Introduction – Malhar is an ancient town of Chhattisgarh and it could be the oldest one probably. J D Beglar mentions about a mud fort at Malhar during his tour in 1873-74. He was not very much interested in such a fort so he skipped visiting Malhar however later he found about the ruins of two temples at this town. Malhar is referred as Mallala or Mallala-pattana in the Kalchuri epigraphs of the twelfth century CE. K D Bajpai suggests that Mallal is probably a derivation of Mallari, a title of Shiva. A demon named Malla is found in the Puranas, as Shiva killed this demon so he is called Mallari. Old Mallal was surrounded by three rivers, Arpa in the west, Leelagar in the east and Shivnath in the south.
Malhar lies on an ancient route which was connecting Koshambi with Puri on the south-eastern coast of India. Bharhut, Bandhavgarh, Amarkantak, Kharod, Malhar, Sirpur are few major towns on this route. Malhar was benefited with this strategic location and witnessed cultural and political developments. Pilgrims going to Puri used to halt here and pay homage to various temples at the site. A clay seal bearing legend ‘gamasa Kosaliya’ meaning ‘of village Kosala’ discovered at Malhar can be dated to 200 CE. K D Bajpai identifies this village Kosala with a village bearing same name situated near Malhar.
Another clay seal bearing the legend ‘Maharaja Mahendrasya’ is an important discovery at Malhar. This legend is written in the Gupta Brahmi alphabets. K D Bajpai identifies this Mahendra with the ruler bearing the same name which found a mention in the Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta. He is mentioned as the king of Kosala who was defeated in the hands of the Samudragupta but was reinstated after this defeat by the same ruler.
Though nothing can be said with surety about the Maurya occupation over Dakshina Kosala and hence over Malhar however as most of India was under their rule so it will be very hard to keep this region outside of their influence. After the Mauryas, Malhar came under the Satavahana rule which lasted for about three hundred years as mentioned by K D Bajpai. Various findings during the excavation also point towards this fact. The Vakatakas and the Guptas also enjoyed rule over this region as evident from their epigraphs. After their fall, local dynasties like the Sarabhapuriyas, the Panduvamshi of Mekala, The Panduvamshis of Kosala and the Somavamshis ruled over Malhar and a major part of Dakshina Kosala. The Kalchuris ousted the Somavamshis and ruled for about seven hundred years from Ratanpur till the advent of the Marathas in this region.
As per L S Nigam, it is here where the art activities started first. He mentions that Malhar is one of the most important centers of art where art-activities can be observed from second century BCE to the Kalchuri age. A Chaturbhuja-Vishnu image, discovered here in 1960, bears a Prakrit inscription in Brahmi script which is assignable to 200 BC. This is probably the earliest plastic representation of Vishnu.
Excavations at Malhar – In 1973-74, I K Sharma of the South–eastern Circle of the Survey noticed the antiquity of Malhar which was already famous for its sculptural wealth and a fort by that time. An extensive excavation work was taken up by The Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology of the Sagar University, in collaboration with The Department of Archaeology, Government of Madhya Pradesh, under the direction of Prof K D Bajpai, assisted by Dr S K Pandey and V D Jha in 1974-75-76
The excavations at Malhar show continuous inhabitation and antiquity from the second century BCE to twelfth century CE based upon the discovered sculptural specimens. During this period, Malhar observed various religious domination like that of the Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina. Various copper, lead, and potin coins bearing several symbols like elephant, Ujjain-symbol, peacock and Kartikeya were discovered at Malhar. All these coins may be assigned to pre-Christian era. Few silver punch-marked coins were discovered from the area around the fort.
The excavation revealed following cultural sequence:
- Period I : Protohistoric Period (1000 BCE to 350 CE) – Chhattisgarh region was inhabited by Chalcolithic people during this period. Painted black-and-red pottery discovered at Kharod points to megalithic culture. Though no megalithic remains are discovered at Malhar however Chhattisgarh region as such is very rich in such remains. Red pottery with black painting is another characteristic of this period. Potteries discovered at Malhar shows drawings in black over the red surface of black-and-red surface.
