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Cover Story

The nether regions of Sirpur

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TEMPLE OF SECULARISM: Close-up of garbha griha in Chamunda devi temple (above) and a metal figurine dating back to 5 AD

For over 10 years now, a village in Chhattisgarh has been throwing up exciting finds. One of them is a settlement that was buzzing with trade, culture and secular discourse.

It is hard to look at this sleepy village on the banks of the Mahanadi in Mahasamund district and imagine a bustling trading and religious centre flourishing there. But from the 3rd century BC to the 15th to 17th century AD, Sirpur was a vibrant, meticulously planned settlement with a secular culture and a thinking administration. The latest in the series of archaeological finds here are two temple mounds - one dedicated to an eight-armed Chamunda Devi (Parvati) and the other, a yugla or twin construction, to Shiva.

Traders arrived in this town - then called Dakshin Kosala - from as far as Cuttack, Surat, Varanasi and Kanyakumari to do business. All faiths - Hinduism, Jainism and Budhism - coexisted in harmony here. A copper plate-and-stone inscription talks of the Hindu king Mahashiv Gupt Balarjun funding the construction of Buddhist and Jain Viharas. It was also one of the largest centres of learning, older and bigger than Nalanda. Sirpur was the capital of the Vaishnavite clan of Sarabhapuriyas in the 5th century AD.

The Somwanshi rulers took charge later and hosted the famous itinerant Chinese scholar Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) during their reign. His travelogue describes the religious tolerance of the people and the 10, 000 south-east Asian monks who studied here. Sirpur is not new to excavation: the famous Lakshman temple and the surangtila (a cave- like structure) were the result of digs conducted in 1872.

The latest phase of excavations was launched by A K Sharma, the then superintending archeologist at ASI in 1999. The finds show that a lot of thought went into laying out the city. The drainage system, for instance, which stretched 6. 5 km along the Mahanadi, was designed in such a way that it kept the river clean. The granaries made of limestone had sliding covers. More importantly, they were secular, under the control of the ruler, and came in handy during droughts. A public bath made of stone with concealed drains probably allowed for ayurvedic treatment. Also discovered were remains of a palace complex, a residential stretch with 22 Shiva temples, two Vishnu temples, three Harihar temples, a Chamunda temple, 10 Buddhist and three Jain viha ras.

Exquisite sculptures and a 1. 2 metres-tall sitting monolithic Budd image, a torana dwar (welcome gate) and a unique pyramidal temple have all emerged from persistent excavations in Sirpur. Another big find was a Buddha stupa built by king Ashok (it is believed that Buddha visited Sirpur in the 6th century BC). A batch of five Shiva temples (panchayatan ) found here is built on the highest platform found in the country so far. Experts claim that this temple was ruined during an earthquake in 1200 AD.

Sharma is particularly excited about the sandstone and mud stupa he excavated along with 79 other Buddhist images. This Ashokan stupa finds mention in Xuanzang's book. The terracotta model of the original stupa, too, was recovered from Buddha viharas.

What really got archaeologists thrilled recently was the discovery of a batch of four silver coins and a terracotta seal with Persian inscriptions. "These belong to the Mughal period and one of them has 'bandre-mubarak-Surat' inscribed on it, " says G S Khwaja, superintending epigraphist (Arabian and Persian) at the ASI's Nagpur office.

Not just that, an ancient city that thrived at Mansar, on the Nagpur-Jabalpur highway, was also dug out. This city saw more than three dynasties - Maurya-Sunga, the Satvahanas and the Vakatakas - rise and decline. At Hidimba tekdi, two Buddhist stupas belonging to the Mauryan period were found, as were figures of Trinetra Parvati and Shiva-Parvati sculpted on grained sandstone.

The pottery recovered is red ware. Structural remains, pottery, iron and copper objects and coins recovered from the Satvahana period indicate that Mansar had gained the importance of a capital or a sub-capital during this period. A huge fortified palace complex excavated in fragments over 10 years belonged to this period.

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