the small non-descript village of bhitargaon, about 50km from kanpur, houses one of the oldest terracotta temples in India. it dates from the late gupta period, most likely shortly after kumaragupta ii (d. 455 CE). it was only in the middle of the 5th century that production of brick masonry in this magnitude became possible, and bhitargaon is the earliest instance of a significant temple structure made entirely of brick.

sixteen hundred years ago someone had moulded
a lump of wet clay
and fired this sculpture...


terracotta bas-relief of lion at bhitargaon, recognizable despite the ravages of time

when alexander cunningham visited the site in 1877 and 1878 at the invitation of the local landlord, the temple was still standing. however, it was struck by lightning in 1894 and was reconstructed from the pile of masonry, and today's structure retains but a few of the original sculptured terracotta tiles; most of the others were stolen and now reside in various museums abroad. the reconstruction looks substantially different, and is missing the majestic entrance porch or ardha-manDapa (see the 1878 image below).


the main statuary are on the lower rows of the temple exterior; ; there are niches for holding 19 large (approx 1m tall), 29 medium and many more smaller and oblong terracotta sculptures, but all the upper rows, and the majority of the bottom rows as well, are empty.

bhitargaon temple

bhitar-gaon or inner village, refers to the inner part of what was at some point known as pushp-pur (flower-town); the outer area is called bari-gaon or outer village. today the temple stands in a small ASI compound, with people's houses and agricultural fields on all sides. that it has managed to survive for sixteen centuries within such dense human habitation is a testimony to the forbearance of the local population.

photograph from 1878 by joseph beglar (british museum). one can see the substantial entrance porch (ardha-manDapa), now simplified. most of the structure collapsed in 1894 after a lightning strike, and was re-constructed. there are many debates about the authenticity of much of the present structure.

the temple at bhitargaon was among several gupta period temples across india surveyed by Alexander Cunningham, who had been appointed by Curzon as "Archaeological Surveyor" in 1861. over the next decade, Cunningham, along with several assistants, surveyed a number of temples. he visited bhitargaon in 1877, and opined that the temple was older than 7th century A.D. The date was thought to be between the 5th and 6th c., but in 1974 James Harle of Ashmolean at Oxford ('Gupta Sculpture') suggested that it should be dated 425 and 450. In possibly the most authoritative analysis till date, M. Zaheer has also argued for a 5th c. date, primarily based on iconographic and stylistic evidence.

prior to this, temples were largely made of stone; existing gupta period temples from this period at nachna, tigawa, etc. have flat roofs, and bhitargaon is one of the first to have a tall trapezoidal structure (shikhara) above the inner sanctum (garbha-griha). this became a standard feature of later temples in the nagara style. after the shikhara style caught on, the term was standardized in medieval texts such as the Manasara.

temple at bhitargaon as reconstructed in the early 1900s.

the temple you see today is largely a reconstruction from the 1900s.

bhitargaon is also the largest gupta period temple. with the inner sanctum of 15x15 ft, and also the tallest. it was covered throughout with terracotta sculptures of superb workmanship. it represents the first stages of experimenttation in indian temple construction from stone as the material to terracotta / brick. within a century, a number of other brick construction temple came up, such as the elaborate temple complex at bhitari, near varanasi, by skandagupta (d. 467).

facade of temple, north face. a terracotta sculpture from the north facade; fish with what looks like an elephant head

the temple as it exists today is largely a reconstruction from the early years of indian archaeology under the british raj. many features of the temple reflect the state of knowledge from the period (end 19th c), when the antiquity of indian architecture was just starting to get explored.

garuda or peacock. terracotta sculptures along the west facade

man fighting elephant maybe. krishNa killing an asura in the form of a bull (ariShTAsura)

there is serious disagreement about how the shikhara may have looked, due to which maintenance attempts over the last two years were eventually abandoned and the top quarter of the temple remains untouched, with weeds growing freely between the bricks.

the upper part of the shikhara remains unkempt. bhitargaon repairs (image from 2010 nov). the last two years the monument was extensively maintained, but the upper part could not be done since there was no consensus on how it should look.

extra long brick, marked by gaurav. ravi gunale at entrance. amit in front of the south facade.

the brick units are standardized for width, but not in length. as in the earlier gupta stone temples.

you can also see this set of images of panels from the bhitargaon temple.

bumpy trail bicyclists ride to bhitargaon: 2011 nov

the 5th c. (gupta period) temple at bhitargaon was about 46km from iitk, so the total ride was close to a 100km ride. on the way, we would also visit the 19th c. aqueduct where the ganga canal is taken over the pandu river.

