by Dhananjaya Bhat
What is the oldest Hindu temple in India is a very intriguing question. The use of the term ‘oldest’ is a bit risky when talking about temples associated with Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Simply because no one has been able to clearly state how old Sanatana Dharma is, although the age of our oldest scriptures the Rig Veda has been attrtibuted of 3500 years ago. Say this temple is the oldest and immediately another person will come with something much older.
All of us have been nurtured by our elders,that most of the temples had been existing for thousands of year. But recently archaeology – radio carbon dating of historical sites have thrown lot of light into the actual scientific history of our temples.
As per these evaluations temple construction in India started only about 2000 years ago!.
Initally after the era of brickwork the Hindu devotees, seems to have concentrated on the cave temples, as these were ready made structures.
There the people buried their dead and covered the graves with huge stone circles. The Shakyas in the north, however, adopted cremation, collected relics and places them in a stupa for worship. It was further placed in a cave called Chaitya. The first such caves were created at Rajagir around 500 B.C.The caves at Mahur are guarded by huge figures of Yakshas and carry several Megalithic circles on their top suggesting a large Shakya population in its surrounding. The chaitya worship stopped after 300 B.C. when Manu Smriti, the ultimate arbiter of Hindu orthodoxy, prescribed shraddha ( death anniversary) and immersion of relics in rivers and seas.
Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh became popular to be worshipped in a temple.These structures built of bricks and wood were perishable. Therefore, a cave temple carrying portraits of various deities was started. The image of sage Parasurama with Indra and Surya in the background in the cave at Bhaje dated around 400 B.C. is the first example of such a cave temple. Several such caves were created upto 300 B.C. They, however, proved to be unpopular mainly because the Chaityas were an abode of the dead worshipped by the Buddhists.
The oldest temples that were built of brick and wood no longer exist. Stone later became the preferred material. Temples marked the transition of Hinduism from the Vedic religion of ritual sacrifices to a religion of Bhakti or love and devotion to a personal deity. Temple construction and mode of worship is governed by ancient sanskrit scriptures called agamas, of which there are several, which deal with individual deities. There are substantial differences in architecture, customs, rituals and traditions in temples in different parts of India. South India is very different from the north. Hundreds, if not thousands, of ancient temples were destroyed during Islamic rule in India (especially in North India) between 1200 AD and 1700 AD. South India was spared this tragedy and therefore has more large temples still standing.
The stone temples in South India are unique creations as abodes of God. Vastushastra required that a sanctum should have a roof without any support or pillars. To achieve this, brick arch creating a circular dome was evolved in north India creating temples at Gaya, Ujjain and somnath.
Unlike South India, it is rare to come across an ancient temple in north India that has not been reconstructed. In south India , experience with cave temples created a special expertise and all the elements such as a garbhagriha mandapa, antaral were created at Ellora and other places. What remained was shikhara for which experiments were made at Mahabalipuram
In conclusion , it may be stated that the artists created a sanctum with pyramide like stone roof with a capstone and a canopy around A.D. 150 the technique spread towards north via Parashurameshwar temple at Bhubaneswar , replacement of brick temples at Bodh Gaya, Ujjain and Somnath.In South Indiathe famous sculptors of Kanchipuram gave lead to Tamilnadu.
The 2004 tsunami off the coast of Tamilnadu brought into relief two very old temples of south India. When the tsunami scoured away the sands near Mahabalipuram 60 kilometres from Chennai, it has left uncovered two temples and Dr Satchidanandamurti from India's Archeological Survey, opines that there is evidence here of two temples. a pallava temple at least 800 years old on top, and beneath, a much older one - around 2,000 years old.
Again seldom visited by westerners because of its remote location in the western state of Gujarat, are the fascinating and extremely beautiful Jagatmandir temple bordered on one side by the ocean coast and on the other side by the town of Dwarka. One of India's most venerated pilgrimage sites, scholars confirm that the oldest parts of the Jagatmandir temple may only date to the reconstructions of the Gupta period in 413 AD.
If one were to look out for the oldest Hindu temple functioning today, and not in ruins, we are on safer grounds and it is the Ma Mundeshwari Temple in Kaimur District of Bihar, and it is one of the oldest Hindu temples temples in the world. It has been restored by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and its construction date is ascribed to . 108 A D. Since then rituals and worship have been taking place at this temple without a break. Thus making it the oldest functional Hindu temple ( in fact any place of worship )in the world.
Ma Mundeshwari temple is situated atop the Kaimur Hill (608ft). and is in an octagonal shape. The sanctum sanctorum of the shrine has an idol of Devi – Mundeshwari. There is also a ‘Chaturmukha Shivling’ in the sanctum sanctorum. A clear indication that Shiva and Shakti were worshipped here. It is also an indication that the temple might be part of the Tantric cult which is quite popular in the Eastern part of India..
Apart from Shiva and Shakti, this temple also has idols of other popular gods in the Hindu pantheon including Ganesha, Surya, Vishnu and Mother Goddess.
This temple attracts devotees during festivals like Ramnavami and Shivratri. Interestingly, the present caretaker of the temple is Muslim, yet another example of the religious harmony at the grassroots level in India.