- Period II : Maurya, Shunga and Satavahana Period (350 BCE to 300 CE) – This period is represented by two structural phases, differentiated based upon the type of stones used in construction of houses. The first phase used dressed and undressed locally available white stone as the foundation and construction of walls while the second phase used backed bricks for the construction of the structures. In the second phase, the foundation was filled up with gravels and black soil. The habitation was protected by a mud wall, however whether it was for defense or protection from flood is not certain. Plain red wares and black-and-red ceramics also belong to this period. Dishes and bowls were prominently in black-and-red style while basins and vessels were in plain red. Notable discoveries include punch-marked square copper coins, cast coins, several Satavahana coins with the elephants symbol, finished and semi-finished beads of semi-precious stones, antimony rod, and a terracotta head of a boy with well-marked features. Nine square copper coins belonging to first century CE bearing legend ‘Kumaghabhijhabha’ were also found. A terracotta sealing, bearing the legend ‘gamasya kosaliya’, (of the village Kosala) in the Brahmi characters of the second century CE was found in a disturbed layer. Another clay seal bears the legend ‘Vedasiris’ (of Vedasri) was discovered from the fort area.
- Period III : Sarabhapuriyas and Somavamshis (300 CE to 650 CE) – This period is marked with the houses built of stones, baked bricks and rammed floors. Thin wares bearing shining black polish on interiors and red and black on exterior also belong to this period only. Rims of the vases of these kind of wares bear inscriptions, reading Mahaswami (great-lord), in late Gupta Brahmi script. A baked pendant was found with Brahmi inscription reading ‘Kalyanarchi’. A rare clay seal bearing inscription ‘Maharaja Mahendrasya’ in the Gupta Brahmi characters was also discovered from the excavation site. Various temples were discovered during the excavation which suggests that a tremendous drive was in practice for building religious structure. Remains of a Shiva temple were unearthed in an excavation trench. A huge tank, locally known as Potnar, was also built during this period. Two Buddhist shrines belonging to Vajrayana sect were also discovered. An image of a Vajrayana deity was found and preserved at Malhar museum.
- Period IV : Later Somavamshis (650 CE to 900 CE) – This period is marked by a spurt in the building activities, structures were built of baked bricks and well dressed stones. However K D Bajpai mentions that the capital was shifted from Malhar to Sirpur which resulted in decline of these activities. Thin well-polished black-and-red ware of the previous period continued during this period as well, few of these specimens bear a remarkable golden slip with graffiti marks and mica slip. Some notable findings are a square red sandstone piece with rosette circle and symbols like padma, ghata and deer, another stone piece with Nandi in Anjali-mudra in human form, a red sandstone image of seated Ganesha, a copper weight, a terracotta gamesmen.
- Period V : Kalachuris (900 CE to 1300 CE) – This period is characterized with the structures built reusing bricks and habitation shift towards the inner part of the town. People utilized the material of the period IV to build their buildings. An excavated Buddhist Vihara has rooms measuring 3.15 x 1.20 m, 2.90 x 1.20 m and 1.20 x 1.00 m and raised upon a platform of white slate stones. The size of the brick is 32 x 20 x 7 cm. Plain red ware dominates the ceramics of this period.
Dr S K Pandey continued the excavations in 1977-78 which resulted in findings of structural activities during the Satavahana period. Apart from this nothing new as such was discovered except few structures dated to Gupta and post-Gupta period. A P Sagar collected various antiquities such as tools dated to Lower Paleolithic and Mesolithic period, terracotta figurine of naga-mithuna and other objects belonging to the Mauryan period in 1976-77 from Malhar. A stone, seal of hematite, bearing legend ‘Padma Nabhasa’ (probably for Padmanabhasya) was discovered by M U M Rao in 1983-84.
Is Malhar the ancient Kushavati? – When we talk about the ancient towns of Dakshina Kosala region, then Kushavati appears to be the most ancient. Rama coronated his son, Kush, at the throne of Dakshina Kosala with Kushavati as its capital. Though Kushavati is known since Ramayana time however its identification is still not done satisfactorily. This Kushavati should be looked on the southern side of Vindhya mountain range as told by Ramayana of Valkimi and Raghuvamsha of Kalidasa. There was an attempt to identify Kushavati with Kushasthali or modern Dwarka however it is not tenable on various counts.
V Pathak attempts to identify Kushavati with Kushinara or Kushinagara however apart from the similarity of the names there is no other proof in support of this identification. However there is no doubt about the antiquity of Kushinara. As Kosala was referred on Dakshinapatha in the Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta, so Kushavati should be searched in Dakshinapatha region, the region lying beyond the Vindhya mountains on south.
Is Malhar the ancient Sarabhapura (शरभपुर)? – With the advent of the Sarabhapuriyas, in the beginning of the sixth century CE, in the Dakshina Kosala, Sarabhapura emerged as a major town and the capital of this dynasty. Later they changed their capital to Sripura (Sirpur) in during the time of the last ruler of the dynasty. Sarabhapura is still not identified with success. K D Bajpai and S K Pandey, who carried out extensive excavations at Malhar, propose it to be identified with Sarabhapura.
