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Sirpur: The Tantric Trail

Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal
13 Min Read

Chhattisgarh's heritage town of Sirpur is home to fascinating archaeological remains of tantric Buddhism

Seen from the yard of the Gandheshwar temple, Mahanadi lived up to its name. The river was wide, so wide that the other bank was a thin line in the distance. The westering sun hung large and yellow over the sandbanks and cast its reflection on the few narrow channels of water that clung to the otherwise dry riverbed. It was a Sunday, and the residents of Sirpur had come out in droves to visit the temple, shop in the bazaar outside, or just hang out by the river. The Sirpur Dance and Music festival was on, drawing throngs of visitors from Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s capital about a hundred kilometres away. Only an hour’s drive, and yet Sirpur, fringed by the Mahanadi to the west and the hills and thick sal forests of the Eastern Ghats to the east and north, could well have been many centuries away, frozen in time, still swaying to an ancient tune.

I had been wanting to visit Sirpur for a while. This town has been known, at least for the past 60 years, as an archaeological treasure-trove. Yet, apart from a series of excavations in the 1950s and ’60s (which had yielded two important Buddhist viharas and some Saiva shrines), much of it had remained underground, losing out to the lustre of Madhya Pradesh’s better-known sites. But since Chhattisgarh became a state in 2000, a fair amount of excavation work has taken place, and although these discoveries may just be the tip of an iceberg, what has been unearthed is stunning. For some 200 years, from about the final decades of the 6th
century to the middle of the 8th century, this town was the capital of the kingdom of Dakshina Kosala. Under the successive reigns of the tribal kingdoms of the Sarabhapuriyas and the Somavamsis, Sirpur was a pre-eminent city of central India, dominating the trade routes from the Gangetic plains to the eastern seaboard and the Vindhyas. Today, it is home to some of the most intriguing archaeological remains in the country.

A statue of the Buddha inside the Gandheshwara Temple

The Gandheshwar temple was a case in point. Built in the early half of the 8th century CE, its antiquity is hidden behind a garish doorway with cartoonish Shivas and a coat of whitewash on the temple. But step inside the courtyard, and the tenor changes even as the aesthetic quality of the environment is enhanced a thousand times. A giant black rock Buddha in bhumisparsha
mudra sat under a pipal tree; small steles of Hara-Parvatis, Mahishasuramardinis, Vishnus, Chandis, all over a thousand years old, dotted the premises. Inside the garbhagriha stood a pillar covered withinscriptions in a box-headed central Indian script from 1300 years ago. Another exquisite Buddha Akshobhya, the tantric Buddha of the east, sat smiling,  touching the earth, facing the Shiva linga in the temple.

This juxtaposition of Shiva and the Buddha Akshobhya spoke volumes. Sirpur, the nearby town Malhar and other sites down the length of the Mahanadi valley, right up to the delta in Odisha bear testament to the rise and maturation of probably the most important cultural tsunami to hit the subcontinent: tantra. It’s fairly well-known that the tantric schools of Bauddha Vajrayana and
Saiva Mantramarga arose at about the same time, around the middle of the first millennium CE, and grew in tandem, deeply influencing each other. In the process, they became the most sophisticated forms of their respective religions. In Sirpur, you see the remains of great Buddhist monasteries sitting cheek by jowl with Saiva temples, both the institutions profoundly tantric in tone.

The inner sanctum of the Tivradeva Vihara

A kilometre away from the temple to the northeast, just beyond the bustle of the market, lay a more ancient market. Rows upon rows of brick pedestals and remains of walls stretched into the distance, bookended by two Buddhist viharas. Retired archaeologist Dr A.K. Sharma, who has been leading the excavations at Sirpur over the past decade, and who accompanied me during my visit, told me that this used to be a market with a well-planned sewer system, granaries, specific areas for trade as well as smithies. Indeed, one of the monasteries, the main shrine of which housed a small votive stupa, used to be a metallurgical workshop. Metal Buddhist statues of the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri and the Buddha have been found here, some of which I had the extreme good fortune of seeing the next day at Dr Sharma’s storehouse. Of exquisite workmanship, these delicate cire perdue statues, some only about 4 inches high, are easily comparable to the celebrated Buddhist hoards of Achutrajpur in Odisha and Kurkihar in Bihar.

