Narasinghnath temple is positioned on the northern side of the Gandhamardan hill range inside Bargarh district. On its southern slope almost at the foot of the hill is Harisankar / Hari-Sankar, another place of pilgrimage. A difficult path links Harisankar and Narasinghnath across thickly forested mountainous tract. Perennial brooks ooze out on both sides of this hill range. From the northern crest of this range springs a famous stream called Papa-Harni Nala, sequentially called KapilDhar, BhimDhar, and ChalDhar and descends to the foot of the hill where Narasinghanath pitha is situated. On the southern slope, a similar stream named PapaNasini (the destroyer of sin) issues from the crest from the range and descends to the foot of the hill where Hari-Sankar Pitha is located. Another range branches off to the west of Narasinghnath running first north-south and then north-east near Jagdalpur in the state of Chhattisgarh where it is broken by the river Ang / Ong. Another range runs eastward to Tal and then to the northeast forming the boundary between the Bargarh district of Odisha and the Raipur district of Chhattisgarh2. In view of this, it may be understood that Borasambar zamindari was advantageously situated from political, military otherwise security point of view.

It would not be out of context to point out here that Gandhagiri is very popular in the history, mythology, culture and various Puranas of Hindu Great Tradition. The Gandhamardan of the Ramayana may as well be identified with this range of hills3. The tradition ascribes the construction of Narasinghnath temple on Gandhagiri to Vaijala Dev-I (1410-1430 AD). An inscription of 1413 AD found in this temple attests it. Vaijala Dev-I is the fourth Chauhan ruler of Patnagarh and is supposed to be the builder of Narasinghnath temple whereas his queen Durlabha Devi is said to have built the Hari-Sankar temple. The former is dedicated to Lord Visnu (Hari) while the latter is dedicated to Lord Siva (Hara). Nevertheless, according to the oral narrative prevalent in the local area, Raja Ramai Dev (1360-1385 AD), the founder of the Chauhan dynasty / kingdom in Patnagarh is said to have built these temples.

The oral narrative regarding construction of the Narasinghanath temple is as follows. The worship of Marjara-kesari by the common people at Narasinghanath is said to have been initiated by a tribal couple. According to the oral narrative, a tribal woman named Yamuna and her husband used to go to the jungle to collect fruits, leaves, firewood etc. for their living. One fine morning, while digging a place in search of Kanda (roots), Yamuna and her husband observed blood spurted out from that place. An unexpected fear gripped on them. They stood there frightened and shaking. For a moment, they were speechless due to fear. When they overcame fear, they realized that there might be some supernatural power in that place. Subsequently, they narrated their experiences before Raja Ramai Dev. Consequently, the icon of Marjara-kesari was discovered from that location and a temple was built for his worship. A wound mark found on the head of the image is supposed to have been caused by digging4.

Our subsequent analysis, however, unfolds the reality that the Narasinghanath site is an ancient one. The survival of Gandhagiri as a religious site dates back at least to the early Christian era. We have numerous evidences to establish that Buddhism was widespread in West Odisha from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD. Nagarjuna, the great expounder of the Madhyamika Philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism flourished some time during the period in Daksina Kosala, which was then under the Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni. It is known from the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Hieun Tsang and Itsing that king Satakarni (106-130 AD) built a magnificent Vihara for his philosopher friend Nagarjuna at Po lo mo lo ki li (Parimalagiri) which has been identified with modern Gandhagiri5. It means that Gautamiputra Satakarni is said to have patronized Nagarjuna and constructed a brilliant vihara for him on the Parimalagiri.

In this context, mention may be made of some Buddhist relics discovered in Ganiapali. Remarkably, Ganiapali is situated near the convergence of the Ang and the Magar rivers near Melchhamunda Police Station under Padampur Sub- Division in the district of Bargarh. Most likely, the Ang valley is exceptionally archaeologically rich and Ganiapali occupies a significant place. There appears to be ruins of an ancient Stupa in Ganiapali, which is identified with ancient Muchalinda, a centre of Buddhist learning6. Two Buddha’s images have been discovered in Ganiapali. The local people worship one such image with the hooded serpent as a deity7.

From the Buddhist text Vinayapitaka, it is recognized that the serpent king Muchalinda protected the idol of Lord Buddha by raising its hood over his head forming an umbrella during the second week following his enlightenment while the idol was troubled by rain and storm. Such an image of Lord Buddha seated on the coils of the serpent king Muchalinda, which shaped a hooded canopy over the head of Lord Buddha, has been discovered in Ganiapali. The local people worship this image as Naga-Muni (the serpent sage).

The above-mentioned Muchalinda image of Ganiapali was located for the first time by the celebrated art historian Charles Fabri in 1961 during his exploration. Fabri has correctly remarked that Muchalinda Buddha images are very rarely found in India. He has dated this image to the 5th to 6th century AD. The name of the village Melchhamunda might have been a local twist of Muchalinda8. When precisely this place was abandoned is difficult to substantiate due to paucity of facts. However, systematic exploration and excavation in this area will positively throw new light on the history and culture of this area.