They proposed following points in support of their theory:
- A good number of the Sarabhapuriya grants, four out of fourteen, were found around Malhar so it could be their capital town.
- Three towns of Chhattisgarh can be considered for the identification of Sarabhapura, and these are Rajim, Sirpur and Malhar. Malhar is the ancient one amongst these hence it is the strongest candidate for the identification.
- Being a capital, Malhar shows every aspect of a capital city like the town is well defended with mud-ramparts and ditches. It has been exposed to be a well planned township with houses, lanes, drainage and water-supply in the excavations.
- Many villages and places mentioned in the Sarabhapuriya grants can be located around Malhar at a reasonable distance.
Satish Chandra also identifies Malhar with Sarabhapura however he went little far stating that Malhar was also known as Ratanpura during the Kalchuri dynasty.
Ajay Mitra Shastri does not agree with this identification, he puts forward following points in his support.
- Sarabhapura was founded by Sarabha, the first assumed king of the Sarabhapuriyas and the antiquity of Malhar goes back to 1000 BCE so it was not a newly settled town.
- Malhar is never known as Sarabhapura in any epigraphs.
But, where is the evidence that Sarabhapura was founded by Sarabha? Nothing like that is mentioned in any Sarabhapuriya inscription, but it is just an assumption upon etymological surmise. Hence it cannot be used against Malhar’s claim as suggested by Bajpai. There is a possibility that Sarabhapura is just a new name given to an old town. However, it is a fact that Malhar was never mentioned as Sarabhapura but as Mallala or Mallala-pattana. But these names found mention in the Kalchuri epigraphs of twelfth century CE. Unfortunately, we do not have any record of sixth century where mention of Malhar as Malhar or similar name.
General Epigraphs – This section gives details on various epigraphs which are not associated to a particular monument but discovered at Malhar.
- Mallar plates of Maha-Jayaraja – Epigraphia Indica vol XXXIII – issued in the fifth regnal year of Maha-Jayaraja, about 555 CE – written in Sanskrit, box-headed variety of Central Indian alphabets – Issued from Sarabhapura, it mentions king Maha-Jayaraja as the crest jewel of the feudatory chiefs who bowed down before him. He is referred as a devout Vaishnava. The grant talks about a donation of a village by this king to increase of the religious merits of his parents and of his own.
- Mallar plates of Jayaraja – Epigraphia Indica vol XXXIV – issued in the ninth regnal year of Maha-Jayaraja, about 559 CE – written in Sanskrit, box-headed variety of Central Indian alphabets – Issued from Sarabhapura, king Jayaraja was described in similar manner as that of former grant. The grants mentions a donation of a village by some Vatsa, who held the office of Hadappagraha.
- Mallar plates of Pravararaja – Epigraphia Indica vol XXXIV – issued in the third regnal year of Pravararaja, about 583 CE – written in Sanskrit, box-headed variety of Central Indian alphabets – Issued from Sripura, the grant is about a donation of a village to a brahmana by the king.
- Mallar plates of Vyaghraraja – Epigraphia Indica vol XXXIV – issued in the forty-first regnal year, probably of Pravara-bhattaraka, about seventh century CE – written in Sanskrit, nail-headed variety of South Indian alphabets – Issued from Prasannapura, the grant mentions a chief named Vyaghraraja, the younger brother of Pravara-bhattaraka and the son of Jaya-bhattaraka of the family known as Amararya-kula. The grant is about a donation of a village by Vyaghra.
- Mallar plates of Surabala Udirnavaira – Studies in Indian Epigraphy – issued in eighth regnal year of Surabala, early seventh century CE – written in Sanskrit, Southern class of Central Indian alphabets – The grant mentions that it belongs to illustrious lord Jayeshvara-bhattaraka who is decribed as carrying a trident in his hand, having an excellent bull for his mount and snakes his retinue. He also put Ananga (Kaamdeva) ablaze. The grant is written with permission from Udirnavaira, a title of Surabala of the Panduvamshi dynasty of Mekala, and mentions a donation of a village to the lord. The genealogy of Surabala is given as, Jayabala -> Vatsaraja (married to Dronabhattarika) -> Nagabala (married to Indrabhattarika) -> Bharatabala (married to Mahadevi)-> Surabala. Surabala is mentioned as devout Maheshvara.
