During my school days in Guwahati, the topic of Madan Kamdev used to regularly come up once in a while. The few lucky ones who had managed to visit it would provide vivid descriptions of various artefacts and kindle the collective imagination of the rest. In a small, provincial town still coming to terms with liberalization and in a mostly conservative society still struggling with its Victorian ethos, the very existence of Madan Kamdev was solace to the adolescents even if they did not dare visit it themselves.
For the uninitiated, Madam Kamdev is a temple or rather a cluster of temple ruins not far from Guwahati. As the name suggests, it is dedicated to Kamdev, the Cupid of Hindu pantheon, thus prompting some to call it the Khajuraho of Assam. To be honest, it is much smaller in scale and scope compared to the temple complex at Khajuraho. But nevertheless, it is worth a visit if one is interested in the history of ancient Assam, the fabled Kamarupa Kingdom.
The history of the region has been documented in detail from 13th century by the Ahoms, who ruled most of Assam from 1228 CE till 1826 CE. But the history of the prior centuries is mostly obscure and we only know bits and pieces of it through secondary references like the accounts of the invaders. The temple complex is widely believed to have been built by the Pala Dynasty (Not to be confused with the contemporary Palas of Bengal) between 10th and 12th century. The Palas ruled the Kamarupa Kingdom from 900 CE to 1110 CE till the Gaurs came along. Unlike their Bengali counterparts who were Buddhists, Palas of Kamarupa were Hindus deriving their lineage from none other than Narakasura.
Kamarupa finds mention in Gupta era records and played a major part in various geopolitical conflicts during the time of King Harshavardhana. But the events prior to that are not clearly known to anybody although many mythological connections are regularly drawn. The history of post-Harsha era is also not very clear till the arrival of the Ahoms from the East and the Turkic invaders from the West in the 13th century. Therefore, the scattered ruins of the Madan Kamdev complex are extremely important as they are indicative of those times and can serve as a basis for wider understanding of the erstwhile Kamarupa Kingdom.
As mentioned already, although I lived in Guwahati for most of my adolescent years, I could never visit it and nor do I remember it being promoted as a major tourist destination. Even now, most of the visitors here are local devotees and youngsters from Guwahati seeking a moment of peace as the area is surrounded by dense forests.
So, one fine morning last year I decided to visit it with a friend on his bike. It is barely 40 kms from Guwahati on the northern side of the Brahmaputra. The nearest town on the highway is called Baihata Chariali, a small but busy town where several important roads converge. The temple is slightly outside the town and a gate indicating the same has been erected to guide the visitors. We crossed the gate, passed by several little villages and acres of paddy fields to finally reach the small hillock atop which the temple is situated.
The steps leading up to the top of the hillock were steep but well maintained. Rest of the hill was covered with those typical deciduous trees that are common in Assam. We climbed quickly and after passing by a few scattered ruins of what seemed to the foundations and the lower portions of 15 other shrines, we reached the main temple. It is a living temple and people still offer prayers here. So, it was disappointing to see that there was no real temple structure remaining out there. A tin shed has been erected under which the sculptures have been piled up in a heap without bothering too much about either aesthetics or authenticity.
What I could understand is that the primary deity worshipped by the people here is an embodiment of Lord Shiva. The erotic sculptures are less prominent than I had expected and they were used mainly to decorate the walls and pillars and it is hard to explain why it is named after Kamdev. The most probable reason could be that, according to mythology, Kamdev is believed to have regained his form here after being burnt to ashes by Shiva. So, the Kamdev connection is not hard to understand from that perspective although there are many missing pieces in these ruins rendering them puzzling.
Apart from the usual statues, I noticed two distinctive elements among these sculptures. One was a sun sculpture that I had not seen anywhere else although I cannot really claim to be an expert. The other was a series of lion sculptures spread all over the complex. The lions were surely the royal emblem and a symbol of power and so this site must have enjoyed a pivotal place during the heydays of the kingdom. I also noticed a somewhat strange and inexplicable, solitary pillar with a lotus-shaped top that somehow reminded me of the pillars of Dimapur that were built by the Dimasas a few centuries later.
19th century records by the British mention at least 15 different temples though everything has been dumped in one place. This is because official conservation and excavation efforts began only in the 1970s and by that time much of the complex had been vandalised. ASI has unearthed fortifications and a few water tanks suggesting that this could have been the centre of an ancient city or a city in itself. I feel that this site probably deserves a bit more excavation and a lot more attention. The shoddy conservation efforts here reminded me of the meticulous restoration of the Bateshwar Temples in Morena by K K Muhammed. That is the difference between a passionate effort and just doing your job. The Madan Kamdev ruins need just that now, love and passion.
Reaching Madan Kamdev:
It is around 40 KM northwards from Guwahati. You have to cross the Saraighat Bridge over Brahmaputra and reach the town of Baihata Chariali. You should easily locate the gate indicating the diversion on the east side. Otherwise you can just ask around.
Author – Jitaditya Narzary
The author is a travel blogger and blogs at http://travellingslacker.com/
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