when we announced it on the facebook page, we had expected a handful of people, but nearly a dozen turned up. this included four foreign students (valentin, arash, zoe, and ansha), all of whom were bicycling long distance for the first time. there were two newcomers who had ridden with the adventure club (saket, anoop), as well as five bumpy trailers (gaurav, adarsha, ravikiran, saumyen, amit). three of us had geared bikes, the rest were on normal everyday cycles.

our start time was 05:30, when it is still dark. we were on the road by about 05:45. we took the gt road till Afim koThi (11km), and then turned right to catch the hamirpur highway to ramaipur (28km).

tea break at madhobag near ramaipur (07:45; 26km from iitk). saumyen and gaurav repairing ancha's bike; valentin, ravikiran.

gaurav and ravikiran fixing a puncture and chain break at majhawan; arash's sugarcane chewing entertains the villagers.

ashar had a puncture approaching majhawan. it was the eleventh day of the waxing moon in kArthika; this is the karthik shukla ekAdashi festival. it is also the end of the four months when vishnu sleeps. a period of penances, in some traditions no marriages are performed during this chaturmAsa (chatuH=four; mAsa=month). in the north the sugarcane harvest has just started, and stalks of cane are part of the ritual - there were bundles of sugarcane at every corner.

while waiting for a puncture to be repaired in the small town of majhawan, i went to a sugarcane seller and bought a sugarcane. while trying to cut it into pieces, the locals surrounded me with questions. once they heard we were from iit, someone appeared suddenly with a garland of marigolds with which he wanted to welcome me! it was only with great difficulty that i managed to escape.

gaurav zoe gunale saket on road nearing Sarh... the rind river bridge near birsinghpur. 10:03

into the bhitargaon bypass : saumyen, and then ancha saket ashar gunale valentin zoe adarsha anoop

breakfast stop at sarh, where saumyen roused the omlet man from his home... and then we turned onto the road to bhitargaon.

the group at bhitargaon. you can see the shortened entrance porch on the east facade.

saket zoe valentin ashar gaurav anoop: at the rind river bridge (birsinghpur)

country roads to the aqueduct

after a watering break at bhitargaon, we re-traced our route to ramaipur, i wanted to explore the ravana statue at majhawan - i was intrigued when i saw it last year - it is not often that you find permanent statues to rAvaNa. as with last year, a crowd of kids were playing cricket in the field in front. the moment we approached the statue, the field emptied in a flash and everyone came over to see us.

we then crossed the highway and took the route to kaindha, where we turned to the canal and went offroad along the kaccha (unpaved) path beside the water. a colony of lapwings were nesting along the bank of the canal.

cricket under ravana's gaze at majhawan. it is interesting how the statue has only one head, unlike traditional representations of a ten-headed ravana. (this image from nov 2010).

offroad riding
along the canal bank
lined with birds...


ashar ancha on kaccha canalside path

and then we came to the aqueduct where the ganga canal was taken over a large brick channel over the meandering pandu river.

the canal running over the pandu river...

video: cows and little egrets at aqueduct. bumpy trailer group at aqueduct

nearly done: saket adarsha on shiuli rd turn. valentin reaching the turning point

after crossing the railway track through a low tunnel, we crossed back through the armapore estate, to get back into iit via the back entrance. it was nearly 15:30 and we had covered 97 km. time for a well-deserved bath and a proper lunch...


pied kingfisher hovering and diving

pond heron; white-breasted kingfisher


the countryside all around kanpur is alive with birds...


white-breasted waterhen; rind river bank

bronze winged jacana at pond between sain and kaindha

goose_sain village; pied bushchat beside the canal

route map

route map. click for kilometer markers and interactive route on gmap-pedometer (note: the map follows the route backwards)

we took the gt road (relatively empty on sunday mornings) to Afim koThi, and turned left towards hamirpur. at ramaipur, we took the nice road south to sarh and then west to bhitargaon. on the way back we went along the country roads and then along the canal until it crossed the pandu river. we then took some small local backlanes to cross over from the panki industrial area to kalpi road. through the armapore estate to the panki-kalyanpur road, and then onto the new shiuli road, and the turn into the pedestrian-only back entrance to IIT.

alternate routes to bhitargaon: 2011 december

the town of sarh has a road going to chakeri. also, the approach to bhitargaon can be made more directly from the highway via a small canal a little past the rind river. joydeep and i explored this route in december 2011. i had just started using my new garmin edge, and here's a map of the route route we'd taken; click on the "+" and "-" to zoom and drag the mouse:

The little detour you see near lalpur is a visit to a santra orchard owned by yogendra singh kushwaha, local BSP man and kanpur zilla panchayat member. his nephew, who was riding a motorcycle alongside us, invited us to check it out; they gave us more of the "kinnu" variety of tangerine than we could comfortably carry back!


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amit mukerjee Nov 7 2011, for the bumpy trail bicyclists.     mukerjee [at] gmail