Traditions, as told by Xuanzang1, associate Buddha with Sirpur mentioning that he visited here, called an assembly and exhibited his supernatural powers to subdue unbelievers. He further mentions an old monastery, situated nearby the stupa constructed by Ashoka, lying not very far from the capital city. In the same monastery, at some later point in time, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva took his residence.
Buddhist antiquities were noticed by Beglar and Cunningham during their visits in 1873 and 1881 respectively. A large image of Buddha was placed inside the Gandheshvara Temple, which evidently was found at some other site. A broken head of Buddha was also found be Beglar. Two prominent Buddhist sites were unearthed during the excavations carried out by M G Dikshit between 1953-1956. These sites were Ananda Prabha Vihara and Svastik Vihara. Due to its Buddhist association and value of its antiquities, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna Smarak Sanstha va Anushandhan Kendra, Nagpur financially supported excavations in Sirpur for five consecutive years, 2000-2005. During these excavations, more than 10 Buddhist monuments were unearthed, including the most majestic among all, Teevaradeva Vihara. This excavation also unearthed around 85 bronze statues from a single site, suggesting that once Sirpur was having its own bronze manufacturing unit producing bronzes to be traded elsewhere.
Anand Prabha Vihara – It was excavated by MG Dikshit in 1954-55 under the auspices of University of Sagar. The site has two large Buddhist monasteries adjacent to each other, Dikshit refers it as the Main temple and Lower Monastery. The main temple is rectangular in plan attached with a porch and a sabha-mandapa, latter supported on sixteen pillars. Row of cells are provided around the courtyard. A massive entrance was provided in the north, this elaborately carved doorway has dvarpalas on either side. A large image of Buddha in bhumisparsha-mudra adorns the garbha-grha. He is accompanied with another large life-size image of Padmapani. The doorway to garbha-grha has a large figure of Ganga. As per an inscription, it was built by one bhikshu, Ananda Prabha, thus the monastery is named such.
Lower monastery have a central stone-paved courtyard, with row of cells around it. Various antiquities were recovered from the site. It appears that the residents were involved in various crafts as tools belonging to agriculture, smithy, pottery-making and gold-work were recovered from cells. One cell has obtained a full set of goldsmith’s tool including a touchstone with mark of gold-testing. Many bronze images were also made locally, a fine bronze image of Buddha with gold plating and eyes set in silver is also recovered from the site.
Around the end of 11th century CE, when the monastery was abandoned, it was occupied by people of Shaiva faith. They did some modifications to suit to their practices. Finding damaged statues of various Hindu gods corroborate this.
Stone inscription of Ananda Prabha Vihara – Epigraphia Indica Vol XXXI – The inscriptions starts with praise of Sugata (Buddha). The object is to record the founding of a village and establishing a feeding house for the followers of the Buddha, during the reign of Mahasivagupta by one Anandaprabha. The poet who composed the inscription is Sumangala, son of Taradatta. The inscription was engraved by Prabhakara.
Second Buddhist site – It was the second Buddhist site which was excavated by MG Dikshit along with Ananda Prabha Vihara. The site has three Buddhist monasteries. All monastery follow the same plan, stone paved central courtyard surrounded by cell all around, one cell in the back wall used as a shrine. One monastery was also used as nunnery, evident from findings of glass and shell bangles remains. In the basement of one of the cell are found a miniature stupa in crystal and a gilt vajra. Findings of damaged images of Ganesha, Mahishasuramardini and Shiva-Parvati suggests that these were used by followers of Shaivite faith at a later period.
Svastika Vihara – This monastery is built in form of a svastika, open courtyard at the center flanked on sides by four wings, each wing containing three rooms and veranda facing the courtyard. The central room of the wing facing the entrance has an image of Buddha in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. He is accompanied with an image of Padmapani. The south-west corner of the courtyard has an image of Hariti. A Chinese copper coin with a square hole in center, attributed to Kai Yuan (713-741 CE), was found in the monastery area suggesting Chinese pilgrims visiting the viharas.
