I’m excited at the prospect of spending a day with my friend, archaeologist Jitu Mishra, who has promised to show me some ancient archaeological secrets. Jitu knows my passion for hunting down unknown secrets from antiquity for my research; he promises me that he’s going to show me little-known archaeological gems that are every bit as dazzling as the famous landmarks in and around Bhubaneswar—equals of the Lingaraj, Rajarani and Mukteswar temples, the Sun Temple at Konark and the temple of Jagannath at Puri.
We start with the Bhaskaresvara Temple. Built sometime in the 13th or 14th century CE, it houses a controversial secret. The moment I set eyes on the temple, I know there’s something intriguing about it. The shape of the structure strikes me as odd—it is different from the temples in Bhubaneswar of the same or other vintage. In fact, it is unlike any other temple I have ever seen, and I have seen many ancient ones across India. I walk around the temple, marvelling at the unusual shape and noticing the exposed, underlying foundation of ancient laterite stone blocks below the more recent stone base, upon which an 11-feet-high stone platform forms the base of the temple that rises above it.
There is an arched gateway, at the ground level, in the stone platform. It is barred. I peer through the bars into the passage beyond, through the semi-darkness. Beyond another arch at the far end of the passage, I discern the secret of this temple: the solid base of an enormously thick lingam, which rises above the roof of the arched passageway into the heart of the temple above.
Ascending the stone stairs to the platform, I navigate to the entrance to the inner chamber, and enter a small antechamber from which I gaze at the tip of the lingam which is just above the floor of this chamber. The inner chamber of the temple is a circular atrium built around the lingam, which rises from the base of the lingam, 11 feet below, to the roof of the temple high above me.
This is when I learn the nature of this secret and the reason for the odd shape of the temple. Archaeologists believe that the lingam, which is unusually large, was originally a pillar from the time of Ashoka. Evidence to support this conjecture was found in the shape of the top of a lion—presumably part of a lion capital—that was found in a depression next to a small water body that lies beyond the temple, within its enclosure. Any doubts that I had about the authenticity of this theory were laid to rest when I subsequently researched and found archaeological articles stating the same conclusion, and even an Indian government website. After all, Odisha’s history does stretch back millennia.
Our next stop is another fascinating and mysterious site: the Chausathi Yogini Temple at Hirapur, a short drive from Bhubaneswar. An ASI board assigns its date of construction to around the 9th century CE. I stare in wonder at the mystifying structure beyond the entrance. But where is the temple? I see no vimana—and, frankly, I see no temple.
What I do see is a circular sandstone structure with nine statues—all female—carved into niches on the exterior wall. Facing the east is a small entrance, flanked by a statue on each side. Still wondering, I bend to enter a passage a few feet in length and emerge into the temple itself. I find myself within the circular structure, which is open to the sky. Along the circular inner wall is a row of sixty niches, each with a small chlorite idol—once again, all female forms. I marvel at the detail—the figures are beautifully carved with different expressions; each one is engaged in a different activity and has a different posture. In the very centre of the circle is a square structure—perhaps a mandap—also without a roof, with an arched opening in each wall, facing the four cardinal directions, with statues carved into niches on the walls.
Why a circular temple, with no roof? This temple is dedicated to womanhood, through the female yoginis, and is built to look like a circular yoni when viewed from above. Yet, there is no eroticism in the sculptures. The entire objective appears to be a celebration of life and material desires. I am told that the temple is dedicated to the Bhairava form of Lord Shiva, and a tantric cult associated with sorcery and secret knowledge that gave the cult great power.
From Hirapur, we move on, arriving at Dhauli, where some of Ashoka’s rock edicts are preserved behind a metallic grille. I have been fascinated by Ashoka ever since I researched him for my first book, years ago; and this is only the second rock edict of Ashoka that I am seeing in its original form. The first one was a piece of the Bairat edict that lies at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata. My mind travels back more than 2,000 years, to the time when this spot must have been a confluence for travellers, a place where people would be most likely to read the edict. Above the edict, carved from the rock, is the forepart of an elephant—a symbol of Lord Buddha.
