By Monidipa Dey
Mandi district in Himachal Pradesh as we now see, was formed by the merging of two princely States of Mandi and Suket, when Himachal Pradesh was created in 1948. The kings of Mandi and Suket are believed to be descendants of the mighty Sena dynasty of Bengal. After the Islamic invasion of Bengal in 1204 when the Sena dynasty lost Gaur, some members of the royal family fled to Ropar in Punjab, where Raja Rup Sen was killed. One of his sons, Bir Sen, then moved to the hills where he formed the State of Suket. While the princely State of Mandi was created sometime in the later part of the 13th century by Bahu Sen, the town of Mandi emerged as a separate entity much later, at the beginning of the 16th century. It is believed that the Suket king Sahu Sen quarrelled with his younger brother Bahu Sen, and the latter left Suket. Bahu Sen later established an independent territory at Manglan in Kullu, and became a local ruler (a Rana) of the Mandi State. It was his descendant Raja Ajber Sen (the 19th descendant of Bahu Sen), who founded the present Mandi city, between 1500 CE-1534 CE, centred around the Bhootnath Temple and building his palace near this temple.
The history of Mandi and Suket states is replete with frequent wars with each other, and also with the other adjoining states. While Mandi and Suket remained bitter rivals but they refrained from producing any devastating effects on each other’s States. Their main bone of contention was the fertile valley of Balh, and both the States wanted control over it. In February 1846 the rulers of Mandi and Suket met Mr. Erskine, the then British Superintendent of the Hill States of India, and secured the protection of the British. Within a month a treaty was signed, which allowed the separation of the Doab area around Satlej and Beas (including Mandi and Suket) from Punjab control, and coming under the rule of the British government.
Not much is known about the history of the Suket part before the Senas took control over it. Until late 8 th century CE the area remained indistinct, as a part of the Punjab Hills, and was under the control of various local chiefs (ranas and thakurs). The only place from this area which finds a mention in the Skandapurana as a teerthbhumi, is Rewalsar. However, the area is full of stories associated with the Mahabharata, and a small village named Karanpur is believed to have been found by Karna, the son of Kunti. Another temple at village Gumma marks the area as the place where the Pandavas stayed after escaping from Lakshagriha.
In the first half of the 20th century, Raja Suraj Sen, who did not have an heir, dedicated the State to God Madhav Rao (Sri Krishna), thus making it a theocratic state. His successors still hold the State in trust for Sri Madhav Rao and act as his representatives on various festivals and other formal occasions. Sri Madhav Rao is the guardian deity of the entire state/district, and all district occasions are held in honour of him. He is also the principal deity of all the gods worshipped within the district of Mandi.
Among the most famous celebrations of Mandi is the Shivratri mela, where more than 200 local deities gather in Mandi town to pay their respects to Madhav Rao. During Holi, Sri Madhav Rao is carried in a chariot and taken to the nearby Bhootnath temple for a visit, and as he returns at day end to his own abode in the palace, the Holi celebrations also stop. The main prasad at this time is luchi (a Bengali form of puris). The town of Mandi holds more 100 temples, both old and new.
Among the old temples that are under the ASI’s protection, the most remarkable ones are: Panchavaktra temple, Trilokinath temple, the unique Ardhanarishwara temple, Bhootnath temple, and Mritunjaya temple. Most of these temples from their architecture and ornamentation appear to have been built in the early medieval era (7 th -8 th c. CE), and were likely to have been extensively renovated during Raja Ajber Sen’s rule in the first half of the 16 th century.
The temple of Ardhanarishwar
The temple of Ardhanarishwar in Mandi is unique as there are few such temples in India that hold the Ardhanarishwara murti as the main deity in the sanctum or garbhagriha. The murti of Ardhnarishwar in this temple has Shiva on its right side, while the left side is that of Parvati. A small piece of stone that is attached with this unique murti depicts the vahanas or mounts of these deities. Here Shiva is depicted with garlands and a snake clinging to his body, while Parvati is adorned with jewellery. There are murtis of other deities within the temple premises and in the niches on temple walls, like that of Brahma, Hanuman, and Bhairava. The temple structure includes a pillared roofless mandapa (the roof was either never built or was destroyed at some point), a tall nagara shikhara, antarala, and a sanctum. The pancharatha shikhara shows chaitya dormers in relief, and there are heavy ornamentations on the temple walls right up to the plinth. There is a sukhnasika (vestibule) on the shikhara front which holds the three faces of Shiva with a standing lion on top. The entrance door top panel (lalatabimba) has a sitting Ganesha, and on top of him on the uttaranga stands Shiva with Parvati.
Travel tips: Mandi can be visited at any time of the year, except during the peak summer months. It is a pretty hill town in Himachal Pradesh, standing beside the river Beas.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)