Sirpur – An Icon of Dakshina-Kosala

Sirpur – An Icon of Dakshina Kosala

Chapter 1 – Introduction
Chapter 2 – Shiva Temples
Chapter 3 – Buddhist & Jain Monuments

Chapter 1 – Introduction

Sirpur is a village, of modest population of about 1,500 people, located in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh state. The region in and around the present Chhattisgarh state was referred as Kosala during the early and medieval period of Indian history. As there was another Kosala region with its capital at Ayodhya, therefore to distinguish the Kosala region of Chhattisgarh, the latter is referred as Dakshina Kosala or Mahakosala by historians and scholars.  In the Bala-kanda of Ramayana1, Kosala is mentioned as a janapada situated on the banks of river Sarayu, abounding with riches and grains. In the Uttara-Kanda of Ramayana, we come to know that Rama divided Kosala into two regions, Uttara Kosala was given to Lava and Kosala went to Kusha. While Ramayana distinguishes one region as Uttara Kosala however it refers the other as Kosala but not as Dakshina Kosala. In fact, there is no mention of Dakshina Kosala found in any inscription, text and epigraph available to us. Donald M Stadtner2 explains that the current nomenclature of Dakshina Kosala used by historians is to differentiate it from the region of Kosala in the northern India.

The earliest epigraphic reference of Kosala comes from the Allahabad Pillar Inscription which mentions that the Gupta king Samudragupta (325-375 CE) captured King Mahendra of Kosala and later released him. Dakshina Kosala might have been under the rule of the Guptas and later of the Vakatakas however their inscriptions in this region are wanted. The earliest indigenous political history of Dakshina Kosala starts in the late fifth century CE with the advent of the Sharabhapuriya dynasty. The dynasty is so named after their capital town Sahrabhapura, identity of the latter is still much debated.

Back view of Lakshmana Temple as seen by Beglar in 1873 | British Library

Local tradition tells Savaripura as the original name of Sirpur, named after Shavari, a female mendicant of Ramayana, who offered fruits to Lord Rama3. Another legend4, associates Sirpur with the capital of Bhabhru-vahana, the son of Arjuna and Chitrangada. On the epigraphical evidences, Sirpur was earlier known as Sripura, the capital city established by the Sharabhapuriya king Sudevaraja (570-580 CE). Sharabhapuriyas started their rule from Sharabhapura as their capital. Sudevaraja was the first Sharabhapuriya king who issued his charters from Sharabhapura and Sripura. Sudevaraja resided at Sharabhapura while Sripura was being established. All his charters issued from Sripura were executed by some feudatory chief while all his Sharabhapura charters were issued as a direct order from him. The Sharabhapuriayas referred themselves as paramabhagavatas in their inscriptions and used the image of Gaja-Lakshmi on their seals. Therefore it may be safely assumed that Sudevaraja named the city Sripura after the Goddess Sri (Lakshmi), the personification of wealth and prosperity. His younger brother and successor, Pravararaja (580-590 CE), issued all his charters from Sripura suggesting that Sripura assumed the status of the permanent capital city by his time. Pravararaja had a very short rule, of about three years, and after him the dynasty came to an end.

Sometime in the second half of the sixth century CE, Panduvamshis (Somavamshi) succeeded the Sharabhapuriyas and continued their rule from Sripura. The most famous Panduvamshi king was Mahasivagupta Balarjuna (595-650 CE) who enjoyed a peaceful rule of around sixty years. His rule was the golden period of Sirpur when it witnessed incredible growth in cultural and political activities. Different religions and sects found royal patronage and were benefited with various temples and monasteries.

Side view of Lakshmana Temple as seen by Beglar in 1873 (courtesy – British Library)

In all probabilities, Xuanzang5 (602-664 CE) would have visited Dakshina Kosala during the reign of Mahasivagupta Balarjuna. He mentions Kosala, Kiao-sa-lo, as a country about 5000 li in circuit. Without mentioning the name of its capital town, he tells it was 40 li in circuit. He describes its very dense population, men were tall, black complexioned, brave and impetuous. He found both heretics and believers here. The king, whose name he did not supply, was of kshatriya race but also honors the law of Buddha and his virtue and love were far renowned. There were about one hundred sangharamas housing less than 10000 priests, all belonging to Mahayana. There were also about seventy Deva temples. He also mentions a stupa built by the Maurya king Asoka, where Buddha also showed his miracles. In the monastery attached to stupa was lived Nagarjuna bodhisattva. The king that time was known as Sadvaha (So-to-p’o-ho). S R Sharma6 takes Sadvaha as a corrupt form of Satavahana.

