Bhubaneshwar, Odisha's capital and one of the state's top tourist places, is renowned for being a city of temples -- after all, it's said there are more than 700 of them! The majority of these temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva and history reveals why. (The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai also has a night ceremony where an image of Lord Shiva is carried from his shrine by temple priests.)
The name Bhubaneshwar comes from Shiva's Sanskrit name, Tribhubaneswar, meaning "Lord of Three Worlds". Old Hindu scriptures say that Bhubaneshwar was one of Lord Shiva's favorite places, where he liked to spend time under a huge mango tree. Many of the temples in Bhubaneshwar were built from the 8th-12th centuries AD, during the time Shaivism (worship of Lord Shiva) dominated the religious scene.
Most of the temples in Odisha and Bhubaneshwar are of an architectural design that's a sub-style of the Nagara-style of north Indian temples. It's a combination of what's known as rekha (a sanctum with curvilinear spire, called a deula) and pidha (square front porch with pyramidal roof). This design is predominantly associated with Shiva, Surya, and Vishnu temples.
The building of these types of temples continued for nearly a thousand years in Odisha, from 6th-7th centuries AD to 15th-16th centuries AD. It was particularly prevalent in Bhubaneshwar, the ancient capital of the Kalinga Empire, where it took place without being disrupted changes of ruling dynasties and their affiliations.
The towering, heavily sculptured spires of the temples of Bhubaneshwar are quite astounding. It's mind-boggling imagining the work that went into creating them and their exquisitely carved bases.
Built: 11th Century AD
The splendid Lingraj Temple (the king of lingas, the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva) represents the culmination of the evolution of temple architecture in Odisha. Its spire is around 180 feet tall. There are more than 64 smaller shrines in the sprawling temple complex as well. They're magnificently decorated with sculptures of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, dancing girls, hunters, and musicians.
Unfortunately, non-Hindus won't be able to see all this up close though. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple complex (and only those Hindus who look Hindu enough).
Non-Hindus can, however, get to see inside the temple complex from a distance. There's a viewing platform around to the right of the main entrance. Do be aware: It's likely you'll get hassled by someone for a donation, claiming it will go to the temple. It won't though, so make sure you don't give any money.
Built: 10th Century AD
Standing 34 feet tall, the Mukteshwar temple is one of the smallest and most compact temples in Bhubaneshwar. However, it's famous for its exquisite stone archway, and ceiling with eight-petal lotus inside its porch. A number of the carved images (including lion head motif) appear for the first time in the temple architecture.
The temple's name, Mukteshwar, means "Lord who gives freedom through yoga". You'll find ascetics in various mediation poses on the temple, along with figures from Hindu mythology, folktales from the Panchatantra (five books of animal fables), as well as Jain munis (monks/nuns).
Try and catch the Mukteshwar Dance Festival, which is held on the temple grounds during mid-January each year.
Built: 11th Century AD
Situated to the east of the Lingraj temple, the Brahmeshwar temple was built by the reigning king's mother in honor of the deity Brahmeshwar (a form of Lord Shiva). It's approximately 60 feet tall. Iron beams were used in the temple's construction for the first time. In addition, another first in temple iconography were the musicians and dancers that appear prolifically on the temple walls.
Other than that, the Brahmeshwar takes quite a bit of its design from the earlier Mukteshwar temple. Its porch also has a carved ceiling with lotus, and there are plentiful lion head motifs (which appeared for the first time on the Mukteshwar temple) on its walls. Similar to the Rajarani temple, there are several carving of erotic couples and voluptuous damsels too.
The temple exterior is decorated with the figures of several gods and goddesses, religious scenes, and various animals and birds. There are quite a few tantric-related images on the western facade. Shiva and other deities are also pictured in their frightening forms.
Built: 10th Century AD
The Rajarani temple is unique in that there is no deity associated with it. There's a story that the temple was a pleasure resort of an Odia king and queen (raja and rani). However, more realistically, the temple got its name from the variety of sandstone used to make it.
The carvings on the temple are particularly ornate, with numerous erotic sculptures. This often leads to the temple being referred to as the Khajuraho of the east. Another of the temple's striking features are the clusters of smaller carved spires on its spire. The spacious and immaculately kept temple grounds are a peaceful place to relax if you want a break from sightseeing.
There's an entry fee because the temple is managed by the Archeological Survey of India. It's 25 rupees for Indians and 300 rupees for foreigners. Children under 15 years old don't have to pay.
Try and catch the Rajarani Music Festival, which is held on the temple grounds during January each year.
Built: 9-10th Century AD
While the 64 Yogini Temple is located in Hirapur, about 15 kilometers east of Bhubaneshwar, it's well worth making the effort to visit it. Notably, the temple is one of only four yogini temples in India dedicated to the esoteric cult of tantra. It's shrouded in mystery and many locals are fearful of it -- and it's not difficult to imagine why.
The temple has 64 stone yogini goddess figures carved on its inside walls, representing the 64 forms of the diving mother created to drink the blood of demons. The yogini cult believed that worshiping the 64 goddesses and the goddess Bhairavi would give them supernatural powers.
Interestingly, the temple doesn't have a roof. Legend has it that it's because the yogini goddesses would fly out and roam around at night.
The tantric rituals once believed to have been practiced in the temple no longer take place. Now, the presiding deity is a goddess called Mahamaya. She and the yoginis are worshiped in the form of goddess Durga during Dussehra and Basanti Puja.
Try and be there early in the morning, when fog gives the temple an ethereal feeling, or at sunset when the yoginis are stained red by the light and appear to come alive. The tranquil village setting among paddy fields adds to the atmosphere.