Our last stop for today is Sisupalgarh, an ancient town pre-dating the Mauryan empire. The most recent archaeological excavations at the site date the settlement to the 6th to 7th century BCE.
We drive down a narrow, dusty, dirt track, squeezed between rows of houses. Finally, we turn left and drive to a spot where green fields stretch before us, hemmed in by houses. I cannot see any ruins. Jitu smiles and asks me to be patient as we walk. I follow him, eagerly scanning the fields around for any sign of a township. We leave the houses behind and I see them—a bunch of stone pillars standing in the centre of a vast expanse of green. An oasis surrounded by concrete all around. I am spellbound. Were these pillars part of a grand palace? In all my research I’ve read about palaces from this time period—almost 2,500 years ago—being built using wood. For the first time, I am witnessing the use of stone in a construction of this antiquity.
I find the ruins haunting. I walk over to the pillars and examine them. At the top of each pillar I see slots, possibly for cross beams to be fitted and bear the weight of a roof or even a floor above. The pillars appear to mark out an area—whether it is a large room or an entire structure, is not clear. Four pillars at one corner seem to mark out the outlines of a chamber. Each pillar is laterite and rises to a height of around 14 to 15 feet. The excavations here in 1948, 2001 and in 2007–08 uncovered other ruins, some of which now lie buried underground.
Next to the southern row of pillars is a large mound, and I wonder what archaeological wonders lie beneath. I spend some time photographing and studying the pillars, once again transported thousands of years into the past. I wonder which king ruled here— was it the famed Kharavela of Kalinga?
But Jitu has more in store for me. We leave the pillars behind and drive a short distance, past a temple, and alight again. A quick walk brings us to a sight that takes my breath away. Before me stretches a massive fortification, a gateway to an ancient fortress. When the fortifications were excavated in 1948, the site was identified with Kalinganagara, the city ruled by King Kharavela, whose exploits are described in an inscription in the caves of Udayagiri Hill, a short distance away. I walk through the gateway, through a passage around 25 feet wide, between two parallel walls of laterite blocks rising to a height of more than 20 feet. The gateway stretches for around 100 feet, ending at a stream called Gandhavati, which formed a moat for the fort in ancient times. Today, the water is murky and polluted, but in my imagination, I can picture the king arriving by boat and entering through this grand gateway, for that is what I believe the gateway was meant for.
I cast a wistful glance at the ancient history around me, for the area is being encroached on by modern construction. Just a few feet away from the ancient pillars of the town are low, modern brick walls, marking out plots where construction will begin at some time. I can only hope that the ruins of Sisupalgarh are preserved and protected, and don’t disappear, like its townsfolk, into the dusty mists of history.
The writer is a bestselling author. His newest book is The Pataala Prophecy Book II: The Mists of Brahma.
Biju Patnaik International Airport is the primary international airport serving Bhubaneswar. The city does have bus services and app-based taxi operators, but a rental car is best for a day trip covering all four locations.
The Bhaskaresvara Temple is a 15-minute drive from the airport, and lies on the southern end of the city. The Chausathi Yogini Temple in Hirapur is another 10 minutes away, after which one can circle back over the Kuakhai and Daya rivers, covering the Ashokan edicts at Dhauli (18 minutes) and the ruins of Sisupalgarh (20 minutes) respectively.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
If done leisurely, the drive around town will take half a day. To make the most of your time in the state capital, make sure you:
>Sign up for the weekly heritage, museum and cave tours organised by Ekamra Walks for a balanced introduction to the region’s historic sites (ekamrawalks.com)
>Pick up traditional applique souvenirs from Pipili, a handicrafts hub (20km) near Bhubaneswar
>Try the street food. Grab a plate of chakuli pitha (a fried, rice pancake) or vadas with ghuguni (yellow peas and potatoes in spicy gravy), follow it up with fried crab and seafood, and finish with chhena desserts or kora khai, a paddy-coconut-jaggery specialty. Vegetarians cannot miss out on the temple cuisine. It is diverse, colourful and steeped in heritage.