From very ancient times, Sonepur is considered as a holy
city. The Kosalananda Kavya of Kavi Gangadhara Mishra, written in 1664
A.D., describes the temple city of Sonepur as "the second Varanasi of
Sonepur came under the 'Chauhans' during the days of 'Ramaideva', the founder of the Chauhan rule in western Orissa in the middle of 14th century A.D. But Sonepur got the status of a separate state in the first half of 17th century, with 'Madana Gopala Deva' as its king. The work of the court poet, 'Kavi Gangadhara Mishra' shows that there were many temples at Sonepur prior to the Chauhan rule.
The 'Somavamsi' charter also confirms this fact. The copper plate inscription issued in the 17th regional year of the Somavamsi King 'Janmejay' I (850 A.D.- 885 A.D.) states that the temples of "Sri Kesava" and "Aditya Deva" were very famous. This inscription has been unearthened near the "Stamvesvari" or "Khamvesvari", situated in the heart at the present Sonepur town. The 'Maranjamura' Copper plate of 'Yayati' II, the Somavamsi ruler, issued in his 3rd regional year from his capital Suvarnapura, also makes a reference to the temples.
According to the inscriptions, there several temples and gardens, which enhance the beauty of the town. After that there are no references about the temples of Sonepur till the coming in of the Chauhans in mid-14th century A.D. The temple building tradition might have continued in Sonepur, but no inscriptional or architectural evidences are available.
The Three Thematic Divisions
Almost all of the temples now standing at Sonepur were built during the Chauhan rule. On the basis of their cult images, the temples of Sonepur can be divided into three thematic divisions - the 'Saiva', 'Vaishnava' and 'Sakta' temples. Besides, there are a few other temples like those of 'Hanumana' and 'Sasisena', which are of special importance.
THE SUVARNAMERU TEMPLE
Among the present 'Saiva' temples of Sonepur, the temple of "Suvarnameru" is very famous. It is situated on the left bank of river Tel towards the southwest of the confluence of river Mahanadi and Tel. It stands slightly on the outskirts of the town proper.
Scholars differ on the date of the temple. According to B.C. Mazumdar, though the existing temple was built during the reign of Maharaja 'Madan Gopal Singhdeo' (1630-1660AD) 'Suvarnameru Mahadeva' has been the presiding deity of the State since a very remote time. But other scholars have got another opinion that it was built during the reign of Maharaja 'Lal Saheb' (1660-1680A.D.), son of 'Maharaj Madangopal'.
THE GOPINATHA TEMPLE
The temple of "Gopinatha" is situated near the 'Jagannatha' temple. Its construction work was started during the time of Raja 'Prataprudra Deva' and completed during the reign of Maharaja 'Vira Mitrodaya Singh'.
DADHIVAMANA DEVA TEMPLE
Situated in the 'Ghodaghatpada', Sonepur, the temple of "Dadhivamana Deva" was built during the reign of Maharaja 'Prithvisingh Dev' (1786-1841). The presiding deity of the temple is Lord 'Jagannatha', Lord 'Balabhadra' and 'Devi Subhadra'.
SRI VRINDAVAN VIHARI TEMPLE
By the orders of Maharaja Vira Mitrodaya Singh, the then tehasildar, Mr.Keshab Chandra Guru, raising a huge amount of donation from the people, constructed the temple of "Sri Vrindavan Vihari" at Bada Bazar.
The 34.7m high "Gundicha" temple is the tallest temple of Sonepur. 'Rani Gundicha Devi', wife of Maharaja 'Prithvisingh Dev', constructed the temple to commemorate the birth of her son 'Niladhara Singh' and dedicated. Initially, their idol of Lord 'Nrusimha' is in accordance with the Gundicha temple at Puri. With the passage of time the wooden idol was damaged. It was replaced by a metallic iconic or anthropomorphic form of the deity i.e., Lord 'Nrusimha' by Maharaja Sri 'Prataprudra Singh Dev'. Maharaja Sri Vira Mitrodaya Singh built the 'Mandapa' of the temple in 1934.
SAKTA TEMPLES-ANCIENT SEAT OF TANTRICISM
Sakta Temples Ancient Sonepur was a famous seat of tantricism. Even now 'Sakti' worship is more prominent at Sonepur than any other cult. Some of the most important Sakta temples are "Sureswari", "Stamvesvari" or "Khamvesvari", "Bhagavati", "Samalesvari", "Budhi Samalei", "Manikesvari", "Narayani", "Sitalei" and "Lankesvari".
