Long, long ago, there was a city on the banks of a river. The builders planned it well. They built on the right side of the river, allowing for the natural slopes, which ensured that when the river swelled during the monsoons, the extra flow would be to its left, leaving the city dry. The main walls of the town were built in a direction along the river, so that in case there ever was a flood, it would do the least damage. They built massive temples for their deities, towering over the city, so everyone could see the spires, and hear the bells from their houses.
As the city grew, traders arrived, bringing with them goods the locals had never seen before. Soon, the city planners built a marketplace, so more traders arrived. As knowledge grew, so did the facilities. As visitors grew, so did the religions. Buddhism arrived, and then Jainism; and the new arrivals built their own temples and monasteries.
|One of the Buddha Viharas|
No one minded. After all, everyone contributed to the growth of the city. They lived in relative peace, despite the wars all around them. Regimes changed, but life went on, with little discord among the residents. Would it have remained the same? We do not know, for nature had other ideas. A massive earthquake rent the town, and all the planning couldn’t save the residents. As the houses crumbled and the river burst her boundaries, the people were left with just one choice – to flee. The toll must have been huge, and we will never know how many escaped, and how many succumbed. The city was abandoned, and reclaimed by earth. Centuries passed, and the city was forgotten. Till someone turned up with a spade and began digging. Long forgotten structures emerged from the earth, and the city started taking shape again, albeit in another form – as a relic of a time gone by.
This is the story of Sirpur, in Chhattisgarh. The erstwhile city, most of which is still buried under the earth, went by many names over the period it flourished, chiefly among them, Sabaripura, (for Sabari from the Ramayana, who is said to have offered fruit to Rama somewhere in this region,) and Shripura, which is where the present name comes from. Sirpur’s glorious history first came to light in 1872, when Alexander Cunningham, the founder and first director of the Archaeological Survey of India, discovered the most impressive structure here – the Lakshman Temple. Recent excavations have uncovered 22 Shiva temples, 5 Vishnu temples, 12 Buddha Viharas, 1 Jain Vihara, a huge marketplace with an underground granary market, hospital, and a medicinal bath! And these appear to be simply the tip of the iceberg, since there are many more mounds yet to be excavated!
|An underground granary|
The two most impressive temples are the Lakshman Temple and the Gandheshwar Mahadev temple, the first dedicated to Vishnu and the second to Shiva. While the first is solely maintained by the ASI, the second is still frequented by devotees.
|The Lakshman Temple|
The Baleshwar Mahadev mandir, has a pair of Shiva temples side by side, said to have been built by a king for his two wives! Surrounding it are remnants of other temples, which lead to the belief that this must have been a temple complex at one time. The main sanctum in these shrines must have been in the shape of a star, which is one of the most interesting things about them.
|One of the shrines at the Baleshwar Mandir. Note the 6 pointed star shape of the sanctum.|
The Buddha Viharas are no less interesting, with extremely intricate sculptures lining the doorway and the pillars, most of which seem to have been found intact! Interestingly, they seem to depict a wide range of stories, from the Panchatantra to the erotic!
|Sculptures at the entrance to the Buddha Vihara. |
The amorous couples do grab our attention, but look above them at the detailed miniature depiction of a ram fight!
However, the most interesting, and impressive structure is what is locally called the ‘Surang Tila’, since it was believed that there was a tunnel (surang) under the mound which existed here. As it turns out, there was no tunnel, but this must have been the highest structure in Sirpur during its prime. Much of it remains intact, which is also why it shows us a glimpse of the reason for Sirpur’s decline – the massive earthquake.
|Locals at the Surang Tila|
The structure is an enormous platform, with steps leading to the top, where there are 5 shrines, four housing Shiva and one, Ganesha. It must have been quite an important structure in its time, for, on one side is what must have been the priest’s house – a huge structure which gives us an idea of how important the priest must have been; and to the south is a Tantric shrine, housing the trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
|One of the shrines at the Surang Tila, with the sculptures and pillars found here arranged in a row|
This structure was certainly built to withstand natural disasters, considering that it has stood the test of time. Besides, the massive quake which turned the city to rubble only managed to dent the structure, folding the steps inward! That is the reason for the apparently curved steps you can see here.
|The steps which seem to have folded inwards, during the earthquake|
The only thing that surpasses the Surang Tila in conception and magnificence is the marketplace. Set out in neat rows, just off the riverbank, this is a masterpiece of planning. With spaces for the individual traders, temples for them to worship in, ayurvedic baths for them to rejuvenate, and even a hospital, everything seems to be well thought out. There are underground granaries which have provision for keeping the grain from spoiling, depressions for the grain to be ground into flour, and even safes for keeping the money earned! No wonder, traders flocked here from across the world!
|A view of the marketplace. Look how it is seems to have been arranged in straight rows!|
These are certainly some of the most impressive monuments Sirpur has to show us. However, these aren’t the only ones. There are about 40 monuments in all, each of them with a story to tell, and masterpieces to show off. As we realized, three days were barely enough to scratch the surface. It did give us a peek into the Sirpur of the past, and made me want to go again, in peace, and with time to spare, so I could explore more.
|Another view of the marketplace, with two Bodhi trees in the background. |
It is believed that the saplings of these trees were brought from Bodh Gaya by the Buddhist monks who settled here
I visited Sirpur to attend the Music and Dance festival, on invitation from the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board. I am grateful to them for giving me an opportunity to visit a new state.
Special thanks to Mr. Arun Kumar Sharma, the retired archeologist who excavated many of the monuments, for spending time with us, taking us around, explaining the importance of these monuments, and most importantly, answering all our questions with immense patience and good humour!