Soon after Mahasivagupta Balarjuna, Sirpur lost its political advantage however its cultural and religious heritage continued. The Panduvamshi dynasty also suffered some loses in the hands of the Nalas. The later rulers moved their control towards Odisha. Mahasivagupta I Yayati shifted the capital first to Vinitapura7 and later to Yayatinagar8 and Sirpur never regained its status of a capital city again.

Sirpur provided a very conducive environment for all the faiths and religions to prosper and expand. In the excavations are found various temples and structures belonging to different faiths and religions, suggesting that all were amalgamated within the vibrant and culturally rich society residing at Sirpur at that time. While the early excavations revealed monuments primarily belonging to the Vaishnavas and Buddhist, later excavations have revealed temples dedicated to Shiva, Shakti (Chamunda, Durga) and Jain tirthankaras. The communal harmony between these different sects and faiths was well maintained during the reign of the Panduvamshis, allowing all the religions to prosper. When Buddhism went on a decline, we find evidences that their viharas were taken over by followers of other faiths and the latter carried out modifications to refit the structure for their rituals and practices. The waning period of Sirpur probably started when it was stripped off its capital city status in around 7th century CE. The town finally went into oblivion when it suffered a major earthquake in 12th century CE.

J D Beglar9 visited Sirpur in 1873-74 and described few of its monuments. He tells, the extensive ruins cover the ground for about two square miles; but the principal ones are all within a mile. Cunningham10 visited Sirpur in 1881-82 and enhanced the subject with details on inscriptions. Longhurst11 visited the town in 1907 and describes it as the remains of an ancient city of considerable size, now mostly hidden by dense forest. These remains consists chiefly of mounds of decayed brick, often containing some stone pillars and sculptures of a very early period.

Excavations at Sirpur – Under auspices of the University of Sagar and financial help from the Government of Madhya Pradesh, M G Dikshit12 carried out three excavations in consecutive seasons 1953-54, 1954-55 & 1955-56. In the first season, they found the remains of a Shiva temple and fragments of various sculptures. Second season was very fruitful as they excavated two prominent mounds unearthing the Ananda Prabha Vihara. The last excavation was done under the Department of Archaeology, Madhya Pradesh and the main finding was of the Svastik Vihara. The excavations in the residential areas have revealed three periods of occupation. Period I, dated back to last quarter of 5th century CE as indicated by a fragmentary gold coin of king Prasannamatra of Sharabhapuriya dynasty. Period II dating around 7th century CE witnessed large scale construction activities. Period III is attributed to 11th century CE and after as evident from 106 copper coins of Ratnadeva of the Ratanpur branch of the Kalachuri dynasty.

After Chhattisgarh was constituted as a new state of India, further excavations were taken up by A K Sharma between 2000-2011. The first five seasons were financially supported by Bodhisattva Nagarjuna Smarak Sanstha va Anushandhan Kendra, Nagpur and after that the excavation was carried out under the auspices of the Department of Archaeology and Culture of the Government of Chhattisgarh. Scientific exploration and careful plotting of low and high mounds has brought up to light 184 mounds within the boundary of Sirpur archaeological area, spreading over an area measuring 6.5 km north-south and 4.5 km east-west. 39 mounds were taken up for excavation by A K Sharma13 between 2000-2011. These excavations have brought to light seventeen Shiva temples, a trinity temple, eight Buddhist viharas, 3 Jain viharas, a sprawling palace complex, a chieftain’s residence, six priest residences, the world’s biggest market complex  and a modest residence for Mahasivagupta Balarjuna meant for religious occasions.

These excavations have revealed that structures at Sirpur followed various common features. All the Buddhist viharas were designed with at least two storeys with a staircase in a corner. These were equipped with a stone-paved central courtyard, a secret underground room, underground drainage system etc. All the temples, except one, were constructed over a stone platform (jagati) and their superstructure (shikhara) was built in brick. Use of brick in monuments at a large scale was probably made possible due to the availability of raw materials such as silt from the nearby Mahanadi river during the flood time. All the temples were provided with a priest-house, generally constructed to the south of the temple. To the south of the priest house was provided a pushkarini or tank. Temples either face east or west, the ones on the right bank of Mahanadi face east and those away from the bank face west. Most of the temples were dedicated to Shiva, however temples dedicated to other deities such as Vishnu and Goddess Durga, Chamunda etc. are also found14.