The temple of Suresvari is situated on the left bank of the river Tel towards the north of Suvarnameru temple and southeast of 'Ramesvara' temple. It is difficult to determine the timeframe of the installation of the deity. However it seems that, 'Sureswari' was the presiding deity of the Suvarnapur fort during the 'Somavansis' in about 9th century A.D. The present 'Satabandha', 'Gudialibandha' and 'Jilabandha' or tanks and the adjacent mud ridges were probably the water trenches and walls of the fort.
According to the 'Bratacharita', 'Suresvari Devi' was being worshipped as the guardian deity of the fort at the entrance gate of the 'Satabandha'. According to legends the legendary hero 'Parasuram' built the temple on the request of his mother to make him free from the sin of killing the 'Kshyatriyas' of the World, after performing a 'Yagnya'.
A noteworthy fact about this is the presence of an ancient and big altar, which is believed as the altar of 'Parasuram' by the local people. Some people believe that, this is the seat of 'Renuka' mother of 'Parusuram' herself. The Chauhan king Achal Singh Deo constructed the present temple of Suresvari Devi, with an eight-armed "Mahisamardini Durga" image as its presiding deity. Goddess Suresvari is offered fish everyday and it is a must for her. The same practice is prevalent in the "Varahi temple" at Chaurasi.
The Main Festivity
The main festival of the temple is the "Bali Parva", which covers fifteen days starting from 'Asvina Amavasya' to 'Purnima'. The temple of 'Stamvesvari' or 'Khamvesvari' is situated in the centre of the town. When this temple was built is not known.
LEGEND OF KHAMESVARI TEMPLE
It is said that wife of 'Raj Singh Deo', mother of Achal Singh Deo brought her deity Khamvesvari from the house of her father, the raja of 'Kimidi'. Later King Raj Singh built a temple for the deity to honour the goddess of his wife's forebears. According to Dr.N.K.Sahu, Stamvesvari is the oldest 'Sakta' deity of Orissa. Monarchs belonging to different dynasties like 'Sulki', 'Bhanja', 'Tunga' had described themselves as the 'Padabhakta' or devotee of the deity, in their charters from 8th to 11th century A.D."
From the Somavamsis, Stamvesvari worship was accelerated during this period. From the above fact it can be said that Stamvesvari worship was prevalent in this region much before the coming. The word 'Stamva' or 'Khamva' means pillar. A black wooden post symbolizing the deity was initially being worshipped and later on an image was installed.
According to the court poet Kavi Gopinatha Panigrahi, the image of Stamvesvari is built after the Vanadurga icon. He again opines that, there is the tradition of keeping two, that is a type of musical instrument made of iron, hidden. So, there must be two 'Nisanas' kept hidden, here also.
THE BHAGAVATI TEMPLE
The Bhagavati temple is situated on the eastern part of the town. Nothing definite is known about the date and builder of the temple. But the local people regard it as an ancient monument. The presiding deity of the temple is called "Bhagavati", a form of 'Durga'. The icon, though blurred, exhibits an antiquarian work. Some scholars identify the deity with "Panchambari-Bhadrambika", as mentioned in the 'Maranjamura' plate of 'Mahasivagupta Yayati' II.
THE SAMALESVARI TEMPLE
The temple of Samalesvari is standing on the right bank of river Mahanadi towards the southeast of the royal palace. Goddess Samalesvari was the tutelary deity of the Chauhan dynasty of both Sambalpur and Sonepur. Maharaja 'Sobha Singh' (1771-1786A.D.) constructed the present edifice. The 'Bruddha Samalei' or 'Budhi Samalei' is situated towards the north of the Dadhivamana temple facing north. As the Goddess is installed here from an ancient time, she is given the name of Bruddha Samalei. Initially she was worshipped in a thatched house. The present structure is the creation of Maharaja 'Prataprudra Deva' (1891-1902A.D.).
TEMPLE OF MANIKESVARI
The Manikesvari temple stands on the right side of the Sonepur-Monamunda road. Manikesvari was the tutelary deity of the fisherman community. The present temple was built by the headman of the said community named "Chamar Makhalik" during the reign of Maharaja Prataprudra Singh Deo. The "Narayani temple" is built towards the north of the "Gopinatha temple". Maharaja 'Prithvi Singh Deo' built it. But it is not known, when and by whom the "Sitalei temple" was built. Its 'Mukhasala' was however, constructed by Maharaja 'Vira Mitrodaya Singh' in 1935A.D.
