On the morning of June 8, 2020, a small village in the Mahanadi River basin in Odisha was all aflutter. A temple appeared to be rising out of the river, its beautiful stone mastaka or crown rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the water washing over it. It was a surreal sight, a glimpse into a bygone era when the Mahanadi ran a very different course.
It was also a sight that delighted Anil Kumar Dhir, Project Coordinator with the Odisha Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, (INTACH), which is documenting monuments in the region. The temple, located mid-river in Baideswar, in Padmavati village in Nayagarh district, is believed to be around 500 years old and dedicated to Gopinath Deba, an avatar of Lord Krishna, says Dhir, who heads INTACH’s Mahanadi Valley Heritage Sites Documentation Project. He says preliminary estimates date the temple to the 15th or 16th century CE, based on the structure of its amalaka (the notched stone disc on the mastaka) and the stone used in its construction.
The rediscovery of the Gopinath Temple drew the attention of scuba diver Sabir Bux from Cuttack, who rushed across as soon as he heard the news. “One side of the temple is affected by siltation as there are major sand deposits driven by the water of the mighty Mahanadi. I dived up to 23 feet. I tried my best to remove the sand so that I could touch the temple’s surface but the sand wouldn’t budge. On the opposite side, the water currents were so strong and it was too dangerous for me to get there,” says Bux.
More Submerged Treasures
The Gopinath Temple is an exciting find for INTACH, remarks Dhir, but he says it is literally the tip of an archaeological iceberg. Catastrophic flooding coupled with other natural and manmade factors have caused rivers to change their course, which in turn has led to scores of monuments being submerged across Odisha.
Retired Professor of Geography, Utkal University, Gopal Krushna Panda, points out that the Mahanadi River regularly flooded and inundated the Kantamal region, where the Mahanadi meets the Tel River, including the region where the submerged Gopinath Temple is located. “Baideswar is only a few kilometres from the tip of the Mahanadi delta, where flooding used to cause havoc before the Hirakud Dam and Reservoir were built. In 1982, a massive flood partially submerged the Charchika Temple in Banki.’’
Building a dam invariably means inundating a large area for its reservoir, and these reservoirs have often consigned historic monuments to a watery grave. Upstream from the Mahanadi, in Western Odisha, construction of the Hirakud Dam (1947-57) led to the submergence of many temples in its reservoir, the most prominent being the Maheswari Temple of Mura.
The Gopinath Temple at Baideswar appears to have been submerged as a result of the Mahanadi River changing its course following several cycles of massive flooding and eventually inundating its once dry basin. “Due to total submergence, partial submergence or seasonal submergence, there are around 65 temples in the Mahanadi basin. There could be even more and our project is going to cover all of them,” says Dhir.
No one knows for sure when the Gopinath Temple went under. According to locals, Padmavati village was once a part of Satapatana, a combination of seven villages. With the Mahanadi changing its course, this region was permanently flooded in the 19th century. They say the villagers were moved to higher ground along with idols from temples that were inundated, notable among them being idols of Gopinath, Nrusingha, Rasa Bihari, Kamana Devi and Dadhibamana.
All these deities are still worshipped in Padmavati village, except for Dadhibamana, who is worshipped in nearby Tikiripada village. Locals claim the present-day temple of Lord Gopinath in Padmavati village houses the idol of the presiding deity of the submerged Gopinath Temple.
They also believe there are 20-odd temples in the area that are under water but only the mastaka of the Gopinath Temple makes an appearance as it is the tallest, at around 60 feet. The last time the mastaka was visible was 11 years ago.
Others believe the Gopinath Temple was submerged during the great flood of 1933 but that may be pure conjecture as the plaque in the present-day Gopinath Temple in Padmavati village says the shrine was built in 1850. If this temple indeed houses the idol from the submerged shrine, it would mean the latter has been under water for at least 150 years.