On a stone-slab is carved a YoniPatta having an eight-angled design and a pair of footprints. It is found close to the Pancha-Pandava-Ghat in Narasinghanath. It is said that such footprints are found to be carved on stone slabs at Ghudar and Ranipur-Jharial in the district of Bolangir and at Samalesvari temple and nearby Rampad in Sambalpur9. It is widely believed that worship of footprints of Siddhacharyas was very familiar to the Tantrik School10. The footprint emblem noticed in the site of Ranipur-Jharial may corroborate this. It is believed to be the reminiscent of early Buddhist worship of anoconic diction11. So, in the present state of our knowledge and information, this much can be remarked here that the Narasinghanath area bears the testimony of Buddhist site of pilgrimage, worship and learning with international reputation in between second and eighth century AD. In view of this, it may be suggested that in ancient and medieval period, religion and learning were very intimately intermingled and each tirtha or holy place was also a centre of learning and culture12.

From the accounts of the eminent art historian Donaldson13, it is known that the temple site of Narasinghanath is an ancient one and the survival of four pillars within the Jagamohana suggests that there was in the beginning a pillared mandapa erected here. Stylistically, these four existing pillars appear to date from the ninth century and are probably the earliest extant examples in Odisha of this transplanted style. This original structure has undergone many changes, however, with two ornate doorframes being added in the eleventh century14.

Panda15 has studied the sculptures and identified with the Panduvamsi raja Harshagupta and his Rani Vasata Devi on one of the previously mentioned four pillars. The sculpture depicts the picture of Rani Vasata Devi attending to her husband Raja Harshagupta in his deathbed in deep mourning. Conspicuously, Rani Vasata Devi is also believed to have built the original Narasinghanath temple for Lord Visnu. This attests the fact that the site of Narasinghanath bears the testimony of a place of Hindu worship and pilgrimage since at least the eighth century AD.

In this context, mention may be made of one five feet high four-headed standing figure of Narasingha in Samabhanga posture found in a small temple of the Narasinghanath temple complex. Very unusually, the Sthanaka Yoga Narasingha image standing in Samabhanga posture is seen wearing shoes up to knee-level or high boot of the Iranian type, as seen in the legs of the Surya image of Konark, assigned to the thirteenth century AD16.

It might be possible that the temple site of Narasinghanath was in the beginning a Buddhist one and the temple built over it by Rani Vasata Devi in eighth or ninth century AD was in a decaying state. This was repaired and renovated in eleventh century AD and was consequently repaired or renovated again by the first Chauhan Raja Ramai Dev in fourteenth century AD. In the same way, it was in complete ruins in the fifteenth century and the fourth Chauhan Raja Vaijala Dev-I built a new temple on this site for the present Lord Narasingha Visnu.

Senapati and Sahu17 writes that possibly from the time of Raja Vaijala Dev-I and his Rani Durlabha Devi, the peaks containing the temples of Narasingha and Hari-Hara were correspondingly recognized as Narasinghanath and Harisankar. In view of this, Gandhagiri may be believed to be a foremost religious centre of Buddhism with international status between the second and eighth century AD. For that reason, probably it was assimilated into Hindu fold i.e. Hinduism first through the stream of tantrik Saivism and finally through the stream of Vaisnavism which will be dealt subsequently in our analysis18.

It may be understood that Gandhagiri has been the seat of Buddhist activities since the early part of the Christian era and Buddhism continues to become the dominant form of religion in this region at least till the eighth century AD. There was an ancient Vihara and it had the international reputation of being a Buddhist Pitha. Significantly, when Buddhism as a religious-cultural force began to decline in many parts of India, Gandhagiri still played a significant role and contributed to this faith in its new form i.e. tantrik Buddhism. In all probability, Narasinghanath Pitha was once upon a time popularly known as the land of tantrik Buddhism. Similarly, Lord Marjarakesari enshrined in the Narasinghanath temple may be identified with a Buddhist tantrik deity who may have been worshipped by the aborigines since very early times19. In other words, Buddhism had stronghold over this area and its people.

Buddhism had to experience a great set-back owing to the rise of Saivism and Vaisnavism in this region. It was possible but not probable earlier than ninth century. It seems probable that Vaisnavism has misplaced its identity and tried to compromise with Saivism during the reign of Somavamsis. Post-eighth century probably gave a Saivite twist to the tantrik Buddhism in Narasinghanath site. The increasing popularity of Saivism after ninth century is apparent from the occurrence of Saiva images and Hari-Hara Pangat in the Narasinghanath pitha. Most likely, during this period tantrik Buddhism assimilated with Saivism. Nevertheless, it is not possible to pronounce precisely when the Buddhist ideology or faith has come to an end allowing Saivism a space to prosper and dominate in Narasinghanath pitha. However, Saivism left its imprints on this site, which is also substantiated by the rock-cut sculptures found in Narasinghanath.