The other vihara behind a gigantic banyan tree was larger and almost certainly tantric in nature. A beautiful but worn door with carvings of maithuna couples and squat yakshas gave way to a short passage. The passage held a beautiful bust of a goddess, probably the Pancharaksha deity Mahamayuri; a delicately carved peacock kept her company. The compound consisted of a rectangular bedi meant for conducting esoteric mandala rites. Bronze vajras, the symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism, have been found here. To the right and left of this were the remains of monastic cells. Five shrines faced the compound, three of which were topped with panels showing carvings of Avalokiteshvara, Tara and other deities. The four shrines on either side were empty except for pedestals that once must have supported large statues, or mangled remains of deities. The main shrine in the middle housed the Buddha in dhyana mudra. Just outside the shrine, flanking the door, stood two giant Bodhisattvas. The one on the left had no torso, but the one on the right, a graceful figure in tribhanga posture, looked like Padmapani.

A bronze vajra from Dr Sharma's collection

Considering that this monastery was built circa early 8th century CE, it’s tempting to identify the statue of the Buddha as Abhisambodhi Vairochana, the tantric Buddha of the centre. After all, according to many scholars, one of the earliest tantras of Vajrayana, the Maha Vairochanabhisambodhi Tantra, was composed around the mid-7th century CE in central India. The monk Subhakarasimha, who carried this tantra to China and translated it into Chinese, was a prince of Odisha, who was initiated into this practice in Nalanda and had lived and worked for a time in Dakshina Kosala, from where he travelled to Chang’an (modern Xi’an) around 715 CE at the invitation of the Tang Emperor. His translation laid the foundation of esoteric Buddhism in China and Japan. It continues to be the basic text of tantric Buddhist doctrine in Tibetan, Newari, Chinese and Japanese Buddhism to this day.

Subhakarasimha’s journey to China wasn’t a one-off instance of contact between the two cultures. At this time, there were vibrant trading and cultural relations between India and China, underpinned by Chinese reverence for Indian Buddhism, especially
the Mahayana. Celebrated monks like Xuan-zang (Hiuentsang) and Wu-xing were just the most high profile of the hundreds of Chinese monks who had been visiting India since the beginning of the Christian Era. In fact, there was even a resident Chinese
Imperial Ambassador in Nalanda at this time. Subhakarasimha lived at the court of the Somavamsi king Tivradeva, the best-known ruler of Dakshina Kosala. When Xuan-zang visited Dakshina Kosala in early 7th century, he most certainly stopped at Sirpur. He
records seeing over ahundred monasteries in the kingdom with some 10,000 Mahayanist monks and a lay populace dedicated
in the worship of the Buddha. Clearly, Buddhism was flourishing in the kingdom, especially in Sirpur.

The beautiful carved doorway of the Tivradeva Vihara

Tivradeva gives his name to one of the largest monastery complexes in town. When I visited the vihara the next day, the weekend crowd had left town, and Sirpur had reverted to the silence of the centuries. A pleasant noon-day sun shone down on the massive complex, illuminating the gorgeous sculptures of the main monastery. According to an inscription found here, the monastery was built during Tivradeva’s reign, and was considerably enlarged during the reigns of his successors, especially that of his grandson Mahasivagupta Balarjuna.

The carved doorway of Tivradeva vihara was a thing of beauty. Flanked by two giant goddesses over five feet tall, the doorway is made up of large panels of couples in amorous embrace. They kissed and swooned with a languor right out of the paintings of Klimt.
Squat dwarves and architectural yakshas held up the lower parts of the door. In between these figures ran trellised patterns that looked like sinuous vines. Panchatantra tales of the monkey and the elephant, the snake and the frog were etched in fine, small detail. Figures of water buffaloes, honey bees and birds completed the scene.

Past the doorway lay the inner sanctum, bound on all sides by a perimeter wall and adorned with gorgeously carved sandstone pillars with motifs of lion faces and elephants and some quite fantastic composite beasts whose tails appeared to disappear into infinite spirals. Across a large, rectangular bedi flanked by small carved plaques was the main sanctum, holding a life-sized statue of the Buddha of kingly mien flanked by two Bodhisattvas. Some of the visitors had placed small yellow flowers on the Buddha’s palm, adding to the illusion that this vihara was still in active worship. Surrounded by his Bodhisattvas, two goddesses and the carved figures on the plaques, the Buddha looked like a monarch presiding over his court. Vajrayana’s central metaphor of the individual
visualising himself as a kingly Buddha was highly influenced by narratives of divine kingship (the chakravartin) prevalent in medieval
India. Grand Tivradeva vihara certainly looked like a royal monastery.