The INTACH team visited the present-day Gopinath Temple and Project Assistant, Deepak Kumar Nayak, says, “The plaque at the entrance of the temple mentions that the ‘new’ temple was constructed by Bebarta Keshab Pattanaik of the princely state of Khandapada in 1850. Lord Krishna began to be worshipped in the form of Gopinath, Rasabihari, Madan Mohana, Nikunja Bihari, etc during the rule of the Gajapati dynasty in the late 15th century, after King Purushottama Deva (1467-1497 CE) brought the beautiful idol of Sakhi Gopinath from Kanchi to Kataka. Although it is smaller, our team found that the iconographical construction of the new shrine was very similar to any other flute-playing Krishna shrine of the Gajapati Era.’’
The submerged temple is yet to be dated but what we do know is that it existed in 1599 CE, when the minor princely state of Khandapada was founded by Jadunath Mardaraj. This has been confirmed by a descendant, Raja Bibhuti Bhusan Singh Mardaraj, who says the temple stood at Padmavati village before 1599 CE. “We have checked the palace records and found that the Gopinath Temple was there. In 1599 CE, the (princely) state was formed by Jadunath Mardaraj by annexing 14 areas, including Padmavati,” says Bibhuti Bhusan Singh Madaraj, also a former Minister in the Odisha Government.
He adds that Padmavati was a prominent place along the Mahanadi River and it was a trade centre of Khandapada State. Other nearby areas too were known trading hubs, such as Kantilo, Patharchakada and Karabara, as the Mahanadi River was a major maritime trade link.
Mahanadi: A Great Riverine Link
Explaining why so many temples were built in the Mahanadi River basin, Sunil Kumar Patnaik, Secretary, Odisha Institute of Maritime and South-East Asian Studies, says this river was the lifeline of the rich maritime trade of the ancient Kalinga region. It connected the region to the outside world, not only Western Odisha, but Central India as well, as it was a great riverine link to a maritime highway.
“Many religious structures on the banks of the Mahanadi were either built by or under the patronage of traders who had trade links with South-East Asian destinations. Evidence found near Naraj, Dhabaleswar, Bhattarika, Kantilo, Sonepur, Boudh and Tel prove this,” he says.
Odisha is a land famous for its temples with the signature Kalingan style of architecture. The resurfacing of the Gopinath Temple has created a wave of renewed interest among researchers, and historians are upbeat about extending the scope to a pan-Odishan context. In fact, the INTACH Odisha Chapter has plans to study submerged across the state right after it completes its Mahanadi Valley Heritage Sites Documentation Project, which has documented more than 800 sites along the river.
Says Dhir, “We already have some preliminary information that major rivers like the Baitarani and Brahmani have submerged historical structures in their basins and would love to expand our research.’’
Salvaging Our Legacy
India is dotted with cities, ports and monuments consigned to a watery grave by the shifting course of rivers and by natural calamities. One of the most dramatic discoveries in recent times was at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu, where the tsunami of 2004 altered the shoreline and hinted at the presence of many submerged archaeological treasures along the coast.
Sonar technology discovered the ruins of submerged Pallava-era (4th to 9th century CE) temples and the foundations of an even older temple, believed to date to the Tamil Sangam Era of 2,000 years ago. The tsunami also left a large stone lion standing on the beach.
In more recent times, dams have inundated ancient settlements and many historically priceless monuments. In Gujarat, for instance, the state’s oldest stupa and monastic complex lies under the waters of the Shyam Sarovar reservoir formed by the construction of the Meshwo Dam. The archaeological site, called Devnimori, near the town of Shyamlaji, dates to the 4th century CE.
The monumental Buddhist site of Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh, however, met a more fortunate fate. Before the site went under the waters of the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam project on the Krishna River in the 1960s, archaeologists were able to relocate many of the monuments on higher ground. The original site, home to many monasteries and even an ancient Buddhist university, was situated in Vijayapuri, capital of the Ikshvaku Dynasty (3rd to 4th century CE).
In Odisha, the mood is upbeat among historians following the rediscovery of the Gopinath Temple in the Mahanadi. Superintending Archaeologist, Odisha State Archaeology Department, Ashwinee Satapathy, suggests that the Archaeological Survey of India relocate the temple, to salvage a vital piece of history.
All photos by special arrangement
Bibhuti Bhusan Barik is a journalist-turned-communication professional based in Bhubaneswar. His interests lie in health, urban development and heritage and he has worked with some of the city’s leading dailies.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books