In the Pancha-Pandava-Ghat, there are rock-cut sculptures among which a big rock-cut profiled figure of standing bull Nandi is hewn with one bell hanging from its neck and Lord Siva sitting on its back. A male is positioned nearby with both his hands folded in obeisance. This rock-cut sculpture can be dated back to the 12th-13th century AD.20. In other words, this rock-cut sculpture represents the popularization of Saivism in this Pitha or site during this period. Under the patronage of Somavamsi rulers, Saiva ascetics might have influenced the common people a lot that facilitated in the spread and popularization of Saivism in the Gandhagiri area. The following oral narrative connected with this pitha attests this reality. There is a pool called Haran-Papa in the bed of stream close to the Narasinghanath temple. The natural springs, which come down the Narasinghanath hills, create a pool of water at the foot of the hill close to Narasinghanath temple. The pool is called Haran-papa, the water of which is competent to wash away all sins.

As per the existing narrative, Lord Siva after killing the Go-Daitya (cow demon) could not liberate himself from his sin anywhere in the world. Lord Brahma informed Lord Siva about the manifestation of Ganga Devi in the shape of a stream in Gandhagiri and recommended him to take a holy dip in its water. Consequently, Lord Siva arrived here and took a dip in the holy water. Amazingly, Lord Siva got himself released of the stigma at this Tirtha21. Particularly, matching story is found related with the river Baitarani in other parts of Odisha. All the same, this narrative intends to communicate some information about specific event; provided that it can be correctly dated and appropriately interpreted as potential source of certain kinds of historical information. But dating and interpretation present a lot of difficulties. Nevertheless, the above narrative does suggest us to consider that Saivism was once popular and enjoyed predominance in this place.

There is an oral narrative concerning the formation of Chauhan Rajya in Patnagarh in the medieval period. By the time the Sultan of Delhi conquered Rajputana, a Rani of one of the Rajput houses fled away to save her honour and dignity after her husband was assassinated in the battle. This Rani is recognized as Ashavati and her husband is identified as Hammir Dev who lived near Mainpur in north India and was killed by the Sultan of Delhi. Subsequently, Asavati reached Borasambar, a small Binjhal Rajya. Borasambar was numerically dominated by the aborigines like the Binjhals and was a seat of tribal power. The Binjhal tribal chief of Borasambar took pity on the mother and gave her shelter, where she gave birth to a son named Ramai Dev who afterward became the originator of Chauhan dynasty in Patna.

Reportedly, Binjhals are Dravidian in origin. They worship swords, spears and arrows. They worship mother-Goddess specifically Lakheswari (the Goddess of Archery) and DangarDevta (the mountain deity). Possibly, the Binjhals are a hunting and martial tribe. They particularly worship Narasingha and Bindhyabasini who is their principal deity. They do not employ Brahmins in any ritual observance. They have their Binjhal priests for this purpose. Moreover, Bairagis or Vaisnavas are taken as Mantra-Guru. Almost every Binjhal takes KarnaMantra that is, Mantras whispered in the ear (Karna). It may be understood that Binjhals seek to assert their interest and identities against Brahmins or power and authority of the Brahmins in the Hindu society. This reminds us one of the protests of Buddhism in opposition to caste prejudices or Brahminism. In addition, they worship deities of the Hindu pantheon along with their own deities, which may be accredited to the process of Hinduisation or Sanskritisation taken place afterward22.

According to the oral narrative, once upon a time Patna was a dependency of Borasambar. There was no chief and the council of eight Malliks (Asta-Malliks) ruled over Patna. It was a reign full of mishap and disturbances. What’s more, it was a seat of tantricism and cruelest form of blood sacrifice i.e. human sacrifice was prevalent before its reigning goddess Patanesvari. Everyday a man was sacrificed to the deity. But it was practically difficult on the part of the Asta- Malliks to arrange a man daily for the deity. Consequently, a well thought out practice was made with the hidden intent of human sacrifice at the religious Pitha of Patanesvari.

As per the practice, these eight Malliks were electing a chief each day from the common mass and taking him to the temple of Patanesvari so that he could seek her blessings before ascending the throne. In fact, they had clear objective of letting the man to be the sacrificial article of the deity. They asked the so called newly elected or selected leader to pay obeisance to the deity. No sooner had he prostrated himself then he was beheaded by these Malliks and sacrificed before the deity. After that, the Asta-malliks pretended that the deity considered him unfit to sit on the throne and for that reason devoured him. As a result of this practice, day by day a man was elected chief and was subsequently sacrificed pitilessly.

This narrative intends to transmit certain historical information in a distorted and hazy form that Patna (Patnagarh) was a seat of Tantricism where human sacrifice was once established. In this context, it may be said that there is satisfactory sign to demonstrate and consider that Patna was a seat of tantricism that led to the institution of a tantrik pitha (site) at Patna. It may be noted here that still a few years ago Patna was widely known as KuanriPatna or KaunriPatna which means the seat of maidens who lived in this township for some period of time and accomplished esoteric rites.

