Ekamra Kshetra Project: Seven Ancient Temples Discovered

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After the shovels and spades fell silent and the soil slowly fell away, the ruins of an entire temple began to rise from the depths of the earth. The first to reveal itself was the base of the temple, next a wall containing beautifully engraved statues of danseuses, and, finally, a slanting roof with decorated panels depicting human figures. The roof was part of a jagmohan, which, in Kalingan architecture, means an assembly hall, which in turn is part of the temple’s tower or deula in local parlance.

Suka-Sari complex in 2020
Suka-Sari complex in 2020 | Author

This astonishing sight unfolded in Bhubaneswar’s Old Town, where the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is excavating in Ekamra Kshetra, a temple city complex noted for its ancient temples and other religious structures, from the colossal Lingaraj to miniatures a few feet tall on the roadsides or along the banks of the old tanks. The structures in Ekamra Kshetra reflect the region’s architectural and historical heritage, from the 3rd century BCE to the 15th century CE.

Slanting roof- the latest find
Slanting roof- the latest find | Author

This dig, in particular, is on land adjoining the famous Lingaraj Temple, which is in the Suka-Sari temple complex, and is part of the Ekamra Kshetra Amenities and Monuments Revival Action Plan being undertaken by the Odisha government.

The Ekamra Kshetra Redevelopment Plan

For its redevelopment plan, the government plans aims to restore heritage structures and religious monuments around the Lingaraj Temple. It will also build amenities for devotees and divert traffic to accommodate pedestrians in this heritage precinct. Towards this end, the government has demolished encroachments and cleared away shops, houses, mutts and even a college from the land in the Suka-Sari temple complex.

Lingaraja Temple
Lingaraja Temple | Wikimedia Commons

The project began in January 2021, but when jackhammers and earthmovers went to work, the ASI stepped in as it feared that ancient temples and other religious structures which they suspected lay beneath would be destroyed. Archaeologists started excavating, hopeful of making some interesting finds but nothing prepared them for what they discovered. They stumbled upon the remains of as many as seven temples made of red sandstone.

ASI workers at the site
ASI workers at the site | Author

Of their latest discovery, near the Lingaraj temple, Pratap Kumar Nayak, ASI Assistant Superintending Archaeologist (Bhubaneswar circle), says, “Among all the structures we have found over the last year, this temple seems to be the oldest, dating to the 6th century AD. It was buried under 2.5 metres of soil. Its flat-roof design indicates that the temple may have been built in Khakara style, which is marked by a rectangular structure with a truncated, pyramid-shaped roof.”

Adds Arun Malik, ASI Superintending Archaeologist (Bhubaneswar circle), “We also discovered an ancient sculpture of Lord Vishnu, which is among the earliest in Odisha.” Malik adds that the site began to reveal its treasures almost as soon as archaeologists got there. “On the very first day, we found the plinth of a temple,” he recalls.

Figurines | Author

Another exciting discovery constituted the bases of four temples, one in each of the four corners of the Suka-Sari temple complex. This suggests that the temple complex may have been built in the Panchayatan style, where four subsidiary shrines usually surrounded a main temple, says Nayak. There are two other temples in the vicinity — Brahmeshwara and Chitrakarini — that were built on the Panchayatana model and support the archaeologists’ theory.

Jitu Mishra, a Bhubaneswar-based archaeologist and founder of Sarna Education, an organisation that works with Indian culture and heritage, says that within a 2-km radius of the area where excavation is underway, there are temples that could go back to between the 6th and 13th centuries CE. “For example, the Bharateshwar, Lakshmaneswar and Shatrughaneswar temples date to the 6th CE and are considered the oldest temples in Bhubaneswar. Close to the site is the Parasurameshwar temple, which was built in the 7th CE,” Mishra points out.

Subsidiary shrine found in the 90s
Subsidiary shrine found in the 90s | Author

Before excavations began in January 2021, just one of the temple’s subsidiary shrines was known to locals. This was the one in its north-eastern corner, behind the Bhabani Shankar temple. “In the ’90s, while digging a well, locals found one side of a subsidiary shrine of the Sari temple. No one paid any attention and the ruins were buried under a thick carpet of rubbish, reveals Malik.

Archaeological Finds So Far

In the last week of January 2021, the ASI stumbled upon the first structure, thought to be the base of a temple, on the land adjacent to the Suka-Sari temple complex.

Temple bases
Temple bases | Author

In February 2021, they excavated a platform decorated with intricate sculptures and carvings, including that of women dancers and musicians, near the jagmohan of the Sari deula. A drainage pipeline that ran right across the platform was also found.

Drainage pipe
Drainage pipe | Author

Around the same time, archaeologists also discovered an impression of a Yoni Pith, where a Shiva linga is fixed. It appeared to be the sanctum sanctorum of a small Shiva temple, with its discharge outlet being directed towards the iconic Bindusagar Lake. This lake has mythological significance and is a major landmark in Bhubaneswar.

Yoni Pith
Yoni Pith | Author

During subsequent digs, the ASI discovered the jagati, or frontal raised platform, of the Sari deula, which had been buried for decades under encroachments. It was decorated with various motifs. Apart from the temple remains, red ware pottery, like the rims and bases of utensils, was also found.

Amalakas | Author

In October 2021, the ASI discovered the base of another temple. A few days later, they found two amalakas, a stone disk with ridges on its rim that sits atop a temple’s main tower. While one was in good condition, the other was partially broken.

Garland of Temples

Bhubaneswar is referred to as ‘Mandira Malini’, or a Garland of Temples due to the sheer number of exquisite shrines that have been built in this city. Representing the architectural styles of the different dynasties that ruled the land, they present a visual tapestry or a visual chronicle of the region’s past.

Mishra says there are 700 temples rumoured to have been built in the area that now comprises the Old Town. Incredibly, around 300 of them are still standing, in various stages of preservation.

Subsidiary shrine found in the 90s
Subsidiary shrine found in the 90s | Author

But there are scores of shrines and other heritage structures still believed to be buried under encroachments in the Old Town. “In the mid-’90s, when the place wasn’t choc-a-bloc with homes and other encroachments, you could spot archaeological mounds all over the place. Over time, many of these mounds have been flattened and new constructions sprang up in their places. So I am sure that wherever the ASI digs in Ekamra Kshetra, they will find remnants of ancient heritage,” adds Mishra.

Temple bases
Temple bases | Author

But, he points out, it is important to create awareness of these finds among the people, so that they learn about their heritage and truly appreciate it. “Heritage preservation has received little attention from the state government. Which is why Bhubaneswar has lost many of its archaeological wonders. As long as local communities are not able to connect with heritage, we will gradually lose everything with time.”

Cover Image: Aveek Bhowmik

Aveek Bhowmik is an independent journalist with almost 20 years’ experience. He is an avid traveller and passionate storyteller, who likes to write about heritage, lost traditions and local communities.