A Medieval Religious center of Natha and Mahanubhava Sect in Maharashtra

Old temples reveal the rich tapestry of religious life in medieval Maharashtra.

Vijay Sarde
| 12 min read
October 24, 2021
Jabareshwar Temple
Photo by Vijay Sarde

About 107 km from Pune and 64 km from Satara, there are two towns called Phaltan and Malthan, both situated on the banks of River Banganga. The river divides the place into two halves: the settlement situated on the eastern side of the river is known as ‘Phaltan’ and to the western is known as ‘Malthan’. In medieval times, the place was known as ‘Phalastha Nagari’, Phalasthal, ‘Phalethan’, ‘Phalpatan’.1 From the period of the Yadavas (13th century CE) onwards, these two sites have been a religious center for Jainas, Nathas, Mahanubhavas, Vaishnavas, and Shakta sampradayas.

The remains of temples, monasteries, sculptures, fort, step wells, hero stones, palaces, dargahs are scattered all over the town. These remains date from the 13th century to the 20th century CE. Among these remains the magnificent medieval temples belonging to Shaiva, Mahanubhavas, and Jains are notable. Few important temples are Jabareshvar, Narasimha, Datta, Mahadev, Mankeshvar, Kashi Vishweshvar, Bhavani Devi, Khandoba, Shri Krishna, and Chandra Prabhu. Apart from the Jabareshvar temple, little attention has been paid by scholars to other temples. In what follows we will highlight the archaeological remains and the sectarian origins of some of the important temples of Phaltan and Malthan.

Jabareshvar temple

Jabareshvar temple (dated to roughly the second half of the 13th century CE) is one of the earliest and amongst the most beautiful temples of Phaltan. Until now, scholars have identified this temple as originally a Jaina shrine.2 Several sculptures are depicted on the jangha (the portion of the mandovara) and pillars of the temple. Among these, images of various surasundaris, siddhas, yogis, Bhairav, Sarasvati, Ashtadikpalas, Kaniphanath (a Natha yogi), and Bahudi Yogini, amorphous figures, and various musicians are prominently carved. Women sculptures are predominately carved on this temple. At present, a shivalinga is visible in the sanctum of the temple. The loose sculptures of the serpent and Vishnu are also kept in the devakoshthas (niches for divinities) of the temple.

Jabreshvar Temple

The sectarian origins of Jabareshvar temple: According to some scholars, the Jabareshvar temple is a Jain shrine. To relate the temple to Jainas, scholars have considered the sculptures of naked yogis depicted on the temple as evidence. However, this view is incorrect for multiple reasons. First, naked sculptures are not visible only on Jain temples. Such sculptures can be easily observed on other Hindu temples as well. In many temples, Natha and Shaiva ascetics are shown as nude. In Maharashtra, sculptures of naked sadhus are seen at temples such as Aundha-Nagnath, Vaishnava temple at Anwa, Sakaleshvar temple at Ambajogai, Ballalai temple at Brahmani, Someshvar Mahadev temple at Pimpri-Dumala, etc. Most of these naked ascetics belong to the Pashupata-Kalamukha and Natha sampradaya. Phaltan and Malthan was also a major center of the Natha sampradaya, as evident in the findings of the sculptures of Matsyendranath and other Natha-yogis (see below). A sculpture on the Jabareshvar temple is associated with the lives of Kaniphanath (Kanha) and Yogini Bahudi.3  Apart from this, several sculptures similar to the iconography of Nath yogis are seen on the temple, which can be easily seen on other Natha related temples of Maharashtra.

There is a depiction of some unknown Siddha on the lalatbimba of the temple. Such depictions are also seen on other Hindu temples in Maharashtra. For instance, the Bhairavnath temple at Kikli in Satara district and the Mahadev temple at Tisgaon in Ahmednagar district have a Siddha depiction on their lalatbimbas. Therefore, it cannot be said that such depictions appear only on Jain temples. There are also other sculptures of Sarasvati, Bhairav ​​and Ashtadikpalas depicted on the Jabareshvar temple. Moreover, it is common in Jain temples to have sculptures of Tirthankaras, but nothing is visible on the padpitha of the naked yogis, depicted on the Jabareshvar temple, to suggest that they are Jain Tirthankaras.

Datta Temple and a Monastery

Datta temple (late 13th to early 14th centuries CE) at Malthan is important from the point of view of Natha and Mahanubhava sampradaya. Datta temple is a monastic Shiva temple. Several sculptures are depicted on the hall, pillars, and on the mandovara (exterior wall) of the temple. The images of Natha-yogis and other gods and goddesses are carved on the beam in the four corners of the hall. On entering the hall of the temple on the left-hand side, one can see an image of Matsyendranath in ardha-padmasana and jnana-mudra (see image below). He is shown sitting on a large fish. There is probably a yogi in jalandhara-bandha (a yogic posture) carved on the beam on the right side of the hall. He is depicted with a yogapatta. Apart from the sculptures of Nath-yogis, sculptures of Bhairav, Mahishasurmardini, Keval Shiva, Nritya Ganesha, Nritya Sarasvati, Seshashayi Vishnu, Kuber, Sugriva-Vali, Naga-Nagin are also depicted in the temple. There is also a Nagashilpa placed near the nandimandapa.

