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Around the sun
Trekking up the mountain trail composed entirely of sedimentary rocks, one is not left unsurprised by the barrenness of the surrounding land and a near lack of houses and vegetation in this sleepy part of Kumaon. Just when you think you’ve hiked enough under the merciless summer sun, you reach the ascent of a village whose entrance is marked not by the usual clamour of children, but by that of a young boy who begins to emanate strange sounds upon your arrival.
Leaning against a historical-looking gate and merrily throwing pebbles at you, he sings a melancholy Kumaoni tune in his peculiar, high-pitched voice. The mentally challenged boy is a castaway outside the city citadels, a reminder of the norm of the times when kings ruled. Other villagers seem oblivious to both his presence, and what might have been, their own history.
A small grocery shop on the way seems like the only link with life that might exist here.
What brings me here is the search for 12th century Hindu architecture, which surprises me for its resemblance with the Ajanta caves of Maharashtra. Welcome to Katarmal, a mysterious yet stunning temple structure about 17 km north-east of Almora, in Uttarakhand. It is the second largest sun temple after Konark (Odisha) and no, no guide books on Kumaon will tell you about it.
Built by Raja Katarmalla Deb of the Katyuri clan, Katarmal stands at 2,216 metres in Almora hills, and is dedicated to Badaditya, or the old sun god. The Katyuri kings introduced architectural innovations in stone against the old-fashioned brick, which makes this 900-year-old temple rich in design. Tall, old and sturdy, it rises from nowhere between a thick cover of pine, where the latter seems to secretly conceal it from the eye of the commoner.
The temple’s magnificent architecture has sculptures in stone and metal and beautifully carved pillars and wooden doors, apart from a cluster of 44 little temples surrounding it. The doors of the smaller shrines, now either stolen or consumed by time, once held intricate carvings of gods and goddesses - a fact that throws light on the contemporary religious beliefs of the Kumaoni Katyuris. Inscriptions on the temple, which may have borne the details of its birth, lie unreadable today. The only text decipherable is 'Malla Deb’, an obvious marker of the Katyuris. The present mandapa of the temple may have been constructed much later.
At the gate of the main shrine lies a statue of a kingly figure in ashtadhatu, sitting in jnana mudra. This almost-five-feet icon is a landmark in the history of Indian iconography. Folklore asserts that hordes of ancient coins, jewellery and precious stones lie under the central mandapa, and have secretly been guarded by numerous snakes over centuries unknown to you and me.
From the pages
A historical examination of the origin of the temple and its patrons seems imperative here. It is said that the Aryans had but little knowledge of the Kumaon Himalaya, which became more complete as they approached the Ganges. A large chunk of the Kumaoni race has been scientifically and culturally proven to be that of the Khasas/Khasiyas, who, as older writings suggest, were regarded as the more degraded members of the Aryan stock but a powerful race all the same. The Katyuri kings of Kumaon, who formed the stock of numerous principalities in the hills from the 8th to the 12th century AD, therefore trace their lineage to the Khasas.
Being the legacy of the Kessite-Assyrian rule, sun worship in Kumaon had an independent growth dominated by folk elements. It was different from its prevalent mode in Odisha and South India where the subjective side of the sun as the source of all light and life is worshipped. Kumaoni sun god was a local version of the Mithras, a Roman deity who was favoured by traders and travellers all the way from classic Rome to the deserts of the Far East.
The Shaka (Cythinan) rulers of India were also devout sun worshippers. The fact that Kumaon was once under the rule of Ashoka (who belonged to the Shaka tribe) as attested by the evidence of several edicts in the Dehradoon valley, also gives leverage to the above fact. The main deity of the temple, sun god, is seen riding a horse and his gear reveals Central Asian influences. He adorns high-rise boots, a tunic and a pointed cap, both of which attires do not form a part of the dominant Kumaoni religious pantheon.
A propelling intrigue arises when one witnesses the temple in the first go - a gorgeous, massive structure craning itself in the middle of a dry, rocky terrain where the grey of its stone is camouflaged with the grey of the skies under which it looms. This isolated entity seems to be struggling to maintain its heroism against the tide of time, history and culture. The lonely, rugged village path that leads to it, the surrounding cover of Chir and the overwhelming silence enveloping the architectural premises, stand in sharp contrast to the ancient capital city of Baijnath on the same site, which must’ve once been the flourishing centre of arts and commerce under the Katyuris.
As they performed
Legend goes that the ruling agency had assigned the surrounding villages with the task of providing entertainment. Young village girls were termed devchelis as they were patronised by the rajas for the purpose of song and dance and other indulgences. The temple also conducted sacrificial rituals. For centuries, women folk of the village took to prostitution as a legal means of livelihood. Ironically, till the 20th century, daughters of Katarmal village would never be married off to the sons of another village as their lineage was considered corrupt and impure.
Two signboards, one marking the route to Katarmal, and another one in the temple premises describing its historical-cultural importance, are seemingly the only government installations in the name of preservation, granted by the Archaeological Survey of India. The classic monument, despite its historic value and grandeur, dons a sad hat, clearly falling prey to oblivion, obscurity and the blurring of identity.
The idol of Raja Pondre has been stolen and relocated. The massive shikhar of the main temple lies severely damaged, a loss which some historians attribute to the attack of the Rohillas in the declining Katyuri period. The smaller surrounding shrines lie devoid of any idols, and those that remain are desecrated.
Today, the sprawling courtyard does not resound with the jingle of the dancing girl’s ghungroo, nor does the raja pursue in delight a game of wrestling. What certainly looms is an eeriness that sweeps languishingly over the legendary duo - the temple which struggles to maintain its mark against both natural and human vandalism, and the village that somewhere still bears the brunt of the unceremonious profession of its daughters.