Most probably, these tantrik maidens were non-Brahmins by caste or they were popularly acknowledged by their assumed non-Brahmin names like Gangi Gauduni, Sua-Teluni, Jnanadei-Maluni, Nitei-Dhobani, Luhukuti-Luhurani, Sukuti-Chamaruni and Patrapindhi-Saharuni. This suggests us to believe that they were very much admired and worshipped mostly amongst the non-Brahmin and tribal sections of the West Odishan society. They used to solve various problems of the common people related to health, family and the like by their esoteric practices. Thus, they served the society at the grass root level. There are popular tales and traditions in west Odisha depicting the occult practices and tantrik activities of these seven maidens, at times branded as Sat-Bahen (seven sisters). They appear to be the supporters and followers of Lakshminkara who has propounded the Sahajayana Buddhism in West Odisha in the ninth century AD 23.

Apparently, Vaijala Dev-II (1520-1540 AD) of Chauhan dynasty was also a worshipper of Hari-Hara and his Guru was well versed in Logic and Tantra. As late as the sixteenth century, Patna Rajya was known as Kaunri-Patna after the name of the headquarters town of that name as known from the Nirguna Mahatmya of the poet Chaitanya Das24. The oral narrative further reveals that there was a Brahmin in Patna. On one occasion, on his visit to Borasambar he learnt that the Binjhal chief of Borasambar had given shelter to a Chauhan princess and her son. On his request, the Borasambar chief allowed him to take the mother Asavati and her son Ramai Dev to Patnagarh and to keep in his house. After sometime, the Brahmin was elected by the Asta-Malliks to be the chief of Patna. Being afraid of the inevitable consequence of death he sent Ramai Dev to represent him for this purpose.

When the Asta-Malliks asked Ramai Dev to prostrate himself before the deity, he asked them to demonstrate how to do it. When the Asta-Malliks were prostrating themselves, Ramai Dev killed all of them with the sword kept besides the deity and came out of the temple alone and alive. As it became clear from this that the deity approved Ramai Dev, the people hailed him, as their ruler and thus, he became the first Chauhan Raja of Patna. The Binjhal chief of Borasambar, the overlord of Patna endorsed his claim to the principality, came to Patna and put the ticca of a Raja on his forehead. Thus, in Patna / Patnagarh, the Binjhals occupied a honoured and privileged position or status in the sense that it was the custom until very recently for the Binjhal chief and each of his descendants to exercise the same right, also placing a Pagri or Pat of silk on the head of the Raja of Patnagarh at the time of accession25.

Deo26 strongly claims that there is no historical support for Chauhan immigration to Kosala region i.e. modern West Odisha. It is possible that one of the local tribal chiefs emerged powerful enough to assert his independence and seeking the Brahmin’s help and advice, claimed Chauhan rank and status. It may be understood in this specific circumstance that why the Binjhals have such an exaggerated sense of their weight and importance in relation to the Patna Rajya. The way in which Ramai Dev has asserted his position and influence within the power structure suggests us to consider that Binjhals have extended all support to Ramai Dev. In other words, the termination of rule of Asta-Malliks was accompanied by the Binjhals who have played significant role in the emergence and expansion of the Chauhan Rajya in Patnagarh. This is why they have enjoyed much reputation and standing.

The most salient point about the contributions made by various groups is that tribal people or aboriginal groups have been a key factor in the development and progress of societies, in breaking up ethnic boundaries and other cultural limits and identities towards the emergence of Patna state or nation as we understand it today. Ramai Dev eventually succeeded in capturing power from Asta-Malliks and became the exclusive ruler of Patna. In this heroic myth, Ramai Dev and a Brahmin script the extinction of system of Asta-Malliks. This reflects the familiar competition and jealousy among Asta-Malliks who represents various interest groups about their status and position within the then existing political structure.

In this context, Deo27 writes that there was a type of oligarchy or Government by a group of eight powerful persons recognized as Asta-Malliks, and one of these eight chiefs emerged as the Garhpati of Patnagarh. Ramai Dev distorted the egalitarian system of rule (AstaSodara rule) and acknowledged the other seven as Garhpatis or Malliks of diverse areas, who enjoyed superior status in their respective areas. It is understood from the narrative that Ramai Dev was himself endowed with some extra-ordinary qualities and commensurate good will. But he could hardly have destroyed the Asta-Malliks or the system of oligarchy in Patnagarh without the support and guidance of the Brahmin, which marks the commencement of a process of Hinduisation or Brahminisation or Aryanisation. Thus, their union brings the heroic destiny of Ramai Dev to a fitting close to sanskritisation and also formation of a new hierarchical political structure.

Deo28 has rightly mentioned that in these circumstances, it is not difficult to believe in the emergence of a Brahmin-Kshatriya ruling coalition in Patnagarh. In order to sustain a separate and independent Chauhan kingdom, most probably, the Chauhan rulers had to depend upon the Bhogas and Bhagas. They had to persuade the local tribal people to become settled agriculturists so that production would increase; because tribal economy based on hunting and shifting cultivation cannot sustain a Rajya as analysed in a different place by Deo29. In order to legitimize their rank and status as Rajas and to their share of the produce i.e. Bhaga, the Chauhan rulers granted lands to Brahmins and temples which contributed to changing the agrarian situation, configuration of hierarchical social order and Brahminisation or Sanskritisation or Hinduisation of society in this area. In course of development, the successive Chauhan rulers of Patnagarh extended their influence over the neighboring territories including Sambalpur and the adjoining States.