- Mallar plates of Shivagupta Balarjuna – Epigraphia Indica vol XXIII – no date or year mentioned, about middle of eighth century CE – written in Sanskrit, box-headed variety of Central Indian alphabets – Issued by king Shivagupta of the Somavamshi dynasty, donates a village on the request from his maternal-uncle to the monks of four quarters who were residing at a small monastery at Taradamska.
- Mallar plates of Shivagupta – Inscriptions of the Sarabhapuriyas, Panduvamsins and Somavamsins – no date mentioned, about middle of eighth century CE – written in Sanskrit, box-headed variety of Central Indian alphabets – Mentions a donation of a village for the maintenance and repairs for the arrangements of bali and caru offerings for the temples of Kapaleshvara and Bhattaraka (probably Surya) built by Shivanandin.
- Inscription on Chaturbhuja-Vishnu image – The inscription mentions that the statue was installed by the wife, Bharadvaja, of some Parnadatta.
Monuments – There are two temples and a mud fort at Malhar.
Pataleshvara Temple – This is the main attraction at Malhar and the complex is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. The temple saw a major renovation and repair activities during the last decade of the twentieth century CE. The sanctum is located below the ground floor hence the name Pataleshvar (the lord of the netherworld). The temple is constructed on a high raised platform with entrances provided from three side. There would have been a pillared mandapa in front of sanctum as evident from the remains of various pillars.
The sanctum doorway has life-size statues of the river goddesses and dvarpalas. Lateral faces of the door-jambs are carved with five panels each. Depiction of Ganesha, various Shiva-Parvati scenes and few secular scenes are found in these panels. Antarala (vestibule) has a staircase which takes the devotee down to the sanctum. There is a Shiva-lingam inside the sanctum. An open Nandi mandapa is constructed in front of this temple.
The temple was probably constructed by a Brahmana during the time of the Kalchuri ruler Jajalladeva II in the twelfth century CE. The temple was dedicated to Kedara, a title of Shiva. A sculptural shed was constructed in 1974-75 at the site to house various unearthed sculptures around the village. In 1981-82, around five hundred loose sculptures were chemically cleaned applying a coat of polyvinyl acetate as preservative, santobrite and zinc silicofluoride as fungicides.
- Malhar Stone Inscription of Jajalladeva II – Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol IV – dated in 919 year of the Kalchuri Era (1167 CE) – Sanskrit language, Nagari characters – The inscription refers to the reign of Jajalladeva II of the Kalchuri dynasty of Ratanpur. The object is to record the construction of a temple of Shiva at Malhar under the name of Kedara by a Brahmana named Somaraja. The inscription mentions Ratnadeva II as a fierce cloud which extinguished the continuously raging flames of the spreading mighty fire of the valor of the King Chodaganga. Ratnadeva II begot Prithvideva II and the latter begot Jajalladeva II. The inscription then mentions the genealogy of Somaraja. It is mentioned that Somaraja was proficient in both the Mimansas, the Nyaya, the Vaisheshika system and refuted the doctrines of the Charvakas, Bauddhas and Jainas.
- Malhar Stone Inscription – Descriptive List of Inscriptions in the Central Province and Berar – dated on paleographic studies to twelfth or thirteenth century CE – This inscription is much damaged and only few words here and there can be read. It was found at Malhar and deposited to Bilaspur Town Hall. Mention of Chedi desa is in line 2, Nannadeva in line 6, 7 and 8, Mallala (old name of Malhar) in line 10 and Kalhana in line 13. It probably mentions a construction of some mansion.
- Inscription in tank pillar – Indian Archaeology 1964-65: A Review – written in Sanskrit, Nagari (Siddhamatrika) characters – dated to ninth century CE on paleographic grounds – mentions Ranakshobha, probably a Sailodbhava king.
Bhima Kichaka Temple – This temple was found in ruins, ASI did some renovation and all the stones were put in place. It is dedicated to Shiva and does not have any mandapa in front. I did not visit this temple so cannot provide any photographs.
Mud Fort – I was not aware of its existence when I visited Malhar but later I found that there is such a fort and it is under the protection of ASI.
How to Reach – Malhar is about 27 km from Bilaspur on the Bilaspur-Raipur road. 11 km from Bilaspur is the village Masturi, from where you need to take a right turn for Malhar which is about 16 km far. The road from Masturi to Malhar was very bad, when I visited this place in 2010. Public transport is available from Bilaspur however frequency is not very good. Bilaspur is the nearest rail-head and Raipur is the nearest airport.
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