Jajpur’s Shubha Stambha – An Ode to Lord Vishnu

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    Nestled among the homes and shops of old Jajpur in India, lies a hidden treasure. The Shubha Stambha is a magnificent monolithic pillar, standing almost 19 feet tall, that will take your breath away. Its grandeur is unmatched, and it's a testament to the incredible legacy of the Somavanshi kings who once made Jajpur their capital.

    As you gaze up at the Shubha Stambha, you can't help but feel a sense of awe and wonder. The intricate carvings that adorn its surface are a sight to behold. Despite the passing of time and the destruction of many great buildings, this majestic pillar still stands tall and proud.

    It's hard to believe that such a remarkable piece of history can be found in such an unassuming location. But that's what makes the Shubha Stambha so special. It's a reminder that there is beauty and wonder to be found in unexpected places.

    The Shubhastambha as a ‘Garuda Pillar’

    ‘Shubha Stambha’ at Jajpur is actually a ‘Garuda Pillar’ dedicated to Lord Vishnu. During the ancient and the medieval period, such monolithic pillars were erected in from of Vishnu Temples and on top of these pillars stood a statue of Garuda, the ‘Vahana’ of Vishnu’. The oldest known Garuda Pillar in India is at Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh.

    A number of such monolithic pillars can be found across India. The most famous among them is the ‘Aruna Pillar’ that stands outside the Jagannatha temple at Puri. While it is dedicated to Aruna, the Charioteer of the Sun God, the Aruna Pillar can be closely compared to the Shubha Stambha at Jajpur. Both the pillars are similar in height and design , but the Aruna pillar is more slender than Jajpur’s Shubha Stambha.

    The pillar is 31 ft high and is divided into three parts – the base, the main pillar and the capital. At the base has two holes, where once stood an inscription or a copper plate of the King , who commissioned this pillar. The main pillar is a monolith of 19 ft and is carved as a 16-sided stone pillar. The capital is carved like a sixteen petalled lotus on which once stood the statue of a Garuda. Sadly, this statue has disappeared with time.

    According to historians, the Shubha Stambha in Jajpur was originally located in front of a grand Vishnu temple, which has now vanished. There was a disagreement among historians regarding who commissioned the pillar. However, the intricate designs on the pillar bear a striking resemblance to those at the Mukteshwara Temple in Bhubaneshwar. Consequently, the historians concluded that the Shubha Stambha was erected in the 10th century CE by the Somavanshi kings. It is unfortunate that the Vishnu temple that the Shubha Stambha was once a part of is no longer in existence.

    Vaishnavism in Jajpur

    In the ancient times, coastal Odisha was divided into two sacred regions – ‘Jagannath Kshetra’ or the ‘Land of Lord Jagannatha’ at Puri and ‘Biraja Kshetra’ or ‘Land of Goddess Biraja’ at Jajpur. Jajpur was at the heart of Shakta or Goddess Worship from 7th century onwards, with the temple of Goddess Biraja emerging as the most important Shakti Pitha in the region. But interestingly, Vaishnavism also thrived here.

    During the rule of the Mathara dynasty (350-500 CE), Vaishnavism flourished in Odisha, but it suffered a setback in the sixth and seventh centuries due to the lack of royal patronage. From the eighth to the end of the eleventh century CE, Saivism replaced Vaishnavism temporarily, leading to a lull in the Vaishnava movement in Odisha, particularly in and around Jajpur. It is very rare to find a Vishnu temple dating to this period in coastal Odisha.

    On the other hand, various sculptural representations of Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva) found in Jajpur and Bhubaneshwar show that Vishnu was worshipped together with Shiva and not an independent deity. For instance, a panel of sculptures on the southern facade of the Markandeshwara temple at Puri shows Brahma and Vishnu paying homage to Shiva with folded hands. The Viraja Kshetra Mahatmya, which extols the glory of Jajpur, also attests to the superiority of Shiva over Vishnu. This tells us that Shaktism and Shaivisim was more popular in Jajpur than Vaishnavism.

    But this began to change during the rule of the Bhaumakara kings, who while they were ardent Buddhists also patronized Vaishnavism. Similarly, while the Somavanshi kings were Shaivite, they built a large number of Vishnu temples in and around Jajpur. Many attribute the construction of the Shubha Stambha and the Garuda Pillar to King Jajati Keshari of the Somavanshi dynasty, who made Jajpur his capital.

    Sadly, during the Eastern Ganga rule, the capital shifted from Jajpur to Cuttack in 1230 CE. Jajpur and its temples lost royal patronage. In 1568 CE, Jajpur was sacked by the armies of the Bengal Sultanate and a lot of temples in the city were destroyed. As per several local beliefs, the Vishnu temple in front of pillar was destroyed during this invasion and the Garuda statue knocked down from the top of the pillar.

    The Shubha Stambha in Colonial Accounts

    In the 19th century, Jajpur came under the rule of the British East India company. A number of British officials and writers mention this Pillar at Jajpur in their records. Interestingly , several British officials make note of a large Garuda statue lying partly broken at the base of the pillar. In 1838, Captain M Kitteo , British Military officer surveying Jajpur, had drawn a sketch of the statue of Garuda and published the same with a note in the ‘ Journal of the Asiatic society of Bengal’.

    There are also a number of accounts of an inscription at the base of the pillar, which existed as late as mid-1800s. Another British official A Stirling , in his book ‘A Statistical Account of Cuttack’ says “On the pillar, an inscription has been discovered , which is said to be of the same character exactly as that on the brow of the Khandagiri Caves at Khurda”. But what happened to the inscription?

    This is explained by renowned Bengali Archeologist CS Banerjee who writes in 1830 – “there was an inscription on a slab, which a Sanyasi destroyed in hopes of obtaining treasure which he believed was hidden behind it”. With the loss of the inscription, all hopes of exactly dating the Shubha Stambha is now lost.

    Today, the Shubha Stambha is protected by the Archeological Survey of India. The pillar continues to be a testament to the artistic and architectural prowess of the Somavanshi dynasty. The intricate carvings on the pillar are a fine example of the remarkable skills possessed by the artisans of that era.

    As a significant part of India's cultural heritage, the Shubha Stambha must be preserved for future generations. It serves as a reminder of the grandeur of India's ancient kingdoms and the extraordinary achievements of its people.

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