Cursed and haunted, just five of the 108 intricately carved temples stand amidst the ruins at Kiradu near Barmer in Rajasthan
Words: Shoma Abhyankar
The sudden appearance of a wrinkled old man clad in white pagdi, dhoti, and kurta next to the rusting and creaking heavy iron gate made me skip a heartbeat. “Do you wish to hear the tale of this cursed kingdom?” he asked, grinning toothlessly.
I was at the ruins of Kiradu Temples, 35 km from Barmer in Rajasthan. Originally known as Kiradkot, the forlorn ruins flanked by the barren Aravalli Hills on one side and a sandy expanse on the other are believed to be haunted. A strong belief discourages locals from visiting the ruins post sunset. It was with those ghost stories playing on my mind that I reached the desolate ruins spread over a large expanse, with not a soul in sight.
Since the discovery of an oil basin in Barmer, near Jaisalmer, the small town, which is also famous for the Ajrakh handmade block-print textile, garnered a lot of international attention. For the last few years, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been restoring this relic, after rumours spread that people were stealing the stone pieces.
Built by the Solanki Rajput rulers of Rajasthan, the temple complex was once an agglomeration of 108 temples dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses. While most temples lie razed to the ground as pieces of carved stones, five of them still stand in various stages of ruin with most of the sculptures mutilated and defaced.
With a limited historical narrative of the ruins, I relied for stories on the old villager who tagged along as I roamed about the intricately carved walls that brimmed with many mythological stories, including the epic Ramayana.
If you believe the old man and his lore, a hermit cursed the once prosperous village to be doomed and destroyed. The hermit, on his return from a pilgrimage, found the behaviour of villagers callous and uncompassionate towards his ailing protégé. Enraged at the apathy, he wanted to punish the villagers. However, a young woman was spared from his wrath for her selfless service to the sick disciple. The woman was warned to leave the village and never return. She, however, looked back at the cursed village out of curiosity, only to turn into a stone. The local people believe that the spirits of those ancient villagers still visit the doomed ruins. Enchanted by this non-historic account of events, I explored and observed closely and discovered a world of extremely dexterous craftsmanship in each pillar, door jamb, panel, and arch.
While Vishnu’s 10 incarnations, the dashavatar, adorn the lintel above the door, scenes from daily life, archers, horse riders, apsaras (the dancing celestial nymphs) and erotic sculptures embellish the various wall panels. Rows of robust, bejewelled elephants protrude out of walls near the base of the temples. The yakshas or the mythical celestial guards sculpted as column capitals support the ornate arches. The half-collapsed shikhara or the pyramidal spire of the temple built up on smaller spires rising up in stages, was as intriguing as the demon faces staring down from the pillars.
Among the five remaining temples, one stands out for its size and wall inscription probably in Sanskrit or a regional dialect. The most fascinating, however, is the pillared enclosure adjoining one of the larger temples. The circular stage or mandapam with eight ornate columns decorated with lace-like patterns is enclosed within a structure shaped like a cross with similar embroidered stone pillars. The outer enclosure with seven pillars on each side and two pillars in the front reflects the days of each month.
Another roofless octagonal platform with beautiful columns stands against a collapsed temple shikhara. Acclaimed historian Rima Hooja, who has written extensively on the heritage and history of Rajasthan, believes that the two structures were porch extensions of the temple and were used for religious discourses.
The more I wandered through the ruins, the more it felt like stumbling across a treasure trove of art. Every stone that lies in the rubble reveals a part of engraving that would have taken immense skill, time and effort. But the devastation is so vast that fitting every piece into the large jigsaw puzzle to recreate the rest of the temples seems an impossible task. I returned from the village, amazed yet engulfed in thoughts, as such exquisite workmanship was lost to time.