Sirpur was a happening place 1,300 years ago. After centuries of remaining in oblivion, today it has captured its rightful place on the tourist map of Chhattisgarh. And all thanks to the excavations undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, which has unearthed important Buddhist sites, the 6th-century Laxman temple and a host of idols belonging to that period.
Standing on the banks of the Mahanadi in Mahasamund district, Sirpur or Shreepur was once the capital of Dakshin Kosala (as Chhattisgarh was then known).
We travelled through picturesque landscape on NH6 to reach Sirpur, about 80 km from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. The wooded expanse and the pristine air made the hour-and-a-half drive exhilarating. Our sojourn assumed a more purposeful air as a professor of History from Raipur, Shampa Choube accompanied us on the trip.
As we entered the hamlet of Sirpur, there was absolutely no sign that this was once a bustling and flourishing centre of trade that witnessed a constant stream of merchants from China! But yes, it was quite evident that the region was once home to astounding monuments and structures that had become buried under the sands of time. New temples have mushroomed everywhere, almost in clusters, on the shores of the Mahanadi. But our adrenaline levels peaked as we came within sight of the ruins that lay spread over a large area.
The excavations at Sirpur, spread over a 6-km radius of the village, continue to generate excitement in the world of history and archaeology. A mutilated idol here, some broken sculptures there?there'ssomething surfacing every once in a while, adding to the treasure trove of archaeological finds.
An intriguing aspect of the findings relates to the presence of statues belonging to Vaishnavite, Shaivite, Buddhist and Jain religions at one place. This is believed to be one of the biggest temple towns of the sixth and seventh centuries discovered anywhere so far. According to archaeological sources, another unique feature here is the stone carvings depicting sexual activity among animals that are not seen even at Khajuraho or Ellora.
Having heard so much about the ruins of the Laxman temple, we proceeded there first. We were awestruck by its sheer size and structure and wondered how such a magnificent work could lay buried for so long a time! The temple is believed to be among the earliest in India built solely of bricks. It is also believed to be the only temple dedicated to Laxman, brother of Sri Rama.
The temple stands on a six-feet-high platform and its entrance is adorned with several figures carved in stone. The doorframe is of stone and a figure of the reclining Vishnu on Sheshnag is seen on the lintel. The panels of the doorway are embellished with statues depicting the incarnations of Vishnu and his devotees. The high brick roof ends in an imposing shikhar or temple dome, the passage of time clearly writ on it.
A caretaker at the complex guided us to a shed-like structure at the back of the temple, which functions as a ?museum?. The place stacks rare statues, many of whom badly mutilated, belonging to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. One headless piece in particular caught our attention as our guide explained that it was the Buddha. He informed us that the head would be plastered to the body in due course of time.
Remains of a Shiva temple
Renovation works are on at the Gandheshwar temple dedicated to Shiva, and the Buddha Vihara, even as more idols continued to be unearthed at these sites. A metre-high statue of Buddha in the lotus position, belonging to the 6th century, is one of the largest finds at this site. Close by is the Ram temple, which is completely in ruins. A few stone foundation structures are all that remain of it. The Gandeshwar temple has today become the centre of an annual religious fair coinciding with Shivratri.
The Laxman temple is believed to have been built in the 8th century by Vasata, the daughter of King Suryavarma of Magadh. Vasata was an ardent devotee of Vishnu and she built the temple in memory of her husband Harsha Gupta. Her son Mahashivagupta Balarjun, however, was Shaivite ruler credited with building the city of Shreepur?the city of wealth?as the capital of the Mahakosala kingdom. Every religion, especially Buddhism, flourished under the royal patronage of Harsha Gupta and Balarjun. The latter also promoted architectural styles of every religion and several Buddhist monasteries with their intricate motifs sprung up during his reign.
Copperplate inscriptions and a Chinese coin unearthed at Sirpur indicate that trade was buoyant under Balarjun'srule and this brought with it exchanges of learning from neighbouring countries as well. Sirpur became an established centre of Buddhism between the 6th and 10th centuries and the Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang is believed to have visited the city.
Tsang'stravelogue mentions Shreepur as having over a hundred Buddhist monasteries inhabited by over 10,000 monks belonging to the Mahayana sect. The present-day excavations have discovered some conch bangles, giving rise to the surmise that the monasteries were possibly inhabited by bhikshunis or female monks as well.
Theories abound on the subsequent downfall of the thriving town?a civil war between Buddhists and Shaivites, invasions, declining trade and even floods.
Many rare idols are believed to have been stolen from Sirpur due to lack of proper security. One such piece, an idol of Goddess Tara, is believed to have been stolen in the mid-1960s and is currently housed in a US museum.
Once a flourishing centre of trade, today a veritable tourists? delight, a historians? palette, Sirpur however still remains a village that lacks proper communication and other infrastructure.