A K Sharma also excavated a large shopping district, bazaar area, where a long lane dotted with shops was unearthed. Sharma takes the antiquity of this site back to 6th century BCE suggesting that Sirpur was a large trading center, profited due to its advantage of being situated at the bank of Mahanadi. Sharma tells that the bazaar had different quarters meant for different trades like metals, grains, medicines etc. All the shops were two storey-structure. This shopping district was surrounded by temples and monasteries of different faiths and religions, i.e. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. A Chamunda temple at the port at Mahanadi suggests that the traders first pay their obeisance to the goddess before proceeding to the market area. Sirpur was also a center for different trade guilds. Finding of a hoard of 80+ bronze statues from one of the vihara proves that those statues were made here for trade. Sirpur was also famous for its medicinal practices. Sharma mentions finding of 20 bath houses where different types of medicines were mixed with water and patients were provided baths to cure different diseases.

Traders from different countries used to frequent the Sirpur market. Sirpur was connected to Cuttack through Mahanadi which allowed traders of South-East Asia to arrive at Sirpur. Via road Sirpur was connected to Surat allowing the traders from Middle East to trade here. Sirpur being an important trade center might have been in favor of it getting selected as the new capital when the Sarabhapuriya kings were looking for a new place for their capital town.

Lakshmana Temple

Lakshmana Temple – This is the most impressive temple at Sirpur and is found in a considerable state of preservation. The temple underwent a repair and restoration work, between 1905 and 1911, which included clearing of debris of mandapa and restoration of brick shikhara. The temple faces east and stands of a large jagati (platform), 77 feet long, 39 feet broad and 7 feet high, approachable by two lateral staircases provided in the east. The temple is built fully in brick expect for its entrance doorway and mandapa pillars. The temple consists of a square garbha-grha (sanctum sanctorum), a rectangular antarala (vestibule) and an oblong mandapa (hall), all aligned in the east-west axis. The pillared mandapa, once attached to the temple, has not survived except of the traces of its walls and pillar bases. Cunningham15 mentions that its material was utilized in building the Ramachandra Temple at Rajim which was built only few centuries before his visit. While Stadtner16 agrees that ancient materials were used in the construction of the Ramachandra temple at Rajim, he argues that the temple was constructed sometime during the second half of the nineteenth century CE as Richard Jenkins did not mention it in his report published in 1825.

Vishnu statue as seen by Beglar in 1873 |  British Library

The temple was dedicated to Vishnu as evident by its foundation inscription. Longhurst17 mentions that the image enshrined inside the sanctum was that of Naga, seated under a five-hooded crest. At present there are three images inside the garbha-grha. Central image is that of Vaikuntha Narayana, probably the one seen by Longhurst. Cunningham18 tells that the large well-carved Vishnu image found by Beglar outside the temple must have been originally standing in the sanctum. This image is now kept in the site museum. Venkat Ramiah19 mentions that the image of Vaikuntha Narayana was presumed by people as an image of Lakshmana, the latter being an incarnation of Shesha.

Temple is built in pancha-ratha style, having five projections, central bhadra, corner karna and intermediate anurathas. Its vimana has five sections, adhisthana (vedi-bandha), jangha, baranda, shikhara and mastaka. Adhisthana has seven mouldings. Bhadra has false-doorway on all three sides. Niches within pilasters are provided on anurathas while karna has only pilasters sheltering a narrow slit. Baranda is a one pair of broad moulding separated by a recess. Recess is decorated with bhara-putras, elephants on bhadra  and lions on anuratha.

A triangular opening above the sanctum doorway suggests that it was covered by a projecting sukanasi. Shikhara now has four bhumis (storeys) separated by bhumi-amalakas placed on karna. Originally it might had six or seven bhumis (storeys). Bhadra and anuratha have chaitya-arches. Longhurst mentions that in all probability the top of the roof was flat, surmounted by a rather thick amalaka, similar to the one seen in the great brick temple at Bodhgaya.

Varaha – doorway panel
Narasimha – doorway panel
Vamana – doorway panel

The most astonishing feature of this temple is its stone doorway built in red sandstone matching the color of the bricks used elsewhere in the temple. This makes it rather hard to differentiate from the brick medium. This massive doorway has five bands decorated with different motifs on front and sides. The two innermost bands have scrolls (patra-sakha) and diamond (ratna-sakha) decoration. The middle band has mithuna figures with dvarpalas at the jamb. Doorway lintel of this band has Sheshasayi Vishnu flanked with Sarasvati and a musician. Fourth band has scrolls (patravalli) with yakhas. Fifth and last band has seven panels decorated with Vishnu-avataras and Krishna-lila scenes. On the left jamb are present Krishna-lila scenes representing, from bottom to top, Putana-vadha, Arishtasura-vadha and Kesi-vadha. Right jamb has, from borrom to top, Matsya, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Trivikrama, Rama, Balarama and Hayagriva. Inner sides of the door-jambs are decorated with lotus patterns.

