Unearthing history

During the last decade excavations have revealed a settlement at Sirpur, a small village on the banks of river Mahanadi in Chhattisgarh, that was educationally, culturally and economically far ahead of Harappa in the Indus Valley Civilization.

All over the village, there were several blue painted signboards reading, “For Surang Tila take right”, “For Tiberdev Bihar go straight”, or “For Laxman Temple take left”. Though one has read these names in history books but one never thinks of coming across these places.
Our first stop was at Surang Tila, a 4.65 metre-high pedestal from the 6th century. The monument is a humongous pyramid sort of structure made of blocks of white stones. A courtyard at the top of the monument has several broken pillars and smaller shrines of Lord Shiva. From there we made our way to the ruins of Swastik Vihar, a monastery with two mandapas in the central part and entrance from the west. The shrine on the eastern end contains a stone image of Buddha flanked by standing Padampani on either side. The next halt was Laxman Temple, one of the oldest and famous excavations of Sirpir. Laxman Temple is a brick temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and stands on a prominent platform and consists of a Garbhagriha, Antarala and an enclosed pillared Mandapa. This, in a nutshell, was the rich heritage at the village Sirpur, around 100 km from the bustling town of Raipur.

Excavation begins

Located on the banks Mahanadi, till ten years ago, Sirpur was a lesser known village like any other Indian village, its inhabitators busy with their chores. In 2000, the calm around this sleepy village was broken when hundreds of people descended with spades, shovels and other digging tools and started digging at different points. Initially, villagers didn’t get to know what was happening. By the time they realised it, the small village had put itself on the list of the richest archaeological sites in the country with the finding of 22 Shiva temples, four Vishnu temples, 10 Budha Vihars, and three Jain Vihars, remains of an ancient market, an Ayurveda treatment centre, underground granary market and a sixth century Ayurvedic Snaan Kund (an ancient spa).
These findings, instantly turned the place into an immediate tourist destination, where people not only from India but also from the world started flooding in. The Dalai Lama and the South Korean ambassador have also joined the league of visitors. Till now, Sirpur was known for the magnificent and ancient east facing Lakshamana temple built by Vasanta, the mother of Dakshin (south) Kosala king Mahasivagupta Balarjuna in the 7th century AD, and the Gandeshwar temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. But during the past decade excavations have shown that the region was educationally, culturally and economically much more developed than the famous Harappa in the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Hoary past
Situated in the Masamund district of Chhattisgarh, the history is quite eloquent of this place. Sirpur or Shripur ~ the city of wealth ~ was once the capital of the Sarbhapuriya and Somvanshi kings of Dakshin (south) Kosala. The town of Sirpur is also mentioned in ancient epigraphic records, dating back to the 5th and 8th centuries AD. The place was a well-known centre for Buddhist study from the 6th to 10th century. Therefore, it was also mentioned in the travelogue of Hiuen Tsang, the 7th century Chinese pilgrim and scholar. Among the findings, while the 8 ft tall image of Lord Mahavir testifies to Sirpur having been a centre of Jainism, the Buddh Viharas point to its being a centre of Buddist learning. Apart from these, Sirpur had once been blessed with the arrival of Lord Buddha himself. It is believed that a devastating earthquake buried the ancient town under mud and debris in the 12th century.

Mark on the map

Up until 1872 history was mum about the existence of this settlement. That was when Lord Cunningham, the then director general of Archeological Survey, visited Sirpur and discovered the now famous Laxman temple. This was the beginning of the unraveling of the long journey undertaken by Sirpur through the dark aisles of time. After that, there was no looking back for the city, spread over an area of about 4×6 kms. It has really proved to be a veritable gold mine for historians, archeologists and the common man alike. A flood of finding, such as 12 Buddh Viharas, one Jain Viharas, monolithic statues of Lord Buddha and Mahavir Jain, 22 Shiv temples, five Vishnu temples, stone and copper inscriptions, hundreds of statues and much more.
“There are 184 mounds with archaeological remains in an area spread over 29.25 sq km in Sirpur,”  said octogenarian archaeologist and excavator A K Sharma, who is also an archaeological advisor to the Chhattisgarh government. “In the last 11 years, 48 mounds have been exposed through archaeological excavation and steps have been taken for conservation of the sites,”
No match

Going by the claim of Chattisgarh tourism department, many findings are much bigger and more relevant than Nalanda and Khajurao. For instance, one of the Budha Vihars, an ancient complex found during archaeological excavations, is being cited as four times bigger than Nalanda, with unmatched stone carvings ~ not even seen in Khajuraho. The tourism brochure reads: “The monasteries are larger than even the great Buddhist University at Nalanda”, vindicating Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang&’s assertion of having seen more than 10,000 Buddhist monks at Sirpur.
The Tivaradeva Mahavihara is the “largest and most ornate” of all the viharas. Among other captivating sculptures are a Naga couple, an amorous couple, and many Buddhist figures and an ancient market complex ~ considered the biggest excavation so far in the world. The findings include materials from ancient grain market, iron market, metal market and even remains of ports on the banks of river Mahanadi. This ancient market is considered an active trade centre from the 6th century BC to as late as 18th century AD. The unearthed complex, apparently a 10-bed hospital, where ancient surgical instruments were also recovered, is located in front of a Vishnu Temple and at a most suitable place for a treatment centre as per Vastu Shastra.
“The Boudh Vihar, found during excavations, is magnificent and it’s the biggest temple complex of 6th and 7th centuries to be uncovered so far,”  inoformed Sharma. “For the first time, stone carvings depicting sexual activity among animals have been found ~ a rare form of carvings in Indian archaeology. Such carvings are not even seen in Khajurao and Ellora.”

Other attractions

Gandheshwar temple
Situated on the bank of Mahanadi, this Shiv temple was built with the architectural remains of  ancient temples and viharas. Although the temple is not basically known for its architecture, the statue of Buddha touching the earth, Natraj, Shiv, Garud Narayan and Mahisasur Mardini are the rare ones in the premises. There are various pictures of Shiva-Leela above the entrance to attract the visitors.
Barnawapara sanctuary
Barnawapara Widlife sanctuary is a land mass of undulatings terrain dotted with numerous low and high hillocks well forested in the north-eastern corner of Raipur district . The tributaries of the Mahanadi are the source of water. This sanctuary is famous for the frequent sighting of the Indian bison (Gaur) Cheetal, Sambhar, Neelgai and Wild boar. Bar-Nawapara  boasts of over 150 species of birds.
Sirpur music and dance festival
The Sirpur music and dance festival is an annual fest organised by the Chattisgarh Tourism Board. This grand festival showcases the diverse art forms of the country, bringing together artists from across the nation in a cultural celebration. This festival has established its own unique identity in the sense that eminent artistes of national and international repute participate and perform Indian classical, folk and tribal dance and music on the enchanting stage of Sirpur.

This article first appeared in The Statesman on 29 January 2014.

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