Odisha’s mighty Mahanadi is slowly giving up its secrets centuries after it began to alter its course on its way to the Bay of Bengal. This natural process, periods of catastrophic flooding and the damning of the river at various points, has swept up entire temples that now lie submerged in its swirling waters.
Every now and then, we get a peek into what the banks of the Mahanadi and the shrines that lined it must have looked like, when the river reveals bits and pieces of these temples and the idols they once housed.
Two recent discoveries sent ripples of excitement across archaeological circles and among locals, who have played a key role in recovering statues and identifying submerged temples in the Mahanadi and its tributaries.
Seven Idols from the Baitarani River
Since the ancient times, Mahanadi river flowing through Odisha has been the cradle of civilization. Remains of human settlements dating back to the late Pleistocene age (around 65,000 years ago) have been found along the river. The great cities of ancient Kalinga were located around the Mahanadi and its tributaries which served as an important trade route, for goods from the interiors of Odisha to the coast. Thanks to the patronage of wealthy merchants, a number of temples and shrines began to be built along the river. However, over centuries the Mahanadi river would shift its course and as a result, submerged numerous temples across Odisha. For example, in June 2020, an entire temple was rediscovered under the Mahandi in the Nayagarh district of Odisha.
Apart from Mahanadi, the Baitarni and Brahmani rivers are the two other major rivers of Odisha, which have also played an important role in Odiya history. Venerated in epics and legends, these rivers form a fertile delta in eastern Odisha. So it is no surprise that most of the recent discoveries of idols and temples have been from these rivers.
On April 4, seven beautifully carved, antique idols were recovered from the bed of the Baitarani River in Barahagand, near Dashashwamedh Ghat in Jajpur district, while an idol of Lord Krishna was recovered from the Kharasrota River near Shribantapur village in Jajpur district on April 10.
The first haul was made after a priest was taking a ritual bath at Dashashwamedh Ghat, near the Saptamatruka temple. While performing rituals in the water, his foot struck a smooth and stubborn object. When he lifted the object out of the water, he found himself holding an ancient Shiva Linga made of black chlorite stone.
Locals stumbled upon six more idols, including likenesses of Kaliya Dalana, Narasingha, Narayana, Chamunda, Krushnakali and Bhairavi.
In March last year, more discoveries were made in the same district, near Devigada Ghat. An ancient Shiva Linga and the remains of a temple had surfaced from the Baitarani River, near Dasarathpur.
“Last year, the discovery in the Baitarani basin was proof that the river had changed its course and that the temple was reconstructed as the Siddheswar temple, but the recent discovery of seven idols could point to a very different reason. They could be linked to the invasion by Kalapahada, who had demolished many temples when he invaded coastal Odisha in 1568 CE. To save the idols, locals could have thrown them in the river, never to recover them,” says Deepak Kumar Nayak, Project Assistant with the INTACH Mahanadi Valley Heritage Sites Documentation Project, which is documenting archaeological remains across Odisha, especially submerged or damaged temples on the riverine path. Kalapahada was a general of the Bengal Sultanate who invaded Odisha in the 16th century. During the invasion, numerous temples were destroyed while many idols were submerged by priests in the rivers to protect them from destruction.
Superintending Archaeologist, Odisha State Archaeology Department, Ashwinee Satapathy, has a different theory. He says these idols could be from an older Jagannath temple that was submerged or damaged due to the mighty river as it might have changed its course in the past due to geological reasons. But, he cautions, we should not draw any hasty conclusions. “We need to study the comparative iconography of the recovered idols with the present Jagannath temple which was re-built later.”
From the 6th century onwards, Odisha emerge as a great centre of Vaishnavism, thanks to the great popularity in worship of Jagannath at Puri. Numerous temples dedicated to Lord Jagannath, Lord Krishna and other deitieswere built in the medieval period. So, it is no surprise that a lot of the idols which are now being found are those of Lord Krishna.
Krishna Statue From The Kharasrota River
A week after the discovery of idols near the Dashashwamedh Ghat, an idol of Krishna was recovered from the Kharasrota River near Shribantapur village in Jajpur district.The statue was 18 inches tall and weighed 30 kg. It was found by a local fisherman on his daily fishing expedition in the Kharasrota River.When his boat struck something solid, the fisherman dived into the water to investigate. Imagine his surprise when he realised it was a beautiful statue of Lord Krishna with a flute in his hands!
Documenting Submerged Temples in the Mahanadi
Over the years, idols and parts of temples have emerged from the Mahanadi and its tributaries with amazing regularity as the Mahanadi river system covers a vast geographical area across Odisha.
One of the most prominent discoveries has been the reappearance of a Lord Gopinath temple in Padmavati village along the Mahanadi in 2020. The village was once part of Satapatana, a group of seven villages. However, when the Mahanadi changed its course, the villages were submerged in the 19th century and villagers along with the deities they cold salvage from the temples were moved to higher ground. This is why the presiding deity in the present temple of Lord Gopinath in Padmavati village has the original idol.
Upstream in Western Odisha, many temples went under water when the Hirakud Dam was built in 1957. The most prominent among these is the Maheswari Temple of Mura.
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