In this context, it would not be out of place to mention here that the aboriginal inhabitants of the Gandhagiri area of Borasambar give special regards to Narasinghanath tirtha. For instance, if the dead body is burnt by the Binjhals, then the ashes and bones are by and large taken to Panch-Pandava-Ghat in the stream near the Narsinghnath temple, where they immersed the ashes. It is believed that the deceased would attain heaven in doing so30. In addition, many other people of the neighbouring areas also immerse the ashes of their forefathers in this pool called Haranapapa with the same belief31.

As discussed previously, the-then existing religious site at Narsinghnath received royal patronage by the first Chauhan ruler Ramai Dev of Patnagarh some time in the fourteenth century. It was perhaps in a decaying condition when the fourth Chauhan Raja Vaijala Dev, son of Vatsaraja Dev came into power. He extended the state patronage and rebuilt or renovated this religious shrine, which was then emerging as a Vaisnava pitha. He granted revenue of the village Luhasingha or present Loisinga for worship of the Lord Narasingha and maintenance of this temple32.

Vaijala Dev was succeeded by Bhojaraja Dev (1430-1455 AD) who is said to have built a fort on the Gandhamardan hills near Narsinghnath temple. This fortification was recognized after him as Bhojagarh. Bhupal Dev (1480-1500AD) of this dynasty is identified to have improved the construction of Bhojagarh close to which he established a township and encouraged people to inhabit there by providing lands free of rent33.

It is understood from Deo’s34 examination that in the new hierarchical political structure at some stage in the Chauhan rule, the tribal chief of Borasambar was recognised as a zamindar under the Patna Raja. Borasambar zamindar enjoyed greater status in his area. This recognition resulted in a hierarchical arrangement. The tribal chief was permitted to run his Borasambar zamindari and was most probably required to pay a periodical tribute, Bheti and also to assist the Patna Raja or overlord in an emergency. He used to keep the income from a part of a territory for his own maintenance. Likewise, there were several villages within the zamindari and most of the village headmen were most likely tribals. Village headman was also recognized as hereditary chief of the village called Gahatia or Gaotia or Gantia or Gartia. The village headman was also required to supply military aid during an emergency to Borasambar zamindar / zamidar as well as Patna Raja. For that, the Gaotia enjoyed the land attached to his village or a cluster of villages under his jurisdiction or authority. The revenue from this provided for his maintenance and that of his soldiers.

In the process of formation of a larger Hindu kingdom and society, the autochthonous groups and their religious pitha like Narasinghanath (Little Tradition) were wrapped up in the wider Hindu society and culture (Great Tradition). In other words, these autochthonous groups and their cultural tradition (Little Tradition) played significant role in the process of state formation in the regional level i.e. in the erstwhile Patnagarh or Patna Rajya during the medieval period. In turn, these little religious traditions have received royal aid and patronage for its popularity, prosperity and growth.

The Papa-Harni-Nala is a tributary of the river Ang. Its water accumulates at five different places into five pools known as kund. These Kunds popularly recognized as Sitakund, PanchaPandavakund and Gankund in the bed of the Papa-Harni-Nala are considered efficacious in washing away sins. In fact, Papa- Harni-Nala is formed by the natural springs at Narasinghanath. The water-falls are popularly identified as Kapildhar, Bhimdhar, Gadadhar, Guptadhar and Chaldhar, which are regarded as very sacred and sacrosanct.

The Kapildhar, Bhimdhar and Gadadhar put up with the sacred recollection of Kapila Rishi and Bhima, the second Pandava respectively. There is an oral narrative that while wandering in the jungles during their banabasa (exile) Pandava brothers with wife Draupadi had arrived at Gandhagiri. They built a hut and lived there. On one occasion, Bhima wanted to have his bath. But for a pleasant bath the available water was insufficient. Consequently, he struck his Gada (club) on the mountain Gandhagiri and out of the blue another Ganga emerged. Goddess Ganga Devi named these two falls as Bhimdhar and Gadadhar after Bhima.

Narasinghanath is also fabled and well-known for different valiant and supernatural deeds of Bhim such as killing a demon, falling in love with local girls, constructing a stone house called Bhim-Madua, playing with Bati (stone balls). A cave in this mountain is popularly branded as Panchu-Pandav-Khol wherein Nakula, the fourth Pandava carved the figures of five brothers on the wall with his kunta (weapon). A mango tree called SatiAmba is supposed to bear mangoes all through the year. It is coupled with a beautiful fable that the five Pandava brothers including Draupadi disclosed their undisclosed reality and the ripen mangoes sprouted up through which they all appeased a guest sent by Duryodhana to destroy the virtue of Yudhisthira.

Gandhagiri is also fabled to be the place where Ramachandra, Laksmana and Sita in Tretaya Yuga had spent some time during their banabasa. Sita-kunda of this religious site is fabled to be the spot where Sita took her bath and washed her soiled clothes. Ramachandra blamed her because she polluted the stream. Further, a narrative runs that the mountain Gandhagiri was a part of or adjacent to mountain Vindhyanchala. Hanumana carried Gandhagiri to Lanka in order to save the life of Laksmana and while returning he left the mountain here. There is no denying the fact that the Gandhagiri is a treasure of medicinal plants and the State Government has established an Ayurvedic college and research centre in this place.

