On the banks of the Mahanadi River in Chhattisgarh lie the ruins of the magnificent and ancient city of Sirpur, which has monuments dating as far back as the 6th century CE. The city, 80 km from modern-day Raipur, was once the capital of the Sharbhapuriya and Panduvamshi kings of the Dakshina Kosala state.
What’s interesting is that Sirpur was swallowed by the jungle and thus lost, to be properly excavated only very recently, in the year 2000. Since the discovery of Sirpur is so recent, excavations and research are still underway and archaeologists and historians are yet to piece together its story and why was it abandoned. But what has been discovered is so spectacular that you can only imagine what a flourishing city it must have been during its heyday.
Recent excavations have uncovered 12 Buddhist viharas (monasteries), one Jain vihara, monolithic statues of Buddha and Mahavira, 22 Shiv temples, five Vishnu temples, an Ayurveda treatment centre, an underground granary market and a bath (snaan kund) dating back 1,200-1,500 years.
According to researcher Geri Hockfield Malandra, who had done extensive work on the cave temples at Ellora near Aurangabad, there are striking similarities between the art work in Sirpur and the Ellora caves, and this may suggest a flow of ideas and artists between the two regions. She also says that Sirpur was a significant bronze workshop, and Buddhist bronze art excavated from here is among the “finest bronze sculptures” of that era.
What is known is that Sirpur (Sripura, the city of Lakshmi) reached its golden age under the reign of Somvamshi king Teevardeva (7th century). Chinese pilgrim, traveller and scholar Hiuen-Tsang (602-664 CE) visited Sirpur in 639 CE as a part of his travels across India. He wrote that Sirpur’s inhabitants were tall, dark and prosperous. He described the ruler as being a Kshatriya and the presence of as many as 100 Buddhist monasteries inhabited by 10,000 monks and more than 150 Hindu temples. An important feature of Sirpur was state-of-the-art town planning, with well laid-out streets, drainage and plumbing systems, as well as royal quarters, granaries, housing for priests and medical facilities.
The earliest dated Sirpur monument is the Lakshmana temple, dated to 595-605 CE. Above the sanctum door's lintel are carvings that show a reclining Vishnu on sesha (Anantasayana Vishnu) and a panel on Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana.
Just 100 meters south-east of this temple is the Rama temple. Although entirely in ruins, locals believe this was a Rama-Lakshamana pair. Its foundation hints at it being built according to the star-shape jagati pattern, making it one of the earliest of its kind in Central India.
However, the largest temple complex in Sirpur is that of Surang Tila, dated to the 7th century CE. Fascinatingly, the temple is made of white stone and before excavation (until 2006-07), locals used it as a soil mound with tunnels (surang).
Buddhist monuments include Ananda Prabha Vihara, a temple and a monastery built by Bhikshu Anand Prabhu (according to inscriptions) with sponsorship from King Sivagupta Balarjuna. There is another vihara, whose layout resembles a swastik. This site yielded a Buddha statue.
The Tivradev monastery here shows both Hindu and Buddhist themes. The Buddhist art work such as Buddha statues are sculpted beside Hindu goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, and Panchatantratales are depicted beside Kama and Mithuna scenes. Sirpur also had one Jain basati, and a 9th-century bronze image of the first Jain Tirthankara, Adinath, was found in the ruins.
As an archaeological site, Sirpur was known to historians a long time ago. J D Beglar, an official of the Archaeological Survey of India, had chanced upon the ruins of a few temples here in 1872. Limited excavation was carried out between 1953 and 1955 by the University of Sagar (present-day Dr Harisingh Gaur Vishwavidyalaya in Madhya Pradesh).
However, the actual discovery of this magnificent city and its spectacular remains took place as recently as the 21st century, that is, between 2000 and 2007, (when 184 mounds were identified) and then from 2009 to 2011. In 2009, several bronze images of Buddha and a sprawling palace complex were discovered. It is almost as if, bit by bit, the layers of history are being peeled back and the city is revealing its secrets.
But why was this capital city abandoned? There are several theories. Some claim that a great earthquake struck the city and caused its destruction. Another posits catastrophic destruction after invasion and plunder, as coins of Allauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate were found here. However, the coins also could point to trading activities between the two kingdoms. Yet another theory suggests a great flood in the Mahanadi, due to which people were forced to leave the city.
Sirpur is a great example of tolerance. The site shows extensive syncretism, where Buddhist and Jain monasteries intermingle with Shiva, Vishnu and Devi temples. Today, a museum is managed on-site, which preserves the art work and pieces of archaeological ruins found here. As excavations at Sirpur continue, we can only wonder at the secrets this medieval capital city might reveal.