Sirpur: The Glory Lost and Found
Have you read about the ancient city of Sirpur situated in Chhattisgarh in the history books? Not likely. This is because Sirpur was excavated only recently and before that, we did not know where it existed. This report is prepared on the basis of my visit to this ancient city in January 2021.
Golden period of Sirpur
Sirpur, built during 5th-12th century CE, is situated on the banks of Mahanadi in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh. It was the capital of Dakshina Kosala kingdom (now Chhattisgarh), ruled by Sharabhapuriya and Panduvanshi dynasties. The golden age of Sirpur was during the reign of King Mahasivagupta Balarjuna in 595-650 CE. About 1,500 years ago, the city had excellent town planning with well laid-out streets, drainage systems, bath houses, royal quarters, granaries, markets, monasteries, and temples.
Sirpur was a major trade centre for metals, grains, and medicines. The city had monasteries and temples of Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus in 7th century AD. It appears Sirpur was an icon of religious harmony in those days. So far, 22 Shiva temples, 5 Vishnu temples, 12 Buddhist viharas and 3 Jain viharas have been excavated. It can be assumed that Sirpur city had a population of one lakh. After 1,500 years, the population of Sirpur village today is only 1,467 (census 2011).
Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited Sirpur in 639 CE wrote that there were over 10,000 Buddhist monks who lived in 100 monasteries in the city. He mentioned that there were over 100 temples and a huge stupa in the city erected by Emperor Ashoka, where Buddha is believed to have showed his miracles.
Decline of Sirpur
Sirpur lost its glory when the capital of South Kosala kingdom was shifted to another place, probably in the 8th century AD. It went into oblivion after a major earthquake in the 12th century and the city and the monuments were swallowed by jungles and mud. There is also another theory, which says that the city was ruined by invasion of Delhi Sultanate.
It was JD Beglar, who visited Sirpur in 1873-74, who threw more light on the city with his photographs of monuments. Begalur says that the city had an area of about 2 square miles. Later, in 1882, British officer Alexander Cunningham brought global attention on Sirpur with his reports on Lakshman temple in the site. But the site remained neglected and no excavations were done.
Although there were some attempts to excavate Sirpur in 1950s and in 1990s, it was only after 2003, the excavations were done in large scale under A K Sharma of Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI).
Lakshmana temple: The first temple to be re-discovered after Sirpur went into oblivion is a 7th century brick temple. Only the garbha-griha (sanctum) is built in stone while the rest are bricks. The original statue of sanctum is missing in this temple is built on a platform of 77 feet length, 39 feet breadth and 7 feet height. It is considered to be one of the finest brick temples of India.
Rama temple: This is star-shaped temple is located near to the Lakshmana temple and it is entirely in ruins. What remains intact is the foundation of the shrines.
Suranga Tila: Surang Tila: The biggest temple complex in Sirpur is unique in five ways. It is huge with 3 tantric temples of Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva; it is located on ‘Ishan kon’, sacred north-east corner which houses god; and it is in ‘panchayatan’ style with main temple at centre and 4 temples in the corner. Besides, the four sanctums of main temple have four different types of lingas in red, yellow, black & white and it is earthquake-resistant, as it is built on bedrocks and in box pattern, with 32 pillars.
Other major monuments in Sirpur include Gandeshwar Shiva temple, Baleshwar Mahadev temple, Ananda Prabhu Budha Vihara with 14-room monastery, Swastika Vihara, Jain monastery.
His Holiness Dalai Lama of Tibet visited Sirpur, 75 km from Raipur, capital of Chattisgarh on 7th March 2013. Visited Lakshmana Temple dating back to 7th Century (Gupta Period), Nagarjuna Caves 15-20 km from Sirpur where Nagarjuna meditated and also saw the ancient trade centre.
Ancient treatment centre, 10 beds with surgical facilities found in Sirpur.
Total World Heritage Sites in India declared by UNESCO -38. Sirpur not yet included.
Mr Arun Kumar Sharma, Superintending Archaeologist of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was granted a licence in the late 1990s by the ASI to undertake the excavation of the Buddhist site in Sirpur and conferred with Padmashri in 2017.
But he also faced serious allegations of spoiling the authenticity of excavated structures from the 5th Cen AD.
Chhattisgarh known as Dakshin-Kaushal in ancient times finds special mention in Ramayana and Mahabharatha. It is believed that Lord Rama, wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana had started their exile in the Dandakaranya region of Bastar and spent more than 10 out of 14 years of exile here.