All the same, the oral narratives discussed above are the restricted or localized versions of the Hindu religious scriptures like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana connected with this sacred centre Narasinghanath. Moreover, as discussed somewhere else, many people of neighbouring areas of Odisha and Chhattisgarh immerse the ashes of their fore-fathers in this tirtha believing that they would attain heaven thereby. This equates the Narasinghanath tirtha with the Triveni at Prayag (Allahabad) and Biraja pitha at Jajpur in Odisha. This indicates the extent of reverence shown to this tirtha, which occupies a pivotal position in the religious life of the common people of this area or sacred zone. The pilgrims who use to visit this tirtha take holy bath in this water. In other words, religious beliefs of Hindu Great Tradition have been localized here.

The above discussion informs that the Narasinghanath tirtha has shown lenience to foremost religious faiths specifically Buddhism, Tantrism, Saivism and Vaisnavism. Though the tirtha is famous as Narasinghanath, the principal image in the garbhagriha of the temple is called Marjarakesari who is assumed to be a form of Lord Visnu with the head of a cat and body of a lion. It would not be out of place to mention here that Nrusingha / Narasingha (Nara+Singha) is one of the avataras (incarnations) of Lord Visnu, which is extensively narrated in various Hindu Puranas. If we delve for information into the Nrusimha Mahatmya, we locate that the source of Marjarakesari as an avatara of Lord Visnu has been set forth only in the Nrusimha Mahatmya, an Odia creation of Chauhan reign. Most probably, by this time Vaisnavism became the leading form of religion in this site and Buddhism and Saivism receded to the background.

According to the oral narrative, once a certain Rishi was performing Tapasya (religious austerity or penance) on the bank of the river Godavari in the Ramayana or Tretaya-Yuga. He had a beautiful daughter named Malati. During this period, Ravana was the king of Lanka. Once, Malati happened to be out when Ravana came to visit that place and saw her. He was smitten with the charm of Malati and could not resist his sexual urge. He ravished her and she became unconscious. Thereafter, Ravana threw her into the river Godavari. She was in danger of losing her life. But, the river Godavari protected her as if a mother naturally feels protective towards her child and brought her back safely to the bank. When Malati regained her consciousness, she was astonished to find herself in an unknown place. She did not find her father and started weeping helplessly. At that time, Musika (mouse), the Vahana (vehicle) of Lord Ganapati heard the moans of wounded Malati. He came up to her and asked what she was moaning about. Malati narrated her misfortune. Musika consoled her with the thought that it might have been worse. He promised to help her also. So, face of Malati radiated with joy and hope. She was now at the mercy of Musiaka. But the irony of her fate or circumstance was that Malati was deceived into believing that Musika would help her. Finally, Musika also enjoyed her. Thus, from Ravana and Musika was born of her a male child called Musika-datta.

When the child grew up, he became a danger to his own mother and ate up his mother mercilessly. Then, he performed Tapasya rigorously and pleased Lord Siva. The deity conferred on him Bara (boon) that he would have cause for fear from none but Narasingha of the Satya-Yuga. This narrative informs us the presence of Saivism in this site. In other words, this indicates that the prevailing society believed in or required the synthesis between Saivism and Vaisnavism in this area. However, Musika-datta became most powerful and a source of trouble and discontentment to the deities of Swarga (heaven). The helpless deities surrendered to Ramachandra and threw themselves on his mercy. Assuming the form of Lord Narasingha, Ramachandra came to destroy Musikadatta who fled in fear of his life. Narasingha also followed him. Musika-datta arrived at Gandhagiri in fear and trembling. He approached the Gandhagiri to give him shelter. When the refuge was granted, Musika-datta assumed the form of Musika (mouse) and entered the mountain Gandhagiri. So, Lord Narasingha also assumed the form of a Marjara (cat) and pursued him. But Gandhagiri and other deities interceded and requested Lord Visnu to establish himself there in that feline form i.e. Marjara-Kesari so that he could devour Musika-datta when he came out. This narrative also informs us the presence of Ganapati cult in this site. Ganapati-Ghat and rock-cut sculpture available in Narsinghnath site proves this fact.

A significant feature of this tirtha is Hari-Hara-pangat, which undoubtedly confirms that Vaisnavism and Saivism headed towards a synthesis in this site. In reality, however, it was a synthesis between Buddhism, Vaisnavism (Hari) and Saivism (Hara) in the Narasingha pitha. Both the subaltern as well as high caste people sit on the floor together and eat anna prasad cooked in the house of this popular deity. Hari-Hara-pangat stands for the casteless, classless and secular aspect of this tirtha. People never dare to abstain from Hari-Hara-pangat or Hari-Hara-bhoga on caste point of view. They acknowledge prasad without hesitation. In other words, while taking or sharing of cooked food among various castes and communities is stringently forbidden under traditional Hindu caste system, eating of bhoga at Hari-Hara-pangat is not at all forbidden.

