Vistas of Vidarbha (Part 2): The story and history of Ramtek Garh Temple ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

I have been reading ‘History of Sacred Places’ by Hans Bakker and the chapter on Ramtek (near Nagpur) shows that it was an ancient centre of Vishnu in the 18th century. After the struggle between the Peshwas and the Mughals, the region of Berar or Vidarbha came under the control of the Marathas (Parsoji Bhonsle). This reshuffle of power brought two ancient places, after nearly 400 years, under the influence of a sovereign Hindu power. One was Pandharpur, located in the Solapur district of Maharashtra- which I have written about earlier; and the other is Ramtek situated 45 kilometres northeast of Nagpur. This land has seen so much history. Epigraphical pieces of evidence indicate the reign of the Vakataka dynasty (3rd -5th century AD), Rashtrakuta kings (6th Century AD), then the Chalukyas (6th -12th Century AD), the Kalucari kings and the Yadavas (King Simhana in AD 1240).

The Vakataka dynasties strengthened their power by forming political alliances with the Gupta dynasty kings and also through a marriage alliance of  Rudrasena II with Prabhavatigupta who was the daughter of Chandragupta II, the ruler of the ruler of the Gupta dynasty and queen Kuberanaga. Rudrasena passed away suddenly passed away leaving the young 25 year old Prabhavati as a widow with three sons who were still children and not old enough to rule. So Prabhavatigupta assumed the reigns of government and ruled in the name of her eldest son Divakarsena and ruled for nearly 20 years and later till her 2nd son took charge. This history is important as it is closely connected to the oldest structures at Ramtek .

As you drive up from the Ramtek village to the hill, you find the round Ambala Lake, where several new temples were constructed. As you reach the destination, near the car park is the Sindoor Baoli, which looks like a stepwell. It looks beautiful, but the litter around the place shows that the local authorities have not taken any seriousness in preserving this place of heritage.

Close to the Sindur Baoli stepwell is a walk to the ruins of the Trivikram temple. Unfortunately the idol that is made in red stone is badly mutilated. There are no signages or information and you can easily miss the temple.

As we climbed the steps towards the Ramtek Garh Temple, we come across the oldest structures in the complex that dates back to the 5th century AD. First of all there is a square open temple- a platform with a covering and supported by four pillars ornamented by lotus flowers. In the centre stands the Varaha Avatar in a theriomorphic (animal form) image of a boar.

Close by is a shrine of Narasimha in the anthropomorphic form with a lion’s head. Personally, I have gone to so many Narasimha shrines, but have not seen anything like this. The shrine is known as Kevala Narasimha Temple Inscriptions and research by Hans Bakker indicate that these structures are from the Vakataka era (5th century). The Rāmtek Kevala Narasiṃha temple inscription is also a key and unique record for the history of the Vākāṭaka kings and their interrelations with the Gupta dynasty. It was in the year 1982 that archaeologist Dr. A. P. Jamkhedkar and team found a cluster of temples dated to 5th century AD. This Narasimha temple is the oldest surviving Vakataka temple and oldest stone temple in Maharashtra. Even though Queen Prabhavati was married into a dynasty that worshipped Lord Shiva, she yielded enough influence to worship the deity of her choice – that is Lord Vishnu. She was responsible for the spread of Vaishnavism in the Vidarbha region. The Narasimha idol is in an unusual stance – that in a royal ease and with a ‘prayog chakra’ (the Sudarshana Chakra held vertically). The carved pillars resemble those found in the Ajanta Caves that were patronized by the Vakataka kings. The temple does not have any windows either.

When we reached the temple, the shrine was locked but we could see the figure of Narasimha. But there are no lights, no active worship and the area looked in desperate need of maintenance.

It is in the 13th century that Ramtek, or Ramagiri evolved from a local holy place to a sacred centre of Vaishnavism, where Lord Rama Avatara took the central position. The Bhonsles in the 18th century made Nagpur their new capital and initiated new constructions. Raghuji Bhonsle I is credited with the construction of fortifications on the Ramtek Hill, which became crowned by a citadel that included older temples and gave space to new ones too.

So why is the place known as Ramtek? It is believed that during the exile Lord Ram had come here with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana and taken a break in these hills. It was here that e took a vow that he would annihilate all the demons on the face of the earth. Hence the place came to be known as ‘Ram Tek’ or ‘the vow of Lord Rama’.

After visiting the Varaha Temple, there is a temple called ‘Dattatreya Temple’. However, the idol looked like it was dedicated to Lord Rama and had no resemblance to Dattatreya. A flight of steps gets you to the main fort temple that is at an elevation of 354 metres.

The Ramagiri Fortress

As you enter the temple, there is a temple for Lakshmana in the front . Around it are shrines for Lord Hanuman, and an orange Sudarshan Chakra that is placed on a stone slab (picture below).

Sudarshana Chakra

As you perambulate clockwise, you find shrines for Kausalya (Lord Rama’s mother), and at the back of the Lakshmana Temple is the main Rama Temple.

Kausalya Temple

Notice the fantastic architecture, the spire and carvings in the complex.

An aside: The spire of the Ramtek inspired the Soaji weaver community of Vidharba to create the Karvati Kinar sarees. Karvati means ‘saw’ in Marathi.The border of this saree has a typical saw-toothed motif. Most of these designs are derived from the spire and sculptures seen at the Ramtek temple. These sarees are handcrafted using Tussar silk sourced in the Vidarbha regions of Nagpur, Bhandara and Gondia regions.

At the back of the temple is an elevated area which you can climb to catch the most spectacular views. We wete there at sunset and it sure did make a pretty sight.

As we circumambulated, I came across a shrine of Ekadashi Mata, the Goddess who governs the 11th day or ‘tithi‘ of the lunar cycle.  Ekadashi is supposed to be favourite day of Lord Krishna and devotees observe a fast just so that they are close to Krishna.  

From the top you also get the view of the Jain Temple of Shantinath at Ramtek. The temple is swarming with monkeys, as is seen in most Lord Rama temples and you have to be cautious with your belongings!!

Ramtek also has a Kalidasa Memorial built in honour of the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa (4th-5th century), which is a minute’s drive from Sindoor Baoli. It is said that the natural beauty of Ramgiri during the monsoon inspired him to compose the lyrical epic poem Meghdoot, where the exiled protagonist (a Yaksha or nature spirit) urges a cloud to carry his messenger to convey his love to his wife residing in a distant hill.

It was an enlightening visit and I would certainly recommend a visit to Ramtek, should you be travelling in Vidarbha. However, I need to reiterate that civic authorities need to spruce up the place , contain encroachments and provide alternate place for the shopkeepers for their livelihood. There seems to be public litigation in the Nagpur High Court by amicus curiae Anand Jaiswal and I hope there will be an outcome that will help preserve this part of Indian History.

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