In the bed of the Mahanadi, there is a small rock called "Lankesvari" and the deity installed there is also known by the same name. Lankesvari is the presiding goddess of Lanka, the old Sonepur and is worshipped daily even at present by the boatmen. The deep gorge in the Mahanadi near the Lankesvari hillock is called "Lankesvari Darha" and it is referred to as "Lankavarttaka" in old inscriptions.
The deity was being worshipped on the rock, in a small niche like structure but recently, it has been shifted to a high-rise structure on the same place apparently to protect it from floodwaters during rains. The new structure rests on a pillared platform negotiable by a flight of steps. Other Temples Apart from the three broad divisions of temples described above, there are certain other temples that cannot be grouped in either of the divisions but are of special importance. The two most important temples belonging to this group are the temple of "Sasisena" and that of "Hanuman".
THE SASISENA TEMPLE
The temple of Sasisena is situated towards the west of Paschima Somanatha temple on the left side of Bolangir-Sonepur road. It has no presiding deity inside the temple and is without any opening. That is why it is called "Nimuhi Deula". The temple is a memorial of the undying love between 'Ahimanikya', son of the 'Dewan' and 'Sasisena', the princess.
The Legend of Sasisena
The legend of the Sasisena temple is found from a literary work called 'Sasisena' written by Pratap Ray in 16th/17th century. Sasisena was the daughter of some feudatory Chief of Western Orissa. She was in love with Ahimanikya, son of the Dewan, when both of them were reading in school. After their marriage, which was secretly performed by the help of the teacher who officiated as priest, they came and lived at Sonepur, which was also then known by its second name "Kamitapura".
The beauty of Ahimanikya charmed 'Jynanadei Maluni', also known as 'Madana Maluni', one of the seven famous Tantric maidens of Sonepur. When he once went out alone to bazaar, she induced him to come to her place where he was transformed to a lamb by dint of her esoteric art. She used to transform him into human form in the night, while at daytime; the unfortunate man remained as a lamb.
In the mean time, Sasisena having lost her husband remained in guise of a man, so that she would not be molested by malevolent persons and could search her husband everywhere in the town. She subsequently got an appointment under the Raja of Sonepur and became a soldier in the army. Very soon she earned reputation for her courage and heroism, particularly when she once killed a men-eater tiger at the risk of her life. The Raja being pleased with Sasisena desired to give his daughter in marriage to her.
As Sasisena would not reveal her identity, she was forced to marry the daughter of the Raja. She, however, described her misfortune to the newly married girl and the later being full of sympathy for her did not reveal anything about her identity. Both of them searched for Ahimanikya by all possible means. They excavated a tank at a place in the west of Sonepur town and constructed four temples on four sides of the tank.
The Festivity of Sasisena
A grand festival took place on the day of consecration of the tank. It is being said that Jnanadei Maluni came to see the festival at night with Ahimanikya who was then in human form. Ahimanikya could recognise Sasisena but not being able to contact her, he wrote a few lines on the wall of one of the temples by a piece of chalk, informing her that he had been taken captive and transformed into a lamb by the Tantric maiden Jynanadei Maluni.
Sasisena could know everything about her husband from the writing. She told the Raja that she would sacrifice some lambs before the Goddess Bhagawati and that the lamb possessed by Jnanadei Maluni be brought for that purpose. The Raja at her request brought Ahimanikya, who was then in the form of lamb from Jynanadei Maluni. It was then known that the lamb was no other than Ahimanikya and by the order of the Raja, Jnanadei Maluni brought him back to human form. Sasisena and Ahimanikya met together and at the desire of the Raja both his daughter and Sasisena became the wives of Ahimanika.Maharaja 'Vira Mitrodaya Singh' (1902-1937A.D.) constructed the present Sasisena temple. According to Mr Sadananda Agrawal, before the construction of the present temple, ruins of three stone temples were found from that place. And it is said that Maharaja 'Sobha Singh' (1771-1786A.D.) had used the stone pieces of these temples in the construction of the "Gopalji temple" and the fort. So, it can be presumed that the Sasisena memorial had been built before the second half of 18th century A.D. and much before the present temple.
THE HANUMAN TEMPLE
Another temple belonging to this category is the Hanuman temple. The worship of Hanuman is very prevalent in Sonepur even today. The four shrines dedicated to Hanuman, which are particularly famous in Sonepur, are 'Bada Hanuman', 'Gada Hanuman', 'Bata Hanuman' and 'Ghat Hanuman'. Among these, Bada Hanuman is in a structured edifice.