The eradication of caste rules in regard to the Hari-Hara-bhoga reminds us one of the important protests of Buddhism against caste prejudices. Also, the typical catlike form of the deity with the head of a cat and body of a lion is a terrific idol, which recommends some influence of or connection with tantra. It is a fact that this place was some time a seat of tantrik Buddhism. Scholars strongly advocate that the Gandhagiri or Gandhamardana hill has to be explored for ancient Buddhist relics. This has led the world by founding Vajrayana Buddhism in the eighth century AD. In view of the above, absence of caste restriction in Hari-Hara-pangat and the typical feline form of Marjara-Kesari may be attributed to the Buddhist tantrik tradition, which a long ago flourished here.

Moreover, this also equates with the Mahaprasad Sevana at Ananda Bazar of the Lord Jagannath Temple, Puri, which for some scholars represents the coalition of Brahmin and Buddhist doctrines. It is believed that originally the image of Lord Jagannath was the image of Lord Buddha containing his relics and Buddhist mode of worship are traced in the rituals of Lord Jagannath36. It may be understood here that Narasinghanath Pitha powerfully emerged as a Vaisnava Pitha during Chauhan rule. Vaisnavism triumphed over Buddhism as well as Saivism in this Pitha and Buddhism absolutely missed its identity. As it has been said earlier, from about fourteenth century Borasambar area came under the Chauhan reign of Patnagarh. The finish of the Buddhist and Saiva faiths in Narsinghnath site may tentatively be traced to this period.

It may be suggested to consider that the aboriginal people who were the original worshippers of this deity earlier richly inhabited this region. The catlike form of deity was a non-Hindu deity, which does not match with any of the form of Devi or Devata icon of the Hindu iconography. Further, the image does not resemble any other deity found in Odisha. The antiquity of Marjara-Kesari cannot be pushed back to the Vedic period. During the Vedic period, the four Vedas do not refer to the worship of Marjara-Kesari. What’s more, Marjara-Kesari does not find a place in the congregation of Vedic deities.

Most probably, Marjara-Kesari was initiated into the Brahminical pantheon in Narasinghanath Tirtha at a later period during the Chauhan rule. The non-Hindu image of Marjara-Kesari is probably a Buddhist one, worshipped in the beginning by the ancient tribal people of this area. The original name of this deity was obscured by the process of the sanskritization and the Sanskritik name of Marjara-Kesari conferred on him. This name was befitting to the image of the deity with the head of a cat and body of a lion. It was easier to recognize Marjara-Kesari with the Hindu deity Nara-Singha with the head of a lion and body of a male human being. This was established by manufacturing a narrative of Malati and Musika-datta involving Musika, the vehicle of Lord Ganesa and Ramachandra. Subsequently, this story was accepted far and wide by both the Hindus and non-Hindus of this area. In addition, the myth helped to incorporate the deity as a form of incarnation of Lord Visnu into the Hindu fold.

In all probability, this process of Sanskritisation or Hinduisation of the aboriginal deity took place in the medieval period during the State formation in Patnagarh. It was essentially required to integrate the indigenous communities into one fold under the umbrella of Hinduism in the process of the building of a unified Patna Rajya. So, Marjara-Kesari was accepted and exalted as Lord Visnu in order to appease the local subjects so that the ruling class could consolidate their power over the natives and exercise their authority over this area.

In this context, it would not be out of context to mention here that the Binjhals are a primitive race, which appears to have been among the earliest inhabitants of this area. The entire area was a part of the Borasambar zamindari belonging to the Binjhal family. As discussed elsewhere, they were a hunting and martial tribe. But they were converted into settled agriculturists during the Chauhan reigns. Even today, majority of them are cultivators and rests are farm servants or field labourers. Those who are settled in the plains have taken to improved methods of rice cultivation37. From the military point of view i.e. security of the State, the Binjhals / Bhinjawal zamindar of Borasambar held an important position. His lands were situated alone on the north side of the Gandhagiri, which form part of the northern frontier of Patna, and accordingly he could hold the approaches through these hills to Patna for or against any hostile force38.

The Binjhal39 zamindar of Borasambar enjoyed the most privileged position like right of affixing the Ticca to the Rajas of Patnagarh on their accession. Conspicuously, the more advanced Binjhals boast of an alliance with Rajputs and call themselves Barihas, which is a title originally borne by small hill chiefs. But the common Binjhals do not claim such Rajput / Kshatriya status and descent. Nonetheless, it may be noted here that the management of the Narasinghanath temple has been directly or indirectly controlled by the Padampur / Borasambar zamindar family since very early times.


1 According to the oral narrative, formerly Borasambar consisted of eight villages, which went by the name of Atgaon (Ath+Gaon), which literary means eight villages. One of the zamindar of Atgaon having saved the life of a Sambar deer by killing a Bora or boar constrictor which had attacked it, the name of the zamindari was changed to Borasambar, vide N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), Bolangir District Gazetteer, Orissa Government Press, Cuttack, 1968.