The surviving part of the external facade of antarala is adorned with niches and chaitya-arches similar to the pratiratha of jangha. The roof of the same has not survived. The mandapa was an oblong structure supported on two rows of five pillars each, dividing the hall into three aisles. Only bases of four pillars in a row have survived. Its external façade was also decorated with niches. Percy Brown20 suggests that the mandapa might be a later addition to the temple, however this is not the case. About its overall decoration, he writes, “…distribution of its decorative elements, and the character of its construction generally, all of which denote artistic and technical knowledge of no mean order”.

There is no issue with dating of the temple due to its foundation inscription. It can be safely dated to the second half of the seventh century CE. The importance of the Lakshmana Temple lies with the fact that it is an extant example representing the nagara style of temple architecture. It is the connecting link between the Gupta style and the early nagara style medieval period shrines. When compared with the Gupta period shrines at Devgarh, Bhitargaon, Tigawa at Lakshmana temple are found certain advanced features, such as its panch-ratha pattern of jangha continues to shikhara, mandapa and antarala are given prominence and bhumi-amalakas are present on karnas distinguishing each bhumi of the shikhara.

Inscriptions – The foundation inscription found in the debris of this temple is now in Raipur Museum.

Lakshmana Temple stone inscription now in Raipur Museum – 21 dated to seventh century CE –  The record contains two parts, first part is an eulogy of 23 verses and second part has rules for maintenance of the temple. The inscription begins with invocatory prose for lord Purushottama. Then few verses are dedicated to lord Narasimha. King Mahasivagupta with his mother and two ancestors is mentioned. Chandravamshi (lunar race, Somavamshi etc.) king Mahasivagupta was the son of Harshagupta. The name of the father of Harshagupta is not readable. King Mahasivagupta is also known as Balarjuna owing to his proficiency with arms. His younger brother is known as Ranakesari. The inscription further mentions that his mother Vasata was the daughter of Suryavarman, the king of Magadha. After her husband died, she constructed a temple of Hari (Vishnu). The next seven verses praise her acts. The second part of the inscription mentions five villages, Todankana, Madhuvedha, Nalipadra, Kurapadra and Vanapadra, given for the maintenance of the temple. An additional village, Vargullaka, is given specifically to the God to meet expenses for his offerings. The inscription is composed by Chintaturanka Isana and engraved by certain Arya Gonna.

Rama Temple

Rama Temple – This is the earliest stellate (star-shaped) temple in Chhattisgarh. Stellate temples are very distinctive temple style restricted to Dakshina Kosala region during the 8th-11th century CE, other examples of this temple plan are found at Kharod and Palari. This temple appears to be the first such experimentation with stellate plan as here we find only pratiratha is angled and rest of the rathas left wide as regular style. Pratiratha is left undecorated, bhadra and karnas are decorated with large chaitya-arches. The temple faces east and is contemporary with the Lakshmana temple. Not much is left of this temple except the walls of garbha-griha and pillar bases of the mandapa. Few broken loose sculptures are placed inside mandapa and garbha-griha.

Next – Shiva Temples of Sirpur

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2 Stadtner, Donald Martin (1976). From Sirpur to Rajim: The Art of Kosala during the Seventh Century, Ph.D. dissertation submitted in the University of California, Berkley.  p 9
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10 Cunningham, Alexander (1884). Report of a Tour in the Central Provinces and Lower Gangetic Doab in 1881-82, vol. XVII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 23-30
11 Longhurst, A H (1910). Ancient Brick Temples in the Central Province published in Annual Report of the Director-General of Archaeology for the year 1909-10. Kolkata. pp 11-17
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13 Sharma, A K (2012). Ancient Temples of Sirpur. B R Publishing Corporation. New Delhi. ISBN 9789350500545. p 10
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15 Cunningham, Alexander (1884). Report of a Tour in the Central Provinces and Lower Gangetic Doab in 1881-82, vol. XVII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 27-28
16 Stadtner, Donald M (1981). The Siddhesvara Temple at Palāri and the Art of Kosala during the Seventh and Eighth Centuries published in Ars Orientalis Vol. 12. pp. 49-56
17 Longhurst, A H (1910). Ancient Brick Temples in the Central Province published in Annual Report of the Director-General of Archaeology for the year 1909-10. Kolkata. pp 11-17
18 Cunningham, Alexander (1884). Report of a Tour in the Central Provinces and Lower Gangetic Doab in 1881-82, vol. XVII. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 28
19 Sharma, A K (2012). Ancient Temples of Sirpur. B R Publishing Corporation. New Delhi. ISBN 9789350500545. p 67
20 Brown, Percy (1956). Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu). D. B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Private Ltd. Bombay (now Mumbai). p 51
21 Epigraphia Indica Vol XI. pp 184-202