In the small district of Goalpara in Assam, around 127 km from Guwahati, there lies the sacred hill, Sri Surya Pahar, considered holy for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Sadly little is known about the temples here – they represent a pre - Ahom period and are an example of the many unexplored sites in Assam, begging for attention.
Sri Surya is a temple complex spread over a vast area in a hilly area (pahar) with lush green surroundings and ponds. It is layered in history and the site itself is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. What you will find on the site are several Shivlingas, votive Stupas, carved images of deities from the pantheon of all three religions. A Shiv temple, remains of a Vishnu temple and the Panchayatana temple dating back to the 10th century are still present. There is also an archaeological museum built around the site by ASI to showcase the various artifacts found in the area during excavations such as sculptural items and various utensils.
The name Sri Surya implies its association with the cult of Sun worship. Literary sources corroborate that Surya or the Sun God occupied a prominent place in the religious and cultural life of the people in the area. The prevalence of Sun worship has been found in various textual evidences such as the Kalika Purana and Markandaya Purana.
Hinduism was already prevalent in ancient Assam or Kamrupa even before 4th century CE when it finds a textual mention. We also know of the early dynasties of the region the Varmanas (350-650 CE), the Mlechchha (655-900 CE) and the Palas of Bengal who were Buddhist (900-1100 CE). They ruled from their capital of Pragjyotishpura (present day Guwahati ) for more than 800 years until the medieval dynasties of the Ahoms (13th -19th century) on the eastern side, the Shutiyas (12th -17th century CE) and the Kochs (1515-1949 CE) on the western and southern side came in.
Many scholars believe that this site which thrived in the pre - Ahom era ( i.e. before the 12th cntury CE) was the centre of thriving trade as it is situated close to the bank of the river Brahmaputra. It was here that people of this area, travellers and traders met with each other creating a layered narrative of faiths and cultures here. From the worshipers of Surya, Shiva , Buddha and the Tirthankaras, each left their mark here.
The ancient Surya temple is located on a lower surface surrounded by rocky features and small streams. A stone carving preserved here shows an image of a twelve armed deity, a seven-hooded canopy over its head stands out. The deity stands erect on a lotus and are adorned with several ornaments such as hiramukta (diamond crown), kundalas (earrings), necklaces, armlets, and long malas (garlands). The attributes on its hands are vaguely identifiable. According to local history, it is believed to be an image of Viswarupa Vishnu as he was the central God worshiped at the Surya Pahar.
However, scholars are widely divided as to whether it is a Vishnu sculpture. The arrangements are indicative of a syncretise icon, an assimilation of more than one God and cultural elements. Some argue that there is a figure of the Snake Goddess Manasha, who is widely worshipped in the eastern part of India.
The most remarkable antiquity discovered from the complex is a large circular stone slab, suryachakra, which was originally part of the ceiling of the ancient temple. It is now part of a modern temple within the complex where people continue to worship. The carving has an image of Lord Vishnu or Prajapati as the central figure in bold relief. The encircling outer circles are carved in the shape of lotus petals with the seated figures of the twelve Adityas. Sons of Prajapati and Aditi, these deities represent the twelve lunar months and include - Mitra, Varuna and Bhaga.
Near the slab and its adjacent areas, numerous other relics of Hinduism are found engraved. Notable ones include sculptural panels of Vishnu, Ganesha, Harihara, and Vishnupadas.
These reliefs are stylistically ascribed to the Eastern School of Art which was developed as a distinct regional school during the reign of the Pala Dynasty. Several phallus sculptures are found inside rock-caves and lingas are scattered around the site. There is no exact record of how many of them are there but over the centuries the Surya Pahar has been dotted with several hundred ranging from small to large sizes. It is popularly believed that 99,999 shivalingas were engraved at the site by Vyasdeva because he wanted to make it a second Kashi (Varanasi, where there is 1,00,000 lingas).
There are as many 25 votive stupas of different shapes and sizes spreading across the area on its northern side. Situated at higher altitudes, one requires climbing several stairs to reach these stupas. All the archaic stupa structures in Surya Pahar are examples of early Buddhist influence in the region dating as far back as the 1st century CE. The upper portion is semi-circular with a flattened top. There are remains of square harmikas ( a small platform with a railing on top of a stupa) with spaces to support the chhatris, the crowning elements are however missing. In one area we find a huge granite boulder carved with three gigantic monolithic stupas in a row, facing the east. These are representative of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Surya Pahar is a vital part of not only Assam’s history but also of the north-east region because this marked the boundary for Jainism in the North East. On the southern side, there is a natural cavern inside which are found three rock-cut images of Jain figures dating back to the 9th century CE. These figures appear naked. Two are standing in a posture with their hands hanging down to their knees and their cognisance of a chakra and a bull are carved right below. Another is shown to be seated in the dhyanamudra or the meditative stance, flanked by the two celestial beings. There are two bulls facing each other carved below. Jain text prescribes the bull symbolism to be that of the first Tirthankara - Rishabdev or Adinath and the chakra of Neminath, the twenty-first Tirthankara.
Efforts were undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India between the years 1992-2001 to excavate the site. In 1993-94 excavation around the southern side of the complex revealed a small tank built around 6th-7th century CE. In 1997-98 further excavations brought to light several ancient walls, paved pathways and walled enclosures made of burnt bricks with mud mortar. These were remains of temples. Trenches laid around an exposed stone temple basement was found near the tank.
In 1999-2000, the remains of a brick temple having a garbagriha (inner scantum) and a mandapa (porch) was discovered and is dated to be constructed during the later Gupta period. Antiquities unearthed are mainly terracotta tiles and plaques suggesting that the temple was well decorated. Some of the depictions include figures of apsaras (celestial nymphs), decorative, animal and floral motifs etc.
In 2000-01, resumed excavation near the tank revealed the existence of the Panchayatana temple, i.e. a main shrine surrounded by four subsidiary shrines. About 100m south of this is an ancient water channel, known as Ganesh Kund which is approximately 60m long and is dated to the same period. The Panchayatana temple enclosure comprises of a main temple and four subsidiary shrines. According to archaeological sources found on the site, the shikhara (spire of the temple) was of the nagara (northern architecture) style. Based on the stylistics antiquities found it is dated to be built around 9th -12th centuries.
Thus, we see that Sri Surya Pahar is an important site of cultural heritage. However, we know very little about its past. More research is needed to delve further into the historic significance of this vastly rich area.
Prerana Das is a student of History and has done her post graduation in Art History from the National Museum, New Delhi. She is a researcher and has done extensive work in Assam.