Earlier a Buddhist site, Sirpur seems to have been taken over by the Shaivites subsequently. There is even a possibility that Buddhism and Hinduism prospered simultaneously under a benevolent ruler here. To go back in history, Sirpur was the capital of the ancient South Kosala kingdom between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Spread over an area of 25 sq km, the Sirpur archaeological complex is almost four times as big as Nalanda. Lengthwise, the Sirpur site extends almost seven km. In comparison, Bodh Gaya, also in Bihar, is less than three km long.
"This is a fit case for UNESCO's world heritage site list," says Arun Kumar Sharma, an ex-superintending archaeologist with the ASI who's now been engaged by the state to conduct the excavations. The government has already declared an area of 100 acres around the site a "heritage zone" and has constituted a special task force, headed by the additional chief secretary and comprising historians, archaeologists and representatives of various government departments, to coordinate the effort. Chhattisgarh has sought Rs 8 crore from the Union government and a proposal for a grant of 450 million yen has been forwarded to the government of Japan for the development and preservation of the site. Chhattisgarh now hopes to develop Sirpur as a major international tourist attraction, especially as a big point on the Buddhist pilgrim map. A botanical garden will come up in the area and a star hotel is also on the anvil.
Hemmed in by forests on three sides and located on the banks of the river Mahanadi, the Sirpur site has already revealed 256 mounds that include 100 Buddhist viharas, four Jain viharas and 108 Shiva temples. An east-facing palace, spread over an area of 60x40 metres, seems to be the site's epicentre. "It's a huge structure and to understand it properly, it needs to be completely excavated. What we already know is that the palace was at least three storeys and that teak was extensively used in the construction," says Sharma. A unique finding: a ramp connecting the kitchen with the main hall in the palace.
That Sirpur is an ancient Buddhist site was always known. The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited Sirpur (then known as Shripur), wrote that it was ruled by a king who was Kshatriya by birth but Buddhist by religion. Hiuen Tsang talked of over 100 monasteries in Sirpur, inhabited by about 1,000 monks belonging to the Mahayana sect of Buddhism. Ancient Sirpur was also at the junction of two important trade routes, to Janakpur and Ajanta in the west and the Deccan kingdoms southwards.
In the early 1950s, the University of Sagar in MP conducted excavations in Sirpur, revealing the ruins of two large monasteries containing a colossal image of Buddha in Bhumisparsha mudra (a cross-legged Buddha seated on the ground) and three smaller monasteries. However, subsequently there was little effort to discover the true significance of Sirpur. "In undivided Madhya Pradesh, Sirpur obviously wasn't on the priority list of the government," says P.P. Pant, Chhattisgarh's director of archaeology and museums. Work began in right earnest after Chhattisgarh came into being in 2000.And almost five years of patient labour has brought to fore a sprawling subterranean complex.
The ancient Sirpur was a city of almost 1.5 lakh residents. The inhabitants were mainly agriculturists and there is evidence to suggest that they used bullock carts with solid wheels. They do not seem to have been aware of the existence of the horse. Interestingly, says Sharma, the principles of vaastu shastra seem to have been the touchstone for builders in ancient Sirpur. "There is not a single structure which is not in consonance with vaastu," he says. An interesting detail: pathways connecting the temples and residential units with one another.
Given the large number of temples, it's almost certain that religion had an important place in the lives of the residents. "It's an integrated multi-religious complex," says Indira Mishra, the bureaucrat who heads the task force on Sirpur. The fact that temples of Buddha, Shiva and Vishnu have all been unearthed here indicate a tolerant, harmonious society. The Shivalingas are in four colours—white, red, yellow and black—meant to be worshipped by the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras respectively. Many of the temple sculptures are also erotic a la Khajuraho. Others show depictions from the Panchatantra tales. Some display copulating animals.
Of the 108 Shiva temples identified, two have been revealed in entirety. Both face west. One of them is a pancharatna temple with beautiful carved designs on bricks on the exterior of the garbh-griha (sanctum sanctorum). And it houses a one-metre tall, fully intact Shivalinga. The most outstanding feature of this temple is the presence of two huge stone slabs carved with Baiga figures. (Some 1,500 years later, Baiga figures continue to be carved in the same fashion today by the Gond-Maria tribals in Chhattisgarh). Some of the temples seem to have been constructed by the rulers while others were built by the people themselves.
In order to understand habitation patterns of the ancient site, two residences have been exposed. Both belong to Shaivite priests and are located just south of the temples. Both the houses are two-storied structures and have three rooms and a verandah each. Both face the temple and have a room each on the first floor that is without any entrance. These rooms, probably, served as a granary and were accessed through a hole in the floor. The size of the granary is a fair measure of the number of inhabitants of a house. Interestingly, grain is still stored in Chhattisgarh in exactly the same manner. Iron locks and stone-grinders have also been unearthed.
Sharma speculates that a mighty flood in the Mahanadi River probably swallowed the city, the cataclysmic event having traumatised the residents into abandoning the site. "It seems they locked their houses and escaped, never to return," he conjectures. Subsequently, a thick forest overran the site, burying the city. But even before the floods, forests were always close to the city and pugmarks of wild beasts have been discovered on stones unearthed from the site.
The excavation work at Sirpur will be suspended during the monsoons to resume after the rain ceases, says Indira Mishra. Experts opine that with Sirpur having so many Buddhist viharas, it surely must have had a stupa too. Hiuen Tsang has also referred to a stupa at Sirpur. Trying to locate and expose that stupa is also on the agenda. To know further about the ancient city and its dwellers, it is proposed next to disinter more residential sites, especially the residential complex of the royal entourage.
The work in Sirpur is far from complete. In fact, only a very small percentage of the identified mounds have been exposed. Till date, only 20 mounds have been fully excavated, eight of them within the last one year. But Sharma refuses to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before him. "We will excavate and expose only as much as we can maintain," he says. The digging and discovery continue. The 4th century rises to meet the 21st.