Gurjara Pratihara Temples – Splendid Examples from Osian

In early 8th century CE, Harshavardhana, the Emperor of Kannauj passed away. Harsha was the last among the early rulers of Indian Subcontinent who had beheld the United India, a trend started with the Mauryas in the 3rd century BCE. Now there was a new threat – the Islamic invasion from the west. Within India, there were also power struggles between numerous states which were busy fighting with each other. It was not clear where India was heading to.

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Osian Village
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Early Pratihara Temples at Osian
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The Sand Dunes of Osian

However, the anarchy and confusion was curtailed with the rise of Rajputs. Of all the Rajput clans that ruled in India, the Gurjara Pratiharas were the most prolific rulers who had extended their rule from Punjab to Central India and from Kathiawar to North Bengal. For three centuries they stood as the bulwark of India’s defense against the Muslim invaders. They revived the dream of the political unification of India after the death of Harshavardhana.

Gurjaras came into prominence in the 2nd half of the 6th century BCE after the downfall of the Gupta Empire. The early Pratihara rulers had established their capital at Mandore near Jodhpur and Osian was their cultural capital.

Osian today is a small town, mostly deserted as its erstwhile Oswal Jain merchants have moved out elsewhere seeking better fortune. The town is engulfed by sand dunes of Thar Desert in all directions.  People come here in large numbers as devotes to seek blessing of Sachiya Mata, whose temple on a hillock dominates the entire landscape.

From the period of Guptas, Osian had been a prosperous mercantile centre which is evident in the remains of a large number of temple ruins built during the rule of Gurjara Pratihara (8th – 11th centuries CE). In terms of number of temples, Osian stands next to Bhubaneswar and Khajuraho in North India.

Known as Uvasisala, Ukesa and Upkespur Pattana in the past, once Osian had 108 Jain temples. However, today only 15 Hindu temples and one Jain temples have survived.

From Jodhpur when we drove to Osian by mistake we had taken the Jaisalmer Highway. After driving nearly 30 km when we asked someone about the direction to Osian we were shown a road that passed through small villages and dunes in a remote countryside. Unfortunately the GPS had stopped working. After driving for nearly two hours we finally reached our destination and arranged our stay in a religious dharma shala for the night.

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Sun Set on the Road that leads to Osian
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The Barren Thar Desert

During the night walk to an eatery in the highway I had a glance of Hari Hara Temples in dim light. Standing obsolete and surrounded by heaps of garbage, even though it was dark I was simply lost in its charm. Indeed it is one of Rajasthan’s earliest temple complexes. Next day as the dawn broke I simply rushed into the ruins to experience it in the fresh early sun light.

The temples of Osian are divided into two groups – eastern and western. In the eastern group, the most impressive are these three Hari – Hara temples built in Maha-Maru style of architecture. They are also the earliest dated to 8th century CE.

All the three temples stand on a high platform, called jagati in the architectural term. It is also a feature in Maha-Maru style of architecture, the region’s earliest experiments in building religious shrines. The main shrine is surrounded by 4 subsidiary shrines in 4 corners. The garbhagriha is square and their doorways show remarkable similarities with the Gupta period doorways as seen at Eran and Deogarh. The outer wall of temples (the jangha portion) is decorated with figures of various Hindu divinities, such as Asta Dikapalas, the eight direction deities, besides Mahisamardhini, and incarnations of Vishnu occupying the central positions.

A close look at temple walls reveals an array of secular sculptures reflecting the social condition of the period. Caste system was prevalent in the Subcontinent during the period. However, according to sources and the accounts of Arab writer Khardadad, caste system had become slightly flexible during Pratihara rule. The Brahmins had started marrying Kshatriya women/men and the Vaisyas were performing the duty of Sudras as well. Inter-caste marriage was also present. The prominent Sanskrit scholar Rajasekhara had married a Kshatriya girl named Avanti Sundari. Usually men had only one wife but for kings it was an exception as they practised polygamy. There was no purdah system among women.

Women learnt music, dancing and painting. They were very fond of ornaments and also used oil and cosmetics. Silk was most favoured dress material for the riches. Silk used to be so thin and delicate that cloths made of it could pass through a ring. Economy was largely agriculture based. Trade also dominated. Trade items moved to market by a variety of packed animals.

Osian had a tragic end. Muhammad of Ghor and his army attacked the town in 1195 CE. Its inhabitants fled during this attack and never returned thus ending a glorious chapter of its history.  Over a period of time most of the Paratihara temples including the temples of Hari Hara complex lost their sanctity and allowed to decay and the city became a ghost village.

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