Teevaradeva and Harshagupta Vihara (SRP-5) – It is the largest and probably the earliest Buddhist vihara at Sirpur. It was built in two phases. The first phase consists of a sixteen pillared mandapa, ardha-mandapa, antarala and a projected garbha-grha, all facing west. Ten cells for monks were provided around the mandapa. It was highly embellished with images of Buddha and his life, mithuna figures and animals. The platform and entrance doorway is in stone, rest is made of brick. Four fragments of inscriptions were found, one reads Teevaradeva and another reads Harshagupta. This suggests that the vihara was built during the reign of Mahasivagupta Teevaradeva (620-640 CE) and continued during the reign of his brother’ son Harshagupta. Apart from these inscriptions, clay seals in Brahmi characters are also found. On seal is of the chief architect Taradatta and his emblem. Another seal is a regular Buddhist beej mantra seal.
The vihara is famous for its embellished doorway which is kind of unique experiment as we do not found such doorways in other Buddhist sites. The doorway has large amorous couples flanking on either side. On the lalata-bimba is Gaja-Lakshmi. A K Sharma, whose team excavated this site, has been excused of placing the excavated remains not in proper order. Finding of erotic sculptures in a Buddhist monastery has also stirred controversies. One scholar accused Sharma mentioning that such images are not found in other excavated monasteries then how these appear in Teevaradeva Vihara2.
The sculptures over the doorway depict various zoological aspects, that many animals are carved accompanying human images. Among these are visible copulation scenes in an elephant herd, monkeys over a tree, sheep fight, birds over mango trees, a dog accompanying a couple, squirrels and mice. The sculptors carved out the natural scenes they witnessed around them. Amalgamation of animals in close coordination of humans depicts the social and cultural conditions of that period.
Excavated Buddhist Viharas (monasteries)3 – Various Buddhist monuments have come into light during the excavations in 2000-2011 carried out by A K Sharma and team. Brief on these sites is provided as below.
- SRP-1 – This is a temple cum nunnery. The temple has three garbha-grhas. The central garbha-grha has an image of Buddha, in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. The two subsidiary garbha-grhas have an image of Bodhisattva each. The mandapa fronting the garbha-grhas is a sixteen pillared hall, having a verandah on each side. On all sides, expect the garbha-grha side, have room to accommodate monks.
- SRP-4 – This double storey vihara is built in the same fashion as of SRP-1. It has two monolithic octagonal pillars flanked by bhara-vahakas on either side. Images of river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna, are carved on the same. The central mandapa is a twelve pillared hall.
- SRP-10 – This north facing vihara is composed of twelve pillared mandapa, a ardha-mandapa and a garbha-grha. Nine cells for monks are provided around the mandapa. A staircase in south-west suggests that it was double storeyed structure. An image of Hariti with her child is present in one side niche of ardha-mandapa. Few cells were blocked once the structure was used as Hindu shrine. Large number of sculptures of Ganesha and Mahishasuramardini are recovered from its upper level, suggesting that the place was used as a Hindu shrine at a later time.
- SRP-31 – 79 Buddhist bronze images were unearth from this mound. 23 images are of Buddha in bhumisparsha-mudra, 32 are of Bodhisattvas, one of Jambhala, five of Tara, five of Prajnaparamita, two of Vasudhara, one of Brikuti, one of Vajratara, eight stupa models and one of vajra model. Remains of building materials found here suggests that there was once stood a metal factory where these bronze images were made.
- SRP-32 – This west facing vihara is with three garbha-grhas. One image of Buddha and two of Bodhisattva are also recovered from here.
Jain Vihara – This vihara, situated 300 m east of Gandheshvara temple was excavated in 2007. It consisted of a central pillar courtyard with cells and room all around. The entrance was provided in the north. Some fragments of broken images, appearing to be of Jain Tirthankaras, have been found from here.
1 Beal, Samuel (1884). Si-yu-ki or Buddhist Records of the Western World vol II. Trubner & Co. London. pp 209-210
2 Padma Sri for tainted archaeologist stirs row , retrieved on 6th May 2020
3 Pradhan, A K & Yadav, S (2013). Sirpur – A Unique Township of Early Medieval India published in Proceedings of Indian History Congress vol 74. pp 854-864