I arrive into Osiyan by night train from Jaisalmer. When the train pulls into the platform it is still dark. It is hardly four in the morning. Half awake, I find an empty bench before the closed ticket counters. I continue the rest of my sleep without disturbance until at half six in the morning when a woman comes to sweep the foyer. I get up, along with others who have been napping here, and walk out of the station. Another day begins on the road of travel.
I know that Osiyan is an ancient temple town. In fact, it goes by the epithet “Khajuraho of Rajasthan.” Problem is that I have not done enough research on the place. I know the temples are quite old, about a 1000 years old. Without a map, I will have to make enquiries along the way. I start walking towards town. The shops are all shut, except for some early tea stalls warming up parched throats. A few school children are on their way to school. Women are sweeping fine dust from their courtyards. Surrounded by vast stretches of desert in which Osiyan stands as an oasis, fine sand is common everywhere.
I take a small path between houses and arrive at the first temple of the day. It is a small one with an entrance porch on one side, the shikara on the other and two balconies on the remaining sides. The central mandapa is small and compact. For a temple of this size, the reliefs stands magnificently. Packed details on the shikara, like in the grand Orissan style, catch the rising sun and glow golden to match the desert sands that surround Osiyan. In an aedicule below the shikara, Lord Narasimha vanquishes the demon whose form has been eroded by age and exposure. Pilasters, pillars, capitals and corners are beautifully sculpted in relief. The twin balconies are superb. One unique motif here that runs like a continuous frieze is of waves, one wave folded into another. Another motif rises in waves from a semi-circle and joins inverted horizontal bars. This is similar to what I had seen in Abhaneri.
Walking further down I arrive at the Sachiya Mata Temple, more commonly called the Jaimataji Mandir. The shops at the entrance are mostly open, selling flowers, coconuts and other offerings for the goddess who resides above. A long flight of steps go up a hill on which the main temple stands. The pillars flanking this stairway are beautiful and so are the torana arches linking them; but I can’t help feeling that they are modern. Hence much of the magic I feel in admiring old temples is lost here. The stairway is decorated. The shikara on top towers high, at least by the perspective of looking at it so close. The mandapa leading to it has a domical ceiling with concentric floral motifs and brackets. Pillars supporting the dome are joined by torana arches. Including the torana arches on the way here, these elements suggest Jain influence.
I join the queue winding past the sanctum where priests are busy making pujas. The queue moves quickly. All I get are glimpses of beautiful sculptures on the walls. Into the antarala space, the queue pauses for darshan. This part of the temple is an unsightly mix of dangling electric cables, a fan hung from above, glass and mirror work decorating pillars and walls. A small image of the deity is installed inside. Devotees are assembled under the dome at a lower level. They are singing bhajans.
I walk out to the terraces. Many small shikaras dot the temple complex. Unusually, there are some chhatris as well. The temple is protected by high walls with fort-like crenellations. At places, projections suggest bastions. In the open landscape before me I can see many small temples dotting the scene.
I come down from the hill by the same easy steps and move on to these temples. I spend a long time admiring all the details here. The temples appear to be dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Although his image is nowhere to be seen in the empty sanctums, I can tell by the image of Garuda over the doorway lintel. Sculptures of Narasimha, Varaha, Vishnu, Trivikrama and Harihara reinforce this belief that these were Vishnu temples. Lord Ganesha in aedicules, Mahashasuramardini, elephants sculpted on projected brackets, wave motifs seen earlier today, door jambs containing Ganga and Jamuna, superb kirtimukhas and purna kumbhas on pillars, capitals with beautiful floral reliefs are just some of the many wonders of this modest group of temples. I say modest because of their unimpressive scale.
In the space before the sanctum entrance, which we can call an antarala, the ceiling generally contains superb panels of nagas. In these panels the snakes knot into each other beautifully. One temple has a central shikara on the main temple, surrounded by four corner shrines with smaller shikaras. Another temple has a dome over the mandapa instead of a flat roof. Interestingly, a curved roof connects this central space to the sides of the mandapa. I can’t help feeling that these temples are derived from the ones at Aihole and Pattadakal. Parapets of balconies bear superb reliefs. The details are rich and beautiful. A visitor can dismiss all these details quickly, perhaps due to similarity with what he has already seen in other places. To me, each one is a new experience, a new opportunity to relive the wonders of ancient India.
Close to these temples is another temple whose shikara survives. The mandapa facing it has beautiful pillars and beams laid out on their capitals. The roof is completely gone and this puts all the focus on the surviving pillars. Pillar reliefs catch the morning sun in all glory. When sunlight falls at an angle on these reliefs, there is a symbiosis at play. Does the sun need these reliefs to separate itself from the shadows? Or do these reliefs need the sun to reveal their magnificence?
A few paces from this temple, which is fairly hidden amongst the trees, is a stepwell that’s similar to the one in Abhaneri. Unlike the latter, it is not touristy and neither is it maintained in any manner. The steps built in its sides present typical V-shaped patterns as they descend to regular landings. The steps are laid out on three sides while on the eastern side two flights of steps descend as a pair by sharp bends to the central section of the eastern part. They pass sheltered balconies that open towards the well. These would have been places for cooling off in hot summers. Architecturally this is similar to the one in Abhaneri but quite different from the stepwells of Gujarat. This stepwell is more like a grand ruin.
There is actually more to Osiyan than the little I have seen of it. I wish I had done more research and perhaps got hold of a map of town. The locals tell me that there is nothing more to see here. Later I find out that Osiyan has been a place of both Hinduism and Jainism. There are some spectacular Jain temples in the area. Had I known of this earlier, I might have spent the night here. Too bad, I am already on my way to Jodhpur.