To most people, Bilaspur is an important railway junction on the Howrah-Mumbai rail route (via Nagpur), and a regional commercial hub. Although the present city rose to prominence during the mid-19th century, its roots lies in antiquity and is said to go back 400 years. According to local tales, the town is named after a fisherwoman called Bilasa.
But did you know that Bilaspur can be a quite getaway, especially over a long weekend in winter, and the base for exploring this little-known region and its archaeological sites? Many of these sites have been under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) since the early 20th century owing to their architectural and historical importance. The city itself has many heritage precincts, including the main entrance of the Bilaspur Railway Station built in 1890, the Company Garden, Gol Bazar, etc.
Although little remains of Ratnapura, the ancient (11th -12th centuries) capital of a branch of the Kalchuri dynasty, the protected ruins still bear traces of the artistic sculptures, which once beautified them. Apart from the popular Mahamaya Temple with its carved pavilion and entrance, you will find remains of the old fort (1045-1065AD) with beautiful carvings, especially that of Hindu divinites, and the Kanthi Deul Temple (15th-16th centuries). Now known as Ratanpur, the town is about 25km from Bilaspur by road.
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About 40km by road from Bilaspur, is another ancient town, Malhar. Rich in archaeological findings, it is part of the ASI’s list of ‘Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains of National Importance’. According to art historian Nanditha Krishna (The Book of Vishnu, Penguin Books India), ‘the earliest extant image of Vishnu is probably a four-armed figure from Malhar…dating back to 200BC.’ According to the ASI, the Mud Fort of Malhar dates between 2nd century BC and 12th century AD. Several temples dating back to 10th to 12th centuries have been found here, including the Pataleswar Kedar Temple, Gomukhi Shivling Temple and Didneshwari Temple.
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Located on the bank of the Maniari River and about 30km by road from Bilaspur are the twin temples popularly known as the Devrani and Jethani temples, which were built some distance apart, apparently for the wives of two brothers from a royal family. Although the Jethani temple has virtually turned into a rubble heap, the Devrani temple still bears some semblance of its old structure. The temples are located in Talagao (Tala village). The biggest draw here is an idol known as Rudra Shiva, where various animals and human figures have been used to depict his body parts.
To take a break from the archaeological findings, pay a visit to the Khutaghat reservoir, about 50km from Bilapsur. It can be combined with the visit to Ratanpur; the dam is about 6km from here. You may carry a picnic hamper.
With kids in tow, you may visit the Kanan Pendari Zoo, about 10km away from the city centre.
Since no trip is complete without shopping, you may browse the markets for the locally manufactured Kosa silk, known for its weaving and shine.