By Monidipa Dey
Teli ka mandir or the ‘oilman’s temple,’ as it is popularly referred to by the British era archeologists and historians, is among the unique structures seen inside the Gwalior fort. Standing tall at more than 100 feet height, this beautiful temple shows a curious architectural mix of the North and South Indian temple styles. While earlier there have been many debates on the time of its construction, currently based on inscriptions, paleographic evidences, and architectural styles, the archeologists have conclusively derived that the temple was built sometime in the mid 8th century CE, during the reign of Yasovarman of Kanauj.
The unique rectangular shape of the sanctum has also led to many contrasting views on the original presiding deity of this temple. Various theories say that the temple could have been dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, or the Shaivite Saptamatrikas. The long rectangular shaped sanctum could have easily held long panels of the seven matrikas or Vishnu in his anantasayana posture. Currently the triratha sanctum of this pancharatha styled temple holds a Shiva lingam and a Nandi.
Externally the temple is divided into two separate parts: the lower part that holds niches with tall pinnacles, and the upper half that holds horizontal mouldings. The imposing superstructure over the sanctum shows a mixed architecture of a Valabhi sikhara built on a Nagara base.
The entrance doorway faces east, is 35 ft. high, and approached by a flight of stairs. There are many sketches and inscriptions on the walls of this temple that can be palaeographically dated back to the 8th century CE. Among these there is a lyrical hymn that gives an iconographical description of devi Durga.
The temple walls are richly carved showing chaitya motifs, empty niches with tall pinnacles, and figures on the vedibandha. There is a relief of a Garuda carved on the upper panel of the tall entrance way to the temple, which had once led Cunningham to believe that the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu. There are the two river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on the door jambs of the entry door to the temple, while the panels on the side of the entrance way (dwarasakhas) show floral motifs and mithuna couples.
Along with the retinue of attendants of the two river devis, interestingly right above Ganga there is a carving of Bhagirath standing on one leg and performing his penance, while above Yamuna is carved a Lakulisha shown wearing yogapatta and carrying his danda. The wagon vault shaped roof of Teli ka Mandir is quite similar to some of the gopuram superstructures that we see in south Indian temples. While the ornamentations and base design show the north Indian temple (Nagara) style.
There is one line of thought that says that this feature of combining two styles is unique to the temples in the Telegu land; hence the original name of the temple was likely to have been ‘Telingana mandir’ that eventually got morphed into Teli ka mandir.
However, here are no historical proofs for this belief. Similarly, as per another local belief that has no historical basis, is that the temple was built by oil (tel) merchants; hence known as Teli ka mandir. According to the ASI reports written by Alexander Cunningham (1882-83), the temple was extensively damaged during Iltutmish’s attack; however there were later attempts at restoring it during the Tomara rule.
This accounts for some of the features seen on the temple that distinctly appear as later period additions. The temple was also extensively renovated during the colonial period by British archaeological teams. Now under the ASI protection, this beautiful temple stands as an example of a unique style created through combination of two different temple forms, and a design with musical harmonics integrated in its architecture.
Travel Tips: Teli ka Mandir is best explored during the cooler winter months or during monsoons when the place turns a beautiful green. The Gwalior fort holds many more structures, and will take one whole day to explore it completely.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)