7th century CE, the classical Gupta Age had already over and several regional dynasties had initiated their rule in respective cultural regions. In fact it was an era when the great Indian diversity was firmly grounded.
Guptas had made a major contribution in the field of architecture introducing temple building though small and square with limited iconographic details. The temple of Sanchi 17 at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh is one of the earliest temples in India belonging to the Gupta Period. Plain in appearance the temple was constructed in a Buddhist setting with influence of classical art in its pillars. The next stage of early temple buildings was at Chalukya’s Badami Kingdom. Here we see some of the earliest experiments in temple architecture, particularly at Aihole by receiving ideas from Buddhist chaityas (Durga Temple) and Megalithic dolmens for which South India was well-known. Temples were also built at a number of other sites in north central India and as far as Assam.
Bhubaneswar at this time was at the crossroad of ideas under the rulers like Shasanka and the Buddhist Bhaumakaras. However, one sees the entry of Pashupat sect in the region with Bhubaneswar being at the centre of the sect.
Parasurameswara, one of the earliest and best preserved in Bhubaneswar was a Pashupat Temple when originally built. The temple reflecting the early experimental stage of Kalinga style is now located within a renovated large courtyard in the heritage district. Initially the temple was built as a single triratha shrine. The flat jagamohana was added later. Around this time, architects of Kalinga style had no idea about the pyramidal pidha deula, which you find at first in Mukteswara Temple built in the 9th century CE. However, unlike other contemporary temples found elsewhere the Parasurameswara Temple was lavishly decorated with sculptures showing some of the earliest expressions in Hindu iconography and other foliage ornamentation.
According to Dr. K.C. Panigrahi, the name Parasurameswara was not the original temple. On the basis of an inscription, the temple records the donation of two adhakas of rice made by one Pramadacharya to be first given as an offering to Parasavara Bhattaka and then distributed among ascetics and others. Parasavara, a Pashupat teacher was the main deity inside the temple for whom the donation was made. Hence, the temple’s name was most probably Parasavara.
Early Pashupats had led to an austere life without any fixed abode and worldly ties. According to the Pashupat Sutras, devotee lived in a deserted house or a cave or even on a cremation ground. A Pashupat wore a single piece of cloth, and if possible, dispensed with clothing altogether as a token of renunciation of all possessions. The chief practices included smearing the body with ashes in the morning, at noon and in the evening, adoration (of the idol of the link of Shiva or Pashupati), ceremonial offering of water pots (probably before the idols), circumambulation from left to right, self-humiliation and other possesses. As part of his devotions he did mental obeisance to the deity, meditated on the sacred formulas and resorted to certain practices peculiar to Pashupat Sect, such as dancing before the image of Shiva and by making a sound called dhum dhum kara resembling the bellowing of a bull and produced by joining the tip of the tongues of the pallet. (For more on Pashupat cult see https://blogvirasatehind.com/2017/05/30/pashupata-cult-and-the-ancient-temples-of-bhubaneshwar/ )
It was most probably the Pashupat who visited the temple on daily basis providing a scene what is described above. But the iconographic details do not reveal much about the esoteric practice except three Lakulisa images that are placed on its Vimana, front and back and the jagamohana. Among these the most noteworthy is the one to be found within a chaitya arch on the eastern wall of the Vimana. It has four small male figures, two on each side, each with a pustaka held in the left hand and the right showing abhaya mudra. Lakulisa holds as usual a lakuta and in dharma pravrtana mudra and can be mistaken as an image of the Buddha because of yogasana, half closed eyes and distinctive treatment of hair. Only the lakuta makes him different from the Buddha. The four male figures are his four disciples, Kurtika, Garga, Mitra and Kaurshya. The dharma chakra pravatana mudra indicates that Lakulisa was first like the Buddha to establish a sect.
The temple has a large number of depiction of Shiva in various forms and episodes from the Shiva Purana.
One of the most interesting sculptures is the depiction of Mahesha Murti, similar to the one at the famous Elephanta Cave.
Nataraj is shown with four hands, or six hand or eight hands. Busts of Shiva occur within the chaitya arches in all four facades, each with a 3rd eye radiation shown in the forehead.
Three episodes of Shiva occur at three different places of the main temple. The first is in the front faced, just above the cleresty of the jagamohana. It shows the scene of Ravana raising the Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva. Ravana carved in high relief is much mutilated now. He raises the mount with the upper hands and places the lowermost two of his knees. Hara and Parvathi are seated above his head. Parvathi turning her head as if in panic and Hara clasping her with his left hand and rising the right in abhaya.
The second episode is that of Arnapurnna offering alms to Shiva depicted within a chaitya arch in the southern face of the Vimana. Shiva and Arnappurnna stand face to face with a dwarf in-between and each with an attendant by the side. Shiva holds a long parasol in the right hand and extends the left with a cup in which Arnapurrna shown as wearing a veil offering alms.
The third scene is that of Shiva’s marriage depicted on the lintels of the central nice on the eastern wall. Shiva and Parvathi stand in the centre of the scene, dressed as the bridegroom and the bride. Agni with flames rising on both sides sits to the proper right of Shiva. To the right of Agni, Brahma with the three heads shown is pouring water from a vase. To the right of Brahma, Surya is standing with the usual lotuses. Two female attendants with swords in their hands are standing to the left of Parvathi. To the left on the last female attendant is the four armed standing Vishnu holding a vase with two hands and a conch shell with the other two. A dwarf stands in between them carrying a load, probably of sweets, on the head.
The temple of Parasurameswara is also known for a wide range of other sculptures including Mahishamardini and Saptamatrikas.
But the true essence of this temple is its depiction of Shiva, for which the temple was celebrated as one of the earliest centres of Pashupat cult, an esoteric practice that is difficult to imagine in the 21st century fast paced life of Bhubaneswar.