2 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.) (1968), op.cit. p.5,483-84; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), Sambalpur District Gazetteer, Orissa Government Press, Cuttack, 1971, p.9.

3 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.) (1968), op.cit. p.5; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.) (1971), op.cit., p.9.

4 According to an analogous oral narrative regarding construction of the Hari-Sankar temple, it is said that on one occasion an old man belonging to Kandha tribe, while digging out kanda (roots) in that spot, came across a stone and spring oozing out underneath the stone. That night he saw in dream Lord Siva’s presence at the place where he found the stone. The Kandha narrated his experience before Raja Ramai Dev, the then ruler of Patnagarh, who himself had a similar dream. Thereafter, a temple was built there to enshrine Lord Siva, vide N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.) (1968), op.cit. pp. 50, 484.

5 N. K. Sahu, Buddhism in Orissa, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, 1958, pp.100 101; N. Senapati and D. C. Kuanr (eds.), (1980), Kalahandi District Gazetteer, Orissa Government Press, Cuttack, p.43; N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (1968), op.cit, p. 5.

6 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds), (1971), op.cit. pp. 49, 531).

7 ibid. p. 524.

8 Charles Louis Fabri, History of the Art of Orissa, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1974, pp.31-36; S. S. Panda, “Nagas on the Sculptural Decorations of Early West Orissa Temples”, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, Vol.XLVII, No.1, 2004, pp.27.

9 C. Pasayat, “State Formation and Cultural Assimilation in Medieval Orissa: The Case of a Tribal Deity in Sambalpur”, Utkal Historical Research Journal, Vol. XX, 2007(a), p.72.

10 S. S. Panda, “Early Chauhan Temples of Sambalpur Town”, Orissa Review, April 1996, p.37; S. S. Panda, “Narsinghnath Temple of Bargarh District”, Orissa Review, August 2003, p. 62.

11 C. B. Patel, “Monumental Efflorescence of Ranipur-Jharial”, Orissa Review, August 2004, p.42.

12 C. Pasayat, History of Tribal Society and Culture, Zenith Books International, Delhi, 2007(b), p.48.

13 T. E. Donaldson, The Hindu Temple Art of Orissa, Volume I, The Netherlands: E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1985, p. 200-201.

14 C. Pasayat, Oral Tradition, Society and History, Mohit Publications, New Delhi, 2008, p. 14.

15 S. S. Panda, op.cit. p.61-72.

16 S. S. Panda, “The Story of Religion as Told by West Orissan Temples and Epigraphy” in M. Pati (ed.), West Orissa: A Study in Ethos, Sambalpur University, Sambalpur, 1992, p.210; S. S. Panda (2004), op.cit. p.46-47.

17 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (1968), op.cit. p.50.

18 Perhaps, large-scale mining operation by BALCO during the second half of the twentieth century has resulted in destruction of the pristine ancient culture and heritage of this place.

19 C. Pasayat, op. cit., 2007(b), p. 50.

20 S. S. Panda, op.cit. p. 81.

21 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op.cit. p. 14.

22 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op.cit. p.103; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op.cit p.121; N. Senapati and D. C. Kuanr (eds.), op.cit. p.93-94.

23 C. Pasayat, op. cit., 2008 p.18; C. Pasayat, op. cit. 2007(b), p. 53-54.

24 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op.cit. pp.50-51, 489; N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op. cit. pp. 49, 531; Panda, 1992).

25 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op. cit. pp. 516-517.

26 F. Deo, “Chauhan Myth and Royal Legitimization in Kosala (Daksina)”, Sambalpur Lok Mahotsav Souvenir, District Council of Culture, Sambalpur, 2003, p. 97.

27 ibid, p.97.

28 ibid, p.97.

29 ibid. p.96.

30 N. Senapati and B. Mahanti (eds.), op.cit. p.122-123.

31 ibid. p.14.

32 ibid pp.534-535.

33 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op. cit. p.51.

34 F. Deo, op. cit.

35 Yogadas, Nrusimha Charita (Edited by N. Pruseth), Dora Art Press, Padampur.

36 L. S. S. O’Malley, Puri: A Gazetteer, Bengal Secretariat Press, 1908, p.90.

37 N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op. cit., p.103.

38 It would appear that during the first inroads of the Marathas, the zamindar of Borasambar was successful in guarding these approaches. For this service, Borasambar zamindar was granted an extension of property on the Patna side vide N. Senapati and N. K. Sahu (eds.), op.cit., p. 67.

39 Likewise, the prominence accorded another aboriginal community called the Kandha in the consolidation and expansion of Kalahandi Rajya through military conquest. As per the tradition prevalent in Kalahandi Raj-family, the Kandhas had assured protection and help to Ramachandra Dev, seventh ruler (1173-1201 AD) in his State affairs. A Kandha called Pat-Majhi crowned Ramachandra Dev as Raja of Kalahandi at Jugsaipatna. This custom is still in vogue since then and all Kalahandi Rajas are crowned at Jugsaipatna by the Pat-Majhi vide N. Senapati and D. C. Kuanr (eds.) op. cit., p. 53.

Chitrasen Pasayat, Ph.D. (JNU).


March 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment



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