A bronze statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara excavated in Sirpur

Dwelling chambers of  monks surrounded the main monastery, along with a couple of subsidiary enclosures for the performance of rites. One of the plaques by the central bedi seemed interesting. It showed a spiffy young man with a smart central parting in his
long hair, flanked by two attractive women with the heads of donkeys or horses. I was reminded of the legendary Buddhist Siddhas, the Perfected Ones, who were reputed to commune with celestial dakinis, many of whom had animal heads. On the other hand, just the previous day, Dr Sharma had told me about king Mahasivagupta Balarjuna and his two wives who used  to constantly fought with each other for his affections, driving him to distraction. Whatever the case, it was quite a bawdy sight right in the inner sanctum. The Ancients certainly had a sense of humour! Sirpur and its surrounding countryside are dotted with smaller viharas and even a large stupa, but the other important cluster of monasteries is on the outskirts of the town to the south. The Anandaprabhu Vihara, Padmapani Vihara and Swastik Vihara were excavated in the early 1950s and had yielded many important statues and inscriptions, including one of an Acharya Buddhaghosha which mentions the practice of 'mantratattva'  in the monasteries, one
of the few inscriptions that mention the use of mantras, a cornerstone of Vajrayana. Each of these three early 8th century viharas, interspersed with tantric saiva temples, house huge statues of the Buddha as well as his accompanying Bodhisattvas and a plethora of other deities, from yakshas to Jambhala, the Buddhist deity of wealth.

Most of the statues in the newly excavated sites are no longer in situ, but housed in Dr Sharma’s storeroom.  Large stone Haritis, Avalokiteshvaras, Taras, votive stupas, Shiva lingas, Bhairavas, bronze vajras (pictured above) and potsherds vie for attention. Although they are safe here, it seemed a pity that these hadn’t found a museum yet, owing largely to a three-way tussle among the Chhattisgarh government, Dr Sharma and the ASI. These are precious national treasures, and deserve much better treatment.

The Surang Tila Temple

No one knows when Sirpur’s glory faded. The Somavamsins were driven out of Sirpur sometime in the 9th century by a branch of the Kalachuri dynasty, and the former rebuilt their kingdom with great success in the neighbouring Bolangir area of Odisha. Sirpur appears to have continued as a major political and cultural centre till the 12th century.

But local folklore says that it was a natural disaster that did this imperial city in. To learn more about this, I made my way to the grandest Saivite complex in town, the ruins of Surang Tila. A gigantic brick-and-stone edifice, the complex is notable for a steep and wide stone staircase that rises some 30 feet up from the ground to an elevated courtyard dotted with carved pillars and flanked by three shrines housing Shiva lingas and a shrine to Ganesha. These massive stairs gave an idea of the devastating earthquake that is said to have destroyed beautiful Sirpur, starting fires and crumbling temples and viharas alike. The two ends of the staircase fold up unnaturally–as if some irresistible force had tried to squeeze the entire edifice. The strength of the stones may have offered some resistance, but the stairs were permanently scarred and twisted. Sirpur’s glorious innings ended in devastation, but its memory
survived in its beautiful viharas and temples. A cold breeze started up over Surang Tila in the gathering dusk, and I shivered involuntarily.

Sirpur's famous Lakshmana Temple

THE INFORMATION

Getting There
IndiGo, Air India and Jet Konnect have daily flights from Delhi to Raipur from about ₹4,300. Chhattisgarh Sampurn Kranti Express and Chattisgarh Express connect Delhi to Raipur. Sirpur is 100km from Raipur and it takes about an hour by road. There are local buses to Mahasamund, the nearest town, but these are a slow option. You can hire taxis from Raipur.

Where to Stay
Sirpur has just the one place to stay: the Hiuen Tsiang Tourist Resort (₹1,500 doubles, 077- 14066415, chhattisgarhtourism.net).

What to See & Do
There’s a lot to see in Sirpur, but the must-see sites are Surang Tila, Anandaprabhu Vihara, Padmapani Vihara, Swastik Vihara, Lakshmana temple, Tivradeva Vihara, the ancient market and Gandheshwar temple. There are plenty of other unnamed Buddhist and Jaina viharas, Shiva temples as well as a large Buddhist stupa. These are all clustered in an area that’s small enough for you to see them on foot. If you're feeling adventurous take a car deep into the wooded hills to visit the Chedigodhni caves. Here the local
Gond tribal people worship their goddess Chand Dai. Do take a guide. The Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary is also located in these forests and makes for a great day trip. 

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