Heritage · Himalaya · India · Photography · Temple · Travel Writing

The temple of Bhimakali (Sarahan)


On that early may day, after a half hour, as the clock struck three, it was time to explore the place – the temple of Bhimakali , the wrathful form of female energy. I went towards the main door of the temple. It is flanked on either side by a dwarpala (gate-keeper deity) statue of smooth black stone. These statues themselves are somewhat disturbing as the deity appears to have an erect phallus and is apparently standing on a demon that he has slayed.

The main doors are beautiful – made of brass and decorated by heavy silver plates that were prepared by the ‘repousse technique’ – it involves hammering the metal so as to push it out into the desired shape. The doors are ornate and depict scenes from the life of Krishna – on the left is an image of Radha Krishna and on the right we see Krishna dancing on the mythical serpent – Kaliya. In the doors at Sarahan, both silver and gold were used.

Based on the inscription on them were built by the king of Bushahr state – Padam Singh – who reigned from 1927 to 1984.

Some of the artistry is excellent – such as this representation of Shiva on this door – note the bolts at top and bottom in the brass base. The piece here uses both silver and gold in parts that needed to be emphasized – such as Shiva’s third eye (on his forehead).

Once past this doorway, I came to another paved yard that ends where there is a palace like structure through which goes a gate. This two floor structure is used as a storage area and living quarters at this time. The gate has doors plated with silver and flanked on either side by lions with tails rising up sharply.

Once past this door, there is yet another courtyard upon which sat the second enclosed plinth that contains the actual temple. In fact, there are two temples – the one on the right is the one still in use while the one on the left is the older temple and no-longer in use. The doorway to these temples is flanked by statues of tigers on each side.

I walked around in the yard. In the photo shown above, towards the right hand side, there was a well, and behind that the temple of Lanka Vir, the one that lonely planet describes as the site of human sacrifices in the nineteenth century and possibly later as well. Next to the temple of lanka vir, (Kali’s consort) is a small newish building with a glass front that contains implements, utensils and objects d’art of the local area. This building has ornate pillars, a sloping slate roof, and while the door for entering this building was locked but it is helpfully labelled ‘museum’ so it must be that . Out front were a large karahi (vat used to make rice dishes) and a degh (for either cooking a gravy based dish or storing grain or pulses).

I looked up and observed the Bhimkali temple. For a place like sarahan, it is an imposing size – five floors high and not any evidence of usage of mortar – just beams joined carefully together and stones placed betwixt them. Even the platform shows no evidence of any cement or lime usage. These temples are a leading example of a style of architecture called ‘kath-khuni‘ wherein kath is the local word for wood. In this style, the building rises atop wood and stone walls from a stone plinth and is topped by the main floor used for residential (in this case votive) purpose and is topped by a sloping roof of slate stone shingles. The residential floor is cantilevered so as to project beyond the main tower. This style is very well suited to the climate and geology of these middle ranges of the himalayas. The materials are locally available, the construction pace is fast and best of all, in the event of an earthquake, the structure is resilient as it is not rigid and stress is said to be dissipated.

The wood work in the panels and windows is profusely carved. The photo below shows panels of the older, disused temple.

A ventilation panel depicts mythical animals – I suspect some are late additions with folk art influence as seen below – apparently mermaids.

On the front side of the temple, I saw hanging on the wall a pair of crossed swords topped by a shield – a symbol that the temple was used as a fort at some point of time. It was then that the layout, concentric walls with each level rising higher than the previous one started making perfect sense. This place wasn’t just a temple, it was safe haven during unsettled times for the royals.

Photography is prohibited in the innermost enclosure and lockers are available inside the second enclosure – I deposited my camera bag in one such and went inside the second doorway and then up the stairs inside the temple. I recall it was quite dark despite being day time and once I was upstairs, a family was offering prayers to the goddess. I bent down momentarily and received ‘prasad’ from the priest and then came downstairs.

Having retrieved my camera, I lingered on just long enough to catch hold of another priest, who was coming down the stairs of the second gate. After some pleasantries, I hesitatingly asked him about the human sacrifice stories and whether there was any truth in them.

He said, “Yes it used to happen in old days, not any longer.”

“I pestered on – how did they do it. “

“Why do you want to know? “

“Generally, I’m curios. “

Theek hai ji (Ok, fine). I will tell you the details. First, the man who was chosen (typically a villager from within the kingdom) was kept in captivity for six months or more. He was fed the choicest of dishes – sweets, meat dishes, all laden with ghee – with the intent that the healthier the sacrifice, the more pleased the god would be. During his time of captivity, he was asked to prepare a rope with his own hands. When the appointed day dawned, after a good bath, this man would be taken to a tree on the slope behind the temple. You see those trees? (He pointed to a few seen in the photograph below where the bright green lends way to a duller color). The rope had been tied between that tree on one end and the well, you see in front of the temple, here. The man would be sat one leg on either side of the rope while the rope would be taut. His legs were weighed down and hands were tied loosely to each leg so he could not escape. He would then be slid down the rope and usually, be halved before the time he reached the temple. “

“Are there still any kind of sacrifices?”

“Well, chicken and buffalo still happen. It all depends on faith – if your work is done by the blessings of the goddess, you’d bring a sacrifice. Bigger the work, bigger the sacrifice.”

He smiled and left me to my devices, which were quite numb by then. It was eerily quiet in the premises and I felt like leaving – and I just did.

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