Matsyendranatha1

Yogi in a physical posture

Several yogis are depicted as bharavahakas (load bearers) on the top of the mandovara of the temple. Of these, a naked yogi in ‘Pashini mudra’ or ‘dvipadashirasana’ is shown outside the sanctum of the temple (see image above). Other yogis may have been shown to represent the urdhvareta (yogi who has obtained command over the seminal discharge), whose lingas are depicted in larger sizes. Some erotic sculptures are also depicted on the temple. Possibly these sculptures belong to the Nath-Shaiva tantric tradition. During the later period, a distinct seat (gaddi) of the Mahanubhavas has been installed at the entrance gate and at the hall of the temple.

The sectarian origins of the Datta Temple: The Datta temple at Malthan is originally a Shaiva shrine. Nevertheless, today it is an important shrine for the Mahanubhava sampradaya, who are followers of KrishnaThe priest of the temple is also a follower of the Mahanubhava sampradaya. This place is historically associated with one of the Panch-Krishnas of the Mahanubhava sampradaya, Changdev Raul, who was born in Phaltan in the c. 12th century CE. The details of his life before the foundation of the Mahanubhava sampradaya is unclear. Nevertheless, the sculptures on the Datta temple provide a possible clue as to the sectarian origins of Changdev Raul. The sculptures of Matsyendranath, other Nath yogis and a yogi in Pashini mudra or Dvipada-shirasana depicted on the Datta temple suggest originally an association of the temple with Natha sampradaya. The architecture around the Datta temple could be of the monastery of the Nathas. The legends of Changdev Raul are closely associated with this temple, therefore, the followers of Mahanubhava sect had to claim authority over this temple (which was originally Natha) in the later period and establish the spiritual seat of Changdev Raul within the temple. 

Mahadeva Temple

Mahadeva temple (late 13th to early 14th centuries CE) at Malthan is also important from the point of view of Natha and Mahanubhava sampradaya. Situated next to the Datta temple, the Mahadeva temple is also associated with Changdev Raul. The condition of the temple is good, but the shikhara (spire) and nandimandapa are now destroyed. The ground plan of the temple consists of a mandapa (hall), antarala (vestibule), and a garbhagriha (sanctum). There is also another garbhagriha attached to the north of the temple. At present, there is no idol in this second garbhagriha.

Mahadev Temple

Several sculptures are depicted on the temple, but the bharavahakas (load bearer) are depicted with great beauty. Other than the bharavahakas, some important sculptures are seen on the ardhastambhas (pilasters) of the hall. Among them, two sculptures of Matsyendranath are noteworthy. One of these sculptures is depicted on the ardhastambhas on the left side as one enters the hall. This pillar is adjacent to the antarala of the second garbhagriha. In this sculpture, Matsyendra is shown sitting on a fish in padmasana. His face is shown towards the west. He has a veena (lute) in his hand, which he is playing. The danda (a club) and kamandalu (a vase, generally carried by ascetics) are shown on his right side (see image below).

Matsyendranatha2

Matsyendranatha3

The other sculpture is on the ardhastambha on the left (see image above). In this, Matsyendranath is probably depicted in ardha-Matsyendrasana and in vyakhyan-mudra (hand posture of exposition). He is also wearing armlets and yogapatta. One danda has been placed on both sides of Matsyendra. A fish is shown on a padpitha (a foot stool). Apart from the Matsyendranatha sculptures, Nritya Ganesha, Sarasvati, erotic sculptures, various types of bharavahakas, unknown Natha-yogi with veena, Ganda bherund (two-headed bird), and possibly a depiction of Nagnatha are remarkable. There is no idol on the jangha of the temple.

Other Temples

So far, we have described the three most important temples of Phaltan and Malthan, and discussed their significance. Apart from the temples mentioned above, Shri Krishna temple (dated to 13th-14th century CE, but was probably extended in 15th-16th century CE) on the banks of the river Banganga is also noteworthy. It is the shrine of the Mahanubhava sampradaya and is associated with Changdev Raul and Yadava king Singhan. There is also a monastery of the Mahanubhava sampradaya, where the followers of Mahanubhava reside even today. Other prominent temples of Phaltan are the Narasimha (in ruins now but an interesting sculpture of a yogi sitting in Padmasana can be seen), Mankeshwar, Kashi Vishweshvar, Kalabhairavnath, Bhavani Devi, Khandoba, and Rama temple. All these temples can be assigned to 13th-15th century CE, on its art and architectural grounds). 

To conclude, this area is a rich archaeological site that depicts the vibrant religious life of medieval Maharashtra and the intense interaction between various religious sects. More attention is required on this site from archaeologists and historians.

Vijay Sarde is an archaeologist based in Pune. He holds a Phd from Deccan College, Pune, specializing in early Natha archaeology in Maharashtra. 

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